HAVING previously published anthologies of Narrative Verse, English Traditional Verse, Christian Verse, Ballads, Carols, Children's Verse, Light Verse, Satirical Verse, Medieval Verse, 16th-, 17th-, 19th-, and 20th-century English Verse, American Verse, Irish Verse, Welsh Verse, Canadian Verse, German Verse, French Verse, Latin Verse, and Modern Verse, the venerable Oxford University Press has decided to publish a collection of War Poetry.
Homer would be pleased.
Judging from these pages, when they have not written about love, poets through the ages have been scribbling away about war. From the ringing plains and wine-dark seas of The Iliad to yesterday's massacre in El Salvador, the violence and swift mortality of battle have shocked them into productions of grandeur and, yes, beauty.
This collection is of exceptionally high quality. It ranges from excerpts from Homer and the Bible to Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" and James Fenton's "Dead Soldiers." The latter two poems prove conclusively the vitality of contemporary poetry. Assuredly, there is not much about glory here. The editor, an Englishman, a specialist among other subjects in the poetry of the First World War, knows that glory in our century was unmasked on the Somme in 1916. As a result, he, and we, and no doubt professional soldiers especially, may believe with Wilfred Owen that glory is "The old lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori." Still, it is useful to be reminded here that the next line in Horace's famous ode translates as "Run, and death will seize/ You no less surely."
STALLWORTHY has gone to some lengths to find American poets to round out his selection, and it is gratifying to see the generation of the Civil War and that of the moderns so well represented. The Americans -- Whitman in particular -- hold up well when placed beside the classical English canon. Even so, George Peele's sturdy 16th-century paean to the old soldier, "Farewell to Arms," was a pleasure to discover ("His helmet now shall make a hive for bees"), and what could be more chivalrous than Richard Lovelace's "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars" ("I could not love thee, dear, so much,/ Loved I not honour more")? It is good, too, to be reminded of the special sonorities of Byron's The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold, And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold and Browning's Then Sohrab with his sword smote Rustum's helm
As might be expected, the editor provides generous selections from the English poets of the World War I trenches -- Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves. The reader can argue, as many do, as to who is the better poet, Owen or Rosenberg. For relief from their sometimes unbearable sadness, there is the lament of Yeats' Irish airman: Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love; My country is Kiltartan Cross
The poems are organized chronologically by conflict, which sometimes produces strange pairings -- Allen Tate and Julia Ward Howe, for instance, or Byron and Hardy. Under this editorial scheme, Macaulay's "Horatius at the Bridge" should be bracketed with Horace, but isn't. There is a mystifying omission -- Shakespeare -- and the selection from Kipling, the most prolific and arguably the greatest modern English war poet, seems slight. The Kipling contribution displays neither the great ballads of the imperialist high noon nor the remarkable poems of World War I, which range from the playful, as in "The Mine Sweepers": Mines reported in the fairway, Warn all traffic and detain. Send up Unity, Claribel, Assyrian, Stormcock, and Golden Gain to the piercing anguish of "The Children": But who shall return us the children? a question which can speak for the horror of war in all centuries.
One thing seems sure. This collection signals the death of war poetry as it has been written for three millennia. Certain it is that no future poet will write of the opening of hostilities with the innocent enthusiasm of a Rupert Brooke. Certain it is that as that the red fireball of a nuclear explosion rounds over his city, no future poet is going to hymn. Now, God be thanked Who has matched us With His hour.