Last Remembrance Day saw the publication of a new Penguin anthology. Three Poets of the First World War: Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen is edited by Jon Stallworthy and Jane Potter. The book can be strongly recommended, not only for the poems but for its editorial apparatus. The detailed annotations for each poem enrich even the most familiar texts.
Why these poets? Penguin has always liked to publish poets in threes, so the number is unsurprising. But Owen, Gurney and Rosenberg have little in common except their genius. Gurney survived the War, Owen and Rosenberg did not; unlike Owen, Gurney and Rosenberg excelled at two arts; Gurney and Rosenberg were ‘common privates’, Owen an officer; Owen and Rosenberg have been central to any discussion of war poetry since the 1920s, whereas Gurney’s reputation was much slower to develop; Owen and Rosenberg have been served by world-class textual scholars (Jon Stallworthy and Vivien Noakes respectively), Gurney has not—at least not across the bulk of his writings. The introduction tries to insist on coherence by claiming that these are ‘three young men of the English underclass’, but that’s a stretcher: Owen’s family was more genteel than Gurney’s, and Rosenberg endured a desperate poverty far beyond the ken of either of his fellow poets. As Ezra Pound inimitably put it, Rosenberg ‘has something in him, horribly rough but then “Stepney, East”… we ought to have a real burglar… ma che!!!’
Although the editors don’t quite spell it out, the selection of the poets for this anthology is motivated by value judgement. There can be no more honourable criterion than that. (Were I allowed five poets, I would add Sassoon and Jones and be confident that—Sorley having died so soon and Thomas having written almost nothing in France—all the best English soldier-poets were included.) Owen and Rosenberg are represented by all their familiar works and a few unfamiliar; if you own this anthology, you have their essential poems. The situation with Gurney is more complicated, not least because so much of his best work remains unpublished; and the poetry which did appear in his lifetime was, with one or two astonishing exceptions, fairly average. It takes an act of faith to read through the first half-dozen poems in Gurney’s selection, until with ‘Half Dead’ the reader is overwhelmed with an extraordinary vision of terrestrial hell and of brutal redemption:
Half dead with sheer tiredness, wakened quick at night
With dysentery pangs, going blind among dim sleepers
And dazed into half dark, illness had its spite.
Head cleared, eyes saw; pangs and ill body-creepers
Stilled with the cold—the cold bringing me sane….
Like so many of Gurney’s poems, ‘Half Dead’ goes askew a few lines later. Gurney is unprecedented in his ability to juxtapose genius and incompetence, and for that reason he seems to have caused Stallworthy and Potter the most problems. But they bravely accept the challenge by including more of Gurney’s poems than Owen’s or Rosenberg’s.
The anthology is dedicated ‘with affection and gratitude’ to the memory of Vivien Noakes, ‘editor and champion of Isaac Rosenberg’. It is a fitting tribute to a woman whose work on Rosenberg provides an exemplary model for any textual scholar.
Originally published on Tim Kendall’s War Poetry blog, 3rd January 2012