It would be fair to say, in a spirit of understatement, that the First World War served as the occasion for a certain amount of poetry. Catherine W. Reilly, in her groundbreaking English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography (1978), lists the works of thousands of different poets — both combatants and civilians alike — that were written in response to the war. While not all of them have achieved anything like fame, it remains the case that soldier-poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and Rupert Brooke remain (in the British imagination, at least) some of the war’s most exemplary and iconic participants.
The war, the late historian Richard Holmes lamented, often first enters our minds not as history, but rather as literature. “One of the problems with trying to write about [the war],” he continues, “is that most people have already read Owen and Sassoon, Barker and Faulks, before you get to them” (Tommy xvii). The poets, in particular, are seen as providing a necessary and unmediated conduit between the civilian reader (especially one now separated from the war by an intervening century) and the truth of the war experience. It was this feature that caused Virginia Woolf to heap such acclaim upon Sassoon’s The Old Huntsman and Other Poems in a review in 1917; the unfolding poems, she writes, have
…such loathing, such hatred [accumulated] behind them that we say to ourselves “Yes, this is going on; and we are sitting here watching it,” with a new shock of surprise, with an uneasy desire to leave our place in the audience, which is a tribute to Mr. Sassoon’s power as a realist.
All of this is very conventional, anyway, when it comes to the status now enjoyed by the war’s poetry. Wilfred Owen’s declaration that he wrote of the pity of war, and that the poetry was in the pity, seems to have secured for himself and his poetical colleagues a sort of regard that is difficult to challenge. There is in such searing, open, often brutal poems both a challenge and a warning; one reads them with the sense that they are somehow dangerous, and that they ought to be.
But what happens when someone else takes a crack at it?
I wish to say at once that I have nothing against Sir William Watson (1858-1935). He was a popular and oft-anthologized poet in his time, and on two occasions was seriously considered for the post of Poet Laureate. He had personal demons, and he fought them; he had hard politics, and he expressed them; he had a love for an older style, and wrung out every last drop of it that he could in producing his own works.
Watson was knighted in 1917 — possibly at the urging of David Lloyd George, about whom Watson had written a number of stirringly laudatory poems. One such poem appeared as the title piece in Watson’s The Man Who Saw: and Other Poems Arising Out of the War, which had come out earlier the same year. It’s an astounding piece; a short selection follows to give you a taste of the thing:
…then indeed shall Time
Add yet another name to to those the world
Salutes with an obeisance of the soul:
The name of him, the man of Celtic blood,
Whom Powers Unknown, in a divine caprice,
Chose and did make their instrument, wherewith
To save the Saxon; the man all eye and hand,
The man who saw, and grasped, and gripped, and held.
It’s sensational. John Collings Squire, in a short essay on the collection, drily notes that “this must certainly be the most eulogistic poem ever written about a British politician.”
But it isn’t.
Later in the same volume, Watson offers up a sonnet called “The Three Alfreds.” A footnote somewhat surprisingly declares that “Friends have urged the author not to republish this sonnet. He does so because he believes it to be the truth.”
Three Alfreds let us honour. Him who drove
His foes before the tempest of his blade
At Ethandune — him first, the all-glorious Shade,
The care-crowned King whose host with Guthrum strove.
Next — though a thousand years asunder clove
These twain — a lord of realms serenely swayed;
Victoria’s golden warbler, him who made
Verse such as Virgil for Augustus wove.
Last — neither king nor bard, but just a man
Who, in the very whirlwind of our woe,
From midnight till the laggard dawn began,
Cried ceaseless, “Give us shells — more shells,” and so
Saved England; saved her not less truly than
Her hero of heroes saved her long ago.
The “Three Alfreds” are King Alfred the Great, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Alfred Harmsworth — that is, Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper baron and propagandist. I have a small portrait of Northcliffe on my desk even as I write this, but even I must concede that it is possible to go too far.
Now, I say “worst” light-heartedly; Watson’s work is very far from the most appalling of the war, and its content is certainly skillfully conveyed even as it astounds. Given the many different metrics that could reasonably be applied, though, I am moved to ask:
Do you have a candidate for a worse poem? What would it be?