Three questions about the World War I poets interest me. Am I right to think that no war in European or American history left a comparable legacy of verse written by actual soldiers in gaps in combat, and if so, why is WWI the exception? If I’m wrong, do parochialism and xenophobia explain why we don’t seem to hear or read about the others?

I’ve never taken the time to solve those puzzles. Or to investigate what facts support the old obsession of an Anglo-Scottish friend — the idea that no recent war decimated a single country’s prime breeding stock to the shocking extent that the Great War did the ranks of Britain’s most intelligent, talented and educated men of that generation. If I hadn’t lost touch with this friend, a historian, I would ask him why he was so sure that there weren’t symmetrical losses in Germany.

I agree with hazlitt, who says on this blog,

Doomed Youth and Break of Day are amongst some of the best poetry to come out of WW1;besides these the works of Eliot and Pound seem trivial as poetry,despite their great interest as records of human suffering and the stupidity of life.

And here’s why I think he’s right . . . I discovered some of the famous WWI poems all by myself in classrooms long ago. When all but homicidally bored by unimaginative teachers bludgeoning the staggeringly obvious, line by line, or offering interpretations that struck me – insufferably arrogant child, yes – as wide of the mark, I would sneakily turn to pages not on the syllabus and as different as possible from the poem on the butcher’s block that day.

Even knowing little about the circumstances in which they were composed, and nothing about the lives of the poets, I was entranced and moved by the raw power of the poetry. And the effect has endured, in most cases. In Flanders Fields elicits the same shiver now as it did from the ten year-old playing mental hooky.

. . . On a quick visit to the Guardian site a few minutes ago, I noticed that pinkroom appears to share my curiosity about the uniqueness of the WWI soldier-scribes. I see that deadgod is trying to offer WW II’s novels as scrip, but my own questions are specifically about poetry.

Could class have had something to do with the WWI poets’ seeming uniqueness?
The fact that WWI could have been the last major war in which the sons of the elite were actually on battlefields in large numbers?

Though I’m sure that an innate gift for poetic expression is evenly distributed across the population, I’d also guess that whereas an ex-public schoolboy or grammar school star would have been relatively unembarrassed about trying his hand at verse – and might even have had a talent for versifying recognised in classrooms – most soldiers from the working classes would have had little or no education in poetry. Certainly, they’d have had no praise or encouragement for their early efforts, and would have been seen by family and friends as giving themselves airs – if unwise enough to talk about what they were trying to do.

. . . Or, does WWI’s poetry trail have something to do with battles fought on a timetable, with skimishes restricted to set hours — limited the way office work is today? (That’s only an impression of mine about WWI, and I could easily be mistaken.) Did it have something to do with soldiers’ long nights in cold sodden muddy trenches in which they mostly had to find ways of amusing themselves?



Filed under Poetry

64 responses to “Fighter-poets

  1. freepoland

    Wordy. Thanks for this blog.
    The POTW thread is a bit bogged down, so happy to offer a comment that is both brief and not liable to provoke longueurs. I would like to offer the proposition that the canon of WW1 poetry – Owen, Sassoon, Thomas etc – is of a particular kind which (I don’t seem to be able to get italics here) introduced a new function for poetry. In other words, the 14-18 war was of such immense devastation that poetry written in direct response to it, even if it obeyed traditional forms, should be regarded as occupying a different compartment from other contemporary poetry. I think in fact it does, as evidenced by the character of war poetry anthologies and the critical tendency to pigeonhole it. Analogies are difficult, apart from maybe ‘Holocaust’ literature. And what name to give that ‘new function’ is problematic. Try ‘Politico-therapeutic-hallucinatory-ironic’.
    Seen from nearly a century on, the importance and manic fury of that conflict is so unique, I would argue, that poetry produced from within it should be put in a separate box; because whatever aesthetic or literary forms might have been used,
    the fact of their origin from the trenches is transcendent. The paintings of Paul Nash belong with them. (I know Billy Mills as formalist druid would disagree.)

  2. deadgod

    The American Civil War has a strangely rich record of personal correspondence (written by soldiers, medicos, reporters, and so on). Again, not poetry, but a kind of literature. And, as you say, one must, or should, wonder about the hysterical blindness of ethnocentricity; for example, perhaps the Vietnamese, or Koreans, have a 20th century poetry bookshelf laden with powerfully achieved attention that’s simply linguistically opaque to the semiglot likes of me.

  3. Hazlitt

    Hello Wordnerd,
    That quote was just a re-arranged paragraph of Billy Mills to return his curved ball bombast.
    Am very tired.The mud of Flanders is nothing to the purgatory of the Bern- Zurich Autbahn at 6pm in the rain 🙂
    I will return!

  4. Thank you, . . . a _treat_ to find such excellent first comments.


    I don’t yet know how to use ital. or the other features in comments here, but I seem to remember Steve telling us that WP reserves the fancy formatting for its bloggers. Too bad, and I’m going to suggest that they change that policy.

    === Try ‘Politico-therapeutic-hallucinatory-ironic’.===

    I have and oh, my poor aching head . . .;)

    === I would like to offer the proposition that the canon of WW1 poetry – Owen, Sassoon, Thomas etc – is of a particular kind which (I don’t seem to be able to get italics here) introduced a new function for poetry. ===

    That’s a genuinely interesting possibility, and I suspect that you are right. But you might agree that we’re unlikely to see anything like the WWI treasures emerge from a modern war. The Observer has sent a young reporter with a sharp eye for the revealing detail to Iraq twice, in the last year. His dispatches about the daily lives of the soldiers there were riveting, and if you look in the long post pen, Longueurs, in an hour or so, you’ll find some extracts from and links to them. _Impossible_ to conceive of anyone scribbling lines like Rosenberg’s in those circumstances.


    === for example, perhaps the Vietnamese, or Koreans, have a 20th century poetry bookshelf laden with powerfully achieved attention that’s simply linguistically opaque to the semiglot likes of me.===

    Yes, yes, . . . and I have something remarkable to offer you, confirming your suspicion about our abysmal ignorance on that score. No time to type it out now, but I will as soon as I can.


    === The mud of Flanders is nothing to the purgatory of the Bern- Zurich Autbahn at 6pm in the rain ===

    Dear oh dear, so why haven’t you dug your trench? 🙂 . . . Am looking forward to _anything_ that you, the finest WWI historian I’ve met in these parts, have to tell us about what physical and other circumstances might have had to do with the writing of the poems.

    (please see ABOUT for an explanation for my screen name not fitting the rest of the blog — so of course I’ll answer to wordnerd 😉 . . .)

  5. Please look in Longueurs for a more complete answer to freep, . . . on the likelihood of poetry emerging from a contemporary war . . . Extract:

    === He is not expecting to be greeted by an Iraqi wielding a guitar and singing ‘Baby You Can Drive My Car’. ===

  6. Hazlitt

    I feel guilty despite your goadings for not setting this up.”The finest WWI historian I have met in these parts”.
    Ah,so much wisdom in the young:)
    That’s it send me over the top with a fixed bayonet only to fall head first into a muddy shellhole!I am NOT an expert.In anything come to think of it.Keep building me up.You know I love it:)

    I think the soldiers were actually only in the front line for three weeks.(I will check)They were continually in rotation ie leave,resting,reserve and frontline duty.Here it is:
    “…..a typical month as four days in the front line,four in support,eight in reserve and the remainder in rest……Individuals served in this trench system relatively rarely.Of the 20,000 in a division only 2000 were in the front line at any moment.The Black Watch once served 48 days unrelieved….31st Queenslanders prided themselves on a 53 day stint……”

    So perhaps there was time to write poetry or to “relect in tranquillity”?

  7. wordnerd7

    Good, you’re back, and please don’t imagine that false modesty is going to let you off the hook. 🙂 The idea of you having a special feeling for WWI is so firmly rooted in my head that I _knew_ I’d find you on this blog when I’d only read the standfirst. Great happiness to find my suspicion confirmed.

    Thank you for the valuable nugget on the rhythm of life in those trenches. I’ve found I was all wrong about the battles being fought on a timetable. Also, it seems that most of the blood was shed at night, which was when I’d imagined the bored soldiers magically transformed into poets. It was by day that they had to find ways to occupy themselves.

    Am still wondering — not terribly seriously — about what life in burrows might have had to do with turning on the poetry spigot in a few good brains . . . . @deadgod mentioned the American Civil War inspiring a lot of scribbling by soldiers, and my brief search for information led me to a mention of trench warfare being a distinctive feature of _that_ conflict.

    I haven’t properly considered @freepoland’s and @deadgod’s points; there’s a lot more I want to say on this subject, . . . and I want to explain why this particular fight fascinates me in spite of a very great loathing of war . . so I’m cooking up another post on the subject.

    For the moment, I’ll only say that Sam J’s blog on the WWI poets last winter, . . . his eventual gratitude for being dragged by Eloise to what was once the hideous Somme theatre, has been GU’s best on the subject — made extra-memorable by your amazing story about waking up in the French countryside shocked to find Great War shades pressing thickly about you. It went down a treat at this desk . . . so, for anyone who missed it:

  8. Hazlitt

    Ah! yes it all started with Sam J.I have just checked it out from your link.All those book suggestions I scribbled down and never read.Shame on me.The Billy Mills extract from “On Aggression” by Konrad Lorenz seems a must read.It’s now on my Christmas list along with Paul Fussell.
    If I am still repeating these edifying intentions next Armistice day,have me shot at dawn!

  9. freepoland

    Hazlitt: there’s an awful lot about geese in ‘On Aggression’, I should warn you.

  10. Hazlitt

    Thank you Freep.Geese, as in guinea pig human sustitutes?I think I understand……well makes a change from apes:)
    Now where did I leave that banana.

    “General Seeley noted with surprise how the most lasting and violent soldiers were the quiet,gentle, dreamy type”.Hmm.
    I’m unsure if it’s UK or France but there were still “65,000 soldiers in mental hospitals when pensions were finalised in 1929”
    This was obviously the tip of the iceberg,I’d guess.

  11. wordnerd7

    I think he might mean geese as in ferocious aggressors, hazlitt. . . Read my parents’ copy of Lorenz aeons ago, and sadly remember very little of it . . . More than once, I’ve heard country folk recommend goose ownership as an alternative to watchdogs — and I certainly remember my grandmother’s geese making small boys cry.

    === “General Seeley noted with surprise how the most lasting and violent soldiers were the quiet,gentle, dreamy type”.Hmm.===

    . . . but I suspect that there are also such surprising differences between our blogging and real-life personae. 🙂

  12. Hazlitt

    One of the things about trench life was that no one was prepared for the daily stress and it’s consequences from “vigilent inaction”
    “Greenwell was in the front line for 71 days before he fleetingly saw a German”.I find that incredible.
    They did of course have “intelligence”….lines of fire,patrol movements etc.Though the enemy was not seen,many found the constant sense of danger in the trenches worse than battle.The men recieved no training for this drip fed strain and stress…..”for the blinded feeling confined below the surface;the demoralising stooped walk;the need of constantly taking care”.Because of this an official blind eye was shown to military discipline.I think they quickly realised that had they not done so they would soon have an army of screeming lunatics……which in the end……
    To mitigate the stress the men were released from saluting;polishing buttons etc.they lost their kit;slept on sentry;urinated in the trenches;cried when posted on listening posts,forgot everything they were told;dropped cans and litter everywhere.There were cases of a company of 270 men being reduced to 70 due to the slow motion nightmare of merely holding the line,wait for it……

  13. ISA

    High wordy, count me in. About time you did something like this, I’m very pleased.

  14. ISA

    Wordy, blame it all on the classicism and the lack of TV and radio. They probably wrote a lot of Horatian Odes.

  15. Hazlitt

    “…..but I suspect that there are also surprising differences between our blogging and real- life personae…”
    Wordnerd::This is an opportune moment to warn you that I sometimes will fall off the radar…appart from being a congenitally lazy dilettante ….I am in fact a modern day Scarlet Pimpernel who’s work involves long periods under cover…..trawling the bars of Zurich:)

  16. wordnerd7

    testing, testing . . . the voracious comment filter . . .

  17. wordnerd7

    Good. It seems to work . . .

    Yes @ISA, that may be all that needs saying – old-fashioned educations in the classics + no distractions to compare with ours. I must say, it’s hard not to yearn for poetry – and fiction – of that concentration and intensity. . . Indulging this feeling enough could soon have me shedding tears over no longer having pages of illuminated manuscripts to turn. . . [. . .sound of sobbing . . . ]

    I’m touched by your encouragement of this experiment, which is still taking shape. I do want the blog to be somewhere for people to discuss the evolution of blogging – and particularly to oppose all attempts at interfering with this astonishing medium’s potential for constructive change.

    My first visit to your site ( )about a year ago was inspirational. It planted the seed for an experiment in replying to posts at GU and other blogs on a site of my own. Perhaps most bloggers will blog like this in the future – something like shifting conversations from one person’s kitchen table to another.

    I haven’t commented yet, but did chuckle over your strictly accidental reappearance in your own country. The bit about making each other survival sandwiches had me glowing with amusement (I do hope that they were toasted – endless meals of cold food in cold London. . . shudder . . . ) . . . Something I love about your posts, in all the talk shops, is that they are so spectacularly unpredictable. Don’t change.

  18. wordnerd7

    . . . @Hazlitt: ‘Vigilant inaction,’ indeed. _Excellent_ digging, all that, wherever it came from. It only makes the poems more amazing to read details of the environment in which they were composed.

    . . . Of course I don’t expect to see you drop in here except when the moon is zebra-striped and tinged with fuchsia. . . None of us really know each other, but we have some idea of each other’s blogging rhythms, by now.

    Don’t imagine, however, that I’ve let you off the hook about starting your own blog . . . . . . I’ve always enjoyed your passing mentions not of boring tourist Switzerland but real life, there. If only you’d write an online diary with snippets from it. Call it . . . well, A Dilettante in Helvetia??! . . . why not . . . 😉 . . .

    Can’t say I find that description of yourself – which I’ve hijacked — remotely plausible when you tell us about eg., “65,000 soldiers in mental hospitals when pensions were finalised in 1929″.

    Yesterday I was forced to imagine soldiers locked up at the other end – for a different reason — . . . I mean, _before_ going to war:

    === Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick of the Army Recruiting Command [. . .]
    said that the Army has accepted 372 felons so far this year, down from 511 last year, and that a recent military study showed that such recruits were promoted faster, were more likely to re-enlist, and received more awards.

    Mr. Hernandez ended up serving in Nawa, Afghanistan, on an isolated firebase near the Pakistani border, where he received several citations and medals. ===

    Judge Supports Soldier With Police Record Seeking to Join Force

  19. Hazlitt

    I can see pink elephants………… Zebras or Fuchsia???Not really,I went to bed early and slept like a lamb.
    Yes I knew geese had a long historical duel purpose of “electronic” early warning system and gourmet Christmas lunch.I didn’t know that they would/could actually attack.I shall be on my guard:)
    wordnerd you have a talent for getting things done.I like the way you skillfully feed in ideas/themes etc proding us over the parapet towards the battle.Definitely officer material:)
    The idea about night/day attacks/battles must be documented.I have taken it for granted that most battles started at dawn.The Somme offensive began at 7.30.Losses on the first day 57,470.We all know that the Germans(destroyed by a week of bombardment)were in fact waiting.

    One of the things we should remember in this theatre of battle is it’s enormous size.The trench system stretched from the Channel to the Alps.Not forgetting that it consisted of THREE parallel trenches:the fire trench,travel trench and the support trench.The support trench is the one you would find me in with my gramaphone,Harrods hamper, a nice bottle of Haut Medoc and room service!

    To dig a front-line trench system took 450 men 6 hours per 250 yds,covered by marksmen at night.
    This whole system needed constant maintainance by sappers.”Eberle recalled that a brigade’s system needed daily 90 x 6ft duckboards,34 x 9ft iron girders,19 prefabricated dugout frames,300 ft of board and 300 hundredweight of nails.”(150kg)
    I get the impression from reading Dennis Winter that the whole system was in daily danger of falling apart(weather and explosions) and that the German system was better constructed.No surprises there then.
    Fate obviously played a hand in where you were posted.For some the war passed them by.They were walking about picking raspberries and listening to German bands across no-mans land,when a few kilometeres along the line industrial slaughter was taking place.

    My own webpage??????????????????Wordnerd,you have heard of the mutiny at Verdun?Officers against the wall I think!

  20. Hazlitt

    “Felon waivers” allow fellons who may have been convicted of rape and arson to enlist…….to er……kill and rape…..with state blessing.
    With up to 2 million in the American prison system they have a pool of talent waiting to oil the killing machine of corporate America.

    Their role model is John McCain who has demonstrated that killing civilians is not in itself a hindrance to high office.
    On their return from Iraq these felons will qualify for the GI Bill and 4 years of subsidised study,where they can reflect in tranquillity and even write poetry.God help Iraq.

  21. wordnerd7

    === Definitely officer material:) ===

    Hazlitt, you must be a charm quark, because you have the most delightful sense of irony. It doesn’t surprise me a bit that although my tentative and groping experiment in site ownership is getting a tiny blizzard of clicks, practically no one is commenting . . . except for an English sculptor in Helvetia and a stained glass artist obviously of English origin in loony-land.

    The same remarkable man I’ve quoted in my post about the GU books blog quotes someone he admires:

    ‘The truth is always in exile.’

    Steiner himself says: ‘This maxim is my morning prayer.’

    I’ll reply to all that _wonderful_ stuff about the fighter poets and their working conditions as soon as I can. . . Yes I know, you’ll have disappeared again, but then you might surprise us and return.

  22. wordnerd7

    Hazlitt, I groped my way into a tiny multiplex cinema about five minutes late for the start of this film, the only one about WWI I’ve watched for years. Onscreen – in chiefly grey and muddy tones — I seem to remember deafening rain pouring down in grim trenches in which uniformed figures moved slowly over the slimy earth. Perfect scene-setting for the story:

    ===Five soldiers are convicted of self-mutilation in order to escape military service during World War I. They are condemned to face near certain death in the no man’s land between the French and German trench lines. It appears that all of them were killed in a subsequent battle, but Mathilde, the fiancée of one of the soldiers, refuses to give up hope and begins to uncover clues as to what actually took place on the battlefield. ===

    Un long dimanche de fiançailles (2004)

    . . . Thinking about the fascinating details in your posts – amazing what a difference it makes to have numbers and precise dimension – I’ve wondered about what the fighter-poets’ comrades made of their scribbling. . . This film was an education about the corruption and dirty dealing with which so many chose to fill the endless empty hours – and chiefly in the supply trench, I think, where you’re imagining yourself. 🙂 . . I wonder if you’d change your mind after you saw the film.

    . . . Which isn’t to say that I don’t feel you’ve designed the perfect WWI experience, should any of us be obliged to go there in a time machine some day. : )

    Could we really taste our Haut-Médoc, though, with stomachs gnawing over the possibility of beloved comrades being wiped out in the shooting – and of being summoned ourselves at any hour to substitute for them? . . . Wouldn’t trying to write a good poem be more comprehensively distracting, in the good sense?

  23. Hazlitt

    I see in the Independent that Robert Fisk has opened a can of worms/shamrock regarding Ireland’s WW/I_II contribution.Apart from the pension scandal, R.Fisk opens with a shocking diatribe from Yeats:
    “When I omitted Owen,whom I consider unworthy of the poet’s corner of a country newspaper……He is all blood,dirt and sucked sugar stick….there is every excuse for him,but none for those that like him”
    Yeats had apparently expelled Owen from the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse.I have never heard/read that before.Hmm…am trawling through the replies…….Fisk describes Yeats as a well known shit……….tin hats on…….

  24. Hazlitt

    Just back from the skirmish on the Fisk battle front.Good General,looks after his men and tries to avoid civilian casualties.I did fix bayonet at one point but wisely remained a”Dunant” ghost at the fray and crawled safely back to my support trench,whispering “tutti fratelli” the whole distance!
    As the battle intensified I overheard one of poetry’s Praetorian guard shout:
    “Poets are strict about their art:
    It’s a poets criticism of someone he regards as traumatised by hellish atrocity,having produced damaged goods.This is something that isn’t really poetry.Owen’s verse are artifact not art.They’re primary source,not aesthetic reflection.They’re protest not poems.”
    I waited for our guns to fall on his bloated Ivory tower defenses but they remained silent.
    Surely there are some brave poets in my trench willing to charge over the parapet and assist our fallen comrade Owen,lying injured on the battlefield??????????????????
    Me? I’m lying injured in a field hospital!

  25. wordnerd7

    Something I’ve been meaning to do for weeks — as a procrastinating completist — is paste in the link for the column General Hazlitt is referring to in his last two posts here:

  26. wordnerd7

    Every day without fail, Fighter-poets has been the one old post on this blog that always earns a few clicks. I find that moving and gratifying.

    Every time, I’m reminded that I meant to paste the comment below from an Indy blogger into this thread for perfectly summarising my own confusion about Robert Fisk’s intentions in the column @Hazlitt directed us to read.

    I quoted RF’s anecdote about English suspicions about the Irish in Does ‘World Literature Tour’ have to mean boring?; shared his disgust with Yeats for what he did to Wilfred Owen – but the rest of what he meant to say remains fuzzy – at least in my head and Mug Wump’s . . .

    So, @Hazlitt, if you ever see this, apologies .. . It’s my disgracefully slow, unpoetic answer to your call for reinforcements: ‘Surely there are some brave poets in my trench willing to charge over the parapet and assist our fallen comrade Owen,lying injured on the battlefield??????????????????’

    Fisk usually tilts at windmills, but here it’s hard to figure out which windmill he’s tilting at. If the British owe such a great unpaid debt to Ireland, why is Yeats a s–t for rejecting British self-pity? Who is to blame for the denial of Emily Harris’s pension: England or Ireland? Fisk could mean either, but I suspect he means both. And he seems torn on WW-II, as if to say that morally the Irish should should have supported the allies, but domestically, there was no way they could (and, by the way, the Irish offered the Axis no material help after all). But if England owed a great unpaid debt to Ireland, why were the Irish obliged to support them, even morally? We’re surrounded by windmills (and, of course, by s–ts), but it’s not clear that all windmills are created equal. When Fisk tilts at all of them, he conveys the self-pitying tone that Yeats so deplored in Owen.

    Posted by Mug Wump | 29.11.08, 23:21 GMT

    . . . Maybe other readers were equally puzzled?

  27. Hazlitt

    “Sergeant major”
    “Place corporal wordnerd7 under arrest for going AWOL”
    “Yes Saaaar”
    “I sent you out into no-man’s- land on night time reconnaissance patrol corporal wordnerd on an errand of mercy.Not a junket in the Black Forest with private,prize procrastinator Mugg wamp”
    “Take wordnerd7 to the guardhouse sergeant”

  28. wordnerd7


    I re-read this Fighter-poets thread for the first time since the week it was created and have only just realised that you were my very first commenter. . . : ) ! . . . The most essential sentence in your eloquent post – and the explanation for such strong continued interest in the subject on the net, on many a site:

    === Seen from nearly a century on, the importance and manic fury of that conflict is so unique, I would argue, that poetry produced from within it should be put in a separate box; because whatever aesthetic or literary forms might have been used,
    the fact of their origin from the trenches is transcendent. ===

    And then you, @Hazlitt – I mean of course, Generalissimo, were the reason I couldn’t put off starting this blog any longer – the precipitating muse, if you like, because I had something I wanted to say about Rosenberg to you, but not on any GU thread on the subject. Mug Wump-led procrastination, really ?!? . . . how many times did you promise that _you_ would launch a sculpture-WWI site, I ask you.

    And then I wonder just who said this:

    === The support trench is the one you would find me in with my gramaphone,Harrods hamper, a nice bottle of Haut Medoc and room service! ===

    So about:

    ==== “I sent you out into no-man’s- land on night time reconnaissance patrol corporal wordnerd on an errand of mercy.Not a junket in the Black Forest with private,prize procrastinator Mugg wamp”

    “Take wordnerd7 to the guardhouse sergeant”


    I realise that this isn’t what you want to hear, but it’s really not so bad in your guardhouse – since I’ve found everything you’ve run out of storage space for. All your scrumptious smelly cheeses: gone! . . . nibbled by wordnerd. . . . All the Lafite – just a few sips, I thought, but – but sorry, no more left! (helps me sleep on this cold hard floor, you understand) . . . _all_ delicious. . . And the plan is to roll in your carefully stacked bunches of dried lavender before the court-martial. See you then . . . (an irreproachably penitent) corporal w. 🙂

  29. Hazlitt

    Irreproachably penitent and a pack ofWoodbines would normally suffice.Deriliction of duty and a tour of windmills with Mug wamp in the Black Forest are forgiven.But corporal wordy drinking my Lafite to the last drop……..I’m sorry wordy dawn execution it is!
    As a sign of respect I shall personally lead the firing squad and escort you to the stake.I take it you will refuse the blindfold:

    But when the dreaded moment’s there
    He/she will face us all, a soldier yet,
    watch his/her bared wounds with unmoved
    air(though tell-tale lashes are still wet)
    And smoke his/her Woodbine cigarette.

  30. wordnerd7

    === He/she will face us all, a soldier yet, ===

    Dear General! What an example you’ve set — endless moaning about accommodating gender-neutrality until you come along to show us how smoothly, elegantly and effortlessly it can be done . . . . 😉

    === And smoke his/her Woodbine cigarette. ===

    Right, . . . So now you’ve got her/him (I mean corporal wordnerd, of course) up against the wall, proffer the rolled-up dried tobacco weed . . . and he/she says in a shaky voice — ‘B. . . b . ..but I’ve never learnt to smoke, . . . suh!’ . . . [utterly pathetic but true, alas]

    Naturally I looked up your lines, perfectly faithful to their source . . . [unaccountable coughing fit] . . . in a very good collection — which includes some of Wilfred Owen’s.

  31. Hazlitt

    “Unaccountable coughing fit.”
    I thought you didn’t smoke wordy?

    Of course they’re not MY lines!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Reprieve cancelled!

    Have been trying to finish Alan Clark’s led by Donkeys.
    Too depressing,keep putting it down.These generals were criminally insane surely?
    Just discovered in”Deaths Men” a Rosenberg detail.His parents wished to include the words “artist and poet” on his gravestone.
    The army charged them 3s 3d.

  32. An old friend of mine was an artist in residence for one of the West Country regiments ( he has painted and drawn a lot of work about the First World War ).
    The major asked him what he planned to do.
    ” I’m thinking about doing a triptych”
    ” A triptych eh? I think we have one of those. Sergeant! go down to the store and find Mr. Gough a triptych will you?”

    Mr. Gough being my friend’s name obviously. The residency was filled with moments like that apparently

  33. wordnerd7

    I shall see never see a triptych in quite the same way ever again, @alarming . . . I mean, I would never, if I were going to be around . . . I say that because . . .

    : ) . . . is all that’s left of wn, now . . . & you’d think the general would have supported a change in the old script — Instead of, ‘The condemned nerd smoked a final Woodbine,’ . . . ‘The condemned corporal was given a much-delayed first lesson in smoking, on the edge of the precipice, . . . and by the general himself . . .’ etc.

  34. Hazlitt

    The quality of mercy is not strained wordnerd7.
    I think clemency is called for,you seem a pucka sort.Reprieve granted:)
    Have another woodbine.We’ll make a soldier of you yet!

  35. wordnerd7

    General Hazlitt, so the idea is to turn me into Schroedinger’s cat — ? You know it was too late for a reprieve . . . So, simultaneously corporeal and incorporeal corporal wordnerd7 ??? . . . A most serious matter, I assure you, suh. : (

    . . . Wobbling back on-topic, . . . did you or anyone else see this superb photo-exhibit at GU that I somehow missed in November? For some mysterious reason, they re-advertised it a day or two ago: . . . I can look at handwriting for hours, and was very happy comparing these WWI drafts. Edward Thomas has the most interesting script, but he was of course much older than the others . . . I thought Rosenberg’s self-portrait superb. . . and your expert opinion is — ?

  36. wordnerd7

    @Hazlitt, I thought you’d want to know that I am still thinking about Wilfred Owen and Yeats. Part of what’s been keeping me from blogging (see the Obama thread) is sorting out great messy accumulations of paper and books. . .

    . . . On my way to relegating George Steiner to a bookshelf – he’s probably been quoted more often than anyone else on this site – I thought I’d include these thoughts of his in this thread for us all to return to, some day. . . (You and @freepoland will want to know that Fighter-poets soared to the top of the list of greatest all-time hits 😉 once again, last week – measured by clicks, despite stiff competition from more obvious victors in the popularity stakes . . . I wish I knew what’s going on.)

    .. . The question — after anyone reads this Steiner passage — is, on which side would you put Yeats, on the one hand (see mentions of Robert Fisk upthread), and Owen and the rest of the WWI poets, on the other? – since I’m not absolutely sure that it would be the same one:

    The inability of high culture to defend its corner effectively, what has been called ‘the treason of the clerics,’ stems from a grim if often repressed insight. Twentieth-century barbarism burst from the heartland of European civilisation. It flourished in the very locale of esthetic and philosophic merit. The death camps were built neither in the Gobi Desert nor in Equatorial Africa. And when barbarism challenged, the humanities, the arts, much of philosophic inquiry proved impotent. What is worse, culture collaborated decoratively with despotism and massacre. There was many a lover of fine arts an classical music among the butchers, many a teacher of great literature among the sycophants. The mere designation literae humaniores now rings hollow.

  37. Hazlitt

    Just awoken from long kip in captured German support trench.
    I have deloused meine Unterhosen using a candle and am about to prepare a fricassee of rat if the little bugger will stay still while I………….
    thats it…..just stick the entrails in the stock pot.
    My left leg keeps stamping the floor….must be the Horst Wessel on the gramophone…German beer is not bad………game of cards later………..can’t stop scratching my……..where’s the Benzin………….
    Sorry wordy what was that about culture and brutality…..hang on……………oh! just under my armpits…..ah, that’s better…….where were we……George who?….not again….Oh! hang on………….

  38. Hazlitt

    “There was many a lover of fine arts and classical music among the butchers”.

    The Viennese violinist Alma Rose who organised the Auschwitz women’s Mozart orchestra was visited by Joseph Mengele at her death and was said to be moved to tears at her concerts:
    “Elegant,distinguished,he took a few steps ,then stopped by the wall where he had hung up Alma’s arm band and baton.Respectfully,heels together,he stood quietly for a moment then said in a penetrating tone, “In Memorium”.

    Last week the IDF withdrawing from Gaza with the blood of over 300 children “clogging the wheels” of their Merkava battle tanks I was wondering which heavy rock music the Mars Bar chewing tank crews were playing?

    Have to agree with George Steiner wordnerd7

  39. 3p4

    I was wondering which heavy rock music the Mars Bar chewing tank crews were playing?

    21st Century Schiziod Man,, King Crimson

    (the original nexus for cynicalsteve and myself)

    when barbarism challenged, the humanities, the arts, “””””””””””

    i dont see this as a challenge,,barbarism IS the arts

    weapons are a function of creativity,,Bennie Cellini
    the extraordinary artist in metal, was very proud of the guns he made,,and its was a mainstay of da vinci’s corriculum vitea,,i will post his job application to the duke,,(next post)


  40. 3p4

    leos resume/job application
    to the duke of milan 1482 (paraphrased)

    1. can make you war bridges
    & destroy their bridges
    2.can cut off water
    or get across it
    3.if you cant shoot at
    a building i can knock
    down (voodoo chile)
    4. can make cannon
    like shotgun ,shoots
    5. can make tunnels
    (quietly) (to where you
    want to go)(straight
    or bent)
    6.can make tanks
    7.can make guns that
    look cool (various size
    style)(like phil)
    8.when guns dont work
    i got heavy equipment
    9.guns and boats for the
    sea wars
    10. can also do
    construction and
    plumbing ,good painter
    and sculptor (love to do the
    bronze horse thing re your

    he got the job
    probably item# 7

  41. wordnerd7


    – Oh how awful, nearly as bad as watching a performance of St. Vitus’ dance – quite put me off my tea it did . . . So you’re dining alone? Your menu lacks .. . er. . . how shall I say this, a certain je-ne-sais-no-way-thank-you . . . about it?

    Quick, catch, . . . here comes the cayenne bottle . . .. – sprinkle liberally on lice and count to ten . . . – (thank you: your suggestion for my car, the only practical one and unique on the entire innnerrrrnet, _seems_ to be working.)

  42. wordnerd7

    Really, @3p4,

    === when barbarism challenged, the humanities, the arts, “””””””””””

    i dont see this as a challenge,,barbarism IS the arts

    weapons are a function of creativity,, ===

    . . . also the sound of Frescobaldi bouncing off the walls of a great cathedral, îles flottantes, ivory filigree work, the voice of a boy soprano singing the Pie Jesu in Fauré’s Requiem, guipure lace, so …………………………..???

  43. wordnerd7

    @Hazlitt . . . I nearly forgot . . .

    Steiner and you would have such a great love fest if you met that the rest of us would be too embarrassed to look – and if he cooked for you, it certainly wouldn’t be assiette de peste sans accompagnement . . . (fricassee, _really_, what’s the plan for the next meal? . . . à l’Allemande, in deference to where you are – or shepherd’s rat, . . . rat-in-the-hole, etc. from being homesick?)

    See this conclusion to ‘Zion,’ his essay of soaring brilliance about what Jews have given the world, and his thoughts about what their proper place in it should be:

    === [his emphasis]

    Essentially powerless for some two thousand years, the Jew in exile, in his ghettos, and amid the equivocal tolerance of gentile societies, was in no position to persecute other human beings. He could not, whatever his just cause, torture, humiliate, or deport other men and women. This was the Jew’s singular nobility, a nobility that seems to me far greater than any other. I hold it as axiomatic that anyone who tortures another human being, be it under compelling political, military necessity, that anyone who systematically humiliates or makes homeless another man, woman or child, forfeits the core of their own humanity. The imperative of survival, the ethical ambiguities of its settlement in what was Palestine (by what sophistry does a nonbelieving, nonpracticing Israeli invoke God’s promise to Abraham?), have forced Israel to torture, to humiliate, to expropriate – though often to a lesser degree than its Arab and Islamic enemies. The State lives behind walls. It is armed to the teeth. It knows racism. In short, it has made of Jews ordinary men. [. . .] It has diminished that moral singularity and that aristocracy of nonviolence towards others which were the tragic glory of the Jew.


  44. wordnerd7

    It occurred to me that in the paragraph after the one I pasted in for @Hazlitt, Steiner says something that partly explains why I can’t agree with @3p4 about ‘tribalism’ being something to make too big a fuss about:

    At key points in Mosaic law and Talmudic exegesis, the Jew is instructed to make welcome the stranger. He must never forget that he too was a stranger, an alien in the land of Egypt. That he too has been homeless and a refugee on an unwelcoming earth . . . Unless we learn to be one another’s guests, mankind will slither into mutual destruction and perpetual hatred.

    (should probably make it clear that my boundless admiration for Steiner couldn’t be more objective, since I’m not Jewish myself . . . )

  45. wordnerd7

    === The question — after anyone reads this Steiner passage — is, on which side would you put Yeats, on the one hand (see mentions of Robert Fisk upthread), and Owen and the rest of the WWI poets, on the other? ===

    Probably time for me to say that I put Yeats firmly on the side of the barbarians, in this argument — for his refusal to acknowledge Wilfred Owen flying the flag for Truth and Beauty in his most desperate circumstances.

  46. Hazlitt

    “Probably time for me to say that I put Yeats firmly on the side of the barbarians,in this argument-for his refusal to acknowledge Wilfred Owen flying the flag for Truth and Beauty in his most desperate circumstances”

    “What ever hope is yours,was my life also;
    I went hunting wild after the wildest beauty in the world,which lies not in calm eyes,or braided hair,
    But mocks the steady running of the hour,
    …………………The truth untold.”

  47. Hazlitt

    Signal to corporal wordnerd7:
    I’ve cleared it with the mess committee (me)and we have decided to invite you for dinner in the Officer’s mess.Mess dress is de rigueur.You are the guest of honour and a small speech after the medal ceremony won’t go amiss.
    Do you like “Coq au vin” with a preponderance of Cayenne pepper?
    Don’t be late!

  48. pinkroom

    Hi wordnerd and others

    As my name was mentioned at beginning of this fascinating and long-lived thread, before I even knew of its existence I shall weigh in on the Yeats Owen spat which I think is fascinating. I admire both hugely “as poets” and my view is that Yeats probably recognised that Owen, despite his very small output of great work is, in my view just about Yeats’ strongest rival for the top poet in English in last century or so. It is doubtless envy, pure and simple that motivated Yeats.

    The differences are immense. Yeats was almost born to be a poet, worked at it, spent a life-time thinking about/living that life in a self-conscious way bridging as he did the transformation of Romanticism to Modernism. He mastered and ultimately synthesised both. His model was Blake and like Blake he stands as a kind of Titan alongside Milton, Shakespeare, Milton… one of those figures who re-configures what it is to be human…

    and then along comes this modest little pipsqueak from the welsh borders; an absolute nonemnity who had dabbled in sub-Georgian versifying who somehow, in a small body of poems, manages to conjure up a body of work, in its own way, as arresting, revolutionary and beautiful as his. The old fella must have been spitting…

    Why? Well this is where the war becomes crucial… the midwife of revolution.

    The likes of Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Owen etc. Sensitive, intelligent, poetically inclined young men, well educated positively relished the prospect of war as a way to breath new life into a imperialistic/jingoistic culture that had grown beyond decadent. (Houseman and the Dymock poets were their apogee) This war would be a return to the first principles of chivalry and Englishness. Then after a couple of years of seeing their friends and themselves shot and blown somewhat randomly to bits for no rhyme or reason it was time to smell the coffee.

    This took the form of both content and style, most famously when Owen and Sassoon collaborated. Sassoon encouraged Owen to write directly of what he knew (the war… the pity of war) and introduced a harder, more modernist sensibility to his form. This, allied to Owen’s existing romanticism and Keatsean ear for beautiful language created a stunning hybrid.

    Co-incidentally this was a similar hybrid to that Yeats himself arrived at around the same time in Easter 1916 between his earlier 19thc. and the poems he had written from responsibilties on.


  49. wordnerd7

    Thank you, @pinkroom, that’s material for woolgathering. When I have enough skeins, I’ll return.

  50. wordnerd7

    Apologies for this snail’s pace rsvp – General @Hazlitt, suh! – but I was out chasing blackmarketeering villains and have confiscated their many cases of a very decent vintage of Lynch-Bages, you’ll be pleased to know. . . Since you so kindly ask . . . if I might lower the tone of the Officer’s Mess to that of a restaurant in the Algarve where I once ordered the same lunch for a whole week . . . could our regimental cook pull off the incomparably crisp skin of chicken piri piri, do you suppose (inside must stay juicy)? Since I cannot think of a more natural union of cayenne and bird, a gustatory sonnet from the Portuguese, if you like? . . . And then you needn’t worry about the medal or speech, suh, since corporal wordnerd is liable to burn to a crisp from embarrassment . . . Of course piri piri will call for vinho verde and warm sunshine . . . hmm . . . I’ll have to see what I can do. : )

    If I were any WWI poet but Owen, I might be jealous of the way you know his work, inside-out. Ah, I thought, reading this, and thinking of an earlier post:

    To miss the march of this retreating world
    Into vain citadels that are not walled.
    Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
    I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
    Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.

  51. Hazlitt

    Thank-you corporal wordnerd.I have heard the new volunteer private pinkroom has shown exceptional bravery in a fixed bayonet charge on the Yeatsian front.I shall certainly mention private pinkroom in despatches.Do you recommend a Distinguished Conduct Medal? Promotion perhaps?I understand private pinkroom takes no prisoners?That’s the spirit……….can’t stop my left leg stampimg the floor…..any suggestions?

    Corporal wordnerd please inform private pinkroom that eyebrows have been raised about the predominance of pink in private pinkroom’s dugout.There is only one colour in this army and that’s KHAKI.Have I made myself clear on this corporal wordnerd????????

    PS: Thanks for the case of Pauillac.Refusal to make speech denied!

  52. Oh, I’d recommend a VC at the very least, . . . Just tell them not to whinge about the pinkness of @pinkroom. They knew what they were getting into perfectly well — I mean . . . surely, the name . . . !

  53. Hazlitt

    Yeats wrote:
    “The exultant acceptance of authoritarianism
    as the only solution.
    Even violence and tyranny are not necessarily
    evil because the people, knowing not evil and good, would become
    perfectly acquiescent to tyranny. . . . Everything must come from
    the top. Nothing can come from the masses.”

    Yep, Yeats was definitely a fascist shit and snob,just look at his sniffy visage,who probably despised Owen along with the other disillusioned war poets for daring to challenge his priesthood of the aristocratic elite order.Why the cannon fodder didn’t turn their guns on the establishment is a mystery.

  54. wordnerd7

    A quotation that has made my skin creep, and I certainly agree about his face lacking any allure at all — . . . I’ve partly replied to your comment here:

  55. Hazlitt

    Can’t stop.
    Only read the “Naked and the Dead” a hundred years ago.
    I would ask the wife,who has strong opinions.
    Unfortunately she’s on the roof fixing some loose tiles in a blizzard.
    What is a misogynist anyway. ??

  56. Hazlitt

    Wrong thread must go. Sorry wordy.

  57. wordnerd7

    === What is a misogynist anyway. ?? ===

    Dunno. I’m trying to read the side of the packet without my contact lenses. I think it says something about a Japanese soup … then something, … something . . . gynaecologist …. ???!!!? Makes no sense, does it?

  58. wordnerd7

    … Wittgenstein “has pure intellectual passion in the highest degree; it makes me love him.” Returning to Vienna, Wittgenstein volunteered for the Austrian Army in World War I, insisting, out of spiritual motives, that he be assigned to the most dangerous missions. It was during the war that he produced his first philosophical work (the only one to be published in his lifetime), the “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” which opens with the arresting proposition, “The world is all that is the case.”

    Does anyone know if he actually wrote any part of his gnomic Tractatus in a trench? … Such an astounding book (by a 21 year-old, or anyone) that when you consider it with the work of the fighter-poets, you can’t help wondering whether many of the highest achievements might be in direct proportion to suffering experienced either directly or at (close) second-hand . . . Or was it the possibility of imminent death that brought out the best of what these men were capable of?

    Certainly Ludwig’s experience as a soldier seems to have pricked the bubble of unreality – great riches, privilege, luxury — into which he was born. . . I wonder also if there were any other fighter-philosophers.

    . . . @ISA, you’re right about @BaronC . . . and I hope that he returns to discuss his scheme after he’s had his think . . . yes, this should be on Whither Blogging . . .

  59. Hazlitt

    Private…er..I mean CORPORAL wordnerd nice to see you again after your brief sojourn behind enemy lines,where you seem to have succumbed to the dangerous charms of a certain Ludwig.
    I notice with some alarm that most of Ludwig’s friends and family have an unpatriotic and regrettable predisposition to go “AWOL.”
    Put that enormous book down corporal wordnerd…….Tractatus…….Logico- Philosophicus…cough……I shall read it later, and join me in a glass of wine……..perhaps some music on the gramophone… Roses of Picardy??. followed by… Oh! How I hate to get up in the morning….and lastly…..Till we meet again……???

  60. wordnerd7

    General @Hazlitt . . . suh! . . . another straying blogger briefly back in the fold, I see, but no less welcome for that. Yes I was equally shocked to read of so many Wittgensteins going AWOL, . . . but have you considered that you might be just a little trigger-happy, diagnosing this condition? This was you, only a few weeks ago:

    === “Sergeant major”
    “Place corporal wordnerd7 under arrest for going AWOL”
    “Yes Saaaar” ===

    … As for going behind enemy lines, which of us drives a Stug? . . . [coughs violently] …

    Your bigger worry should be my request for a transfer to another service, suh . . . I was born on the edge of the sea and am one of just two members of a family of five who never got seasick, _ever_, over thousands and thousands of knots — so dear suh, I have begun to think I might be wasted on the army. . . : )

    My Tractatus is one of the slenderest volumes I own — are you looking at a ‘collected works of’ Ludwig, by any chance?

  61. Hazlitt

    Corporal wordnerd it has been brought to my attention that you have been seen wandering around the trenches dressed as a sailor,singing sea shanties and dancing the hornpipe!!!.As you well know I have refused your request for a transfer into the Royal Navy.
    Who could I rely on for strategic advise,not to mention hot cocoa and sweeping out my trench?

  62. wordnerd7

    Oops, sorry _suh_! . . . didn’t mean to sweep you into a sinkhole like that !!!##@! . . . damn these powerful new brooms. . . . Silly new-fangled technology!

    Have you looked at the O.O.D., suh? See the fine print saying that my appeal is being considered and that I’ve applied to have you transferred with me? . . . How does Admiral @Hazlitt sound in your ears? . . . I explained that you were so batty that life in the RN with you helping to run it could never be as dull as . . . well, suh., in this trench when it’s rained for a whole month . . . a scrupulously accurate description of the weather, as I hope you’ll agree, suh. It hasn’t been easy keeping the crunch in the baguettes — not complaining, of course . . .

    . . . Back to answer posts on less serious matters later . . .

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