Magazine article The Spectator

Poetic Injustice

Magazine article The Spectator

Poetic Injustice

Article excerpt

Exhibitions 2

Anthem for Doomed Youth (Imperial War Museum, London, till 27 April)

'When you see millions of the mouthless dead/Across your dreams in pale battalions go ... ' This vision of stark horror, found in a British officer's knapsack after his death at Loos in October 1915, comes from the young Aberdonian Charles Sorley, one of 12 soldier poets featured in a major exhibition at the Imperial War Museum.

Sorley was the second of the 12 to perish in battle and, at 20, the youngest. He was also the first who grasped the truth about the war - and its scale. Brutally realistic, he was fiercely critical of Rupert Brooke at a time when Brooke's (and Wilfred Owen's) writing was still confined in a Keatsian time warp.

Of the poets featured, half a dozen (Sorley, Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Julian Grenfell and Francis Ledwidge) were killed; another, Ivor Gurney, survived by two decades but spent most of them in an asylum. Brooke died of infection and blood poisoning. Only four (Edmund Blunden, David Jones, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves) marched on to a ripe old age.

Each poet has half a room dedicated to him. Grenfell, the only professional soldier among them, is known mainly for one rather savage, politically incorrect poem (`Into Battle'). `He was a bit of a Homeric hero,' says the exhibition's literary adviser, the poet Jon Stallworthy, `who openly admits he enjoyed killing his fellow men.' Another included is David Jones, whose still too-little-known `In Parenthesis' (published in 1937) is couched in the modernist tradition of Eliot (`You can hear the rat of no-man's-land ... weasel-out his patient workings, strut, strut, sscrut').

Jones was an artist too, as was another of the 12, Isaac Rosenberg, who, like Jones, Gurney, Ledwidge and Edward Thomas, served in the ranks; all the rest were officers. Rosenberg's paintings and sketches (including a superb clutch of Expressionistic portraits) hold up well against the likes of Nevinson and Nash, whose war art also features in the exhibition. Rosenberg's poetry - `Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew/Your cosmopolitan sympathies'; 'A man's brains spattered on/A stretcher-bearer's face'; or `The Immortals' - an ode to lice - has a particular raw directness. …

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