Robert Graves Website
Other RG Resources
Note: The text below is the result of an OCR extraction of a PDF file and has not been been yet edited. It will contain poorly formated paragraphs, typographical errors and omissions. In general, the older the issue of Gravesiana and Focus issues, the poorer the quality of the extract. This text has been supplied to allow a degree of text searchability for the pre-Robert Graves Review issues. For a better reading experience, we strongly recommend you read the PDF version.
Focus on Robert Graves and His Contemporaries - Number 10
W.B. Yeats and the Poetry of the First World War
W. B. Yeats and the Poetry of the First World war
(Address given to the Italo—American Association of Trieste on 9th December, 1988, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Armistice. )
The First World War vas a pecul iarly 1 iterate, if not 1 iterary, war in that the majority of the soldiers, for the first time in history, were meri who could, and did, read and write- Accordingly, the war gave rise to a whole series of literary sub—genres characterised by a common subject matter: the war novel, the war play, the war autobiography, and, of course, the war poem. True, war is no new theme for poetry—look at Homer •s Illiad--but the Great War made such an impact that when anyone speaks today of "war poetry," it is of the poems of World War One that we automatically think, and of their soldier—authors Wil f red Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Charles sorley, Herbert Read, Edward Thomas, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, and Ivor Guerny---to say nothing of those countless others who also wrote poems but did not live long enough to produce sufficient material for a printed volume and who survive, therefore, only in antholog I have called them soldier—authors since with very few exceptions all wrote out of di rect experience of their common subj ect, namely war as experienced not at home in England, but at the front I ine. The authentic poetry of World War One, we have come to think, is trench poetry:
Our brains ache, in the merci less iced east winds that knive us.. .
Wearied ve keep awake because the night is silent, ..LOW, drooping flares confuse our memory of the sal ient. . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous. But nothing happens.
watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire, Like twi eching agony of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbl es, Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war . What are we doing here?
The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow...
we only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey. But nothing happens.
so opens Wilfred Owen's "Exposure. Are they poetry, these I ines with their haunting pararhymes, their grave, drawn—out rhythms, their tactile vocabulary, their conscious exploitation of vowel and consonant, their communication, by the way each short fifth line dispels the tense atmosphere created by the preceding four, of the intolerable strain of endurance? Is the poem itself a quintessential evocation Of passive suffering-poetry? We would think it is, yet we have the voice of possibly the greatest Engl ish—speaking poet of the century, W. B. Yeats, to tell us that it is not. Why he should so tell us, and why I think he is wrong, are my twin concerns in this paper.
What on earth, as some of you have already asked, has Yeats to do with the war at all, let alone with its poetry? He was nearly fifty when i t broke out. Moreover, he vas Irish, and I reland, though then still officially part Of Britain, vas not committed to the var in the same way as England vas. And f inally, have his own declaration of non—involvement in his brief but characteristically lofty response "On Being Asked for a War Poem, a response whereby in the very process of seeming to deprecate his art he exalts it above the chaos of contemporary concerns:
I think it better that in times like these A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth we have no gift to set a statesman right; He has had enough of meddling who can please A young girl in the indolence of her youth, or an old man upon a winter's night.
What fired Yeats' imag ination was not the catastrophe befalling Europe, •but what Europe would have considered a mere sideshow, the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin:
I write it out in a verse—— MacDonagh and Hacbride
And Connolly and Pea rse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn , Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
For Europe a sideshow, for England a stab in the back, for the ordinary citizens of Dublin an act of lunacy--but for Yeats, as these ringing lines proclaim, the Rising vas an historic, if not the final , landmark in seven centuries of fore ign oppression.
With regard to the Great War, then, Yeats seemed to enjoy a remoteness gurpassed only, perhaps, by hig compatriot James Joyce in Zurich. At the same time, however, he is also responsible for one of the most concise and damning criticisms of the poetry which the Great War produced, a criticism which nobody who wishes to make a study of that poetry can afford to ignore. True, when Yeats writes to Dorothy Wellesley about Wilfred Oven, dismissing his work as "all blood, dirt and sucked sugar—stick," we know we are deal ing with casual abuse. not criticism. But it is not so easy to ignore the following passage from Yeats • Introduction to the Oxford Book Of Modern Verse, published in 1936. As ed i tor of probably the most idiosyncratic of all the oxford anthologies, Yeats is concerned in his Introduction to defend not only his Lnclusions, but also his
I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war; they are in all anthologies, but I have subst ituted Herbert Read's "End of a War" written long after. The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, think, had the Military cross; their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy--for all skill is joyful—but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men, In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced. When man has withdrawn into the quicksi Iver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind: it is no longer possible to write "The Persians," "Agincourt," "Chevy Chase:" some blunderer has driven his car on to the wrong side of the road--thats is all.
Few critics share these views, but whatever else can be said about the passage, it is not an idle expression of Yeats' "distaste." On the contrary, it is powerfully if briefly argued in a manner typical of Yeats' prose at its best, that combination of chal lenging flat statement—“passive suffering is not a theme for poetry" ——and startling poetic conceit——"When man has withdrawn into the quicksilver at the back of the mirror”--concluding in lordly
quot idien bluntness: "some blunderer has driven his car on to the wrong side of the road--that is all. " In short, it is an argument we can nei ther I ightly ignore nor easily chal lenge without being sure of what it is we are defending. Yeats himself well understood hov the road to truth runs through a dialectic of mutual opposites, so that if war poetry is properly to be appreciated, there is perhaps no better way than to subject it to the acid test of one of the most prestig ious attacks upon it.
Yeats' main points are four: that somehov it was a demerit, poet ica lly, in the war poets that they should have felt bound to plead the sufferings of their men; that passive suffering is not a theme for poetry; that the war poets were too close to their experience to write properly about it--they reflected what they underwent, but did not illuminate it; that war poetry should be heroic, if not tragic. I should like to take each of these points—— though not necessarily in the order in wh ich Yeats makes them see how justly, or otherwise, they are applicable to the work he has in mind.
First, then, the implication that it was somehow a poetic demerit in the war poets that they should have felt bound to plead the suffering of their men. That they did feel so bound few of them would have attempted to deny. Most were appal led at the ignorance of, and insensitivity to, the conditions of the soldiers at the trone displayed by the civilians at home. so Owen, at home on leave.
disgusted at the swinish complacency of war profiteers, suffering from shellshock and from guilt at being away from his men, writes:
. leaning out last midnight on my sill
I heard the sighs of men, that have no skill To speak of their distress, no, nor the will! A voice I know. And I must go.
Thus also Siegfried Sassoon, using what skill he had, which vas for short, bitter satire, a hand—grenade, as it were, of savage indignation:
I 'd like to see a Tank come down the Stalls, Lurching to rag—time tunes, or "Home, sweet Home, And there'd be no more jokes in Music—halls To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.
And so too Paul Nash, appointed official artist to the war in 1917 ,
in a letter which transmutes itself into poetry by reason of the depths to which he is stirred by what he has seen:
No gl immer of God's hand is seen anyvhere. sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the bl ack rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit at— mogphere in such a land. The rain dr Ives on, the stink— ing mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell—holes fill up with green—white water, the roads and tracks are cover— ed in inches of sl ime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease
“I am no longer an or as Owen put it: "Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. Yeats would have smiled grimly at these two statements whereby the two artists seem to convict themselves out of their own mouths that what they were creating was not art, but propaganda.
Now there is a sense in which all art is propaganda. Art is an express ion. It is not invisible, inaudible, intangible, but finds forms that can be seen, heard, touched——shared, in fact, by other men. All art is a communication of some sort, even i f what it is communicating is, in extremis, the desperate impossibil i ty of communication. That said, however, what Yeats is aga inst is the use of art for purposes more proper to the pol itician, the social reformer, and the revolutionary than to the artist
Ultimately, for Yeats, art is concerned with what rather than with what should be. so he distinguishes, in thig stanza from "Ego Dominus Tuus," between didactic art, practised by those involved in the world, and art proper:
. , . those that love the world serve it in action,
Grov riche popular and full Of influence,
And should they paint or write, still it is act ion:
The struggle of the fly in marmalade.
The rhetorician would dece ive his neighbors, The sentimentalist himself; while are Is but a vision Of reality.
Yeats' distinctions are always radical, and the distinction here. as Laurence Lerner has pointed out, is clearly between the didactic and the aesthetic theories of art; or, as G. S. Fraser put it, between poetry as moral discourse and poetry as vision. Nov such a distinction, legalistically maintained, has mischievous results. Obviously, ve expect poetry to have more pernanence than last year 's political pamphlet, but does it follow that a poetry Which shares something of the pamphlet •s urgency, argumentativeness, and directness of appeal, thereby forfeits all claim to permanence? When Owen, for example, closes "Dulce et Decorum Est" with the famous
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To chi Idren ardent for some desperate glory , The old Lie; Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.
Was it- for this the clay grew tall? ——0 what made fatuous sunbeams toil To break earth's sleep at all?
without losing the sl ightes€ sense of the present actual ity, t_he local fate of the dead soldier is subsumed into the universal, the accidental into the tragic.
Yeats' second point T shall deal with more briefly, namely the point that var poetry, as impl ied by his admiration for "Chevy Chase" and "Agincourt," should be heroic. These are deservedly f amous ballads, the former in particular for Sydney praise or it:” I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than w ith a Trumpet. Undoubtedly the ba I l ad form is highly appropriate to a celebrat ion Of mil itary events, and at the outbreak of the war, poets good, bad, and indifferent readily turned to it ag a convenient vehicle to express their sense of being I aunched upon a vigorous adventure. One Of the best is Jul i an Grenfell's "Into Battle," a poem whose rhythmical Iy energetic upbeat intimately connects the call to arms with nature 'g Spr ing resurgence. so the poem opens:
The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and burst ing trees Leans to the sun's gaze glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And 1 i fe is col our and warmth and light,
And a striving evermore for these; And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.
I quote this not solely because it is part of a good poem, but because it is the only contemporary war poem Yeats gaw fit to includes in h 1936 anthology. Small wonder: it is a worthy successor to "Agincourt" and "Chevy Chase. "
Grenfell, however, wrote at the beginn ing Of the war, when poets could still bel ieve that war would follow its traditi onal pattern whereby human skill and strength and courage could properly be togtotl by being pitted aga inst the skill and strength and courage of tho human enemy. War was still glamorous, and its most glamorous r orm vas the cavalry charge. Yet even i f they had forgotten the ;ess of the Anglo—Boer War, the generals might have remembered tho grim lesson underlying the heroism or Tennyson's "Cha rge or the Light Brigade. Horses were no match for artil lery, nor men for machinegung. The nature Of war had changed. BY Christmas 1914 i t had settled into the trench deadlock which vas to last for the duration . Heroism there was, but not in the style of "Chevy Chase," now that the enemy vag not man but machinery. Poetry there vas, too, but not in the heroic ballad style. The kind of experience oven wrote about in "Exposure" is simply not tractable to balladic treatment. The altered conditions of war demanded alterations in language, rhythm, prosody.
There is an irony, though, ve should take note of: the ballad did survive, in the form of the soldiers • songs, many of which, like their traditional antecedents, were anonymous. One of the most poignant is "Do You Want to Find the General," which vorks its way steadily down through the ranks until it reaches the private soldier:
Do you want to f ind your sweetheart?
I know where he is
I know where he is
I know where he is
Do you want to f ind your sweetheart? I know where he is
Hang ing on the Old barbed wire!
It is an irony, I say, for there is nothing heroic in this bitter balladic lament of the common soldier for himself and his comrades. The refinement of the irony, however, is that Yeats himself mastered the bal lad form, the popular song and its refrain, in the hope that he could write for his own race, be read by the common people. What the common people have here dec ided is that their own experience is remote from all heroic interpretation of it.
Yeats • third point about war poetry is contained in his image of man withdrawing into the quicksilver at the back of the mirror. It is a striking image, but perhaps no more than another form of Wordsworth's "emotion recollected in tranquillity." "For all good poetry, Wordsworth wrote, "is the spontaneous overflov of powerful feel ings; yet poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and Y.” If Yeats had interpreted war poetry in these terms, he would doubtless have said that the war poets were mostly too young to have thought long and deeply, that they had no tranquil 1 i ty in which to recollect their emotion, and that if they had powerful feelings, then those feel ings were less the product of their own organic sensibil i ties than of violent, oppressive circumstance .
This is a point, I think, easily dealt with, partly for the reason that with regard to many war poems it is absolutely true. Here, for example, is part of a short poem by Robert Graves, Dead Boche:
today I found in Mametz wood
A certain cure for lust of blood.
Where propped against -a shattered trunk In a great mess Of things unclean
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk With clothes and face a sodden green:
Big-bel i ed', spectacled, crop—haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.
Here the poet is a fly caught in the marmalade Of his own rage and disgust. His overt purpose is to draw violent attention to the inhumanity of war; the effect upon us, however, as we recoil from his lingering over the details of mortal ity, is to reveal his real purpose which is revenge, to shock those whom he considers complacent because they have been spared experiences he has been compelled to undergo. The dead man exists scarcely at all in his own r ight; rather he is a thing for Graves to rub our noses well into.
Was it for this the clay grew tall? ——0 what made f atuoug sunbeams toi To break earth's sleep at al l?
Without losing the sl ightest sense of the present actual ity, the local fate of the dead soldier is subsumed into the universal, the accidental into tho tragic.
Yeats' second point T shall deal with more briefly, namely the point that var poetry, as impl ied by his admiration for "Chevy Chase" and "Agincourt," should be heroic. These are deservedly f amous ballads, the former in particular for Sydney •s praise of it: never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a Trumpet." Undoubtedly the ballad form is highly appropriate to a celebration of mil itary events, and at the outbreak of the war, poets good, bad, and indifferent readi Iy turned to it ag a convenient vehicle to express their sense of be ing I aunched upon a v igorous adventure . One Of the best is Jl ian Grenfell's "Into Battle, " a poem whose rhythmical ly energetic upbeat intimately connects the call to arms with nature's Spr ing resurgence. so the poem opens:
The naked earth is warm with spring,
And with green grass and burst ing trees
Leans to the sun's gaze glory ing,
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And 1 i fe ig colour and warmth and light ,
And a striving evermore for these; And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase .
I quote this not solely because it is part of a good poem, but because it is the only contemporary war poem Yeats saw fit to incl udo in his 1936 anthology. Smal 1 wonder: it is a worthy successor to "Agincourt" and "Chevy Chase. "
Grenfell, however, wrote at the begi nning of the war, when poets could still bel ieve that war would fol low its traditional pattern whereby human skill and strength and courage could properly bo togt0'l by being pitted aga inst the skill and strength and courage of tho human enemy. War was still glamorous, and its most glamorous rorm was the cavalry charge. Yet even i f they had forgotten t he I essons Of the Anglo—Boer War, the generals might have remembered the grim lesson underlying the heroism of Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade." Horses were no match for artil lery, nor men for machinegung. The nature of war had changed. BY Christmas 1914 it had settled into the trench deadlock which was to last for the duration . Heroism there was, but not in the style of "Chevy Chase, " now that the enemy vas not man but machinery. Poetry there vas, too, but not in the heroic ballad style. The kind of experience oven wrote about in "Exposure" is simply not tractable to balladic treatment. The altered conditions of war demanded alterations in language, rhythm, prosody.
There is an irony, though, we should take note of: the bal lad did survive, in the forn of the soldiers' songs, many of which, like their traditional antecedents, were anonymous. One of the most poignant is "Do you Want to Find the General," which works its way steadily down through the ranks until it reaches the private soldier:
On the other hand, Yeats' point is simply not t rue. The better
-and I incl ude Graves among them--where not unaware of Wordsworth'S famous dictum, and Strove in every way possible to achieve that d i5tance essential to art, i f fatal to journal ism. They did it through irony, through myth—making, through satire, through prosodic experiment, and also through truth—telling. in the wider sense we def ined earlier. Here is an equally horrific incident of war, part of Herbert Read's "Private Kneeshav Goes to War," describing how the men were suddenly overtaken by bombardment and ordered to "dig in:"
He had to think and couldn't for a while.
Then he gei zed a pick from the nearest man
And clawed passionately upon the churned earth.
With satisfaction his pick
Cleft the skull of a buried man.
Kneeshaw tugged the cl inging pick, Saw its burden and shrieked.
For a second or two he was impotent
Vainly trying to recover his will, but his senses prevail i ng .
The very stuff of sensational ism, it would seem, it is nonetheless arti stically controlled through language, tone, and local his pick. . . "——to elicit the deeper that sense the the inc ident, namely the diff iculty of conducting a Hamle€ian discourse with death on the modern battlefield. Modest as it: is, by compar ison with oven •s "Spring 'Offensive, " Rosenberg's "Dead Man •s Dump," or Arthur Graeme west's superbly control led "Night patrol " Read •s poem is, nevertheless, both an anticipation of Yeats' objection and an answer to it.
Yeats', fourth point is also the most wel I-known, the flat statement that "passive suf fering is not a theme for poet ry . Now qu a part from the arbitrariness of deciding what poetry can or cannot doal with, the statement itself is not easy to understand . What i g passive suffering? In one Of his greatest poems, "The M.'n and t he Echo," written in his Old age, Yeats wri tes of his recurri nightmare:
All that I have said and done,
Nov that I am old and il l ,
Turns into a question til l
I lie awake night after night And never get the answers right. Did that play of mine send out certain men the Engl i sh shot?
Did words of mind put too great strain On that woman's reeling brain?
Could my spoken words have checked That whereby a house lay wrecked? And all seems evil until I
Sleepless would lie down and die.
This is suffering, but is it active or passive? It is active, certainly, in the mind 's ceaseless, agonized questionings; but passive, too--the suffering has no end, the questions no answers,
both have to be endured. Yeats suffers from remorse, from guilt, feel ings by their nature not easily resolvable, and yet we do not think he is wrong to take them and their attendant pain for his theme. And the reason for this is that we respond in Yeats to what is not passive, but highly active, namely the capacity to feel—— compass ion, both for himself and others; in short, pity. What I am trying to say is that "passive suffering" is a contradiction in terms: there is either suffering——or else insentience. It is the point Shakespeare makes through the words of Emilia as she defies Othello's threats:
Thou hast not half that power to do me harm As have to be hurt. . .
.The capacity to be hurt is no passive faculty, but an active power, and it is intimately linked with the poetic process because it too is a vital branch of the imagination. Call it negative capability i f you will, but both poetry and human 1 i fe depend upon the capacity to suffer and to empathize, without which, in Lear •s phrase, we are "men of stone. This is the truth which oven explores in what is possibly his f inest poem. "Insensibility. To summarize its argument briefly: in the first four stanzas the officer—poet contemplates the effect of war upon his men, how they are compel led by daily acquaintance with death, by official incompetence and carelessness, by physical pain and exhaustion, and by hideous sights of blood, to seek refuge in insensibil ity. They become bov ine. automatons almost, and in the limited happiness Of their forced unconcern scarcely recognizable as human beings, for to be human, the verse makes plain, is to hope, to fear, to suffer, to be compassionate. In the fifth stanza the officer—poet, speaking for those who share his own responsibility and sensibil ity, rhetorically asks whether it would not be better to cultivate this insensibility, the easier to perform their task of carrying on in a hopeless var. The quest ion remains rhetorical, however, and the reason why is given in the sixth and final stanza, where the speaker turns in a Lear—I ike rage upon the real villains in this drama of human endurance :
But cursed are dul lards whom no cannon stuns,
That they should be as stones;
Wretched are they, and mean
With paucity that never vas simplicity. BY choice they made themselves immune
TO pity and Whatever moans in man
Before the last sea and the hapless stars;
Whatever mourns when many leave these shores,
The eternal reciprocity of tears .
The capacity to feel and to suffer, so Owen claims, as this final stanza withdraws from the battlefields of World war One and expands to take in the human condition as a whole, is man's only divine attribute, without which we are worse than beasts—“dullards,”stones." To sacrifice this capacity is to sacrifice not only humanity, but all. thought of art as well. "Passive suffering" may not be a theme for poetry, but it is the fount from which all poetry springs. so at the back of Eliot •s poetry we have
The notion of some infinitely gentle, Infinitely suffering thing.
And more famously. at the back of Vi rgil i s, whose finest line Owen himself seems to be recalling: i'$unt lacrimae ret-um, et mortal ia mentem tangunt." And f inal I y, too, perhaps at the back of Yeats' poet : "The Man and the Echo," that great disquisition on the purpose and end of human existence, is interrupted, and the poet’s greater allegiance claimed, by the sound Of suf fering:
But hush, for have lost the theme, itsjoy or night seem but a dream;
Up there some hawk or owl has struck,
Dropping out of sky or rock, A stricken rabbit is crying out,
And its cry distracts my thought.
University of Trieste
Robert Graves Website
Other RG Resources