Apr 082015

Editor Jon Stallworthy’s preference in this superb anthology is for poems that question, or provoke questions about, war.

The New Oxford Book of War Poetry, edited by Jon Stallworthy. Oxford University Press, 448 pages, $29.95. (Paperback edition, $18.95, will be available in early July.)

By Marcia Karp


Published this past fall, The New Oxford Book of War Poetry is Jon Stallworthy’s revision of his 1984 edition. It has been brought out in time for the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the first of plenty of 100th anniversaries occurring until the fall of 2018, and in time, I hope, for the editor to have taken pleasure in its reception before his death right before Thanksgiving. Stallworthy, who did his national military service with the Western African Frontier Force, was an accomplished poet with an astute and generous eye for the work of others. His many books of criticism and scholarly editing include a highly praised biography of Wilfred Owen and editions of Owen’s work. He was an editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry and The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Stallworthy, whose own poetic subjects include love, family, poetry, public people and events, and war, was recognized early as the fine poet he was and continued to be. The final collection during his life, War Poet, was published by Carcanet in August 2014, just before this anthology was published.

Two short essays preface this volume. Both of them, the reprinted 1984 introduction and the newly-written second thoughts, “Thirty Years On,” are worth reading. The older provides a swift and thoughtful march through war’s, and war poetry’s, times, places, and conventions. Stallworthy is careful in his survey, as well as in his selections, not to allow generalizations, though well supported, to take over from human particulars. His preference is for poems that question, or provoke questions about, war. While the love of war is expressed most strongly in the earlier poems in the volume, not all those early poems express such. Here are two poems, quite distant in time from each other, that are kindred in where they stand and whom they salute.


Go tell the Spartans, thou that passeth by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

[Simonides, c.556-c.468 BC, translated by William Lisle Bowles]

Common Form

If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

[Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1936, from “Epitaphs of the War 1914-18”]

Stallworthy identifies this centuries-long stance in several ways, including “they write as men rather than as soldiers conscious of soldierly tradition” and “the anti-war tradition.”

The newer introduction considers the matter of witness. The famous soldier-poets of the Great War are not the only soldier-poets; Stallworthy laments the comparative lack of recognition given to those of the Second World War. (The BBC has a page that asks “Has poetry distorted our view of World War One?”) Most importantly, Stallworthy does not reject poems written at a distance if they are written well.

John Dryden (translation from Chaucer’s Middle English and his own poem on the second Dutch War), Thomas Hardy, W B Yeats, Allen Ginsburg, and Geoffrey Hill are among non-soldiers included in the volume. Dryden (1631-1700), who never had a bad word to say about himself, established his own principle in a poem to his cousin:

Nor think the Kindred Muses thy Disgrace;
A Poet is not born in ev’ry Race.
Two of a House, few Ages can afford;
One to perform, another to record.
Praise-worthy Actions are by thee embrac’d;
And ’tis my Praise, to make thy Praises last.

[“To my Honoured Kinsman”]

Some, though not all, of the women here were in the service. Elizabeth Daryush (1887-1977), daughter of Robert Bridges, was not, yet her poem “Subalterns” seems to get it right about the wrong things said by women to men who had fought and who, in return, could say only what they knew to be true, not what would sound right, about their wars.

Several poets, some who served, and some who didn’t, write about their fathers. The dedication to James Tate’s poem “The Lost Pilot: for my father, 1922-1944” is intensified by Tate’s headnote – (1943-). Vernon Scannell (1922-2007) was in the army and hated it.

And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in the sepia November
Four years before my birth.

[”The Great War”]

The contemporary Irish poet Michael Longley (1939-) has a poem about his father’s wars, the one he fought in at the Somme and the one he never stopped fighting.

There are poems about grieving families. There are poems about mothers who think such a thing as heroic death might be possible and desirable for a son. Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) writes in April 1916 about an officer who’d had to tell “some gallant lies” to such a mother who had been joyful when she got the news of her son’s death. The officer remembers this fellow in the final stanza:

He had thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

[“The Hero”]

Courage and cowardice make their way into this volume and not always in ways that are expected.

Stallworthy doesn’t draw the fine lines often drawn in Oxford Books of … delimiting principles of inclusion, though he hints at a single principle applied to all of the selections, not only the ones named here: “Translations from other literatures have been admitted when – but only when – they seem to me English poems in their own right.” There are few, I mean a handful at most of 292, poems not meeting that simply-stated, hard-to-reach standard. Those few are so bad as to seem to have some private importance to the editor.

Joh Stallworthy

The late poet Jon Stallworthy — a gentleman and a modest man who is already much missed.

Stallworthy takes a long view of war poetry: “This Oxford Book has been on active service for thirty years, one hundredth part of the history of warfare to which poets have borne witness.” The volume is organized, for the most part, chronologically by war, beginning with that between the Israelites and the Egyptians (from William Tyndale’s translation of the drowning of Pharaoh’s Army in Exodus) – in addition to translations from the ancient languages, there are translations from Welsh, Chinese, Anglo-Saxon, French, Irish, and Czechoslovakian – and ending with the 1990s war in Iraq. There are occasional poems that don’t respond to a particular war, but to something about war in general. Three poems, written in the 1960s, conclude this long orchestration of voices and ideas by tempting fate and daring readers to consider that the use of atomic weapons needn’t lie ahead. Though rooted in a particular time and place, the concerns in these last few poems are concerns that, if the human race pays attention to them, will be pertinent long into the future.

Stallworthy has been generous to his poets. Some of them will be making debut appearances before contemporary readers. Charles Wolfe (Irish, 1791-1823), if he is remembered at all, is known by the poem included here, “The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna.” Moore led British troops in aid of the Spanish in their Peninsula War against Napoleon; we in Boston have recently been able to see Goya’s Disasters of War from that time and place. Though victorious in the 1809 battle at Corunna, Moore died there.

The poem’s final stanza is almost risible out of context, though not in it, and is ordinary in the way many of volume’s poems are:

Slowly and sadly we laid him down,
From the field of his fame fresh and gory;
We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone,
But we left him alone with his glory.

The lesson in war’s costs, though, – complete in the gory / glory rhyme – undercuts the silly sound.

While ordinary poems are necessary to every anthology, since the extraordinary is not often to be found, in this volume, the accumulating ranks of ordinary, yet good, poems are reminders that the lives of most soldiers are, like those of most people, ordinary and unmarked. What gives Wolfe’s poem its power is that until that final glory is given, the burial has been marked predominantly by the absence of the special, as in these unconnected lines:

Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note,

Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot
O’er the grave where our hero we buried.

No useless coffin enclosed his breast,

That the soon-to-be-forgotten one is this time an officer and a gentleman intensifies the less noble fates of the rank and file, with whom the bulk of the volume is concerned.

Stallworthy’s generosity is apparent, too, in his not limiting poets to one, or even two selections. Wilfred Owen gets the most, 11. Thomas Hardy comes next with 8, and Owen’s teacher, Siegfried Sasson, has 7. Rudyard Kipling has 6, though the selection from his “Epitaphs of the War 1914-18” takes the reader to 20 graves upon which, unlike on Sir John Moore’s, apt lines have been written.

The arrangement by war means that some of the poets here speak on more than one war. Kipling, who has a reputation for being an imperialist lover of war, has 3 sets of poems: on the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Second Boer War, and the Great War. He, and the majority of writers here, have, in fact, little love for war. Those few who do love it, love things about it that come with, but aren’t, war: dreamt-of glory, fellowship, and national and familial pride. Stallworthy has chosen, he writes, not to include the bulk of war poems, those written in the heat of war lust. Zeus himself doesn’t like the sentiments expressed in those. Sentiments he accuses Ares, in a passage not included in this volume, of holding:

Shifty lout. Don’t sit here by me.
You’re the most loathsome god on Olympus.
You actually like fighting and war.

[Iliad, book 5, translated by Stanley Lombardo, Hackett Publishing]

And yet Zeus can’t bear seeing even the god of war, who is after all his son, suffering the pain even a god feels when a hero thrusts in his spear and then pulls it out again – and so heals him.

The poems follow each other without extraneous white space. The occasional note places less well-known warfare into succinct context. This is an anthology that can be read randomly, but repays reading in order, for there are many runs of poems that resonant together. Themes emerge: gods and war, national and personal interests, honor, shame, class, and hatred and varieties of love.

Over and over the awful call is made. Shakespeare puts it this way: Cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war. Robert Graves (1895-1985) puts it another:

War was return of earth to ugly earth,
War was foundering of sublimities,
Extinction of each happy art and faith
By which the world had kept head in air.
Protesting logic or protesting love,
Until the unendurable moment struck –
The inward scream, the duty to run mad.

[”Recalling War”]

A gentleman and a modest man who is already much missed, Jon Stallworthy did not include any of his own poems here. In this one way, the whole he makes of disparate voices is incomplete. Still, the volume he left is one to read with the pleasure that poetry can bring and is one that compels a realization of what that ‘duty to run mad’ keeps doing to humankind, though we seem unable to keep from performing it.

Yet, still more, I’d like to include here the final passage from Stallworthy’s “War Poet” which belongs in the pages of Every Book of War Poetry.

You again, blackbird! Welcome back –
as you were welcomed to a white
window-sill in the labour ward,
welcoming me to my first light.

No inkling of the mistress you
would herald, when you piped us up
to No Man’s Land. She found me words
to shield the firestep

under fire, and afterwards
to pull me back, scorched but alive,
from other fires. Why should I
be granted a ticket of leave

if not to honour her and learn
from you – singing through rain or sun
your Edensong, till a dark wind
blows out the chestnut candles, one

by one?

[Jon Stallworthy, 1935-2014]

Marcia Karp has poems and translations in Free Inquiry, Oxford Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, The Warwick Review, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Agenda, Literary Imagination, Seneca Review, The Guardian, The Republic of Letters, and Partisan Review. Her work is included in these anthologies: Penguin Books’ Catullus in English and Petrarch in English; Joining Music with Reason: 34 Poets, British and American, Oxford 2004-2009 (Waywiser); and The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation (Norton).


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