Saturday, 19 April 2014

At the Grave of Henry Vaughan

April was beginning to show signs of bringing some lovely spring weather when I decided to make my third trip up to Llansantffraed, near Talybont-on-Usk, near Brecon, to visit the grave of Henry Vaughan (1621-1695).  Siegfried Sassoon visited the grave in August 1923 and it inspired him to write one of his best-known post-war poems.  I have taken that poem as the basis for a monograph I'm producing for the Cecil Woolf "War Poets Series", and I'm hoping it will be published in time for the paper, on the same subject, that I'll be giving at the British Poetry of the First World War conference at Oxford in September.  As I'm only a panel speaker, it won't be a long lecture - we are only allowed twenty minutes, which will no doubt be a relief to some of the audience - but it is going to be difficult to cram everything I would like to say into the time available.  You can regard this post as a preview.

In the beginning, I had been mystified as to what attracted Sassoon to Vaughan's work at this particular time in his life.  Even allowing for the fact that young men of the early 20th century were not only brought up to be interested in poetry but were familiar with poets that we now regard as old-fashioned and/or obscure, it seemed an odd coupling.  In 1923, Vaughan was far from being a popular poet and it was probably Edmund Blunden who introduced Sassoon to him after they both returned from the First World War and struck up their lifelong friendship.

On further investigation, I found so many parallels between Vaughan and Sassoon that I was quite overwhelmed.  Sassoon himself may not have been aware of some of these, even after he got to know Vaughan's work.  The 200-year gap between Vaughan's death and Sassoon's birth is not the obstacle I thought it was to their fellow-feeling.  Both were, in their way, war poets, though Vaughan in a much less obvious way than Sassoon.  Both came to detest the very idea of war and long for the pastoral idyll of which it had robbed them.  Both lived as country gentlemen, were great horse-lovers, and spent too much money on this favourite pastime.  Each had two brothers, one of whom died as a result of a war, and, although they were two very different wars (in Vaughan's case, a civil war as opposed to a world war), both men were very close to the action and shared some comparable experiences.  Is it any wonder that Sassoon felt drawn to Henry Vaughan?

Add to this that Vaughan was a Welshman (probably Welsh-speaking) and Sassoon had been on active service at the Western Front with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and you see an additional attraction.  Not only that, but Vaughan's grave at Llansantffraed happened to be on the way to Manorbier in Pembrokeshire, where Sassoon was heading to visit another poet friend, Walter de la Mare.  Naturally, he stopped off, in order to try to capture something of Vaughan's spirit, and he obviously succeeded; but the poem was not written during the actual visit.  It is dated around a week later, when Sassoon had taken time to reflect on the experience and refine his immediate response into a polished 14-line sonnet that encapsulated his feelings so successfully that the poem has become one of his most acclaimed.

Sassoon enthusiasts will be pleased to learn that the locals not only recognise Vaughan's reputation as one of Wales's foremost poets, albeit somewhat after the event, but that a reading of Sassoon's poem, "At the Grave of Henry Vaughan", generally forms part of the annual commemoration that takes place close to the anniversary of the older poet's birthday.  For those who wish to investigate further, there is a Vaughan Association with its own Journal and a conference coming up (see

Monday, 7 April 2014

What is War Poetry?

I went to the Spring School at Oxford University's English Faculty believing that I had a fairly good idea of the answer to this question.  Despite a general awareness that there are many different interpretations of the term "war poetry", it was not something that seemed to call for a great deal of explanation.

Dr Mark Rawlinson's introductory lecture set the scene for further investigation of the topic remarkably well, and certainly raised some unexpected questions, as well as more familiar ones.  Can a woman or a non-combatant qualify as a war poet?  Is war poetry, as Robert Graves suggested, a form of "higher" journalism?  Can war poetry change anything, whether in the short or long term?  Does war poetry still exist?  Did it, in fact, ever exist?

Wilfred Owen, with his insistence on an essential "disjunction" between war and poetry, would have viewed the description of his work as "war poetry" in a negative light.  Keith Douglas, one of the two best-known poets of World War II, suggested that there was nothing new to be said, so influential had the post-World War I "war poetry boom" (Graves's phrase) been.  Stephen Spender, on the other hand, felt that the "environment" of the second war was so different from that of the first that it made imitation pointless; the conditions were so unprecedented that they were perhaps not conducive to writing poetry at all.

The questions raised at the beginning of the conference were both reinforced by, and partly answered in, the sessions that followed - particularly those on Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg and David Jones.

Wilfred Owen saw it as the poet's task to "witness", but disputed whether it was possible for the poet to do more than "warn".  It is as though he not only believed (like Siegfried Sassoon) that poetry is a vocation, but that the poet has a God-given duty to write about war from first-hand experience.  Yet Sassoon's most-quoted poems about the war are, to my mind, essentially satirical.  He focused on particular aspects of war, those that concerned him most, and sought to highlight their absurdity.  He did make a practical attempt to oppose the war (or rather, its continuation), but he did not actively seek to do so through his poetry.  As Meg Crane pointed out in her talk, he continued to write "real" poetry alongside his more biting, virulent "anti-war" poems. An example Meg chose of the former type, "The Dragon and the Undying", is in a completely different style and shows another side to the Sassoon we have been tempted to think we know.

When it comes to realistic writing about the war, however, you cannot do much better than the work of Ivor Gurney, as Dr Philip Lancaster clearly demonstrated.  Where Rosenberg and David Jones brought an artist's eye to the war, Gurney brought a musician's; but his love of landscape (he had taken up walking to provide relief from his "neurasthenia") led him to see many parallels between his home county of Gloucestershire and parts of France.  Gurney's poems take in all aspects of the war, not just the horror of the shell bombardments, the squalor of the trenches and the psychological effects on the combatants.  He writes also of some of the war's more positive aspects, often with an unexpected humour.

This spectacularly good conference did not end with an answer to the question posed at the beginning, but it did explore so many facets of the English-language poetry of the First World War that I believe even the most learned of delegates will have taken away something fresh from the experience.  In September, we have another opportunity to hear speakers of a similar calibre at the British Poetry of the First World War Conference being run by the English Association.  Details here:

Don't miss out!