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The majority of recent books published on the War Poets tend to focus on their lives during and immediately after the conflict.
This enterprising and thoroughly engrossing account, named after the poem by Wilfred Owen, takes a different approach in that it spans a full fifty years or more, covering what we might call the complete aftermath. It begins with the first meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke at one of Eddie Marsh's breakfasts in London in July 1914. Marsh was a tireless supporter of modern painters and after that of promising new writers, particularly the young generation of poets. The journey, or rather account of meetings, takes us to the western front and back to England, and eventually culminates in a reunion of two of the longest-lived, Sassoon and David Jones, in 1964.
Several personalities are examined in these pages, and Ricketts draws a penetrating portrait of each as well as their activities when their star shone, often all too briefly. Brooke, Owen and Charles Sorley were all killed in the war, but not before they had each left several poems behind them which would ensure their immortality. He speculates on what might have happened had the fates of Sassoon and Owen being reversed. Owen was the younger by seven years; had he lived into the 1960s, how would his career and writing have developed?
There is not really a dull page in this book. However I was fascinated above all by the accounts of Robert Graves, who had he died young might have been remembered merely as a poet and not as the classical scholar and novelist ('I, Claudius' in particular) that he would become later during his long life. We learn that he was much disliked, probably as he tended to give everyone else the air of being far too clever for his own good with brainwaves on such subjects as who really wrote the Bible.
There is a chapter on his controversial autobiography 'Goodbye To All That', which was first published in 1929. With its alleged half-truths and inaccuracies it infuriated Sassoon and Edmund Blunden, who both received review copies and fiercely annotated them as well as insisting on changes that had to be made in subsequent editions. Blunden wrote to Sassoon about the book, denouncing it as 'a bombastic and profit-seeking display of your personal affairs'.Equally engrossing, as well as ironic, is the explanation of how Graves, his wife Nancy and his muse Laura Riding were living together in a curious triangle (or briefly rectangle, if you include the temporary addition of another poet, Geoffrey Phibbs). After a quarrel one night Riding and Robert Graves both threw themselves out of separate windows in the house. Riding was seriously injured, and the shaken but unhurt Graves had to dash off the book in three months to meet her hospital bills. Fortunately for him it proved to be an instant bestseller.
Although they are not so well remembered today, the memoirs of Sassoon and Blunden are given due consideration. Blunden, one of the last survivors, wenr o to have a distinguished academic and literary career at Oxford and later in Hong Kong. He died as late as 1974, and in an interview towards the end of his life he admitted that his experiences in the Great War had haunted him throughout his life; 'for many days I have, it seemed, lived in that world rather than this.'
Although she was not a poet, the nonetheless towering literary figure of Vera Brittain, mother of politician Shirley Williams, makes a well-deserved appearance in these pages. I had never realised before that she initially began her writing career as a novelist, before she turned her bitter experiences of the war and the loss of loved ones into the production of her classic, frequently reprinted memoir 'Testament Of Youth'. This, her subsequent life and her appearance at a Peace Pledge Union meeting in 1937 alongside Sassoon are all well documented. Moreover, while perhaps no author these days can avoid some degree of speculation on the personal and what was thought to be a possible lesbian relationship between Brittain and her close friend Winifred Holtby, Ricketts deals with the matter concisely without making a major issue of it. He also gives suitable attention to the sad fate of the often overlooked Ivor Gurney, who continued to write but spent the rest of his life as a patient in a mental hospital until death in his forties.
There are regular but reasonably concise quotations from several of the relevant poems throughout this book. As war poetry anthologies and copies of each writer's work are readily available, I was pleased that Ricketts did not pad out the book to excessive length by relying too heavily on such usage.
The prologue also underlines the relevance that the war and its poets still have to us today, pointing out that American troops training for Afghanistan in recent years studied not just maps and military procedures but also the writings of Owen, Sassoon and Brooke. They still have an impact on the lives of serving personnel in the 21st century.
There are small illustrations of the writers discussed at the head of each chapter, and a section of plates halfway through the book focusing more generally on the war at the western front. Among the latter is a particularly grim one of dead soldiers on the road near Soissons after the battle of the Aisne in May 1917.
Harry Ricketts, a university professor in New Zealand, has published several volumes of poetry, as well as a biography of Rudyard Kipling and a novel.
Ricketts is light, and understandably so, on analysis of the poets' work. His main purpose in this book is to fill in the biographical background, and this he has done very well. While there is a case for suggesting that maybe the poems should be allowed to speak for themselves, I for one am always just as interested to know something about their creators, and the whole story - or most of it - of the War Poets and their place in the literary world after it is faultlessly presented in this volume.
[This is a revised version of the review I originally posted on other review sites]