I took Andrew Motion’s anthology of First World War poetry with me to the Somme last week, and I re-read some of the poems in it in odd free moments. I think it’s a good anthology, with a wide range of poets represented. I was particularly glad to see women poets in it – non-combatants of course), including Eleanor Farjeon, Rose Macaulay, and Charlotte Mew. (Charlotte, by the way, is well worth reading for her other poetry on other subjects, not just the single poem here). I enjoyed reading the poems in the landscape in which many of them were written, and many of them still stand up in poetic terms, as well as reflecting the narratives and emotions of battle. To my mind Wilfred Owen remains as the outstanding poet in the collection, but Edward Thomas comes close, and Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon have some very moving individual poems.
In one of the cemeteries we saw the grave of Roland Leighton, Vera Brittain’s fiancee; at Contalmaison the Heart of Midlothian Memorial had the famous MacRae poem inscribed on it, and poems featured heavily in many of the other memorials. I’ve started reading Martin Gilbert’s Somme book, and it is liberally sprinkled by poems written by soldiers, some included in letters sent back to loved ones. They’re very poignant, and very personal. They lead me to my question: what is it about war that prompts people to write poetry? Is it the prospect of imminent danger, possible death? Is it a different type of inspiration to that which leads to other types of poetry?