Land of Brave Men: Scottish Poetry
|From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914–1945|
This may be one of the great unexamined assumptions of our time. It is probably not surprising, given the media success of the British war industry. Regularly they come round, the old black and white British war films, the British At War series, the Testaments of Youth and Remembrance Ceremonies. Truly they grow not old as we who view grow old, but live in perpetual youth, the John Millses and Richard Attenboroughs and Kenneth Mores, stiff upper lips and sticky wickets of our Dunkirk culture. Even in poetry, even for a teacher in England, the endless repetition of the battle litanies and war requiems must be wearying; those knock-kneed beggars under sacks, the scarlet majors at the base, the foreign fields that are forever Grantchester, these we have loved – the rough male kiss of blankets under an English heaven. Within that particular conflict – the Western Front in the First World War – and accepting that the poems referred to above have many fine qualities, the range of reference is nevertheless limited.
In this English war poetry, the background awareness of the world is that of the public schoolboy yearning for an ideal rural England of leisured ease and affluence. There is no awareness of English suburbia or urban streets as parts of the context of war, either as things to fight for or things to change in a better world to come. The working class, even the average middle class, has no respected voice in this poetry. In the genteel literature of the time, rougher accents and more awkward rhymes find no acceptance. Could it be otherwise? Those who wrote poetry had almost inevitably for the most part to be officer class, bringing their sense that the best way to express deep personal experience is through the classically-hallowed medium of verse; as they found in their Latin and Greek studies and their readings of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and the volumes of the Georgian poets, so they will do likewise, both to work out their own anguish and to attempt to communicate with a similarly literary-trained readership. And some of them succeed superlatively well, breaking the conventional bounds of traditional metres and Romantic imagery to speak with new angry voices about the pity and horror of war, pouring a harsh vintage into the old mellow claret bottles.
Yet for readers outside their world, at an even further remove than the English middle-class and working-class readers, there is a growing discontent with this poetry, however fine its qualities. Scottish readers (and presumably Welsh and Irish also) have in the past accepted this Anglocentric view of the First World War as the natural one within the context of a set of reading expectations that deny the validity of other kinds of voice within the linguistic community of the British Isles. The notion that there might have been Scottish war poets who could speak more out of their own culture with more familiar voices is one that has only quite recently surfaced. With the more confident and aggressive feeling that we now have that the Scottish experience has its own equal validity and its own literary voice, we wish to look for Scottish war poets nearer home. The encouraging result of this quest is that there are indeed such poets to be found.
We must, of course, make the clear distinction between World War One and World War Two. In literary terms, the Second World War was a much more democratic and socially mixed set of experiences. The poetry that came out of it had much more to say to all of us, whatever social background or country of Britain it came from. And the Scottish poets, through a more fortunate publishing history and the high profile of the Scottish Renaissance movement in poetry and other genres, are clearly visible.
So who are the Scottish poets of the First World War? There are five names in particular that are worth noting particularly for their war poems; and there are a number of other writers known more widely, who have one or two poems on the war that are incidental to their main work. The particular ones to be focused on are, in alphabetical order only, W.D. Cocker, Roderick Watson Kerr, Joseph Lee, Ewart Alan MacKintosh and Charles Hamilton Sorley. The others are John Buchan, Violet Jacob, Hugh MacDiarmid and Neil Munro.
W.D. Cocker gained some reputation after the war as a journalist and writer of humorous verses in Scots, but the poems written out of his experiences with the Highland Light Infantry and the Royal Scots and as a prisoner of war, written in English, are worth inclusion in any anthology of war poetry. Roderick Watson Kerr, who also later became a journalist, fought with gallantry in the Royal Tank Corps and was well received as a war poet to be compared with Sassoon when he published a collection just after the war. Joseph Lee, journalist and artist, fought in the Black Watch and the Royal Rifle Corps and spent a year as a prisoner of war; he still managed to have two collections of poetry published during the war. Born and brought up in England, Ewart Alan MacKintosh served with the Seaforth Highlanders and was killed in action in 1917; his poems have been regarded as some of the finest of the war. Charles Hamilton Sorley was another Scot brought up in England; he served in the Suffolk Regiment and was killed in 1915 after only a few months of active service, with, however, some fine poems on which to base his reputation as a war poet. It was the war that gave these men their poetic voices and, apart from Cocker, their claim to be remembered as poets.
It is different for the others mentioned earlier. The names of John Buchan, Violet Jacob, Hugh MacDiarmid and Neil Munro are associated with so much else in literature that has made their considerable reputations; their writings of the war were not their most significant productions and could easily be overlooked. It is all the more important, therefore, that what they did produce in the stress of the war years should be remembered and given its proper place. Only MacDiarmid saw the war at first hand, as a medical orderly, and refused to publish most of what he wrote at the time. Both Buchan and Munro were older and medically unfit for service; however, Buchan acted as a special correspondent and observer in France before obtaining a government information post. Violet Jacob lost her only son killed on the Somme in 1916. The war touched them all closely, as it did nearly everybody at the time, and it is a false notion of the imperatives of poetic impulse to say that only active service can produce the war poet.
Teachers will draw from these poems whatever points they think are relevant to their purposes. However, it may be useful to give a few comments on a selection by way of an introduction, since most of them may be new to readers of this article.
Two poems by W.D. Cocker – ‘Up the Line to Poelkapelle’ and ‘The Sniper’: the first deals with the encounter between living soldiers going up to the front line and a dozen dead lying ignored beside the road. The first stanza sets the situation; the second describes the traffic going past them uncaring and indifferent; the third suggests the reaction of the dead soldiers’ loved ones if they knew how they were being treated. The refrain to each stanza sets the words of the popular soldiers’ song ‘Tipperary’ against the reflection that nobody seems to care, except possibly God. ‘The Sniper’ deals with the shooting of a German soldier by a British sniper, and the discrepancy between the lack of feelings about death inflicted at a distance on an anonymous being and the strong emotions of those close to the death who see its effects and of those who are personally involved with the dead man. The poem widens out to suggest that there would be no difference in feeling if the situation were reversed.
Roderick Watson Kerr’s poems, ‘From the Line’, ‘The Corpse’ and ‘A Dead Man’, are grimly concerned with the appalling physical changes that war wreaks upon both the living and the dead. ‘From the Line’ has some similarities to Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in its setting of the scene with men returning from the front line showing the dehumanising signs of battle and the rejection of the fine slogans of the war propagandists. ‘The Corpse’ and ‘A Dead Man’ both evoke the horrors of the unburied body left to rot in public view before being eventually decently interred: in ‘The Corpse’ the horror is suggested rather than described, but ‘A Dead Man’ is more explicit, contrasting the decayed remains with the complete human being so fitting to be loved and mourned.
In Joseph Lee’s poems, there is a noticeable variety of form and tone. ‘The Green Grass’ uses some of the techniques of the Scottish ballads to question the purpose of the war and the unending slaughter; ‘The Bullet’ is an epigram that makes the point that indirectly the bullet finds more than one target; and ‘German Prisoners’ is a sonnet in the Shakespearean form dealing with the basic brotherhood of supposed enemies.
Four poems by Ewart Alan MacKintosh may be the finest examples of Scottish First World War poetry. ‘Cha Till MacCruimen’ and ‘Before the Summer’ are based on the idea of a dual vision, of the present reality of young strong regiments marching to the music of the pipes towards the battle and the parallel or future vision of other soldiers, either of other wars or after the battle, suggesting the loss and defeat to come. MacKintosh is using elements of Gaelic culture – the pipes, the MacCrimmon pibroch lament, the idea of second sight revealing the future, the Celtic ideal of martial glory and the historic reality of Highland defeat as at Culloden – to examine the agony of the soldier who knows the true horror of the war and the fate awaiting the innocent regiments, who would rather die with them than survive to see them broken and dead. ‘In Memoriam Private D. Sutherland’ similarly reveals the almost paternal sense of loss felt by the platoon commander when his young charges die; addressed as a kind of letter to inform a father of his son’s death, the poem eloquently compares the situations of father and officer. ‘To a Private Soldier’ stands back slightly from the real agony of the trenches to sound both a note of bitterness and hatred for the makers of war, those who sent the young men to die needlessly and remain unpunished for what they have done. The poem, rather optimistically, suggests that they will be conscience-stricken while still alive and will undergo an eternal punishment hereafter.
Three poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley are of similarly high quality. ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’ seems at first sight to catch a Rupert Brooke note of celebration and exultation at the war but it does not take more than a casual reading to reveal the note of irony undercutting the apparent lyricism. More seriously, the sonnets, ‘To Germany’ and ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ examine the themes of future friendship with the enemy and the eternal apartness of the dead.
By contrast with the soldier poets, the poems of the others mentioned earlier express a variety of notes, ranging from the swaggering falseness of Neil Munro’s ‘Hey, Jock, are you glad ye ’listed?’, which the experienced man of the trenches would have recoiled from, and the sentimental kail-yard vision of rural Scotland presented by John Buchan in ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’, to Violet Jacob’s elegiac perceptions of how war affects a local community and the old mother or father left on a neglected croft (‘Jock, to the First Army’ and ‘The Field by the Lirk O’ the Hill’). Two poems to be especially mentioned are John Buchan’s ‘The Great Ones’ and Hugh MacDiarmid’s ‘At the Cenotaph’, which put the whole business of the War in a wider perspective. Buchan echoes Thomas Hardy in his awareness that the war is an irrelevant diversion from the real business of life, symbolised by the unending seasonal work of the farmer. MacDiarmid cynically dismisses the War and the losses sustained in it as meaningless, since war does not change history in the least degree; civilisation depends on the artist rather than the politician and soldier. MacDiarmid restates this theme in ‘Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’, where he rejects any idea of idolising and idealising military courage as it is directly opposed to the preservation of civilised values (an understanding of MacDiarmid’s poem depends on a knowledge of the original ‘Epitaph’ by A.E. Housman).
THE CLASSROOM CONTEXTS
Within the range of these poems, there can be found an underlying unity which would allow a great number of possible selections and groupings for classroom use within the theme of War. There is also a wide diversity of tones and poetic forms that can contribute to a varied study of poetry using these as examples. Here are some suggestions for using the poems which might be useful as starting points for using the texts provided.
Finally, it would be wrong to claim that these poems are being studied because they are better as poems than the war poetry of other cultures and nations; they are here because they are particularly ours as members of the Scottish community and nation. They should not be studied in isolation, because war is an experience that transcends any one nation; equally, they should not be ignored, because they place their own individual gloss on the experience. We have a responsibility to see that the individual voices of the poets and their words assembled under the stress of monumental events are not forgotten and lost to their inheritors.
Copyright © Alan MacGillivray 1997
Last updated 6 February 2014.