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An analysis of a First World War poetry anthology

‘…I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base

And speed glum heroes up the line to death…


…And when the war is done and youth stone dead,

I’d toddle safely home and die � in bed.’ (Sassoon, Base Details -/-10)

Gardner states in his introductory note that ‘…those who wish to ponder on tactics and strategy, or to know How It Happened, must turn to other volumes. This account has nothing to do with that it is traced on the emotions of the men at war.’ (UTLTD pg. xix) It therefore comes as no surprise that of the 14 poems included in the anthology, not one is written by a female. Sexism does not come into it. Portrayals of war through the eyes of those who saw it most clearly naturally leads to a more intense experience on the part of the reader. This can be attributed to the poetry included being vivid in description and often highly emotionally charged. An analysis of Up the Line to Death thus provides us with a wide range of emotions ranging from anger to disgust. Whether it provides us with a realistic sense of experience at the front however is just one of the issues that open up as we analyse the anthology.

Up the Line to Death contains a page that would be blank but for the famous words of Wilfred Owen ‘Above all I am not concerned with poetry. / My subject is War and the pity of War. / The poetry is in the pity’. This captures Gardner’s desire to dispense with technically astute poetry in favour of grittier ‘front line’ writers. W.B. Yeats may have written of Owen ‘He is all blood, dirt and sucked sugar-stick’, (lecture notes 10.14.0) but that is the kind of attitude Garner has looked to include in Up the Line to Death and he has done so admirably.

It is not possible to analyse a war anthology effectively without looking in some depth at some typical poems included. What strikes the reader perhaps more than anything else in Up the Line to Death is the gradual disintegration of spirit in the poems as the anthology delves further into the war experience. W. N. Hodgson in his poem ‘The Call’ talks proudly of how the allied soldiers ‘Went strongly forth to do the work of men’. In another of his poems from the same section of the anthology, entitled ‘England to Her Sons,’ Hodgson drives home his pride and passion for the war still further by declaring

‘Free in service, wise in justice,

Fearing but dishonours breath;

Steeled to suffer uncomplaining

Loss and failure, pain and death;

Strong in faith that sees the issue and in hope that triumpeth’.

(England to Her Sons 6-10)

Whilst recognising that war will inevitably bring ‘loss and failure, pain and death’ to men who participate in it, the above excerpt tries to show that war is also about hope and faith in God, a sentiment which is shared by John Freeman in ‘Happy is England Now’. Freeman writes that ‘There’s not a nobleness of heart, hand, brain,/ But shines the purer; happiest is England now/ In those that fight, and watch with pride and tears.’ (HiEN 4). To gain a sense of how strongly views changed as the war progressed we can turn six sections further on in the anthology to poetry written at a time when feeling in the ranks was changing. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’ is in stark contrast to the earlier, patriotic poetry of Hodgson and Freeman. As well as being a good deal more descriptive about the physical pain war brought (‘Our brains ache in the merciless iced east winds that knive us’), ‘Exposure’ also draws attention to the faith slowly ebbing away from the fighting men. Owen writes as a conclusion to one of the verses ‘For love of God seems dying’ (E, 5). Nowhere in the book is there a poem more vivid in imagery than ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. A critical poem of the highest extreme, Owen challenges the idea of it being ‘sweet and glorious to die for your country’. He refers to this sentiment as ‘The old Lie’ and unhesitatingly forces upon the reader his opinion of the horror of war. The contrast between these later poems and the earlier ones is complete when we read Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Attack’. The final words in this poem are ‘O Jesus make it stop!’ and this enables the reader to appreciate fully not only the anguish of war but also the ever increasing pessimism regarding faith.

It is easy to strike an opinion on war when you are the one responsible for compiling a collection of poems to epitomise it. Malcolm Brown’s Tommy Goes to War, however, identifies aspects of the experience that Gardner has purposefully neglected to include in Up the Line to Death. In it we see evidence of light-heartedness and comradeship. A humorous version of ‘Standing Orders for the British Infantry in France’ includes the commandment ‘ Thou shalt not adulterate thy Section’s rum ration’ (TGtW, 5 7). Rifleman A.H. Young of the London Irish Rifles reflects on various ‘wags’ in his platoon that wore ‘…German helmets with sausages stuck on the spikes’ as they marched through France towards the front. As well as the humour that seemed to be ever present in some capacity there are also cases of men who did not share Owen and Sassoon’s disgust at the war machine. Private Linfoot reports his mens’ emotion before ‘going over the top’ as being ‘exultant, thrilled and intensely alive’ (TGtW 106). All this being so, it is apparent that Garner intended Up the Line to Death to capture only a portion of the war experience � the portion that included horror, pain, anguish, loss of self-respect and faith and a good deal of quiet indignation.

Having established that Gardner’s anthology is somewhat one-dimensional in favour of his portrayal of war, are there any other features of it that help strengthen his view? Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ for example, adopts the technique of having a picture of the bombed trees of the front line on its front cover. This helps strengthen the case of the novel as a whole � especially when one considers that it is largely about Sassoon’s objection to the war, on the grounds of the destruction it brings. The cover of Up the Line to Death however, is unremarkable. First published in 164 you could possibly expect an emotive picture to adorn the front cover to emphasise Gardner’s entirely negative projection of the war. Up the Line to Death does not utilise this technique though, therefore the view Gardner wished to endorse is not as strong as it could have been.

Having looked as closely at Up the Line to Death as is possible in 1000 words, there is one issue that remain open to debate. It would initially seem that Gardner has been successful in his desire to trace the poems of his anthology upon ‘the emotions of the men at war’. Such emotions were bound to be forceful and this is reflected in the works of Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg (the three prominent poets in the book). One could always claim, however, that a significant majority of the included poems were not designed as a way in which to let off emotion…they were designed as propaganda against the war, to influence the ‘Tommy’. Were this the case then Gardner’s anthology could never be regarded as a truly accurate representation of the fighting man’s feelings. Instead it would ultimately have to be labelled as anti-war propaganda. An anthology described in such a way can never have been accurate enough to depict as wide a range of emotions as is necessary if we are to take its view seriously. This being so we turn to the military historian, Richard Holmes. He saw much literature dealing with the period as being ‘unrepresentative of the war’…and never would he have a greater case than in Up the Line to Death.

Word Count 101, not including quotations.

Barker, Pat, 11, Regeneration, Penguin.

Brown, Malcolm, 1, Tommy Goes to War, Tempus Publishing.

Hibberd, Dominic & Onions, John, 186, Poetry of the Great War � an

Anthology, Macmillan (Reprint).

Shaw, George Bernard, 11 reprint, Heartbreak House, Constable and Co. Ltd

Silkin, Jon, 187, Out of Battle The Poetry of the Great War, Arkwright plc.

Tate, Trudi, 15, Women, Men and the Great War, Manchester University Press.

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