The Coherence of Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

Last week I was invited to take part in an on-line discussion about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, written to a young would-be poet in the early 1900s. This event was organised by the Kings Place group, Chamberstudio, and the panel included two other poets, Martha Kapos and Denise Riley, musicians Mark Padmore, Amarins Weirdsma and Sini Simonen and composer Sally Beamish. We had such a fascinating discussion on Rilke’s advice to young artists (though perhaps we hardly scratched the surface) that I wanted to re-visit it and re-organise my own thoughts about the letters; hence this blog post. Though warm in tone and supportive, the letters are a way of Rilke talking to himself, developing coherent ideas that can be traced through the New Poems (1907/8), Requiem to a Friend (1909), even to the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus of 1922. I am quoting throughout from Stephen Cohn’s translation of the letters, included in his translation of Sonnets to Orpheus (Carcanet, 2000).

Rilke’s advice to Franz Kappus was evidently received with gratitude as the correspondence between them continued (if sporadically) from early 1903 to December 1908. We don’t have Kappus’ side of things, but from Rilke’s comments it’s clear the younger, aspiring poet’s letters were remarkably open, even confessional in substance, as suggested by the published letters’ recurring observations about sexual relations. But as for practical advice to a young poet, Rilke offers little, opening with, “I am really not able to discuss the nature of your poems” to “You ask if your poems are good poems . . . You doubtless send your poems out to magazines and you are distressed each time the editors reject your efforts . . . my advice is that you should give all that up”. Probably not what Kappus hoped to hear, though he will have quickly understood that Rilke has more profound points to make. But it means these letters ought to be read less as advice to aspiring writers and more as advice on the best ways to ripen (Rilke’s metaphor) the inner self, a consequence of which might be the conviction that creative work was a necessity for the individual. Peter Porter once suggested a better title for the sequence would have been, ‘Letters to a Young Idealist’ (Introduction to Cohn’s Carcanet translation).

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Peter Porter

The advice given is carefully positive – what to seek – and fulsomely negative – what ought to be avoided. Friendly and remarkably sympathetic as his tone is through the series of letters, what Rilke asks, in truth, is extraordinarily demanding for mere ordinary mortals. Rilke urges a priest-like devotion to his High Romantic, Godless programme. In brief, what is to be sought is a clear, honest and open relationship with one’s own inner life and that demands a corresponding avoidance of everything that might distance us from it, especially the pernicious influence of social and cultural conventions, what has been thought, said, written or done before. Rilke makes no bones about how difficult the former is and how frightening the latter is going to feel.

Rilke at his writing desk

The only way, Letter 1 insists, is to “go inside yourself”. And in Letter 3, we need to “allow each thing its own evolution, each impression and each grain of feeling buried in the self, in the darkness, unsayable, unknowable, and with infinite humility and patience to await the birth of a new illumination”. For reasons discussed later, there has to be a degree of passivity about this process: we must “await with deep humility and patience the moment of birth”. In his reply, Kappus must have enumerated the pain and suffering he was experiencing as a young man because Letter 8 spins this positively: “did not these sorrows go right through you – and not merely past you? Has there not been a great deal in you that has changed? Were you not somewhere . . . transformed while you were so sorrowful?” These often rough inner weathers of our emotional lives are precisely what is required. Only then, “something unfamiliar enters into us, something unknown; our senses, inhibited, and shy, fall silent; everything within us shrinks back, there is silence, and at its centre this new thing, strange to us all, stands mutely there”. In one of several memorable images, Rilke explains, through such emotional experience (the pains as much as, or even more than, the pleasures) “we have been changed as a house changes when a guest enters it”.

Those familiar with Keats’ ideas (expressed in his 1819 Letters) about the world as a ‘vale of soul-making’ will find something very familiar here. But Rilke’s take on the process of ‘spirit creation’ lays far heavier emphasis on the need for solitude to achieve it. Letter 5 tells Kappus, “win yourself back from the insistence of the talk and the chatter of the multitude (and how it chatters!)”. The chattering world is a distraction from what ought to be the subject of our study (our inner selves): “What is required is this: solitariness, great inner solitariness. The going-into oneself and the hours on end spent without encountering anyone else: it is this we must be able to achieve” (Letter 6). Such solitude enables greater concentration but also more true (uninfluenced) perception of our inner life. Yet to turn away from so much that is familiar will be frightening. In Letter 8, Rilke compares this to someone “plucked from the safety of his own small room and, unprepared and almost instantaneously, set down upon the heights of some great mountain-range”. What must then be experienced is “a never-to-be-equalled sense of insecurity, of having fallen into the power of something nameless [and this] would virtually destroy him”.

The negative influences of those (us, the timid majority) who have pulled back from such a state of perception is explained. Rilke’s basic tenet is that we are all “solitary”. But the uncertainty of a ‘true’ perception of this is too much for most people: “mankind has been pusillanimous in this respect [and] has done endless harm to life itself: all phenomena we call ‘apparitions’, all the so-called ‘spirit-world’, death, all these things so closely akin to us have been fended off . . . and so thoroughly purged from our lives that the senses by which we might have grasped them have atrophied. To say nothing at all of God”. What Rilke describes here are a number of the conventional ideas – pure figments about the truth of spirituality, death and a deity – that people have populated their world with in seeking greater security. Kappus is told, “a perilous uncertainty is so very much more human” and the truly human, let alone the ambitious poet, must accept the principle that “we arrange our lives in accordance with the precept that teaches us always to hold to what is difficult – then everything that still appears most alien will become all that is best-trusted, most dependable”. Rilke’s chosen metaphor here is the folkloric/mythic image of the terrifying dragon that turns into a rewarding princess at the last moment.

John Keats in Hampstead

Herein lies also the wisdom of passivity. As Keats argued in parallel, with his idea of negative capability (the knack of remaining “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”), so Rilke’s fourth Letter advises Kappus not to seek out answers now but to “love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or books in an utterly unknown language”. The key is to “live them” by which Rilke (like Keats) means to examine and attend to them as fully as possible. He goes so far as to advise a child-like incomprehension (which is at least based on an openness to the questions asked) over a cowardly defensiveness or contempt (which falls back on a distancing from those questions). This is why, in Letter 2, he sharply advises Kappus to avoid irony. There are, says Rilke, “great and serious subjects before which irony stands helpless and diminished” because irony is, by definition, a standing outside of a question or topic. For the same reason, Rilke distrusts engagement with literary or aesthetic criticism (precisely what Kappus has asked of him in relation to his own poems). Letter 3 argues such critical discussions are “received opinions, opinions grown petrified and meaningless, insensitive . . . clever word games”, hence far distant from life itself. The same Letter suggests the artist needs to retain an innocence, even a lack of awareness of his/her creative powers, lest self-consciousness diminish freedom and “purity”. Indeed language itself – the common method of exchange between people – is suspect in representing, in its unexamined use, conventional thought and feeling: “it is so often on the name of a transgression that a life is shipwrecked, and not on the individual, nameless act-in-itself”.

Even these letters, Rilke says in Letter 9, need to be treated with caution and patience: “receive them quietly and with not too many thanks, and let us, please, wait and see what may come of them”. This is a warning not enough heeded by subsequent generations of readers, but Rilke’s real humility is re-emphasised at the end of the preceding Letter. Perhaps feeling he has been delivering advice from ‘on high’, Rilke warns Kappus, “do not believe that he who seeks to console you dwells effortlessly among the quiet and simple words which sometimes content you. His own life holds much trouble and sorrow, and it falls far short of them”. Surely Rilke is not merely alluding here to the life of the creative artist. Prompted, as I have said, by Kappus’ own openness about what we might call ‘romantic’ aspects of his own life, Rilke devotes a lot of space to interpersonal relationships in these letters. His point in Letter 7 is that this area of human life too is poisoned (“well-furnished” – this topic brings out Rilke’s satirical side) with conventional thinking and language: “here are life belts of the most varied invention, boats and buoyancy packs . . . safety aids of all conceivable kinds”. Such ‘safety’ features are more fictions designed to forestall a true encounter with the kinds of questions that human relationships inevitably throw up. Letter 3 particularly criticises male sexual attitudes (lustful, drunken, restless, arrogant, prejudiced) and Letter 7 anticipates a “new and individual flowering” of female sexuality which will lead to relationships not defined as male/female but as “one person and another person”.

Some of Rodin’s sketches

Such a renovation of individuals, from the inside out, is the urgent call of this series of letters. As to advice to Kappus the wannabe writer, Rilke offers very little, but what he does suggest is wholly in keeping with his other ideas. Letter 1 urges close observation as the only viable method. As I have made clear, this is especially close observation of our inner lives. But one’s whole life needs to be built around this principle, so “you must approach the world of Nature… try to tell of what you see and experience”. Rilke says don’t try to write love poems or on other common subjects of poetry. This is because they will be infected with those conventions of thought and expression I have discussed above. Rather, “favour the subjects which your own day-to-day experience can offer you”. The poet’s approach to such everyday subjects needs to be “quiet, humble, [with] passionate sincerity” to avoid clichés of thought and feeling, hand-me-down solutions or worn out, petrified language. These are the methods Rilke learned from watching Rodin sketching in Paris. Pre-empting likely objections that such an approach would produce work of little importance, Rilke goes on: “If your daily life seems mean to you – do not find fault with it; rather chide yourself that you are not poet enough to evoke its riches” (Letter 1).

The everyday is rich and complex enough for Rilke without any irritable searching after more conventionally dramatic, sensational, controversial subjects to address. The images that Letter 3 associates with this humble creative process is of gestation (“to carry, come to term, give birth”) and the slow growth of trees (“letting the sap flow at its own pace”). In Letter 6 he compares it to bees gathering honey (“drawing what is sweetest from all that there is”). Whether focusing within or without, the artist must begin from what is “unremarkable” and we become better acquainted “with things” and if this is too frightening a prospect – with no off-the-shelf solutions to human fears and insecurities, no God above all – Rilke has few comforts to offer the young poet. As regards God (or, as letter 6 refers to him, the “one who never was”), Rilke allows the idea of God only as the ideal or terminus towards which we travel, a state of full comprehension – through knowing humble things: “Does he not have to be the last, if everything is to be comprehended in him? And what meaning would there be in us, if the one we crave had already been there?”. God, for Rilke, does not pre-date us as an origin. He is the goal towards which we travel, aspire, build, create – ‘he’ is no more nor less than our fullest comprehension of life and death, hence our fullest sense of being in the world.

Paula Modersohn-Becker

That the young Franz Kappus, after all this, decided to pursue a military career rather than a creative one is perhaps hardly surprising. It may be that the former presented the least frightening option! Rilke asks such a lot. His poem Requiem to a Friend of 1909 (the year after his correspondence with Kappus came to an end), dwells on the “old enmity / between life lived and great work to be done” (tr. Crucefix). The tragic lament of that particular poem arises from his conviction that the subject of its in memoriam, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, had proved herself strong enough to carry forward the huge burden of being an artist and that, therefore, her untimely death (just after the birth of her first child) was an irreparable loss to a world that needs all the true artists it can nurture.

Review of ‘The Pity’ – Part 2: new war poems commissioned by the Poetry Society

On National Poetry Day (October 2014) four contemporary poets (chosen to represent “different poetics and perspectives”) performed new work about the legacy of the First World War. Two months later the Poetry Society published The Pity as a limited edition anthology. Given free to Society members (in the last couple of weeks it has come through my letterbox with the new issue of Poetry Review), it is also available to purchase online.

In my previous blog, I discussed the contributions of Steve Ely and John Glenday (click here to read this). Here I complete the collection with comments on the work of Denise Riley, Zaffar Kunial and Warsan Shire. Overall, I think The Pity is remarkable – a gathering of voices, each wrestling with a nigh impossible commission. The four “sustained” responses to the topic (John Glenday’s was a separate, shorter brief) all splintered into fragments under the pressure of it. Ely and Shire are the boldest in widening the orbit of the commission and interestingly are also (for me) the most successful, largely by co-opting the resultant technical schisms into what they wanted to say, both of them drawing on more contemporary material, closer to their own concerns and backgrounds.

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Denise Riley’s ‘A gramophone on the subject’ recalls Sassoon’s balancing act of anger and compassion. The two elements are held in tension partly because of Riley’s contrasting dual focus: the bodies of the dead and the possible consolations of spiritualism. More firmly focused on the 1914-18 conflict than the other sequences in The Pity and written in what Riley calls “a kind of ‘music-hall’ jingle or doggerel”, sections like ‘The postwar exhumation squad’s verse’ have a Brechtian feel. The soldiers detailed to pursue this ghastly task (often long after fighting was over) unearth bodies, “bits that [get] dropped in cloth bags”. Even the grisly bits are so devastated and decomposed as to be “almost unknowable”. The voice is one of the squad (or a compilation of their voices) and compassion is evoked through a father who pursues them, convinced that “a charred scrap of shirt” is his son’s body, only to be told (hear the stabbing effect of the harsh rhyme) “the thing was just dirt”.

Riley’s notes are as long as the poem sequence and it is the loss of the bodies – disfigurement past recognition or simply untraceably taken to pieces – that pre-occupies her. There is a sardonic, black humour in the verses. Dog-tags feature several times as (being made of “vulcanized fibre”) they are often the only remaining evidence of a life; a name without a body. The more precise the chosen voice in each of Riley’s 9 sections, the more successful the poem.

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One records the voice of an ironic “heavenly choir” of the dead, bitterly objecting to Edwin Lutyens’ observation that the dead in their mass cemeteries had been ‘Tucked in where they fell’. Anger is conveyed (in what is really a found poem) by adopting the voice of a Vogue fashion correspondent in 1916: “To find a dinner gown which will be becoming, correct, and yet not depressing to its beholders is always a problem for the woman in mourning”. The lack of understanding of what the men on the Front were enduring is one of the commonest elements of literature in the period.

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Later, Riley drops the jaunty, sardonic versifying to record (again from contemporary sources) the common resort to spiritualism in the spirit voice of a Private Dowding: “enrolled among those who are attempting to pierce the curtain that separates your world from where we live”. More touching is the spirit’s reported loneliness which is echoed in the best poem, the last, which takes on the voice of a bereaved wife. Here the satirical form is also dropped as she speaks in unrhymed, hesitant couplets, switching from first to second person in the concluding lines as she resolves to carry on, her final monosyllables eloquently conveying both the difficulty and her determination:

I look doggedly after a missing figure.

What to do now is clear and wordless.

You will bear what can not be born.

‘The Shape Remembrance Takes’, Zaffar Kunial’s 5 poem contribution to The Pity, is the least coherent. Judith Palmer’s introduction to the book quotes Kunial on what must be a common problem with such commissions: months of scribbling gave rise to “lots of ideas but no poems”. Something of this is reflected in the liturgical refrain of ‘Poppy’ which frustratedly cries repeatedly, “No, this is not enough”. The ostensible point is the difficulty of finding what Seamus Heaney calls “images and symbols adequate to” the horrors of the situation. Kunial’s voice here is deliberately prose-y, across several lines, each a longish breath-ful, spinning different ways to allude to the familiar image of the poppy:

Remember? Who’s there in the first script, on a Mesopotamian

tablet: Hul and Gil – ‘joy flower’ – a cuneiform

cocktail, our earliest remedy . . .

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In this way we visit natural history, China, Persephone, Lethe, Coleridge, Shakespeare and (most effectively for me) more personal associations with morphine being administered “through my mother’s veins, while she could still hear me”. But it’s hard to lose the sense of the miscellaneous/googly quality of some of these verses, reflected in the shifting (I’d say, uncertain) tone: “The deaths we live with. Enough said. Remember? / This is you. Wake up. You’re summoned. // No, this is not enough.

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Lists can be the resort of the uninspired (readers of poetry will work pretty hard to do the linking for themselves) and, despite the epigraph of Archimedes’ declaration about moving the world, the historically various battles listed in ‘The Night of the World Cup Final in ‘14’ failed to achieve much leverage for this reader. A walk around Grasmere (where Kunial has been Writer in Residence) is vivid and pleasant enough; the shapes of the fells, puddles, a wishing well all suggests “it’s all about holding, around here”. But the bar room vagueness of what follows (“So here’s to those souls / who went the other way” – what? Unheld? Dropped? Dropped?) also fails to be enough.

There is some interesting (and from what I know of his work, more characteristic) play in ‘Just the Ticket’ with ideas of home, identity and language but it was apparently standing before the cenotaph in Whitehall that sparked Kunial’s sequence off and this is reflected fairly literally in ‘Letter for the Unknown Soldiers’. The blockish 50-line single stanza, perhaps an emblem of the Cenotaph itself, takes a rather slow and discursive line (“I see . . . So here I am . . . I’d guess . . .). Perhaps this is a reflection of remembrance parades, here composed of the multitudinous dead, stretching from Durham to London, “from Lahore to Delhi”. Eventually, the stone memorial comes to be seen as an “I” or a “1”, linked with the “two quick minutes” of the 11/11 day of remembrance. While this is promising (and again draws vigour from Kunial’s concerns with identity) it’s a bit inappropriately fanciful as it stands and, in various ways, it seems right the sequence ends with the narrator stranded by passing cars on a traffic island in Whitehall:

I want to cross [. . .]

[. . . ] but I’m stuck at the minute,

stranded beside this thing that stands for you –

this I – that I’ve been stood here speaking to.

Warsan Shire’s baldly titled ‘War Poem’ appears in 17 parts and has almost no direct link to the First World War. For Shire ‘war’ is less a historically delineated event, more a state of mind, more still, a condition of certain societies (including our own). Parts 1 and 9 express this through borrowing a technique from the American poet A. Van Jordan. In his book M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A (Norton, 2004) he explores individual words, including prepositions, to develop his account of the life of MacNolia Cox, the first black finalist in the National Spelling Bee Competition in 1936. (See him read about the word ‘from’: here). Shire defines the preposition ‘in’ in two ways: war is something in which we live, being “enclosed or surrounded” by it and that it is also a span of time in which events occur. The former, less conventional interpretation is the root from which her poems in The Pity proliferate. Though born in the UK, her parents are from Somalia, so for them war is an on-going state, the hope of its cessation a reason to keep “a suitcase packed just in case”. But a sense of being exiled from our own ‘country’ is a common feeling in the continuing ‘war against terror’ so that “one war [gives] birth to another . . . a snake swallowing its own head”. Rather than the explicit warfare of trenches and barbed wire, this kind of war “sleeps between me and my partner in bed”, it haunts, it stinks, its “under my nails”. Horrific headlines wake us at night, the lover’s body offering some hope of “another version of the world”. Shockingly, ten year old sisters know this sort of war.

Warsan Shire

Some of the 17 segments of the poem lack development perhaps, but parts 7 and 8 are stunning. The first of these records a Quinceanara (a fifteenth birthday celebration), initially in what seems realistic detail as “prepubescent girls” gather in “princess dresses”, a TV babbling in the corner. But through cinematic style jump cuts in the narrative, violence surreally invades the party, “men with gas masks / walk in”, leaving the surviving teenage girls “to pick up their teeth from the sticky dance floor”. Section 8, is a more comic variation on the theme with a girl singer, an “immigrant girl Icarus”, stunning the UK with her performance on The X-Factor, though even the glitz and glamour (even Simon Cowell) cannot disguise the “faint smoke of war” billowing about the girl’s watching family.

Shire’s sequence widens its focus after a reprise of the prepositional definitions. War now (“What is the name of this war?”) is manifest in police brutality in the USA, in returning universal “ghosts / of the / dead boys” who have been killed. She even manages to write of the beheading of James Foley in August 2014 in a rightly plain account of the video released by ISIS, but strips it of any media glibness, any risk of YouTube numbness, by the decision to repeat and accumulate lines agonizingly (a far more effective use of repetition than Alice Oswald’s in Memorial (Faber, 2011)). It’s Lucille Clifton’s work that Shire uses to model her conclusion, asking you/us to join her in celebration of “a kind of life”. As non-white women, both writers have been compelled to “make it up right / here in this immigration line”. This is a Pyrrhic victory perhaps, but no less one for all that, since “every day someone or something has tried to kill me and has failed”.

Review of ‘The Pity’: new war poems commissioned by the Poetry Society

On National Poetry Day (October 2014) four contemporary poets performed new work about the legacy of the First World War. Two months later the Poetry Society published The Pity as a limited edition anthology. Given free to Society members (it has just now come through my letterbox with the new issue of Poetry Review) it is also available to purchase online.

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So The Pity contains substantial poems commissioned by the Poetry Society, in which Steve Ely, Zaffar Kunial, Denise Riley and Warsan Shire (chosen to represent “different poetics and perspectives”) respond to the centenary and legacy of the First World War. The Pity was published in collaboration with Cockayne – Grants for the Arts and The London Community Foundation to mark the centenary of the First World War. John Glenday’s poem, ‘The Big Push’ is also included, providing a short coda to the volume. His poem takes inspiration from Sir Herbert James Gunn’s 1916 painting, ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’, held in The Fleming Collection of Scottish Art.

In this blog, I will discuss only the contributions of Ely and Glenday; on another occasion, those of Kunial, Riley and Shire.

Steve Ely’s ‘How dear is life’ is a sequence in 7 parts mixing literary, historical and personal materials to very powerful effect. He presents nothing less than a vision of war and its causes, the careful placing of the comma in the title of the first section – ‘Business, as usual’ – indicating where he wants to lay the blame:

This time it’s oil, not markets.

This time it’s oil, not borders.

This time it’s oil, not ideas.

This time it’s money and power –

like last time and every time before.

Ely has said the whole sequence is much influenced by Henry Williamson’s fictionalized autobiography, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight, which presents the First World War as a sacrifice of the innocents on the altar of capital. The sequence is intended to portray a liberation from a “world-destroying growth-and-profit system”, not merely a release from the horrors of war. Though writing with commitment (see Morning Star: http://www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-1063-Steve-Ely-commissioned-by-the-Poetry-Society-for-centenary-of-World-War-I#.VL0uW0esWss) there are two aspects of the sequence that prevent it ossifying into predictable attitudes: one a matter of materials, the other of technique.

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Ely draws on material linked with his maternal great-grand-father, Thomas Sellars, killed on the Somme in February 1917, contrasting the glorious send-off by friends and family with his eventual fate (and the shifting attitudes of those left at home):

They stuffed his lungs with poppies and crushed him

under a cenotaph. Where they weep.

Likewise, he uses material from a more extensive time period, linked with his own background in the mining communities of Yorkshire. The pressures of economic activity which determine that (on one occasion) it will take too long to recover the body of a killed miner mean that the bereaved family is fobbed off with a “screwed down coffin            packed with the stone that / killed him” (one of 262 deaths in the pits in the twentieth century). Ely deploys this alongside the 216 deaths of Frickley and Kirkby, “ragged up through two world wars”. There are moments reminiscent of Wilfred Owen’s poems here. Owen’s ‘Disabled’ is inevitably evoked when Ely treats the plight of individuals injured in wars, sickeningly evoked in ‘The Story of my Heart’:

on spoon-fed rusk-mush

matted in my beard                 pus from a crusted wound

[. . . ]

I was more than a mouth        more than shit

once                 I was

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But it is the first, fifth and seventh parts of the sequence where Ely’s technical choices are fully displayed. Under the creative pressure of his unifying political vision, he draws together fragments (often separated by blank spaces on the same line) into new relations with each other, melding biblical, historical, mythical and more contemporary elements together to make his point:

and what did they see

river running red         with Empire

river running green      with Deutschmarks

sterling                        Frenchfrancs        roubles        dollars

the promissory land                 of bilk and money

Using the same techniques, ‘The Vision of the White Crow’ springs from information that Hitler (while recovering from a gas attack at Pasewalk Military Hospital in 1918) experienced episodes of ‘hysterical blindness’ in which he claimed to have seen his eventual rise to power. Ely voices Hitler’s convictions that the “Reichsblood” was being drained by “socialists democrats profiteers bankers” but then propels his vision forward into the later twentieth century, “unwritten pages of world book turning”. We are whirled through Washington, Moscow, Sarajavo, Maastricht, past John Lennon, and (maybe?) Andy Warhol, towards the X-Factor and twerking with Angela Merkel. This is heady poetry of conviction and the persuasiveness of phrase-making (phrase-making that leaves syntax and causality behind) is intoxicating but perhaps is the intoxication that Auden warned himself against in the late 1930s. But Ely is clearly on the side of Shelley, echoing ‘The Masque of Anarchy’ in the final section, urging the disenfranchised – who, the poem has made it clear are always the victims of the powerful and wealthy in both war and peace – urging them to “Rise . . .Rise  . .  Rise”.

John Glenday’s single poem is as different as could be. It is an ekphrastic piece, the pictorial inspiration being Herbert James Gunn’s 1916 painting, ‘The Eve of the Battle of the Somme’.

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Much of the poem’s impact is already evident in the image: the naked, vulnerable, beautiful figures of pale youth, relaxed, hedonistic, while across the swirl of the River Somme itself, the ominous daubs and pointed shapes of the army camp are almost – but not quite – out of sight. ‘The Big Push’, in its 7 regularly lined quatrains, rhyming ABAB, is calculated to be a more conventional poem than any part of Ely’s. It’s a dramatic monologue, perhaps spoken by one of Gunn’s swimmers and it tries on many familiar tropes we might now associate with WWI and its poetry: the singing in the face of imminent extinction, the waggish black humour of the Tommies, the football playing, the stoical resilience of the trench soldier. We even have a reference to Shelley’s ‘To a Skylark’, “like an unbodied joy”.

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It’s this image, drawn from the narrator’s past, that opens the way to the final two stanzas which are a sequence of associations after taking over German-dug trenches from occupying French troops, the “tiny, brilliant flowers” blooming in that place, the speculation that, if the dead might someday return, “they’ll come back green”. The poignancy of these images returns us to the Gunn painting. The young men are at one with Nature, having passed through the horrors of the Somme are gifted a return to that pastoral scene where:

. . . all the things they suffered will mean no more to them

than the setting in of the ordinary dark, or a change of weather.

I take the irony here to be at the expense of the narrative voice, whose steady, rather plangent tone and period-shaped imagination is not yet able to encompass the horrors that a modern reader all too readily associates with the battle to commence the very next day. I’m reminded of Owen again. In ‘A Terre’ (completed July 1918), his wounded officer blackly recalls Shelley (again!): “I shall be one with nature, herb, and stone”. But Owen’s narrator re-shapes the Romantic idea of the one life by envying the lives of rats, cheese mites and microbes: he already understands the horrors that Glenday’s naïve narrator has yet to learn.