ENGLISH 685:002  /  SUSAN TICHY  /  FALL 2005



Despite its vast quantity and breadth, the poetry of World War II has never generated the kind of literary industry devoted to the poets of World War I. This may be because far fewer poets of this later generation died in battle, and thus no poet of canonical status can be described as exclusively or even primarily a "war poet." The war poems of most WWII combatants have been read primarily in the context of their other poems, rather than as part of a genre. (Some recent critical stirrings may eventually reverse that statement.)

The most significant British poetry of World War II came out of the North African campaigns, and it differs markedly from American poetry of that war. In the first week we'll discuss the Scottish poet Hamish Henderson and the "aggressively English" Englishman with a Scottish name, Keith Douglas (and perhaps a few other poems of your choosing). This same week we'll get started on the Americans, who are great in number. We'll continue the second week with discussions of several of the Americans, especially Jarrell, Dugan, & Simpson, including others as time permits.

I've put all the reading for both weeks on this page.



Featherstone: Part II: poems by Sorley MacLean, Alun Lewis, Hamish Henderson, Keith Douglas, & Herbert Read.

Featherstone: Part III: Graves: from 'The Poets of World War II',
Rickword from 'Notes on Culture and the War',
Keith Douglas: from 'A Letter to J.C. Hall',

Featherstone: Part I:
Chapter 6: Scottish Cultures and Poets in Exile
Second part of Chapter 7: Gender, starting page 104

Passed out in class: poems by Keith Douglas, R.N. Currey, Roy Fisher, Vernon Scannell, Henry Reed, & Hamish Henderson.

Hamish Henderson's introduction to Elegies for the Dead of Cyrenaica

Notes by Alec Finlay on Hamish Henderson


Bookstore photocopies: Jeffrey Walsh: "Second World War Poetry: the Machine and God," from American War Literature 1914 to Vietnam.

Shapiro: Introduction; poems by Eberhart, Kunitz, Kirstein, Oppen, Butler, Plutik, K.Shapiro, Jarrell, Ciardi, McGrath, Viereck, Bowman, Meredith, Darr, Nemerov, Bronk, Duncan, Carruth, Wilbur, Dickey, Dugan, Hecht, Hugo, Simpson, Field, H.Shapiro, Stryck, Koch, Snodgrass.

Passed out in class: additional poems by Jarrell, Simpson, Dugan, Snodgrass, Kirstein, & Nemerov.

Hamish Henderson: Foreword to Elegies for the Dead of Cyrenaica.
London: John Lehmann Ltd., 1948.

These elegies and the Heroic song in which they culminate were written between March 1943 and December 1947 in North Africa, in Italy and in Scotland. Four of them already existed in fragmentary form in the Autumn of 1942.

It was the remark of a captured German officer which first suggested to me the theme of these poems. He had said: 'Africa changes everything. In reality we are allies, and the desert is our common enemy'.

The troops confronting each other in Libya were relatively small in numbers. In the early stages of the desert war they were to a large extent forced to live off each, other. Motor transport, equipment of all kinds and even armoured fighting vehicles changed hands frequently. The result was a curious 'doppelgaenger' effect, and it is this, enhanced by the deceptive distances and uncertain directions of the North African wasteland, which I have tried to capture in some of the poems.

After the African campaign had ended, the memory of this odd effect of mirage and looking glass illusion persisted and gradually became for me a symbol of our, human civil war, in which the roles seem constantly to change and the objectives to shift and vary. It suggested, too, a complete reversal of the alignments and alliances which we had come to accept as inevitable. The conflict seemed rather to be between 'the dead, the innocent’ -- that eternally wronged proletariat of levelling death in which all the fallen are comrades,  and ourselves, the living, who cannot hope to expiate our survival but by ‘spanning history's apollyon chasm'.

Above all, perhaps, the doppelgaenger symbol allowed me to restate in dialectical terms the endless problem of how to safeguard our human house. It is not enough surely to repeat or to rephrase the words of the great makar --
No state in Erd here standis sicker,
As with the wynd wavis the wicker
So wannis this world's vanitie.
As the processes of history become clearer, one must, in spite of all disorientation and despair, have the courage to be consequent and to acclaim the 'runners' who have not flinched before their ineluctable exploit.

In the first part of the cycle, echoes of earlier warfare and half forgotten acts of injustice are heard, confusing and troubling the 'sleepers'. It is true that such moments are intended to convey a universal predicament; yet I was thinking especially of the Highland soldiers, conscripts of a fast vanishing race, on whom the dreadful memory of the clearances rests, and for whom there is little left to sustain them in the high places of the field but the heroic tradition of gaisge (valour). [pronounced Geshc' -u]

Before leaving Italy I discussed the ideas I have outlined above with one of my Roman friends, the Editor of a literary quarterly. His comment was: 'Surely, having been so much in the midst of things, you must find it very difficult to be impartial'.

He was, I suppose, quite right. It certainly is terribly difficult, if one has been (to use his phrase) in the midst of things. However, as I gradually get the hang of how people form their opinions, I begin to feel that it is next to impossible if one has not.

Alec Finlay, from "A River That Flows On: A critical overview of Hamish Henderson's life and work,"
an afterward to The Armstrong Nose: Selected Letters of Hamish Henderson, edited by Finlay. Edinburgh: Polygon, 1996. Notes on Elegies for the Dead of Cyrenaica. Page numbers follow.

What separates [the elegies] from most of the modern poetry of war is the attempt to write a philosophical poem, to discern a wider significance in the conflict: 'a symbol of our human civil war, in which the roles seem constantly to shift and vary'. (Foreword to the Elegies). 302

Henderson has recorded that the only books of poetry that he carried through the desert campaign were A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle [by the Scottish modernist Hugh MacDiarmid, much influenced by Eliot], and Sorley MacLean and Robert Garioch's 17 Poems for 6d....There are many levels of allusion in the elegies. There is the imaginative fusion of Cyrenaica and Scotland...suggested in landscapes which merge: 'the wilderness of your white corries, Kythairon...' (a similar parallel occurs between the native land and Sicily in his song 'The 51st Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily'). 302

On a personal level the Elegies represent a spiritual quest... The interior emotional struggle begins as a parallel to the exterior political drama, and then merges with it, and finally emerges as the dominant theme. 302-303

Henderson's search for a reconciliation between 'our own and the others' is realized in the fusion of the poetic influences of Cambridge [where he attended university and became familiar with modernist poetry] with the poetry of the enemy, bearing out his urge to redeem the 'oppressed oppressors,' consolidating the uneasy alliance forged between opposing armies confronting a common enemy in the desert.... It is of course typical of his internationalism, which was fostered by his study of Modern Languages at Cambridge, and his youthful translations of European poetry. 304

Choosing to echo the structure and epic scope of [Rainer Maria Rilke's] Duino Elegies, Henderson was also implicitly signalling his attempt to fashion a work with an equivalent reach to that of both of these masters. In his essay, 'The Elegies of Rilke and Henderson,” Richard E. Ziegfeld compares their works, noting the impact of immediate pressing historical and political concerns on Henderson's work: '[He] seeks to confront death and achieve Rilke's vaunted reconciliation, not in an invisible world within man's mind, but by means of his visible art, which is manifested "here", within history.' [Studies in Scottish Literature, vol XVI, ed. G. Ross Roy, University of South Carolina] Such demands are made of the war poet, on Elegies which stand testament to the fallen. Henderson's battlefield stands some distance from the lonely Castle of Rilke's solitary inspiration. A 'passionate concern for the individual's . . . consciousness ', the highest achievement of Rilke's art, is veiled in the Elegies by the task of documenting the very real drama of war.  305

One of the most perceptive reviews to appear at the time of their publication was by the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson – a friend of Henderson’s since they first met at Cambridge in 1946…
He desires to speak directly, out of his experiences, to his fellow men. But he is
all the time aware that the audience he is most likely to reach is circumscribed
by the coteries and sophisticated reviews. If he can only cast off this censor and
assert his confidence, not in an impersonal dialectic but in the people who make their own history, he will find in himself an unusual ability to speak their most mature thoughts and sing them on the way to victory.
There is much of Thompson's own political idealism in this. However, his criticisms go to the heart of the issue of voice. His remarks are prescient, because the resolution Henderson sought was achieved in song   in a fusion of personal and communal expression, bridging the rift between the intellectual forms of Modernism… 310-311

In his poetry Henderson made his own experiments with 'presentification'. He attempted to fuse the speech of the common people with the voice of the art poet; for example, in the speech of the swaddy in the Elegies. In his poem 'So Long: 22 May 1943' he bids a soldier's farewell to the desert:
Halfaya and Sollum: I think that at long last
    we can promise you a little quiet.
So long. I hope I won't be seeing you.
To the sodding desert   you know what you can do with yourself.

To the African deadland   god help you  --
                              and good night.
The different experiments with voice in the Elegies, where Henderson mixed this kind of informality with philosophical speculation, were only partially successful. They revealed a tension which Thompson felt was inevitable, given the gulf between the ordinary swaddy and the 'coteries' of literature. Thompson refers us to some of Henderson’s best known and most often quoted lines, from the conclusion to the Sixth Elegy ‘Acrona’:
So the words that I have looked for, and must go on looking for,
are words of whole love which can slowly gain the power
to reconcile and heal. Other words would be pointless.
This passage is the emotional high point of the whole work; but Thompson finds the abstract quality of its expression a weakness:
In these lines one of his finest Elegies is sabotaged. The impersonal I of the verses becomes self conscious; the focus of attention is shifted from the men and their actions to the poet and his words. Eliot pays an unwarranted visit into the rhythm. With 'whole love' (whatever was in Mr. Henderson's mind) all our paths of reference are blurred -- we are groping around among Auden's 'interest itself in thoughtless heaven' and 'changes of heart' accomplished in padded armchairs.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Elegies, one which originates in their long period of composition during and after the war, is the juxtaposition of the dramatic voices which speak to us from the battlefield, telling of 'the men and their actions’, and the retrospective act of remembrance with which the poet gives the work as a whole its shape and meaning. The personal resonance of ‘whole love’ is, in Thompson's terms, an afterthought projected onto the political struggle, yet for the poet it is essential to the cause he fought for. The effort required to harness his voice to the creation of an 'art poem', balancing emotion with intellectual argument acknowledged in the Prologue: '. . . a bit/That sets on song a discipline,/A sensuous austerity.’ It was this mask of austerity that the Folk Revival would free him from. In the Elegies, the poet tells us: 'synthesis is implicit', but in song, in the immediacy and empathy of performance, which has been so essential for Henderson, it becomes explicit, as he addresses his audience directly, face to face. 311-312