Saturday, November 1, 2014

“Some Corner of a Foreign Field” by James Bentley

I’ve been posting a number of articles over at Tweetspeak Poetry on World War I, and specifically on the poetry of World War I. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict, and poetry is associated with the war in a significant way.

Poetry wasn’t the only art associated with the war. Painting and illustration played major roles as well, including in propaganda efforts on both sides.

Last month, we were fortunate to see the World War I exhibit at the Imperial War Museum in London. The exhibition is extensive, and it took us longer that I expected (including the walk-through experience of trench warfare). So we missed the art exhibition on another floor.

I did find a book that combined both the poetry and the painting of World War I, Some Corner of a Foreign Field: Poetry and Art of the First World War, edited by James Bentley, the author of a number of travel, historical and biographical works. It’s a small and beautiful volume, alternating poems and paintings and often pairing them together. It was first published in 1992, but a new edition was published this year for the centenary of the war.

The poets represented include Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, William Butler Yeats, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, and G.K. Chesterton, among several others. The arts include brothers John and Paul Nash, Walter Bayes, William Orpen, Geoffrey Allfree, David Bomberg, Dora Carrington, Colin Gill, Eric Kennington and many others.

Together, the poems and paintings speak powerfully of the war, what happened, and how the war affected the soldiers on the fields, the sailors on the ships, and the pilots in the air (World War I was the first war involving aerial combat). And the book includes poems and art on war on the home front, including a painting by Bayes on Londoners taking shelter in a tube station during an air raid (yes, London experienced air raids in World War I, although not as serious as the blitz of World War II).

While the Second World War had more of an impact on the United States, the First World War changed everything for Europe and the Mideast. In additional to the deaths and physical destruction, it destroyed or transformed nations’ and individuals’ understandings of who they were. The old order toppled – revolutions destroyed the governments of Russia, Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire. Belgium caught the vicious brunt of a German army focused on attacking France, including the totally unnecessary burning of the famous library at Louvain and rape and pillage by soldiers of a country long associated with education and civilization. A multitude of new democracies were born. And the seeds were sown for the next war only two decades later.

In Britain, the class system, while surviving, was never again viewed the same way as it was before the war. The country was close to financial ruin. Almost 900,000 young men had died, creating a huge hole in a young generation.

Poetry and art told the story of what was happening during and after the conflict, and attempted to make sense of it afterward.  Some Corner of a Foreign Field helps tell that story.

Articles at Tweetspeak Poetry (so far; there are still two more to come):

Painting: Capture of Oppy Wood by Paul Nash. This was part of the Arras offensive in June 1917, where British and Canadian troops battled the Germans for control of a one-acre wood. The Allies were ultimately successful. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What an interesting idea for a blog series. So much interesting literature came out of this war, perhaps because it was such a shattering experience. Great post!