Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall

Review published on September 30, 2014.Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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Oxford World’s Classics’ beautifully produced Poetry of the First World War is one of the most important and far-reaching anthologies to have been published in this, World War One’s centenary year. In his introduction, Kendall, the book’s editor, writes: ‘this anthology represents the work of poets who lived through the First World War, from Thomas Hardy, 74 at war’s outbreak and the unrivalled elder statesman of English letters, to [John] Edgell Rickword, 58 years his junior, who left school to enlist in 1916’.

Kendall’s introduction works well, and his passion about First World War poetry comes across immediately. He states that he has tried to include poems which are as diverse as possible, making room for those written by the following throughout: ‘Men and women, soldiers and civilians, patriots and pacifists – the poets of the First World War came in all forms’. Kendall describes the way in which, ‘during the First World War, poetry became established as the barometer for the nation’s values: the greater the civilization, the greater its poetic heritage’. He then goes on to say that ‘pride in their nation’s literary achievements was a common ingredient in the patriotism of soldiers and civilians alike’.

Kendall has made well considered contributions to Poetry of the First World War, and successfully encompasses writers – all from Britain and Ireland, mind – from all walks of life. The poems which he has selected were penned between 1914 and 1966. He has also included something a little different; a selection of Music Hall and trench songs relating to, or prevalent at the time of, the conflict. The dates in which the poems were written – often very precise – have been included too; this is an important yet simple piece of information which is so often missing from poetry anthologies.

As with all Oxford World’s Classics editions, a wealth of important contributory information has been included, from an extensive selection of informative notes, to a large bibliography. Each poet’s introduction begins with a comprehensive biography, the majority of which relates heavily to their place within the First World War, and all of which have been carefully written. The chronology of war poets and the conflict which has been provided is a useful tool.

As with most collections of this nature, there is an imbalance between the showcased poets and the number of their poems included; here there are ten by Thomas Hardy and seventeen by Ivor Gurney, for example, but only one from the likes of established names such as A.E. Housman, Lawrence Binyon and David Jones. Poetry of the First World War is still, however, a very enjoyable, thought-provoking and well considered collection, which deserves a place on every bookshelf.

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