Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew
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Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew

by Max Egremont

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The story of World War I, through the lives and words of its poets

The hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of what many believed would be the war to end all wars is in 2014. And while World War I devastated Europe, it inspired profound poetry—words in which the atmosphere and landscape of battle are evoked perhaps more vividly than anywhere else.


The story of World War I, through the lives and words of its poets

The hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of what many believed would be the war to end all wars is in 2014. And while World War I devastated Europe, it inspired profound poetry—words in which the atmosphere and landscape of battle are evoked perhaps more vividly than anywhere else.
The poets—many of whom were killed—show not only the war's tragedy but also the hopes and disappointments of a generation of men. In Some Desperate Glory, the historian and biographer Max Egremont gives us a transfiguring look at the life and work of this assemblage of poets. Wilfred Owen with his flaring genius; the intense, compassionate Siegfried Sassoon; the composer Ivor Gurney; Robert Graves, who would later spurn his war poems; the nature-loving Edward Thomas; the glamorous Fabian Socialist Rupert Brooke; and the shell-shocked Robert Nichols—all fought in the war, and their poetry is a bold act of creativity in the face of unprecedented destruction.
Some Desperate Glory includes a chronological anthology of the poets' works, telling the story of the war not only through the lives of these writers but also through their art. This unique volume unites the poetry and the history of the war—so often treated separately—granting readers the pride, strife, and sorrow of the individual soldier's experience coupled with a panoramic view of the war's toll on an entire nation.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Novelist and biographer Egremont (Forgotten Land) offers an unsentimental retrospective of WWI through searing reports of “eleven fragile young men who were unlikely warriors.” Mapping their experiences and poems year by year, he traces how the “patriotic emotion” of Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” disintegrates into the bitter stoicism of Siegfried Sassoon’s satires, or the grim compassion of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” The poets’s war, Egremont argues, “was seen as the truth,” a vision of “incessant mechanical slaughter” that imbued British policy, memory, and literary tradition with a sense of “victimhood” and “pessimism.” In focusing on biography, poetic composition and reception, and what the poets thought of each other, Egremont doesn’t offer much detail about the war itself. His literary analysis tends to be broad—Isaac Rosenberg’s “Dead Men’s Dump” depicts “nature’s obliviousness to human destruction”—and he defines the aesthetic of war poetry mainly by how it differs from modernism. However, his tale cannot fail to be touching; six of the poets die in the war, including Owen, a week before armistice. The book serves as a preface to the soaring poems themselves, as the doomed writers chronicle “the sacrifice of innocents against a relentless enemy.” Agent: Gill Coleridge, Rogers, Coleridge & White. (June)
Kirkus Reviews
Poetry reveals the devastating trajectory of war.On the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I, historian Egremont (Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, 2011, etc.) considers the intersecting lives and work of 11 British poets who were soldiers and esteemed contributors to the burgeoning genre of war poetry. Many of the author's subjects are likely to be familiar to readers, including Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves; others, such as Edmund Blunden and Julian Grenfell, are lesser known today. During the war, Egremont writes, "the poets began to be lionized," invited to give readings in elite salons and sought by publishers. Six chapters focus on each year of war and its aftermath, offering an adroit biographical and historical overview, followed by a selection of poems that chronicle the writers' spirits, as they changed "from enthusiasm to pitiful weariness," from hope to disillusion. "Cast away regret and rue," Charles Sorley wrote in 1914. "Think what you are marching to." By January 1915, his letter to a friend revealed a deepening sense of dismay: "We don't seem to be winning, do we? It looks like an affair of years." A few months later, he began a poem with lines that could have served as his epitaph: "Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat: / Only an empty pail…." In October, aged 20, he was killed by a sniper. Owen, held in high regard by Sassoon, was killed, age 25, in 1918; Brooke, Thomas and Grenfell were already dead. Those who survived—e.g., Sassoon and Graves—"couldn't leave the war, even if…they wanted to move on.""What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?" Owen asked in his "Anthem for Doomed Youth." For Egremont, the poems serve as "holy glimmers" of lives lost and as powerful protests against the hell of war.
From the Publisher

“Haunting and beautiful, the work of poets such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen continues to fascinate almost 100 years after the war began. . . In his new book, Some Desperate Glory, historian Max Egremont tells the stories of these half-forgotten poets.” —Ruth Styles, The Daily Mail (UK)

“Elegant and convincing . . . Egremont's [Some Desperate Glory] is an exceptionally thoughtful treatment of 11 complicated men. He lets poignant vignettes take the place of familiar descriptions of the trenches' horrors--from Thomas, on his last night of home leave before his death, tenderly carrying his wife upstairs to bed wrapped in his greatcoat and whispering to her 'all is well between us for ever and ever" to Owen's keen distress as the 'universal perversion of Ugliness' that somehow intensified the death he was surrounded by. Above all, Egremont reminds the reader that the poems record not one amorphous war but 11 individual conflicts.” —Michael Prodger, Evening Standard

“This is not simply another anthology of the ‘best' poetry of the Great War, though, but an attempt to tell the story of the war through its poets and explore their development through the impact of the conflict on their writing. . . Some Desperate Glory carries a punch . . . . both [Egremont's] choices and the strict chronology that he imposes on them make certain things strike home with a new freshness.” —David Crane, The Spectator (London)

“Egremont's . . . beautifully written volume makes an ideal guide to this shifting, shadowy realm . . . On visiting Kaliningrad in the 1960s, the poet Joseph Brodsky wrote that the trees ‘whisper in German.' They don't anymore. But Egremont heard their last words.” —Andrew Stuttaford, The Wall Street Journal on Forgotten Land

Product Details

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

1914 POEMS

‘All the Hills and Vales Along’ – Charles Sorley

‘On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town’ – Isaac Rosenberg

‘Peace’ – Rupert Brooke

‘The Dead’ – Rupert Brooke

‘To Germany’ – Charles Sorley

‘The Soldier’ – Rupert Brooke

‘The Combe’ – Edward Thomas

All the Hills and Vales Along

All the hills and vales along

Earth is bursting into song,

And the singers are the chaps

Who are going to die perhaps.

      O sing, marching men,

      Till the valleys ring again.

      Give your gladness to earth’s keeping,

      So be glad, when you are sleeping.

Cast away regret and rue,

Think what you are marching to.

Little live, great pass.

Jesus Christ and Barabbas

Were found the same day.

This died, that went his way.

      So sing with joyful breath,

      For why, you are going to death.

      Teeming earth will surely store

      All the gladness that you pour.

Earth that never doubts nor fears,

Earth that knows of death, not tears,

Earth that bore with joyful ease

Hemlock for Socrates,

Earth that blossomed and was glad

’Neath the cross that Christ had,

Shall rejoice and blossom too

When the bullet reaches you.

      Wherefore, men marching

      On the road to death, sing!

      Pour your gladness on earth’s head,

      So be merry, so be dead.

From the hills and valleys earth

Shouts back the sound of mirth,

Tramp of feet and lilt of song

Ringing all the road along.

All the music of their going,

Ringing swinging glad song-throwing,

Earth will echo still, when foot

Lies numb and voice mute.

      On, marching men, on

      To the gates of death with song.

      Sow your gladness for earth’s reaping,

      So you may be glad, though sleeping.

      Strew your gladness on earth’s bed,

      So be merry, so be dead.


On Receiving News of the War: Cape Town

Snow is a strange white word.

No ice or frost

Have asked of bud or bird

For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow

From earth to sky

This Summer land doth know,

No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.

Some spirit old

Hath turned with malign kiss

Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.

God’s blood is shed.

He mourns from His lone place

His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!

Corrode, consume.

Give back this universe

Its pristine bloom.



Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,

And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,

With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,

To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,

Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,

Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,

And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,

And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,

Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,

Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;

Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there

But only agony, and that has ending;

And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.


The Dead

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!

There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,

But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.

These laid the world away, poured out the red

Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be

Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,

That men call age; and those who would have been,

Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,

Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.

Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,

And paid his subjects with a royal wage;

And Nobleness walks in our ways again;

And we have come into our heritage.


To Germany

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,

And no man claimed the conquest of your land.

But gropers both through fields of thought confined

We stumble and we do not understand.

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again

With new-won eyes each other’s truer form

And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm

We’ll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,

When it is peace. But until peace, the storm

The darkness and the thunder and the rain.


The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is for ever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,

A pulse in the eternal mind, no less

Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;

And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,

In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.


The Combe

The Combe was ever dark, ancient and dark.

Its mouth is stopped with bramble, thorn, and briar;

And no one scrambles over the sliding chalk

By beech and yew and perishing juniper

Down the half precipices of its sides, with roots

And rabbit holes for steps. The sun of Winter,

The moon of Summer, and all the singing birds

Except the missel-thrush that loves juniper,

Are quite shut out. But far more ancient and dark

The Combe looks since they killed the badger there,

Dug him out and gave him to the hounds,

That most ancient Briton of English beasts.


Copyright © 2014 by Max Egremont

Meet the Author

Max Egremont was born in 1948 and studied modern history at Oxford University. He is the author of several novels and biographies, including Siegfried Sassoon: A Life (FSG, 2005) and Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia (FSG, 2011). Egremont is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He lives in England.

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