Today is the centenary of one of the worst battles–which is saying a lot–of WWI, the Battle of Passchendaele. In some quarters it is known as the Third Battle of Ypres, and you know it’s bad when a battle has multiple identities. According to Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory, the geniuses of the British High Command pulverized No-Man’s-Land with two solid weeks of day and night shelling, and then it bucketed rain for three days. When the British soldiers went over the top, men and horses drowned in the mud.
Among those who died on day one was the Anglo-Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who was then anticipating a second volume of poetry. He was on a road-building detail, actually on a tea break from work, when an enemy shell landed in the trench he and five others were sitting in, and all were instantly killed. Ledwidge has become a favorite touchstone for Irish poets attempting to work out a tricky relationship with English and Irish influences. In “In Memory of Francis Ledwidge,” Seamus Heaney quotes the earlier poet’s lines, “To be called a British soldier while my country / Has no place among nations,” noting that he was killed six weeks later. He had already been at the Battle of Gallipoli where he suffered from rheumatism, then injured his back during a hard march through Serbia, was busted down from Lance Corporal and restored to rank more than once. His military career proved that war is no picnic, a mix of horrors and absurdity. How else could it have ended other than being blown to bits while drinking tea?
Today is the birthday of two poets who can be a little opaque, contemporary John Ashberry and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the strangest Victorian. His poems would have been incomprehensible to his contemporaries, but when they were published in 1918, nearly three decades after his death, they were a clarion call for poets to modernize. He deeply affected writes from W. H. Auden to Seamus Heaney; indeed, many poets, these two included, have had to outgrow their Hopkins period. Don’t try to understand the attached poem; just let it roll over you. And for heaven’s sake, read it aloud. It’s a beaut.
Here’s an excellent piece on the radical change W. S. Merwin underwent in his 1967 book, The Lice. He became, nearly overnight, the poet we know, or think we know, today.
I’m skipping Hemingway, who doesn’t need my help, and John Gardner, less well known now but still remembered, to give some love to the third birthday boy, Hart Crane. He may be best remembered now for jumping off a steamer to drown in the Gulf of Mexico and/or for being the son of the man who invented Lifesavers candy (no, not making that up), but he is also the author of the wonderful, brilliant, occasionally odd, outrageously ambitious poem sequence, The Bridge. He wanted to write a modern epic like Eliot’s The Waste Land but minus its famous pessimism. It is an attempt to use the Brooklyn Bridge as a lens on the entire country, following bridges and rivers all over the place, just the sort of manic endeavor that fitted its creator. He was inspired to begin the poem when he took up residence at 110 Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights. It not only overlooked the bridge but had been the residence of the incapacitated Washington Roebling while he oversaw its construction. The Bridge came out in 1930, but two years later Crane had taken his own life, probably during one of his violent bi-polar swings. Here’s a link to the opening of the sequence, which he called “Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge”:
Whether you loved sonnets when you made their acquaintance in school or hated them, this is your day. Francesco Petrarca, the man we know as Petrarch, was born on July 20, 1304. That was a big century for literature: also Boccaccio, Dante, and Chaucer, among others. Petrarch set out to be a writer of epic poems, and he succeeded. Only after his death was the Canzoniere, his book of “little songs.” All his other poems were in Latin, but these were in Italian and everyone could read them. While other poets had already written sonnets, Dante and Cavalcanti among them, Petrarch’s were more popular and he became the name brand. Most scholars now think he never met “Laura,” the beauty who inspired the poems. Most of what we know about sonnets–fourteen lines, two movements of slightly uneven lengths, specific rhyme scheme–was there in 1374 when the book was published. Had he only known what he started!
I only just learned of the death in December of the wonderful Irish poet John Montague. He was born in Brooklyn but sent back during the Depression to live in Co. Tyrone in Northern Ireland. He seems to have known everyone (living a few doors down from Brendan Behan, drinking with Samuel Beckett, schoolmate of Thomas Kinsella, student or colleague or friend of Saul Bellow, Robert Penn Warren, W. K. Wimsatt, Rene Wellek). His early long poem, The Rough Field, went through many editions over the years, and his first book of stories, The Death of a Chieftain, gave a bunch of up-and-coming Trad musicians the name of their group, The Chieftains. And, as you can see, he looks exactly the way you would have an Irish poet look if you made him up.
Today is the anniversary of Iris Murdoch’s birth (1919). I have inflicted more than one of her novels on students down the years. For the second half of her career, one never had to wonder when her next book would come out; it would appear on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It is not true, as one of my waggish friends claims, that she succeeded with Under the Net and then wrote it twenty-five more times. It is true that she wanted certain effects from fiction and knew how to get them. To get a sense of her range, I recommend four books: The Unicorn (1964), The Black Prince (1973), The Sea, The Sea (1978), and The Green Knight (1993). In that last one, she has her protagonist reading A Glastonbury Romance more or less every time we see her. The novel takes place over several months. The John Cowper Powys book in question is in excess of 1,000 pages. I know the feeling. Sly, that Iris.