The worst war poem

18 Apr

I wish to say at the very start that I have nothing against Sir William Watson (1858-1935).  He was a popular and oft-anthologized poet in his time, and on two occasions was seriously considered for the post of Poet Laureate.  He had personal demons, and he fought them; he had hard politics, and he expressed them; he had a love for an older style, and wrung out every last drop of it that he could in producing his own works.

Watson was knighted in 1917 — possibly at the urging of David Lloyd George, about whom Watson had written a number of stirringly laudatory poems.  One such poem appeared as the title piece in Watson’s The Man Who Saw: and Other Poems Arising Out of the War, which had come out earlier the same year.  It’s an astounding piece; a short selection follows to give you a taste of the thing:

…then indeed shall Time
Add yet another name to to those the world
Salutes with an obeisance of the soul:
The name of him, the man of Celtic blood,
Whom Powers Unknown, in a divine caprice,
Chose and did make their instrument, wherewith
To save the Saxon; the man all eye and hand,
The man who saw, and grasped, and gripped, and held.

It’s sensational.  John Collings Squire, in a short essay on the collection, drily notes that “this must certainly be the most eulogistic poem ever written about a British politician.”

But it isn’t.

Later in the same volume, Watson offers up a sonnet called “The Three Alfreds.”  A footnote somewhat surprisingly declares that “Friends have urged the author not to republish this sonnet.  He does so because he believes it to be the truth.”

And so:

Three Alfreds let us honour. Him who drove
His foes before the tempest of his blade
At Ethandune — him first, the all-glorious Shade,
The care-crowned King whose host with Guthrum strove.
Next — though a thousand years asunder clove
These twain — a lord of realms serenely swayed;
Victoria’s golden warbler, him who made
Verse such as Virgil for Augustus wove.
Last — neither king nor bard, but just a man
Who, in the very whirlwind of our woe,
From midnight till the laggard dawn began,
Cried ceaseless, “Give us shells — more shells,” and so
Saved England; saved her not less truly than
Her hero of heroes saved her long ago.

The “Three Alfreds” are King Alfred the Great, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Alfred Harmsworth — that is, Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper baron and propagandist.  I have a small portrait of Northcliffe on my desk even as I write this, but it is possible to go too far.


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