A Man Of Dust: The Battles Of Keith Douglas

The Second World War is seldom feted for its poetry, despite producing poets whose talents rivalled those of the 1914-1918 conflict. Though he remained relatively unknown until the reissue of his work in 1964, of all the later conflict’s poets, the most striking was Captain Keith Douglas, with poems such as The Knife, and How to Kill hinting at the great promise that had barely begun to surface before his death on 9th June, 1944. In Desert Flowers, written in 1943, Douglas freely admits, ‘Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying’ and he made no secret of how he looked to the earlier soldier poets, such as Isaac Rosenberg for inspiration, claiming their poetry was enacted ‘everyday on the battlefields’ and admiring how they communicated their personal experiences of battle.

Born on 24th January 1920 in Tunbridge Wells, Douglas’s childhood was marred by the illnesses of both his parents, which led to financial hardship for the family and the breakdown of their marriage by 1929. Douglas’s father later remarried and subsequently distanced himself from his young son, who was sent to a boarding school near Guildford. Douglas later recalled how his father’s rejection led him to retreat into his own imaginary world, which was ‘so powerful as to persuade me that the things I imagined would come true.’ In 1931, with his mother no longer able to afford his school fees, Douglas was sent to Christ’s Hospital near Horsham, where assistance funds covered the costs of his education.

Douglas left Christ’s Hospital in 1938, to read History and English at Merton College, Oxford. At Oxford he encountered the war poet, Edmund Blunden, who was his tutor and a profound influence upon the young man.  It was at Oxford that Douglas’s love of poetry was fostered, he also met the only woman with whom he would fall deeply in love, a Chinese student named Yingcheng, who turned down his proposal of marriage, a rejection that, like that of his father, he would never quite get over. Though he would go on to have other lovers, he would tell Yingcheng, you, however cheaply you behave…will always be the only person I love completely – you’ll become almost a goddess or a mania if you go away… If you ever can decide that things could be all right… please have the courage and confidence in me to come back.’ Continue reading

Longing Under The Moon: The Pleasing Melancholy Of Attila József

On 11th April 1905, Attila József was born in Ferencváros, then a poor district of Budapest. His father, Áron József was a Romanian factory-worker and his mother, Borbála Pőcze, a Hungarian peasant girl; the couple already had two daughters, Etelka and Jolán. By the time Attila was three years old, his father had deserted the family, leaving Borbála struggling to support her children and eventually forced to place them in the care of the National Child Protection League before they were found foster parents in Öcsöd, a small village in the Northern Great Plain region of south-east Hungary.

The move to Öcsöd would have a profound and lasting effect upon the young Attila, his foster father was extremely strict, and cruelly insisted on telling the boy there was ‘no such name as Attila’ instead calling him Pista. József later remembered how this had made him doubt his ‘very existence.’ When he later discovered the tales of King Attila the Hun, József recalled how they ‘had a decisive effect on all my ambitions after that. In the last analysis perhaps it was this experience that led me to literature, that made me a thinking person, the kind of person who would listen to the opinions of others but would examine them carefully in his own mind.’ József finally escaped from Öcsöd to return to his mother in Budapest.

At the age of forty-three, Borbála died from cancer, leaving her fourteen year-old son under the guardianship of his eldest sister and her wealthy husband, Ödön Makai who ensured that he went to the best school possible. In 1922, at the age of seventeen and whilst he was still at school, József published his first collection of poetry, A szépség koldusa (Beggar of Beauty). Two years later, József’s work would cause controversy after his poem Lázadó Krisztus (Rebellious Christ) was featured in the October 1923 issue of the magazine Bluebird, consequently he faced charges of blasphemy was sentenced to eight months in prison sand a hefty fine, both of which were later overturned.

His ambition to become a teacher led József to apply to the University of Szeged to study Hungarian and French Literature, yet his defiant streak would ensure that his time there was cut short. One of the University’s lecturers, Professor Horger objected to the poem Tiszta szívvel (With a Pure Heart) which appeared in József’s second volume of poetry, Nem én kiáltok (That’s Not Me Shouting) in 1925 and began with lines, ‘I have no father, I have no mother, I have no God and no country.’ Continue reading

Dreaming On The Verge Of Strife: Julian Bell And Rupert Brooke

A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Frances Darwin Cornford

Written after her first meeting with the poet, Frances Cornford’s pithy verse, On Rupert Brooke, was to prove eerily prophetic. Within a decade, Brooke would be dead after contracting septicemia on his way to Gallipoli. Cornford’s words could just as easily have been written about Julian Bell, another young Cambridge poet, whose life would also be cut short as a consequence of war. Bell was fascinated by Brooke, whom he greatly admired, and believed that they both shared a similar outlook towards war and duty, one that his Bloomsbury elders could not understand.

From an early age Bell had heard tales of the fabled Brooke from members of his family who had known Brooke at Cambridge. Bell also went up to the same University’s King’s College, where Brooke’s presence haunted the aged stone walls, its corridors and staircases seemingly reverberating with anecdotes about his legendary charm and beauty. Although Brooke would eventually become a Fellow of King’s, this was a feat that eluded Bell despite two attempts. Similarly in his lifetime, Brooke was an acclaimed poet whose reputation was only enhanced by his death, Bell however never came close to achieving comparable fame, and today his work remains largely unknown.

Just as Brooke had spent the last few years of his life abroad, travelling to America, Canada and the South Seas, as described in his Letters from America, published posthumously in 1916, Bell left for China in 1935 after he was offered a Professorship at Wuhan University. Teaching English literature to his Chinese students, Bell held Brooke up as a perfect example of what he believed to be a quintessentially English poet.

Remarking in a letter to his former lover, Lettice Ramsey, he declared Brooke to be ‘the most remarkable human being I’ve ever heard of,’ but whilst he could not help but notice the obvious similarities between himself and the war poet, he acknowledged that he had not been blessed with ‘all his gifts’ nor had he enjoyed ‘that sort of brilliant career.’

Bell’s upbringing, coupled with the overwhelmingly pacifist nature of Bloomsbury, led him to adopt his family and Bloomsbury’s attitudes towards war until the early 1930s. By that time, the tumultuous political situation at home and abroad meant that he was starting to question Bloomsbury’s belief in the supremacy of discourse over direct action as the best means of providing a solution to the problems that besieged Britain and Europe. Brooke himself had been deeply dismayed by the pacifism of his former Bloomsbury friends after the outbreak of the First World War, and this sentiment pervaded much of his subsequent poetry. In contrast Brooke openly embraced the declaration of war, from the belief that it would usher in the excitement that he felt was essential to young men, something that had been absent from his life thus far. In an essay that appeared in The New Statesman and Nation entitled An Unusual Young Man, Brooke wrote with characteristic nonchalance, ‘Well, if Armageddon’s on, I suppose one should be there.’ Continue reading

On An Ancient Isle: Kathleen Raine, Gavin Maxwell And Mijbil

One of the most renowned British female poets of the twentieth-century, and an accomplished scholar of Blake, Yeats and Hopkins, Kathleen Raine’s contribution to British poetry is without question. But Raine’s personal life was complex and, at times difficult, blighted by her intense love for the Scottish naturalist and writer, Gavin Maxwell, who, because of his homosexuality, could never return her passion with the intensity she longed for.

Born in Ilford in 1908, to a Scottish mother and English father, Raine spent part of the First World War living with her Aunt Peggy in Northumberland. The experience of living in the Northumbrian countryside gave her a  strong and lifelong  appreciation for nature. Raine went on to read Natural Sciences at Girton College, Cambridge, where contributed to the student magazine, The Experiment; her involvement with the publication would lead not only to her friendship with Julian Bell, but her eventual marriage to its editor, the poet Hugh Sykes Davies, in 1930.

Several years later, Raine left Sykes Davies for another poet, Charles Madge (who later founded Mass-Observation) and Julian Bell attempted to find her a job with Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s publishing house, the Hogarth Press. Bell’s efforts were unsuccessful and Virginia Woolf  wrote to his brother Quentin,  ‘Julian came to tea, and made such a wonderful picture of a Miss Raine who was once the wife of Sykes Davies but is now penniless, living with a communist, and he said, six foot two, and noble as Boadicea, so that we must give her a job at the Press. And then she comes, and she’s the size of a robin and had the mind of a lovely snowball. How can she run the press?’

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