Historically considered, there are three categories of writing, corresponding to three cultural epochs or phases of civilization—the bardic, the conventional and the truly creative.
The bard is the earliest articulate man, differentiated from his fellows by nothing but that articulateness. When terror or triumph shakes the tribe, that terror or triumph finds in him an immediate voice. He is an improviser inspired by what he believes to be the god or what is in reality a surge of group emotion. “Tragedy as well as comedy,” Aristotle tells us, “derives from improvisation, the former going back to the precentors of the dithyramb, the latter to the precentors of the phallic songs as both are still practised in many cities.”
The guess may be hazarded that the bard tended to become the artificer in periods of peace and stability. The gods demanded praise and the chiefs flattery and entertainment. The bard in such periods, uninspired by an immediate tribal passion, began to look for subjects from without, to select his matter and to present and adorn it in a fashion to please his hearers. In societies still more complicated, the artificer assumes the character of a didactic writer.
The artificer, however refined and sophisticated when compared to his medieval prototype, is always with us.
It is he who wrote the didactic poetry of the 18th Century; and it is he who, in a thousand guises, chiefly as a novelist, clutters the literature of the 19th Century. His constant mark is that expression with him has little to do with actual experience. He accepts current values in politics, thought and morals. The bard uses a common spontaneous form, the artificer a common traditional form.
Of the creative writer, isolated examples have arisen, whenever, in any age or land, authority was broken or transcended, personality emerged and first-hand experience could project a vision which was to remould and save the world. Creative literature, on the lowest level, is the expression of an experience that is differentiated from that of the social group.
Modern poets can lapse back into the tribal bard—indeed, war tends to achieve this. It would be a mistake to regard this as in all or even most instances, a reduction in cultural status. It may not necessarily be that even for the creative writer; while to most poets war may well come as a great inspiration.
This influence of war on poets can be studied in such modern war poetry as the Serment of Henri de Regnier and the Hassgerang of Ernst Lissauer. Both of these extremely sophisticated modern poets momentarily lost their differentiated selves in a great uprush of group passion. They were no longer themselves; they became the voices of the panic of their tribes. The spirit of the tribe improvised through them. Their subject—a common and immediate passion—clutched them; experience and expression were one and simultaneous.
In English literature, the finest example of true bardic poetry is the Anglo-Saxon battle poem “Brunanburgh.” This is the utterance of the tribe rather than of the “nation.” By Shakespeare’s day the nation had arisen; but although Shakespeare’s historical plays afford us many passages in which the national passion of England found an inspired expression, caught from the contemporary Battle for Britain, unhappily Shakespeare has left us no direct treatment of the crisis with Spain. It is hardly passible that he was unaware of it, but rather that the subject was hedged about by too many dangers for a man who depended upon aristocratic patronage and who had an eye to his coat of arms. As for the 18th Century, that was the age of aristocratic convention par excellence, the age of artificers. No writer of any note, except Blake, had any inclination to interpret so vague and disturbing a theme as the Passion of the common people. In any case, the nation was too hopelessly divided by class interests. The 19th Century was better off. Southey, Byron and Tennyson, to mention three, each to some degree, were caught up by the national emotions of their day—though the aristocratic tradition of writing was still strong in them.
With the 20th Century have come two World Wars, in which the safety of England has been directly threatened and during which class divisions have been temporarily lowered. The resulting national unity should have been sufficient to give rise to a group emotion powerful enough to invade the personality of England’s poets. So far, however, the speeches of Winston Churchill appear as the outstanding utterances of the bardic voice in the England of this war. Most of the soldier-poets are individual voices; their own experiences are too devastating and their field of vision too restricted for them to be conscious of national emotion. We may, it is true, remind ourselves of Masefield’s alleged assignment to write on Dunkirk, and ask what happened to it, particularly when we recall the same author’s Gallipoli of the last war. But that is by the way.
The question of the distinction between “poetry written in war time” and “war poetry” is germane to this discussion. Thomas Moult is quoted as writing, “The work of poets likely to survive is to be described as poetry written in wartime, not war poetry; that was long since outmoded.”
Such a conclusion is ill educated. It is true that most of the poetry written during World War I. comes in the category of poetry written in war-time. However, “war poetry” is not outmoded, it is merely difficult. It is the opinion of the present writer that war poetry can only be written under the stress of national feeling, when the poet is rapt away from his differentiated self. The much used word “morale” is only another and less accurate, although more euphonious, name for group emotion. Hence the problem of war poetry is inextricably involved in the question of national morale, which it does not, perhaps, become a soldier to discuss.
The army has its official war artists, its photographers, its accredited correspondents; but so far no one has regarded the poet as worthy of official status. As a result, the poet, wishing to write of a campaign, can hope for no help as regards official information, or even the facilities to observe. Thus, so far as any major work is concerned, the poet’s best efforts can hardly be more than Notes on Work in Progress.
It is true, of course, that genius will defeat the ill-fitting opportunities afforded the soldier-poet. It may be true, also that any poet worth his salt should be able to produce a simple twenty-line poem on, say, Darwin, Milne Bay, or the Kokoda Trail, there on the spot, without leisure or much thought.
Such poems could and should speak for the Army. Several such poems already exist—many more probably than ever see print. But the fact that the journalism of poetry achieves itself already, is no reason to withhold an official status from the poet. We do not argue that the photographer needs no official assistance to take his battle pictures because they must be taken on the spot. Indeed we base the assistance given him on that very characteristic of his work. And there can be no denial that the poet would produce his poems more readily if given official assistance. Nor is it any argument against the appointment of war poets to criticize the selection of war artists and to argue that only stodgy writers of doggerel could hope for appointment.
To admit the impossibility of convincing a military board of the function of a war poet may be the part of wisdom, though the American poet. Conrad Aiken, is reported to have succeeded in just that during World War I.
Late last year Mr. Christesen reminded us of C. Day Lewis’ answer when asked for a “war” poem:
They who in panic or mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now and bid
Us to speak up in freedom’s cause . . .
True. But that was in 1939, and since then a diplomatic revolution has taken place.
The conclusion is obvious. The nation requires poets, the poets require the facilities to write. Let Meanjin launch a campaign for the appointment of official war poets. We need trumpets calling to the battle.