Some Desperate Glory
Paperback 335 pp £9.99
This book is trying to do too much at once. It’s a history of the Great War, a book of biographies, a poetry book and, cynically, a book to take advantage of the centenary.
As eagle-eyed readers will have deduced from the £1 sticker in the picture, booksellers obviously found it difficult to shift.
My first observation, before even opening it, is simply that I can’t think why any writer would re-use such a well known title. I know it’s a good quote, but when I hear it I always think of Edwin Campion Vaughan’s memoirs. It’s confusing, to say the least.
It was heavy going to start, though it did get easier towards the end, and proved to be worth the effort. Trying to fit history, biography and poetry into a flowing narrative is tough, and it isn’t helped when you have to fit the origins of the war in too. It flows better towards the end: by then the history is simpler and many of the poets are dead or recovering from wounds.
There are eleven of them in the beginning – in the army, joining the army or thinking about joining the army. By the Armistice there are five left. It’s a tragedy, but it does help the flow of the book.
Finally, why just eleven poets? The eleven selected subjects are all listed on the War Poet Memorial in Westminster Abbey. What’s wrong with the other five? No Aldington, no Binyon, no Gibson, no Jones and no Read.
Then of course, there is the question of the war poets who weren’t amongst the 16 on the memorial. I won’t try to address the question, as it would double the length of the review and the internet is already bulging with material of dubious worth.
Anyway, to cut to the chase. I enjoyed it in the end, though I did struggle at first. It felt like I was being lectured at times, and the way the narrative was interwoven made it difficult to get into a reading rhythm. It was worth reading for the information and context, but wasn’t really a pleasurable read.
I’m currently halfway through reading And All Roads Lead to France. It concentrates on Thomas and poetry preceding the war, so it isn’t a direct replacement for Egremont’s book. But it is a pleasure to read, and proves that it is possible to cover a broad area and still keep it readable.
I’d recommend Some Desperate Glory as an overview of some of the poetry of the Great War with the proviso that it is limited in scope and you will have to work at it.