Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew
Reviewed by David F. Beer

Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew

by Max Egremont
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014 (reissue)

Siegfried Sassoon
It's no secret that the Great War holds a far larger place in the consciousness of the British people than of the Americans. Thus the War Poets of 1914–1918 are taught in practically all English secondary schools and are a subject that students may choose to write on for their final exams. I first remember being introduced to Owen's "Strange Meeting" as a teenager while attending my local grammar school in Bideford in the county of Devon. The poets of the Great War still haunt us and are read for the content and quality of their verse. For many they remain popular in the canon of war literature. Moreover, their work has often had an influence on how the war has been remembered and interpreted by later generations.

Some Desperate Glory is engagingly written, effectively organized, and solidly researched—as is to be expected from the author of one of the best biographies of Siegfried Sassoon. Max Egremont looks at the work and lives (some tragically brief) of 11 of the best-known English war poets of the period—"eleven fragile young men who were unlikely warriors" (p. 263). These young men are Blunden, Brooke, Graves, Grenfell, Gurney, Nichols, Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon, Sorley, and Thomas. We might argue that the author should have included a few other names or that one or two could have been omitted. We might not always be happy with his choice of poems at the end of each chapter, but of course this is a judgment call and there is so much to choose from.

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The book's five chapters, each devoted to a year of the war, are followed by several samples of work by poets who were in the war that year. These chapters are sandwiched by a lengthy prelude and aftermath. The author gradually gives us a moving insight into how each poet lived, fought, and, in most cases, died in action. Some died fairly early in the war (Brooke, Grenfell, Sorley), some later (Thomas, Rosenberg), while Owen was killed just a matter of days before the Armistice. Meanwhile, Nichols was medically discharged in 1916 due to shell-shock and Gurney died in an asylum in 1937—one of numerous veterans still hospitalized due to the war many years after it had ended. Only Blunden, Graves, and Sassoon survived to lead full lives and to write notable memoirs of their experiences in the trenches. Of the three, Robert Graves lived the longest, dying in 1985.

Edward Thomas
These "fragile young men", even apart from the war, were by no means run-of-the-mill individuals, and Egremont details their early lives as well as their war experiences and, in the case of the survivors, their later lives. Grenfell and Sassoon were aristocrats, Owen decidedly middle class. Rosenberg and Gurney had to work for their educations, the former also being a painter and the latter a composer who eventually went mad. Sassoon and Owen were homosexuals, and Robert Nichols, raised in an atheist family with a mother who often had nervous breakdowns, suffered from insomnia and manic depression and became fascinated by religion.

Before the war, Edward Thomas was a successful writer and reviewer but had dark moments when he thought of suicide  and actually attempted it once. He recorded in his early writings that "I was born to be a ghost." Rupert Brooke of course was everybody's poster boy as a handsome poet and soldier, and for a long time his work was considered the best of the war poets. Robert Graves went on to be a prodigious scholar and writer and after a few marriages and saying "goodbye to all that" in his war memoir, went to live in Majorca. Some of these poets met during the war, notably Sassoon and Owen during their respective stays at Craiglockhart, a hospital for shell-shocked officers. Some were influenced by the work of other poets, and Egremont often gives an excellent analysis of this kind of artistic influence and how each poet's work developed as a result of it.

Rupert Brooke
Some Desperate Glory nicely weaves the story of these poets into a tapestry of their lives, their war, and their poetry. Much useful commentary is given on many of the poems. The author shows how these men suffered because of their sensitivities and artistic temperaments. He also describes how a few of them (particularly Owen and Sassoon) in some ways enjoyed the war, loved their men, and wanted to be there with them. By the end of this book we have a full picture of the course of the war, the part these poets played in it, the toll it took on them, and why their war poetry is still well worth reading today. Admittedly it is a body of poetry related to a specific time and place, but its message is just as poignant and relevant today in a world that still seems to be in love with war.

Edward Thomas, who under the influence of Robert Frost started writing poetry soon after the outbreak of war, overcame his depression sufficiently to enlist. He was killed in action at Arras on 9 April 1917, after being in France only three months. It is fitting that the title and theme of our blog takes these lines from his poem “Roads", summing up as they do what was to be the experience of so many:

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance.

David F. Beer


  1. There was a volume of diaries titled some SOME DESPERATE GLORY by an officer of the 1/8th Warwicks who served with Sassoon

  2. Jane Mattisson EkstamMarch 17, 2015 at 10:25 PM

    This is a great review: informative as well as personal. I too remember being introduced to the War poets at secondary school in England (and not very far away from Bideford!). I had no idea then how much they would mean to me today. Egremont's book is beautifully summarised in your review in the sentence 'Some Desperate Glory nicely weaves the story of these poets into a tapestry of their lives, their war, and their poetry.' Thank you, David! Thank you, David.

  3. Great review, David, and I find it interesting that you and Jane were exposed to war poets in the schools of England. That's something missing from most of our schools here in the U.S., at least when I was growing up!

  4. Jane Mattisson EkstamMarch 19, 2015 at 11:51 PM

    We were not only exposed to the poets, Pete, they came to represent the War for us. And the tradition remains in force! Wishing you all the best, Pete.

  5. The U.S. also had its poets, as noted by "History and Rhymes of the Lost Battalion" among others. I also remember poetry I had to recite in Jr. high school from WWII - " Bullet where are you going, are you wise and kind..."