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Richard Aldington: the Selected War Poems

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edited and with an introduction by Michael Copp

I had personally never heard of Richard Aldington before this small book (72 pages) arrived for me to review. I have heard of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Ivor Gurney, etc, but not Richard Aldington. There are a couple of possible reasons for that. The first is that he may not be very good. The second and more disturbing reason could be that he died in 1962, i.e. he is not a tragic figure whose promise was cut short in the trenches. Do we want trench poetry without the romance of an early death or, in Gurney’s case, madness? I get the feeling we don’t.

Therefore, is my reading of Aldington’s poetry coloured by this? I’d like to think it isn’t, but I have a nagging suspicion it might be. Because, I must say, that with a couple of exceptions, I didn’t like much of the work in this volume. It seemed somewhat predictable. I hesitate to say it but, sometimes, it seemed almost hackneyed.

The titles will tell you a lot of what to expect from this volume. Here are some of them: On the March, In the Trenches, Picket, Trench Idyll, Machine Guns, Barrage, The Blood of the Young Men, etc. The poems attached to these titles describe what is going on and what the writer feels very well. However, they don’t seem to add much to our knowledge, either intellectual or emotional, of this conflict. Let’s face it, the Great War has been a pervasive element in the lives of the people of this, and probably many other countries, since it happened. I found that very rarely did a poem, or even a line, stand out from the mud and the blood which is their subject matter.

I am not trying to say that Aldington is a bad poet; he is not. He is a man who has worked at his craft and who knows what he is doing. He is a well-educated man and Greek allusions are not infrequent. The poems are also filled with emotion. It’s just that this emotion was not conveyed to me. The only emotion I felt, as I read on through this book, was guilt. I felt guilty in not liking it. I felt guilty, and I still do, in knowing that I would be giving it a negative review. After all, I didn’t serve in the trenches. I haven’t seen my comrades blown to pieces around me. I feel the debt that I owe.

However, I couldn’t, in all conscience, write other than I have but, earlier I said there were a couple of exceptions. The last two poems in the book were ones that worked for me. By the King’s Most Excellent Majesty: A Proclamation covers the whole war with an average of five lines per year and does it cleverly, beautifully and effectively:

ISBN 1 897967 73 X
Cecil Woolf, 2005
72pp, paperback
Retail price 7.50

Open Book

Review by Chris Williams









and when I die

don’t bury me at all

just pickle my bones

in alcohol…

Life Quest compares a dead snake that the author sees with a dead German he had seen. It ends with the line Avid for much living… and I thank Richard Aldington for that and apologise to him for not being able to appreciate the rest of his work in this book.