Before he published his translation of Virgil's Aeneid in 1952, Cecil Day Lewis saw out the 1930s with a version of the Georgics. It was published in 1940, in the early days of the Second World War, a poem of retreat written in a besieged Britain. In the 'Dedicatory Stanzas' (to Stephen Spender) which preface his version, Day Lewis confronts Shelley's declaration of the part that the poet plays in history and asks the question of one of his own most famous lyrics, 'where are the war poets?'
it gives us the hump To think that we're the unacknowledged rump Of a long parliament of legislators.
Where are the war poets? The fools inquire. We were the prophets of a changeable morning Who hoped for much but saw the clouds forewarning: We were at war, while they still played with fire And rigged the market for the ruin of man: Spain was a death to us, Munich a mourning. No wonder then if, like the pelican, We have turned inward for our iron ration, Tapping the vein and sole reserve of passion, Drawing from poetry's capital what we can.
Day Lewis, like many Irish and English writers of the 1930s, ended that decade with little hope for the legislative influence of the Shelleyan poet and turned deliberately 'inward'. The global market is now pursuing takeover and merger by violent means, so, 'Drawing from poetry's capital what we can', poets must tune the martial resonance of political poetry down to aesthetic questions of adequacy and appropriateness in the midst of a historical trauma which is 'No subject for immortal verse'. Failing in this, poets can find themselves taking sides and then defending 'the bad against the worse' ('Where are the War Poets?' 1940).
A poet such as Day Lewis feels that he can no longer allow himself to sing, in Dryden's version of Virgil, of 'arms and the man': in 1952, his version of the Aeneid opens as flatly as he can manage: 'I tell about war and the hero . . .'. For many, most notably Theodor Adorno, the horrors of the twentieth century leave little room for lyric, let alone the martial concerns of epic. Yet throughout the century, poets continually worried over poetry's response — in terms of genre as much as subject matter — to the horrors of twentieth-century history. The poetry from Britain and Ireland which was written about the wars in which those countries engaged — imperial and civil wars as well as the world wars — is a poetry which no longer feels that it can sing in celebration of arms and the man, but rather must turn to Wilfred Owen's theme, the 'pity of war' or its absurdity.
There was much heroic verse written during the century as there was verse which invoked the mythic: David Jones's In Parenthesis (1937) writes his experience of the Great War through classical and Arthurian legend. There was also verse written in praise of revolutionary struggles for freedom, in Spain, Ireland, Russia, Latin America or Africa. But for all the twentieth-century soldier-poets, there were many who, though they viewed war from a distance, felt its effects no less. Even a poet who wrote for Empire, Rudyard Kipling, found that the unfolding of the century would turn the martial camaraderie and the heroism of the White Man's Burden to the elegiac note which the loss of his son in the First World War taught him. In his excellent anthology, The Oxford Book of War Poetry, Jon Stallworthy includes thirty-four of Kipling's epitaphs of the Great War. They are written from the 'Home Front', but memorialize with sympathy and horror experiences of war which cast any previous urge for epic into the delicate and powerless responses of epitaph:
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