The Red Sweet Wine of Youth – The Brave and Brief Lives of the War Poets

The Red Sweet Wine of Youth by Nicholas Murray cover

A group portrait of the poets of the First World War by Nicholas Murray

Published by: Little, Brown

Cover Price: £25.00

All references given below refer to the hardback edition.

Before reviewing this book, I thought I would read the opinions of others and, upon doing so, discovered it had been almost universally praised as “an excellent book”, “a fine account of poetic sensibility of the period”, “a fabulous book” and “an important study”, with the only criticisms being that it does not include enough actual poetry analysis (although it doesn’t promise this); there is a mis-spelling of Lascelles Abercrombie (which, indeed, there is on page 23); and that the poetry is not set out properly where a quotation begins mid-way through a line. With these minor foibles and thoughts in mind, I sat down expecting a treat of interesting portraits and experiences of twelve war poets.

Within seven pages, I started to wonder: for it is here that Mr Murray includes Wilfred Owen’s famous Preface to his collection of poetry which was published posthumously. This immediately rang alarm bells, as it is quoted in the unaltered version, which Owen himself amended. What, I wondered, could have been Mr Murray’s source for this quotation? Turning to the “Notes” at the back of the book, I found it to be Poems by Wilfred Owen (1921), Introduction by Siegfried Sassoon, p.vi. Unfortunately, although I have an extensive collection, I am not lucky enough to number this title amongst my own books and cannot immediately verify this quotation. I can say, however, that in the manuscript, which is widely reproduced, Owen changed the Preface, making various crossings out, which are not represented in Mr Murray’s quoted version. It seemed a little strange, therefore, that Mr Murray should use a form of this Preface which is not in use anywhere else and which Owen amended before his death.

Undeterred by this confusion, I continued reading until page 40, when I happened upon an account of Julian Grenfell being dispatched to France in August 1914. This I knew to be inaccurate, as Grenfell was serving in India at the time. He sailed for England on 25th August, and did not embark for France until October 6th. Interestingly a correct account is given of these events (albeit loosely) a little later in the book, and then contradicted again in the “Military Chronology” at the rear, which states that Grenfell not only went to France in August 1914, but was also awarded his D.S.O. during the same month, when he actually earned his medal in November. Other mistakes surrounding Grenfell include Mr Murray’s assertion that Julian was the second son of Baron and Lady Desborough, when he was in fact their first-born child, arriving on 30th March 1888, 13 months after Willie and Ettie Grenfell were married. At the time of Julian’s birth, Willie Grenfell was not Baron Desborough, as Mr Murray implies, since this title was only conferred upon him in 1905.

The first chapter includes other errors, such as a comment that John Masefield was much too old to fight, at the age of thirty-four. In fact, Masefield was thirty-six in 1914 (his date of birth is acknowledged as 1st June 1878 by the John Masefield Society) and he did serve as an orderly in a British Red Cross hospital in France, being (according to The Winter of the World by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions) not fit for military service. Edward Thomas, another poet featured later in this book, was three months older than Masefield, but at no point does Mr Murray seem to consider him as being too old to fight, making this seem rather an unnecessary comment.

While I’m on the subject of Edward Thomas, who shares a chapter with Ivor Gurney and Edmund Blunden, I must, once again object to a misquoted poem. In Thomas’s In Memoriam (Easter 1915) – from which, by the way, the second part of the title is missing – Mr Murray misquotes the final line. In this same chapter, we are also told about Edmund Blunden’s enlistment in August 1915, although this is contradicted in the “Military Chronology” when his enlistment date is given as August 1914. We’re then informed that Blunden, at the age of seventeen, was transferred from Victoria to Etaples. This is clearly wrong as Blunden was nineteen when he embarked for France in spring 1916, having been born in November 1896.

Siegfried Sassoon, who became a close friend and mentor of Blunden’s, barely warrants a mention here, although Mr Murray does allow Sassoon an entire chapter to himself (in which Blunden isn’t mentioned at all), describing at length his life before, during and after the war. He tells us, for example that Sassoon’s father left the family home when his son was seven years old: he was, in fact not yet five. He also describes David Thomas and Sassoon as “lovers”, which by modern-day interpretation implies a physical relationship, of which there is no evidence. (Mr Murray uses this phrase misleadingly again later in the book, while alluding to the relationship between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton). In one passage on page 116, he describes Sassoon’s July medical board and the orders he received to go to Craiglockhart. This is such a direct copy of the words of Rupert Hart-Davis from Sassoon’s 1915-1918 diaries, that it really ought to be in quotes – but it isn’t. A little later, Mr Murray tells us that Sassoon threw his medal into the River Mersey, when, according to both Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Max Egremont’s excellent biography of the poet, it was only the medal ribbon that Sassoon jettisoned.

I could go on (and on), as these are just some of the examples of the many errors and inaccuracies to be found in this disappointing book. I must say, however, that I found one of the most infuriating comments made by Mr Murray to be a note in which he corrects an evident error made by Ivor Gurney! The words “glass houses” and “stones” spring to mind, especially when one bears in mind the hugely underrated genius that was Ivor Gurney: to pick him up, so crassly, on such a minor matter, when this book is so littered with errors and inaccuracies is, frankly, unbelievable.

Mr Murray’s bibliography is extensive: listing over two hundred books on this subject. It seems a shame to me that he did not refer to them more closely. Just to give one example (of many): Nicholas Mosley’s worthy biography of Julian Grenfell, from which Mr Murray quotes freely, ought to have at least helped him acknowledge the order in which the Grenfell children were born. Some might argue that these are only “details”, but such “details” are important and help to make sense, for example, of Ettie Grenfell’s attitude to her son’s memory. Julian was her first-born son; he was the heir to the title and Ettie had plans for him and his future. His death dealt her an enormous blow, as did that of her second son, Billy. In the years that followed, she manipulated the manner in which each of her sons would be remembered.

Another bone of contention for me within this book, has to be the sheer amount of quotations that are included in the text. By way of a random experiment, I chose a page – by allowing the book to fall open – and counted the number of words written by Mr Murray, as opposed to those quoted. In this instance, over three quarters of the page consisted of quotations, much in blocks of text, with little original writing by the author. This example, I am afraid to say, is not untypical. While it is very interesting to read diary extracts, letters and memoirs, the choices made by the author are selective, to prove a point and none really offer any new insights into the poets themselves. Mr Murray acknowledges the usefulness of the many biographies written by others about the lives of the poets and, there are times when this book feels as though it is made up of the workings of many authors, edited together by Mr Murray.

The subtitle of the book has also given me pause for thought, being – I believe – somewhat misleading. “The Brave and Brief Lives of the War Poets” had suggested to me that I would be reading about poets who had died during or immediately after the First World War, making for some unusual choices. I was, therefore, rather surprised to find Sassoon, Graves, Blunden and Jones listed on the Contents page, all of whom lived to a ripe old age. This strikes me as a strange use of the word “brief” and also as somewhat of a waste, when there are poets whose lives fit the bill perfectly and whose poetry is almost unheard of, or generally ignored today and which would benefit from being brought to the public eye. Mr Murray could have chosen from, for example, Francis Ledwidge, T. M. Kettle, John William Streets, William Noel Hodgson, Robert Ernest Vernede or E. A. Mackintosh, all of whom died in the First World War, had fascinating lives and wrote glorious poetry.

I am sure that some people will think I am being a little (or a lot) too picky; focusing too much on factual accuracy. However, in a book like this, if the author isn’t going to be troubled with factual accuracy, he or she may as well write a novel. This is the type of book which may well be read by students, teachers and those with a general interest in the topic, all of whom will hope – like me – to glean some new information on this theme. The readers of this book have a right to expect that the subjects will be treated with respect: properly and thoroughly researched; that quotations will be accurate and that – at the very least – the text will not confusingly contradict itself. More importantly than that, however, is the debt that is owed to the poets themselves. Considering what these brave men went through to bring us their poetry – their legacy – the least they deserve is that those who are writing about them bother to get it right.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

In order to verify the inaccuracies contained within this book, I have referred to the following texts:

Violets from Oversea by Tonie and Valmai Holt
Siegfried Sassoon – A Biography by Max Egremont
Siegfried Sassoon Diaries 1915-1918 edited and introduced by Rupert Hart-Davis
Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet: A Biography 1886-1918 by Jean Moorcroft Wilson
Siegfried’s Journey by Siegfried Sassoon
The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston by Siegfried Sassoon
The Poems of Wilfred Owen edited and with a memoir by Edmund Blunden
Wilfred Owen: The Last Year by Dominic Hibberd
The Collected Poems of Edward Thomas edited by R. George Thomas
Julian Grenfell by Nicholas Mosley
Stars in a Dark Night: The Letters from Ivor Gurney to the Chapman Family by Anthony Boden
Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden
Edmund Blunden – A Biography by Barry Webb
Anthem for Doomed Youth by Jon Stallworthy
Robert Graves – The Assault Heroic 1895-1926 by Richard Perceval Graves
Robert Graves – The Years with Laura 1926-1940 by Richard Perceval Graves
Robert Graves and the White Goddess 1940-1985 by Richard Perceval Graves
The Winter of the World: Poems of the Great War edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions