Monday, 19 May 2014

Great War at Sea Poetry Project


Image-Newhaven Fort -courtesy of South-East History Boards

“War’- Francis Ledgwidge (Killed in Action 31st July 1917)

Darkness and I are one, and wind
And nagging thunder, brothers all,
My Mother was a storm I call
And shorten your way with speed to me
I am Love and Hate and the terrible mind
Of vicious gods, but more am I
I am the pride in the lover’s eye
I am the epic of the sea .

The purpose of this blog is to encourage research into Great War at Sea Poetry, written by combatants and non-combatants alike.  Trying to establish how the  sea as a setting for human conflict and the sea as an actual natural element were sources of inspiration.

The Great War Centenary

At the time of writing it not clear whether or not the 1914-1918 commemoration will be a period  of remembrance or an attempt to reconstruct how the Great War is viewed. But the War at Sea is deemed to be neither important nor of great significance to the direct experience of warfare and/or the final outcome of the Great War.  The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War is due in a matter of weeks , but as I write there is little in the way of commemoration of the war at sea. And it’s possible to produce whole documentaries about the Great War without mentioning the conflict at sea once.

Number of men serving        

Is the Great War at Sea sidelined as proportionally  fewer men served in the Royal Navy and its associated force than the Army : The historian Martin Stephens in his  ‘Never Such Innocence- a New Anthology of Great War Verse’ (1988) partly explained the lack of sea and air poetry
“ The numbers of men involved in both the war at sea and the war in the air were miniscule compared with those involved in the land campaign.”

But still some 640,237 men served in the Royal Navy ( along with other related forces such as Royal Naval Air Service, and Royal Naval Division and Mercantile Marine Reserve ) during the Great War.  Even if we remove the Royal Naval Air Service and the Royal Naval Division as not really being devoted to conflict at sea, the numbers were not inconsequential.
Martin Stephens went out to say
“ Unlikely soldiers  such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg might well join the Army, but pre-war poets were much less likely to find themselves in the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service or the Royal Navy, with the Navy, in particular, tending to retain its traditional intake; there as no ‘New Navy’ to go with Kitchener’s ‘New Army’, nor a need for one.”

Certainly this contention answer more if we accept that there is such a  category as ‘war poets’ as a distinct category apart from others usually, non-combatants, who might be writing poetry.

Were  there such beings as ‘Sailor Poets?’

The first use I can find of the term ‘Soldier Poets’ is in 1916 .But  has Great War at Sea poetry   suffered from the fact that none of the poets with literary connections such as having Edward Marsh as a patron or being connected to The Poetry Bookshop served with the Royal Navy :Though literary agent Edward Marsh, (most possibly using his position as secretary to Admiral Lord Winston Churchill)  assisted Rupert Brooke to obtain a commission as a lieutenant in the Hood Division of RNVR (Royal Naval Volunteer Reserves), they fought on dry land. Brooke is most known for his sonnets-such as ‘The Soldier’ - than any sea related  poetry.

Furthermore, the most famous Great War at Sea poem is ' My Boy Jack?' by Rudyard Kipling about the Battle of Jutland , Kipling was aged 50 when he wrote it and was too old to serve. His 1916 anthology 'Sea Warfare' , containing articles, anecdotes, and poems relating to the 'Great War at Sea' was sponsored by the Admiralty. But as one sharp critic mentioned 'He wrote a series about Jutland, but he had not been within 500 miles of the battle'.

Another factor to consider is that surviving  so named ‘Soldier Poets’ also were memoir writers : Siegfried Sassoon with the ‘George Sherston’ series, Robert Graves with ‘Goodbye To All That’ , Richard Aldington ‘Death of a Hero’ , Edmund Blunden with ‘Undertones of War’. It’s quite a task to find the Royal Navy equivalent besides Lieutenant Edward Hilton Young whose verses ‘A Muse At Sea’ were published in 1919 and his war memoirs ‘By Sea and By Land’ (1920).

A Tradition of Sea Poetry

Yet some of Britain’s most famous poets and well known poems concern the sea: Coleridge’s ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’, Swinburn’s ‘ ‘Channel Crossing’ , Thomas Campion’s ‘Hymn to Neptune’.. Moreover some of these poems concern sea conflict such as Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘The Revenge- Ballad of the Fleet’ ( about Sir Richard Grenville’s action against the Spanish Fleet at The Azores in 1591.)
And it’s not possible to overlook Felicia Dorothy Heeman’s ‘Casabianca’ (Written in 1826 about the 1798 ‘Battle of the Nile’) -best known for the first lines which have been parodied so many times. 

The Boy Stood on the burning deck
Whence but all he had fled
The Flame that lit the battle wreck
Shone him o’er the dead

Significantly it’s hard to find examples of poets who spent much time at sea apart from John Masefield ( who was working on board ships from 1891-1894)

A decline in sea poetry ?

One possible line of investigation  is that little sea poetry of any literary consequence was being written during the first quarter of the 20th century. John Masefield’s ‘Saltwater Ballads (1902) is an exception. For example a popular anthology such as The Poetry Bookshop’s ‘Georgian Poetry 1913- 1915 ‘ (1915) included no sea-poetry apart from James Elroy Flekker’s ‘The Old Ships’.  It’s hard to imagine that avante-gardist Imagist poets writing about the sea.

Treating the limitless and untameable sea with reverence and  awe would suit the 19th century romantic temperament. There would not be another poem such as Swinburne’s ‘Channel Crossing’ just as there wouldn’t be an equivalent of Turner’s seascapes . 
It is interesting to note that Rupert Brooke’s ‘Channel Passage’ (1909)

The Damned ship lurched and slithered ‘Quiet and Quick’.
My cold gorge rose’ the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick

Seems to be mocking  Swinburne’s ‘Channel Crossing’  ( possibly along with other works such as Whitman's 'In Cabin'd Ships at Sea', ) as if sea related poetry belonged to a bygone age.
Perhaps there would not be another poem such as Swinburne’s ‘Channel Crossing’ just as there wouldn’t be an equivalent of Turner’s seascapes?  A possible flaw with this line of argument is that the sea as a source of inspiration for symphonic music was far from over : Edward Elgar composed 'Sea Pictures Where Corals Lie' in 1899, and 1910 saw the first performance of Vaughn Williams' 'Sea Symphony' ...though Vaughn Williams used lines from Walt Whitman's 'Leaves of Grass' from 1855.

The purpose of this blog is to determine whether Sea based poetry can be uncovered.


There was a growing trend amongst poets, who were concerned with the Western Front to pursue pastoralism a vision of agricultural countryside, Blunden, Gurney, Sassoon’s prose are prime examples: The inhumanity and mechanical cruelty of the Western Front contrasted with the wonders of the countryside feature so well in Blunden’s ‘Behind The Lines’:

The thrush that haunts the mellow ground
And runs along and glances round
Will run and revel through my brain
For a blue moon befooling pain,
And elms so full of birds and song
There shall be green the winter long

But the sea was too unruly, too powerful an elemental force, to be used  in such a fashion. The countryside could be evoked as a place of sanctuary, the sea could not.  In respect of the poem 'War' by Ledwidge quoted above, the Sea is used as an image of war. 

The Priveliging of the ‘anti-war’ voice.

Found an inspiring and quite thought provoking quote from Elizabeth Vandiver recently
“The privileging of the anti-war voice in First World War poetry has skewed our ability to recognise other voices;
‘Stand in the Trenches Achilles-Classical Perceptions in British Poetry of the Great War’. (2010).
Many people in the 21st century consider the Great War to have been a futile conflict and there is a danger of gathering poetry  and literature as ‘evidence’ for this stance and setting up the figure of the ‘war poet’ as being a daring truth teller.  This blog does not intend to follow such an agenda.

‘Destroyers’ by Henry Head (1919)

On this primeval strip of western land,
With purple bays and tongues of shining sand,
Time, like and echoing tide,
Moves drowsily in idle ebb and flow;
The sunshine slumbers in the tangled grass
And homely folk with simple greeting pass,
As to their worship or their work they go.
Man, earth, and sea
Seem linked in elemental harmony,
And my insurgent sorrow finds release
In dreams of peace.

But silent, grey,
Out of the curtained haze,
Across the bay
Two fierce destroyers glide with bows a-foam
And predatory gaze,
Like cormorants that seek a submerged prey.
An angel of destruction guards the door
And keeps the peace of our ancestral home;
Freedom to dream, to work, and to adore,
These vagrant days, nights of untroubled breath,
Are bought with death.

‘Destroyers in Line Ahead’ by Bernard Gribble -courtesy of Borough of Poole Museum Service


  1. Comment from Kenf48 from Great War Forum re. Kipling & 'My Boy Jack' : Much appreciated

    "I am aware of the ‘controversy’, which to my mind seems artificial. Kipling never claimed the poem was about Jutland, nor did he claim it was about his son but it is clearly about grief and loss as evidenced by the poem’s popularity during the war.
    The fact he was working on his Admiralty commission when he received the War Office telegram reporting his son missing, and according to Carrington, continued to work ‘resolutely’ on the project while making extensive enquiries through the Red Cross and other neutrals must have influenced him and his personal feelings were reflected in the sea.

    This paper for the Kipling Society states the poem is ‘evidently’ about John or ‘Jack’ Cornwell VC, evidently but no evidence is produced for this assertion.

    Kipling’s article on destroyer actions does not mention him, and although he must have known the story of Cornwell, ‘Boy Jack’ served on a battle cruiser. So if that doesn’t work then it’s about ‘Jack Tar’ (after all Kipling is fond of nicknames). It’s claimed his son John was never referred to as Jack. This may be so but perhaps ‘Jack’ scans better than ‘John’ and as with Jutland it's not explicitly about his son.

    Shortly after his son was reported missing Kipling wrote to his friend Dunsterville in my opinion his proud assertion that he is comforted by the fact ‘it’s something to have bred a man’ reflects the final verse of the poem. Is it not possible Kipling was working through these ideas long before Jutland in June 1916?

    At best it’s ambiguous and as the above article notes Kipling disassociated the poem from Jutland when published in 1919. I think the argument is a reaction to the success of the popular interpretation, that’s why I believe it’s artificial. Having said that, however the poem is interpreted it is about the sea and the war so is rightfully in your blog! "

  2. Michael You're welcome I think the project deserves support. I wonder if the dearth of naval 'war poets' is because of the technical nature of the Senior Service. It's interesting the Navy commissioned, arguably the most famous establishment writer of the day to promote their war not only at home but to the allies.

    You're welcome Kipling of course wrote explicitly about destroyers in 'Destroyers in Collision' from 'Epitaphs of the War' (other 'Epitaphs' clearly referenced his own loss though again it's claimed he denied it)
    For Fog and Fate no charm is found
    To lighten or amend.
    I, hurrying to my bride was drowned -
    Cut down by my best friend.


    The 'Epitaphs' also include 'A Drifter off Tarentum' and 'Convoy Escort'
    and perhaps the saddest of all and definitely of it's time, a virgin and a heroine!


    Ah, would swift ships had never bee, for then we ne'er had found
    These harsh Aegean rocks between, this little virgin drowned,
    Whom neither spouse nor child shall mourn, but men she nursed through pain
    And - certain keels for whose return the heathen looked in vain.


    1. Thanks for your support Ken. Indeed, other Kipling 'Great War at Sea' poems include 'Tin Fish' and 'The Verdicts (Jutland)' .
      There was also the collaboration with Edward Elgar, 'Fringes of the Fleet'.
      in 1916.