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This review is taken from PN Review 180, Volume 34 Number 4, March - April 2008.

ACCIDENTAL WAR-POETS ISAAC ROSENBERG, Poetry out of My Own Heart - Unpublished Letters, edited by Jean Liddiard (Enitharmon Press) £15.00
ALUN LEWIS, A Cypress Walk - Letters to 'Frieda' (Enitharmon Press) £20.00

Neither Isaac Rosenberg nor Alun Lewis had an appetite for war: both came from pacifist backgrounds, both had a horror of killing. War is not at the centre of their work as it is for Owen and Sassoon or, for that matter, Keith Douglas. They are war-poets by accident rather than by nature. Of the two Rosenberg is the greater, as well as the better-known, figure, whilst Lewis, fine poet as he is at his best, has received less attention. Indeed, the poets of the two wars have had an unequal reception: whereas the First World War, which has become the standard against which we measure the tragedy of war, can be reduced in the imagination to what is virtually a single image - that of men in the trenches - the Second World War, bewilderingly various, and played out over a vast arena, offers no such unifying image, and resists encapsulation. The poets of the First World War thus have an advantage over their successors in that in them we have the illusion of seeing war whole, whereas in the latter we see it only in fragments.

It is hard to think of a less likely soldier than Isaac Rosenberg. Private 22311 was small, not physically strong; he was absent-minded, and impossibly impractical; he enlisted not out of any sense of duty, but rather to relieve desperate poverty - as he explained to Edward Marsh, 'I never joined the army for patriotic reasons. Nothing can justify ...


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