November Book Group Report

By Jane Wilson

For this month’s Reading Group, we rang the changes and instead of bringing along a selection of books, the group members each chose war inspired poems to recite and discuss. Most of the poetry had connections to WW1 although a couple linked to the Boer War and the Second World War.

  • ‘In Parenthesis’ by David Jones, himself an Infantryman in the war

An epic poem follows the WW1 service of Private John Ball, culminating with his experiences on the Somme. It is a mix of Jones’ own writings and poems, slipping between the prose, everyday speech, quotations and poetry. There are allusions to Shakespeare, ancient Welsh legends and other renowned literary texts.

  • ‘Night Duty’ by Eva Dobell, a VAD nurse in WW1 serving in field hospitals in France

The poem describes a night on a field hospital ward, and how the nurse views those soldier patients in her care. She imagines the thoughts each have as they lie in their hospital beds, and sees them as individuals, not just soldiers. She reflects on what their pasts may have been, and how their futures will be mapped out.

  • ‘Drummer Hodge’ by Thomas Hardy, probably more well known for his fiction than his war poetry

Published just a few weeks after the start of the Second Boer War, the poem reflects on the burial of Drummer Hodge amongst the exotic African landscape.  The Boer War the first time that British soldiers were recorded by name when buried.

  • ‘In time of the breaking of nations’, also by Thomas Hardy, written in 1916

A poem where Hardy explores how life will go on forever, using rural traditions such as ploughing and sowing seeds as evidence of life recovering despite war. Hardy gives the impression that the war will not have an everlasting significance, and that farming practices, youths falling in love etc. are the things that will endure.

  • ‘On Somme’ by Ivor Gurney, served in France with the Gloucestershire Regiment

The poem describes how it was to be in the trenches on the Somme, amid the noises that are vividly portrayed of gun and shell fire all around. He touches on the fear felt by those in the trenches and the courage that was present but could ‘vanish at first touch’.

  • ‘Naming of Parts’ by Henry Reed, served in WW2, mainly as a Japanese translator

This lighter, humorous poem is part one of a six poem collection, each poking fun at British Army training during World War Two. The ‘naming of parts’ refers to the parts of the guns during rifle training, the irony being the lack of available parts for the soldiers to train with.

  • ‘Rain’ by Edward Thomas, killed in action soon after arriving in France in 1917

Thomas writes in the poem of sitting alone in a hut, listening to the rain outside, thinking about the possibility of his own death, of the fate of fellow soldiers and hoping that no-one he knows is that night also awake, unable to sleep or maybe even dying.

  • We discussed the poet Frederick William Harvey, of whom the group had previously heard very little. A Gloucestershire man who served in the Gloucestershire Regiment, he was taken Prisoner of War in August 1916 and spent the remainder of the war in various POW camps. He wrote intensively during his period of imprisonment and sent collections of poems home to be published. Some of his poems were set to music by composers associated with WWI.
  • We briefly looked at a CD of music by Edward Elgar, with music as the setting for works of poetry by, among others, the Belgian poet, Emile Cammaerts, especially ‘A Voice in the Desert’.
  • One of our group members brought along a unique piece of poetry that had been written by her great-uncle, Private John Henry Parton. He had grown up in a mining community, joined the Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in 1914, and in 1916 was gassed and sent to Bodlondeb Hospital in Bangor, Wales for recuperation. It was from Bangor that, having always had a passion for reading, he wrote and sent a poem home to his mother, describing his experiences in Bangor, and how those who chose to visit the hospital, and meet and see the patients, would be made most welcome. The original poem still survives, written in ink on a piece of paper folded into four, perhaps sent home with an accompanying letter.

Private Parton was eventually declared fit again for service, and returned to the front lines to sadly die at Passchendaele.

Our next reading Group meeting will be on Tuesday 6th December at 2.00pm in the Café Lounge at the Bowes Museum – please do come and join us.