A former Archbishop of Canterbury and poet connects First World War poets to the Christian tradition

Written by Tony Millett.


Dr Rowan Williams Dr Rowan Williams Up to 300 people squeezed into St Mary’s Church on Saturday evening (September 27) to hear the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams talk on the First World War poets and their links with and use of Christian faith.

Dr Williams thanked the audience for turning out and missing Dr Who.  What they got instead of the fantasy worlds of Dr Who was a real Marlborough LitFest treat: a down to earth discussion of three of the poets in terms of the Christian response to the atrocities of the war.

He chose three poets: Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy (also known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ and grandfather of Marlborough’s Rev Andrew Studdert-Kennedy.) Wilfred Owen is one of the best known of the poets whose words have been immortalised in Britten’s War Requiem.  Unlike Owen, David Jones survived the war, became a Roman Catholic and wrote the massive (225 pages including his own explanatory notes) and very complex In Parenthesis which was published in 1937.

All three, said Dr Williams, faced ‘unprecedented challenges of empathy and understanding’.  This first ‘technological war’ with mass slaughter at its heart, was, he told us: “One of those events that challenged Christian faith to its core.”

While most Anglican chaplains to the forces on the Western Front were “Out of their depth…floundering around hopelessly in the face of this unprecedented horror”, Studdert-Kennedy got on with the job of helping soldiers and writing accessible verse – verse that was almost certainly more widely read than either Owen or Jones.

From that verse – or poetry (Dr Williams was not quite sure which it was) – we can see Studdert-Kennedy’s difficulty when “The Christian language he grew up with was inadequate in the trenches.” Some of his verses are somewhat sentimental, some are savage in their criticism of the war and others decry the cant of those safely at home.

Dr Williams’ review of Studdert-Kennedy ended with a plea: “We should resist strongly that we write him off as a sentimentalist.”

During the war, Dr Williams said, Wilfred Owen grew to be a poet of technical brilliance, great seriousness and beauty.  He spent some time analysing Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth - with its indelible religious imagery.

This famous poem – often set in exams – showed in its imagery how poetry like Owen’s took the place of ritual when Christian ritual became irrelevant: “Here is a ceremony, here is a pattern of words that can just about hold it without lying.”  

Dr Williams is himself a published and popular poet and with that judgment he showed how ‘literary criticism’ can become as meaningful as poetry itself.

Dr Williams had one bone to pick with Owen’s lines: he thought that “The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall” verged too close to sentimentality.  Others would beg to differ, seeing it as a perceptive view of the way the deaths of so many young men affected the home front and shaped subsequent years and lives when so many young women remained unwed.

Perhaps the most revelatory part of Dr Williams’ talk was that devoted to David Jones. In his ‘Note of Introduction’ to In Parenthesis, TS Eliot placed Jones beside Ezra Pound, James Joyce and himself.  We get the message: In Parenthesis is not an easily accessible work.

It should be said too that much of the book looks on the page like prose – but it is poetical prose.  Sometimes it reminds you a bit of Dylan Thomas.

Dr Williams provided us with a simple way to approach this long poem.  We have to look for Jones’ underlying obsession with the heritage of British Celtic culture and with the world of the Latin liturgy.

Superimposed over those are three realities: a down to earth narrative of trench life, the history of military Britain and the story of the passion of Christ: “He was fascinated by the Roman soldiers who crucified Christ.” Jones helps us see through the horror of the war into history and finally to Christ.

We heard Dr Williams read some wonderful extracts from the poem - including this:  

“How do you get hot water in this place of all water – all cold water up to the knees.  These poured quickly lest it should cool off, and eyed their barrels’ bright rifling with a great confidence, and boasted to their envious fellows, and offered them the luke-warm leftover. So that one way and another they cleaned their rifles – anyway the oil softened the open cracks in your finger-tips.”

Dr Williams said that Jones “Wants to argue that you can only tell of modern war in terms of the Christian story…The Christian myth is a way of imagining in extremity.”

On aspect common to all three poets is their contempt for those who sit at home stirring up war lust and, in Dr Williams’ words, the ‘armchair soldiers who like to excite themselves with war’.

Dr Rowan Williams’ talk was a splendid retort to those military historians who refer to the First World War poets as “those whinging poets”.  They blame the teaching of war poetry and Oh What a Lovely War for obliterating the ‘great military victory’ that ended the war – they really do.

One wonders whether they have fully understood Studdert-Kennedy, Wilfred Owen and David Jones, let alone heard Dr Rowan Williams' vivid and clear explanation of  their connection to Christianity.  

This was a truly splendid way for the Marlborough LitFest to mark the centenary of the war’s outbreak.