Review by Rob Spence
When we think of First World War poets, it’s safe to say that Hugh Lofting will not be the first name that springs to mind. The creator of Dr Dolittle, immortalised in fifteen children’s books published between 1920 and 1952, and more recently in a series of films, is not known at all for his poetry, and indeed published just one slim volume of verse, in 1942. This book, Victory for the Slain, is now reissued in a handsome new edition by the small press Michael Walmer.
Lofting served throughout the First World War, experiencing the horrors of the trenches at first hand, and being seriously wounded. The Dr Dolittle stories arose out of his letters home to his children during the war, but the impact, not surprisingly, of his experiences stayed with him to engender, much later, this long poem, written as the Second World War was raging.
The poem is a long narrative in which an unknown voice, an Everyman figure perhaps, makes his way to a cathedral, which he discovers has been severely damaged in a bombing raid. The poem is divided into seven parts, each representing a stage on the journey. The protagonist reflects at each stage on mankind’s folly, the pointlessness of war, and the terrible suffering it produces. In tone, the poem recalls some of the less visceral of the First World War poets – Binyon and Brooke rather than Owen and Sassoon perhaps – and in style, it is clear that Lofting was very much a traditionalist. The poem does not follow a strict rhythmic or rhyming pattern, but instead, particularly in the early sections, relies on familiar structures, such as rhyming couplets to provide structure. In the later sections, the poem moves more towards a free verse mode, but without ever really breaking the formal shackles.
There is, however, a lively sense of the inadequacy of poetry to deal with the chosen theme, and even in the second section, which is generally more formal, Lofting can break with convention. He addresses a personified Present, representing, I suppose, mankind’s tendency to forget the lessons of history:
Ah, move on, so fatuous oracle!-
With your glib facility’s
Cascading cataracts of glittering words –
Vainly bent to pack the wisdom of the ages
Plus Infinity’s circling and perpetual motion
Into a stanza bound and stopped!
The poem is really a polemic, written by a man who had seen the devastation of war and despaired at its recurrence. His hope is that the moral weight of the dead would lead the world to reject war – that would be a victory for the slain. We all know how that hope turned out.
This is an ambitious work, obviously written from the heart. It is not great poetry, being too possessed of an almost Victorian sense of poetic decorum, but nevertheless it has some very powerful moments, and is certainly not without merit. Reading it in 2020, one is struck by the relevance and topicality of the work. We really do not learn.
Here is a sample of the impassioned, anguished plea for peace that characterises the poem:
Wars to end wars? —War again!
Must Mankind forever kill and kill,
Thwarting every decent dictate
Of the human will?
War again! —
When well we know
War’s final victors always were the slain.
The poem is certainly worth the revival it receives in this new edition, which is an impressive artefact in its own right. The publisher, Michael Walmer, based in the Shetland Isles, has produced a striking volume, its cover deeply red, and perhaps recalling that well-known “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster in its design, though the prominent symbol on the cover is the peace sign popularised by the CND movement. The production values are high – the paper is heavy and creamy, and the print large. The publishers have certainly done the author proud in reviving this lost document of pacifist idealism.
Rob Spence’s home on the web is robspence.org.uk or find him on Twitter @spencro
Hugh Lofting, Victory for the Slain (Michael Walmer, 2020). 978-0648690948, 61pp., hardback.
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