Tuesday, 27 May 2014

‘The Pity of War’ - conflict and remembrance

The latest exhibition from Special Collections looks at conflict and remembrance through material found in the holdings at York.

War affects everyone in some way - whether as a front line soldier, an artist or poet moved to create works inspired by war, or people who feel their conscience will not allow them to fight and kill their fellow men.

The four cases in the Harry Fairhurst corridor focus on War in Yorkshire; Art and War; the First World War; and finally the theme of Remembrance. Highlights include a silk hanky commemorating South African battles, copies of the Tribunal, a newspaper produced by the No Conscription Fellowship, and a book of Rupert Brooke's poetry with an inscription that ties it directly to the poet.

Brooke's Nineteen Fourteen sonnet sequence must be among some of the best known poems in the world. Written at the beginning of the First World War in a time before the reality and horror of trench warfare had started to become apparent, they reflect a spirit of confidence and patriotism that would be gradually eroded over the next four years.

Image from Collected poems of Rupert Brooke London 1918
Brooke was 27 when war broke out and already a published poet. He was commissioned into the Royal Naval Division with many of his friends including Arthur Asquith, son of the Prime Minister. The regiment set sail for Gallipoli but Brooke developed septicaemia from an infected mosquito bite and died off the coast of Greece on 23 April 1915. His friends, including Asquith, buried him on the island of Skyros where his tomb still remains.

Picture: Brooke's tomb on Skyros from Wikipedia - reproduced under a Creative Commons licence. 
After the war the architect Edwin Lutyens was asked to design a memorial in honour of the Royal Naval Division. The first six lines of Brooke's third sonnet were chosen to be engraved on it.

Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.

In Special Collections at the University of York is a book of Brooke's collected poems published in 1918. The inscription on the first page reads:
Edwin Lutyens from Arthur Asquith
The first eight lines of sonnet III are the inscription for our Royal Naval Division memorial. July 1924.
Inscription from Collected poems of Rupert Brooke, London, 1918
From the Eliot collection, University of York.
The memorial was unveiled in May 1925 so it would be nice to think that the book was given by Asquith to Lutyens to remind the architect of the exact wording required for the inscription.

Brooke's legacy is very different to the other war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. He has an almost mythical aura, the golden warrior who died before his time. His war poetry does mirror emotions that were widely felt at the beginning of the First World War but most of his work was written before 1914. So perhaps his more enduring legacy is in his pre-war poetry reflecting the sentiments and belief structure of a lost generation.

The exhibition runs until 28 August and can be found in the display cases along the Harry Fairhurst corridor. For more information please contact the Special Collections Librarian Sarah Griffinsarah.griffin@york.ac.uk.


If you want to explore more on this topic, the Library subscribes to the First World War Poetry Digital Archive; an online repository of over 7000 items of text, images, audio, and video for teaching, learning, and research. You can access it through the E-resources Guide in YorSearch - just scroll down and click the link.

The Library also has access to The Cambridge Companions to Literature and Classics collection; also found in the E-resources Guide. This collection offers thousands of essays on major authors, periods and genres, written by experts and designed for student readers. Among many others there's a Companion to the Poetry of the First World War and a Companion to the Literature of the First World War.

Brooke's poetry can be found on the shelves in the Library at MA 181.9 BRO.

Photo: Poppy Field by Mark Shirley. Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

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