December 6, 1995 - February 17, 1996
Poets in a War: British Writers on the Battlefronts
and the Home Front of the Second World War
Curated by Kenneth A. Lohf
In observance of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Grolier Club in December 1995 presented an exhibition featuring manuscripts, first editions, drawings and portraits of 130 British poets of the 1940s who served on the battlefronts and home front.
Among the major writers treated were T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell and Dylan Thomas in London; Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes in North Africa; and Alun Lewis in Southeast Asia. The distinguished and accomplished poets represented recorded in their verse the far-flung campaigns in which they served, the horrors they suffered in the London blitz, the bombing raids over Europe, the tank warfare in North Africa and Italy, and the hand-to-hand jungle fighting in Southeast Asia. The effects of these events on the soldiers' thoughts and emotions produced remarkable poetry.
Several important volumes and original art in the exhibition showed the close association between fellow poets and painters, such as Sassoon's Rhymed Ruminations inscribed by the author to the painter William Rothenstein, whose original portrait of Sassoon is also included; Graham Sutherland's ink and gouache design for the title page of David Gascoyne's Poems 1937-1942; and art critic Mervyn Levy's original portrait of Dylan Thomas. Numerous printed volumes during the 1940s were illustrated by some of the most celebrated contemporary British artists, among them Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Michael Ayrton, John Craxton and John Piper.
A number of first editions in the exhibition contained inscriptions by one poet to another, confirming the close association of British writers during the war. Among the most striking were Edith Sitwell's in The Shadow of Cain (1947), inscribed to the young poet Ronald Bottrall; Kenneth Hopkins's in Songs and Sonnets (1947), to fellow poet Roy Fuller; Charles Causley's in his first collection of poems, Farewell, Aggie Weston (1951), to Siegfried Sassoon; and Stephen Spender's in Spiritual Exercises (1943), to John Betjeman.
Notable among the manuscript items was the group of ten autograph poems sent by Keith Douglas from Egypt in 1943 to a young WREN living in Oxford. Two of these were subsequently printed in Douglas's posthumously published classic, Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), a prose account, with poems, of the tank battles in North Africa in which he took part. The book is now considered a classic account of modern warfare to rank alongside Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War of the First World War.
Kenneth A. Lohf, with firsthand experience as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force stationed in India, curated the exhibition which included many items from his personal collection of British war poetry. A poet himself, Lohf composed the title poem for Poets in a War, the volume he wrote to accompany the exhibition.