Townland, desert, cave: Irish and Scottish second world war poetry

Peter Mackay*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Citation (Scopus)


When C. Day Lewis asked ‘Where are the War Poets?’ he not only opened a debate surrounding the role and perceived absence of poetry of the Second World War but also revealed a concern with location – and in particular the relationship between place and politics, or between geography and history – which would characterise much Second World War poetry. The status and role of ‘war poetry’ are problematic for Day Lewis: in an act of moral abnegation he suggests that the obligation he and other poets felt to defend ‘the bad against the worse’ was ‘No subject for immortal verse’. Day Lewis's moral dilemma is what role, if any, poets and poetry should play in the war; his own answer is that poetry should have no role in a war so ideologically dubious. This dilemma comes into sharp focus when distinctions within national contexts – Irish neutrality, the absence of conscription in Northern Ireland, Scottish Nationalist conscientious objection – are taken into account; when, instead of defending ‘the bad against the worse’, there was the possibility of letting the bad and worse decide their fates among themselves. The emphasis on location (and subsequently on perspective) in Day Lewis's dilemma is important because there are quite different roles for poetry from three different locations for war poetry (and these are only three possible locations for this poetry): the African desert, where many poets (including many Scottish poets) served with the 51st Highland Division; ‘Plato's cave’ […].

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationModern Irish and Scottish Poetry
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9780511921810
ISBN (Print)9780521196024
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2011


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