Richard Aldington — the war poet who rejected moral certainties about conflict

Once a poet of considerable renown, Richard Aldington's work has been largely forgotten. Perhaps because he did not conform to the conventional image of the soldier-poet.

The English poet and novelist, Richard Aldington (1892-1962). Credit: GRANGER / Alamy Stock Photo
The English poet and novelist, Richard Aldington (1892-1962). Credit: GRANGER / Alamy Stock Photo

At 6 o’clock on Monday 11 November 1985, sixty-seven years and seven hours after the guns of the Western Front fell silent, the Dean of Westminster Abbey invited then Poet Laureate Ted Hughes to unveil a memorial at Poets’ Corner ‘in honour of the First World War Poets.’ The new stone was nestled between tributes to Lewis Carroll, Henry James and T. S. Eliot. A bracelet of red cursive text unfolds around the stone’s perimeter, taken from the preface to Wilfred Owen’s posthumous Poems (1920): ‘My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity.’

Many of the sixteen names engraved within these words are familiar from GCSE poetry anthologies, Remembrance Sunday services, and school trips to Flanders and Normandy. The lyric poems written by these men between 1914 and 1918 play a pivotal role in the cultural construction of the First World War and of war in general. Laurence Binyon’s ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old’, Rupert Brooke’s ‘corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England’ and Owen’s ‘old lie: Dulce et decorum est/ Pro patria mori’ are deeply embedded into the British psyche. When Benjamin Britten composed his War Requiem (1962) for the dead of the 1940 Coventry Blitz, it was not from the vast corpus of Second World War verse by poets such as Keith Douglas, Alun Lewis and F. T. Prince that he selected lyrics, but from Owen’s single, slim volume of poems from the trenches.

The first name on the war poets’ stone is no longer famous. Yet Richard Aldington (1892-1962) was perhaps, in his time, the best known of all the sixteen men commemorated there. His career was certainly the most varied. Unlike fellow soldier-poets such as Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, who found their vocation only once they were in the trenches, the then twenty-four-year-old Aldington was already a poet of considerable renown by the time the second Military Service Act forced him to enlist in May 1916. He wrote prolifically during his two miserable years of active service on the Western Front and published two collections of war poetry immediately following his demobilisation, to great critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. George Orwell called his semi-autobiographical war novel Death of a Hero (1929) ‘much the best of the English war books’. The Times may have dismissed him in its 1962 obituary as an ‘angry old man to the end’ who dealt out ‘shrill attack[s]’ on ‘the English middle class’, but it nonetheless saw fit to devote almost an entire page to the legacy of this ‘restless soul’ who ‘should not be forgotten.’

But sixty years later, Aldington has been forgotten. Unsentimental, unadorned, and —most unacceptably—unmasculine, Aldington’s poems challenge many of our most dearly held assumptions about the First World War and the men who fought it. We look to the war poets for high stakes, moral certainty, and a sneer of knowing irony, all of which are absent from Aldington’s poetry. Consider, for instance, how different ‘Our Hands’, dated ‘December 1916’, is from the canonical First World War poems I alluded to earlier:

I am grieved for our hands, our hands that have caressed roses and women’s flesh, old lovely books and marbles of Carrara. I am grieved for our hands that were so reverent in beauty’s service, so glad of beauty of tressed hair and silken robe and gentle fingers, so glad of beauty of bronze and wood and stone and rustling parchment.

Whereas Binyon’s solemn quatrains echo the formal elegies of Tennyson and Swinburne, Aldington’s free verse stops and starts with a breathless, gasping immediacy. While Brooke dreams his patriotic dreams of England, Aldington is fantasising about sex, art, and Italy. Where for Owen there is only ‘pity’, Aldington finds beauty. ‘Yes,’ he reflects in a similarly loose poem from the same collection, ‘one can be hungry, sore, unshaven, dirty, eyes and head aching, limbs shivering, and yet love beauty.’

This love of beauty was the guiding principle of Aldington’s life, which set him at odds with the late-Victorian England into which he was born. Christened Edward Godfree Aldington, he informed his parents shortly after he learnt to talk that he would be going by Richard instead from then on. Jessie May Aldington was a middlebrow author of moderate commercial success, whose novels set in rural Kent capitalised on the vogue for regional fiction in the wake of Thomas Hardy. To Aldington and his three younger siblings, she was merely an alcoholic and a bully. Her husband Albert Edward Aldington was an unsuccessful solicitor with the chip of thwarted literary ambition on his shoulder. Aldington resented them deeply: May for her dominance, Albert for his submissiveness, and both of them for the myopic snobbery of the petty bourgeois. In a 1915 poem entitled ‘Childhood’, Aldington compares his child self to a hatchling moth confined to a matchbox, whose wings ‘Shed their colours in dirty scales’ when beaten in vain against he matchbox walls. The beauty Aldington believed every child is born with was ‘shed’, in his parents’ house, ‘like moth scales, from me.’

For the beauty of which he felt deprived, a teenage Aldington looked to books and to nature. He tutored himself to fluency in French, Italian, Greek and Latin through rigorous, self-imposed grammar drills. A passionate hiker, swimmer and lepidopterist, Aldington forged a deep spiritual connection to the coastal landscape of his childhood, which was as instrumental in his development as a poet as were the tomes of English, classical and European literature he pored over in his parents’ well-stocked library. ‘Obviously,’ he wrote in the 1948 introduction to his Collected Poems, ‘poetry has intellectual elements, but it is not solely intellectual.’ It is ‘the quality of their feelings and the quality of their senses’, he felt, that really sets poets apart from one another.

In 1910 Aldington went up to University College London, only to drop out after a year when the cost of his father’s inept stock speculations almost bankrupted the family. This turned out to be no great tragedy to Aldington; free at last as a young man in London, he was more interested in writing than in reading, and in the company of women than of classics dons. He took a job as a sports journalist to pay the rent, established himself in a bohemian circle of poets and painters, and set about submitting work to literary journals. He quickly befriended the American poet Ezra Pound, who introduced him to his childhood friend Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) at a Christmas party in 1911. As H.D recounts that first meeting in her roman à clefAsphodel (1992), their flirting was intimate and intellectual. ‘We’ll not let this go on much longer darling’, says the barely disguised Aldington stand-in, Jerrod Darrington: ‘You see I’m afraid your bed will suddenly turn into Zeus in the night […] and thwart me.’

After travelling around Europe together for a year, Aldington, H.D and Pound moved into numbers 6, 8 and 10 of a mansion block in Kensington in the summer of 1913. Together they founded the ‘Imagist’ movement, which laid the foundations upon which all modernist poetry in English was arguably built. As Pound set out in a 1913 essay, the Imagists were committed to:

1.      Direct treatment of the ‘thing’, whether subjective or objective.

2.      To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3.      As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.

Aldington and H.D. married that October. In January 1914, the radical weekly review The Freewoman changed its name to The Egoist and hired Aldington as assistant editor. The following month, the anthology Des Imagistesedited by Pound and with contributions from Aldington, H.D. and writers as well respected as James Joyce, Amy Lowell and William Carlos Williams, was published in Britain and America. While critics disagreed as to the quality of the poems contained, the impact of the Imagists’ new verse stylings was undeniable. ‘The imagist […] is really a sort of mental anarchist’ Life magazine’s reviewer declared: ‘He plants a bomb under rhythm and blows it up.’

When the First World War came in July 1914, the Aldingtons had just established themselves as two of the most important poets in the English-speaking world. After learning that H.D. was pregnant that September, they moved to Hampstead at the beginning of 1915 to be closer to the countryside and to escape from the increasingly unpleasant and overbearing Pound. Here they settled into a quiet life of domesticity and the work they shared translating from Greek, with H.D.’s focus on the plays of Euripides and Aldington on his poetic idols, Anyte and Sappho. Aldington wrote to Amy Lowell in February that ‘in this clearer atmosphere, away from Kensington squabbles & intrigues I feel more hopeful.’ With an enormous sense of accomplishment, he sent his first book of poems, Images, to press that Spring.

Then, in May, his daughter was born dead. ‘Hilda was delivered of a little girl still-born’, he told Lowell; ‘I haven’t seen the doctor, but the nurse said it was a beautiful child & they can’t think why it didn’t live.’ Aldington’s grief consumed him. He arrived as an infantry private in the Devonshire Regiment the following year a broken man. Although perfectly physically fit and supportive of war in principle, Aldington had never been comfortable with the strictures of conventional masculinity and violence appalled him. He despised being a soldier. Resorting to old coping mechanisms, he took a copy of Heinrich Heine’s poems with him to his training camp in Dorset, in the hopes of improving his German. It was confiscated by his commanding officer. He wrote to his friend John Cournos that July of the long hours of hard physical labour: ‘it broke me, old chap, and I’m not too ashamed to tell you that for a moment or two I just bent my head & sobbed.’

When Aldington departed for France in December 1916, Britain was at its lowest ebb in the war, in the wake of the heavy losses of the Somme and before the arrival of the Americans. As a member of the Pioneer Corps, he had a relatively safe job digging trenches and graves. After six months, he was sent back to Britain for officer training and a period of leave, during which he met the American artist Arabella Yorke, who had taken over the lease on H.D.’s flat in Bloomsbury when she moved to Devon to be closer to her husband’s training camp. The Aldingtons’ relationship had been what would today be called ‘polyamorous’ from its beginning, but it was clear to everyone involved that the relationship between Aldington and Yorke was more intimate than any that had gone before. Spooked, H.D. began a sexual relationship with the composer Cecil Gray. In July 2018, three months after Aldington had returned to the Front, H.D. wrote that she was pregnant. Both knew that the child was Grey’s, but given the mutual understanding on which the couple’s relationship had always run, H.D. expected that she and her husband would raise the child together. Yet Aldington felt instinctively, although he struggled to explain why, that this pregnancy spelt the end of his marriage. He wrote to H.D. that the baby would mean that she ‘must come to love [Gray] more’. Perhaps if his own daughter had lived, he would have felt differently. His grief was now twofold: for the ‘beautiful child’ he never got to hold, and for the woman he continued to consider the love of his life.

Nobody came to greet the newly-demobilised Aldington at Charing Cross when he returned to London in February 1919. Things with Yorke had cooled, and the now heavily-pregnant H.D. was settling into a new relationship with the novelist Annie Ellerman (known as Bryher), with whom she would spend the rest of her life. Aldington tried his hardest to reestablish a relationship with H.D., but she was still far too heartbroken over his abandonment to be able to countenance friendship. After securing work as the Times Literary Supplement’s principle reviewer of French literature, he channeled all his energies over the next few years into work. The poems contained in Images of War (1919) and Images of Desire (1919), which were written in the trenches and edited in London, show Aldington working at the peak of his power as a poet. Confident and concise, they bear witness to all the things Aldington held most dear before the war: his love of natural beauty, his passion for the classics, and his commitment to the principles of the Imagist movement. His proem to Images of War hopes that ‘Out of this turmoil and passion’ at war, he might gather ‘Some intuition of the inalterable gods.’ In the poems that follow, these gods speak through nature: the speaker of ‘A Moment’s Interlude’ hears ‘The tree gods [mutter] affectionately about me’ in the midst of a barrage and is ‘filled with love for the great speechless earth’; the moon in ‘Daughter of Zeus’, although ‘Gazing upon dead men’ is ‘Still a tall lady comforting our human despair.’ H.D.’s presence looms large in these poems, in which the will to live is based solely on love. ‘Time’s Changes’ looks back from the vantage point of the trenches to 1913, when the couple fell in love: ‘Four years ago today in Italy/ I gathered wild flowers for a girl—’ The speaker of ‘Prayer’, in Images of Desire, asks God to give him more years ‘To pour out for her’. The grief, fear and anger which govern poems by Owen, Sassoon and Graves mean nothing to the soldier in this poem. To him, ‘she’ is everything: ‘For her sake I would betray my comrades.’

The rambling, bitter poems Aldington produced in the 1920s read like the work of an entirely different man. It is hard not to infer a desperate emotional state from Exile and Other Poems (1923), whose titular poem begins by asking ‘How shall we utter/ This horror, this rage, this despair?’ The Aldington of these poems, as ‘Eumenides’ insists, mourns not for the dead, but for ‘my own murdered self—/ A self which had its passion for beauty’ crushed by the horrors of battle. But war is not the only source of grief in this collection, from which ‘she’ is conspicuously absent. ‘Le Maudit’ opens with a bitter couplet: ‘Women’s tears are but water;/ The tears of men are blood.’ In the absence of H.D., his collaborator and champion, Aldington’s career as a poet foundered. To make matters worse, bad blood between him and the ascendant Pound also effectively barred him from submitting to many of the most prominent literary journals. He burnt all his letters from H.D. and moved with Yorke to Berkshire, where he took on so much freelance editing and translation work on top of his job at the TLS that he drove himself to a nervous breakdown in 1925.

Nature healed him, as usual. After a long walking holiday in Wales, Aldington settled into his new life as a highly respected and well paid literary critic, writing for such publications as The NationThe Spectator and Vogue. He went alone to Paris in 1928, where he decided to write a novel about his experience at war. Death of a Hero was published in September 1929 and had sold 10,000 copies by Christmas. Being a novelist suited Aldington: he made good money over the next two decades alternating between publishing long, exhaustively detailed literary biographies and lightly satirical middlebrow fiction. He even published poetry again, periodically, although he never got back the clear, confident poetic voice that he lost when he left H.D. The two managed to reconcile as friends in the 1929, when both of their lives had stabilised.

Aldington asked H.D. to agree to a divorce in 1937; he had fallen ‘madly in love’ his ex-girlfriend Brigit Patmore’s twenty-five-year-old daughter-in-law Netta. ‘Dooley, I trust you’, he wrote; ‘Lovers are selfish. They have to be.’ Aldington had a bad case of ‘arrested development’ H.D. wrote to a friend (she had recently started analysis with Freud) but she agreed to his request. ‘I suppose that is what the war did to us,’ she reflected, took away our youth and gave us eternal youth.’ Aldington remained in France until the Nazi invasion, whereupon he left with Netta and their baby daughter Catha for Florida, then Hollywood, where he found work writing treatments and screenplays for films that were never made because of studios’ slashed wartime budgets. The work was lucrative but stultifying, and Aldington took his family back to France in 1946.

Back where he felt he belonged, Aldington settled back into literary criticism. His 1948 book on Jane Austen was published to great acclaim, as was his passionate defence of his close friend D. H. Lawrence, Portrait of a Genius, But… (1950). He researched the characteristically iconoclastic Lawrence of Arabia, a Biographical Enquiry (1955) meticulously, compiling masses of evidence for his claim that Lawrence had fabricated most of his biographical claims so as ‘to raise envious admiration in all professional authors, journalists and even shorthand typists.’ While reviews cast aspersions on the accuracy of Aldington’s claims, they were well supported by evidence and have since, for the most part, been vindicated. It seems likely that the main reason for Aldington’s condemnation by the cultural establishment was his (accurate) suggestion that Lawrence had been gay, which to him had seemed an incidental detail. Aldington’s standing in the literary world never fully recovered, but he stood by his words his whole life: ‘that such a man’ as Lawrence ‘should have been given […] fame and glory’, he felt, was an affront ‘to the real heroes of 1914- 1918.’

Aldington and H.D. continued to write to each other regularly. The last letter she ever wrote to him, on 28 April 1961, ends: ‘Forgive the long silence – all blessing on you + Catha, as always, Dooley.’ When she died two months later, her partner Bryher telegrammed Aldington before anyone else. Knowing how much they still loved each other, she offered him ‘All my sympathy.’ ‘I have been trying to prepare for it,’ Aldington replied, ‘but I had hoped it would not be so soon.’ He died the following year, aged seventy.

The canonisation of certain First World War poets occurred not long after Aldington died, in the 1960s, when men who had fought in the Second World War dominated academic and cultural institutions, and the Cold War galvanised antiwar sentiment. The forces which elevated the likes of Owen, Sassoon, Binyon and Brooke were invested in an image of the soldier-poet to which Aldington did not conform. His rejection of political orthodoxies and moral certainties was as full-throated as his disdain for conventional poetic form and metre. In the context of the place that the First World War has come to occupy in British society in the sixty years since Aldington died, Death of a Hero reads as practically sacrilegious. ‘You, the war dead,’ its narrator declares, ‘I think you died in vain, I think you died for nothing, for a blast of wind, a blather, a humbug, a newspaper stunt, a politician’s ramp.’

In the epilogue to Images of Desire, Aldington writes that men like him, who have known war first hand, know better than anyone that there is no glory in it. For him, the only lesson of the First World War was that we have ‘Only the warmth and beauty of this life/ Before the blankness of the unending gloom.’ Many of the First World War poems with which we are familiar are elegies to the things that war destroys: the people we lose, the homes we leave behind, and the ‘old lie[s]’ in which we can no longer believe. Aldington’s subject is different. As he reasserted thirty years after this poem, in the wake of another horrific world war, ‘Beauty is in us, not outside us.’ There are some things, Aldington’s poems remind us, which not even war can take from us. The First World War may have cost him his career, his sense of self, and the woman he loved, but it left him with ‘warmth and beauty’, and in the end that was more than enough.

With thanks to the Estate of Richard Aldington. The Estate of Richard Aldington reserves the rights to the work of Richard Aldington.


Lizzie Hibbert