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On “To Some of Our Editors”


To Some of Our Editors
Anonymous, from Punch, January 6, 1915, page 18

Ye pundits who edit our papers,
How long will it take you to learn
That mere egotistical capers
Are not of the highest concern?
The writers who cut them for ages
In the nostrils of England shall stink,
Yet while able to hamper, you pet and you pamper
These slingers of poisonous ink.

In the stress of a conflict Titanic,
When personal sorrow is mute,
We see them beset with a panic
Of losing their chances of loot;
So they start with indecent endeavour,
On the flimsiest pretext and hint,
Criticising and squealing, but only revealing
Their passionate craving for print.

When they ask you to publish their sloppy,
Sophistical, impundent screeds,
Think, editors, less of "good copy"
And more of the national needs;
For whether they pontify sadly,
Or flout us in cap and in bells,
Pontifical patter and arrogant chatter
Are worse than the enemy's shells.
There's a saying that's frequently quoted,
And cannot be wholly ignored,
That the pen, when its force can be noted,
Is a mightier thing than the sword;
But the mightiness doesn't reside in
The pen, but the writer behind,
Who, if hostile to reason or bent upon treason,
No deadlier weapon can find.
In Peace, in the times that were piping,
When pacifists bade us disarm,
This smart intellectual sniping
Did less recognisable harm;
But now, in the hour of its peril,
The country is sick of its Shaws,
And hurls to the devil the sophists who revel
In pleading the enemy's cause.

This poem, appearing early in "The Great War," takes a very different approach to other early war poems in that it uses anger and mockery to make its point. This technique is similar to the writing of Siegfried Sassoon in Does it Matter? and Base Details, but unlike Siegfried Sassoon, the anonymous author of To Some of Our Editors does not simply comment or create art; the poem makes a violent call to the uneducated public to censor anti-war writing—by force if necessary.
In order to attack a group, namely writers of anti-war literature, Editors uses a form that appeals to the uneducated masses. Simple in its rhyme and sing-song in meter, the poem could easily become a song in the tradition of "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." The meter is three metrical feet in a "rising" rhythm of amphibrachs ( ∪ ' ∪ ). When coupled with its simple rhyme scheme of ABABCDED (or possibly ABABCDEED if the internal rhyme of the 7th line is counted), it seems that this is something of a lyric, perhaps even conceived as a song in an English pub and then transcribed. The easy rhythm and rhyme are no accident; this poem is intended to be "catchy." It is the pub atmosphere that the author deliberately invokes. By this point in the 20th century (1916), strict adherence to form was mostly outdated, and in this occurrence, its use is deliberately mocking. The mockery of form is similar to Siegfried Sassoon's purpose in Does it Matter?, except that Sassoon is attacking a different group:

Does it matter?—losing your sight?…
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light. (ll. 6-10)

Sassoon uses a sing-song meter and rhyme to mock the people who would think stupidly that being blind is not too bad, since there is always "splendid work" and "people will always be kind." These are people who trivialize the suffering of soldiers, and so they must be supporters of the war effort, possibly commanders. The use of "common" meters by both poets (common meaning base, proletariat and unsophisticated) intentionally mocks the people that think in such a way. In Editors, the meter lambasts anti-war writers. In Does it Matter? it makes fun of those who would trivialize the suffering of soldiers. Both poems use meter and rhyme in anger to debase their subjects.
Anger comes quickly in Editors. The first word is "Ye" which is outdated and connotes an air of superiority. He makes fun of the "pundits," presumably the editors of Punch or possibly the anti-war writers who have written for Punch, by suggesting that they actually talk that way. "Ye" is, and was at the time, obsolete in everyday speech; instead, the author is saying that the "pundits" are arrogant and puerile. "Ye" mocks them, since they deem themselves superior. In much the same way, Sassoon's use of the major's comments in Base Details illustrates its point: "Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’ / I'd say—I used to know his father well; / Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap." The language depicts the major in a false sense of arrogant superiority. The major really isn't concerned, since he refers to the corpse as "chap" and not "my friend" or something more personal. The major also calls the battle a scrap, which is inappropriate for somebody who did not witness the battle and only gave orders from a distance. The use of "ye" in Editors gives a similar impression of how the author views the "editors", that is, with contempt.

Editors furthers its assertions by musing on possible reasons for the editors and writers to act as they do. The author speculates on what would make a person pander to the "slingers of poisonous ink," and the poem settles on stress and greed. The stress is caused by the magnitude of the conflict, which, in the author's opinion, causes people to "mute" their sorrow. They panic when they are about to lose their money, and losing money itself is a terrible thing, since they are greedy. From the angry tone of the poem, the author infers that the editors are more concerned with money than with the war effort. Furthermore, the "Titanic" conflict has made the editors crazy, and so the poet feels that they react out of fear, and are they are, therefore, irrational. The use of the words "squealing" and "indecent" reveal the author's intention to make the editors raving madmen, swine-like, since civilized people would not act in this manner. After all, the poet sees the printing of anti-war poetry as an unimaginable treason, and the only way it can be reconciled with human feelings is through insanity of some sort. Greed, one of the seven deadly sins, is easy for the masses to understand as a motive for wrongdoing. Since the masses themselves are, by definition, not well-off, greed is effective when making an appeal to their sense of indignation.
Another appeal to the sensibilities of the masses is national pride. By calling attention to "national needs" and the "enemy's shells" the poem again makes an argument, presumably to be heard by the editors, and to be acted upon in some manner. The third stanza makes an argument that the writers are using sophistry to make their points. The sophists of ancient Greece appeared to make sound and reasonable arguments, but were really only using the appearance of logic to their unscrupulous or mischievous ends. The author of this poem states that anti-war writing may sound reasonable at first, but it is fundamentally flawed since it ignores the national cause and even subverts it. Furthermore, the use of the word "treason" gives the stanza, and the poem as a whole, a much more serious tone. Treason is a crime punishable by death, and so the author cannot be using it lightly. The poem then compares the pen to the sword, and states in clear language that the writers are using "weapons" to make their treason. The intellectuals are using powerful weaponry to commit treason, and this is something which cannot be tolerated. The conclusion of the poet's argument states that "intellectual sniping" could be tolerated during peacetime, since it could do no real harm. In peacetime, there can be no harm by using words, but in war, there is "recognizable harm." The harm is that of the intellectuals, and it is clearly labeled as treason.

The last two lines sum up the discussion of why the populous should be angry, and it makes a serious call to action by. The action implied is the censorship of anti-war writing. The implied violence and angry tone of the poem suggest that these writers must be stopped by force if necessary, since they are traitors and using intellectual weaponry to attack the nation. The author compares the writers and editors to "Shaws." This is Bernard Shaw, the writer of Mrs. Warren's Profession, and numerous essays against the war effort. A controversial writer, Shaw already had a large public opinion against him, and accusations were made that he was damaging the national welfare with his amoral writing. By aligning the editors and writers of Punch with Shaw, the author of Editors uses a stereotype to drive public opinion against them. The inference is that the treasonous editors and writers of anti-war poetry are as uncivilized as Bernard Shaw, who dared to characterize immoral behavior as normal, even desirable.
The final sentence of Editors is the most serious and most angry, since the "Shaws" are seen as a disease, and the country is "sick of them." The author of Editors says they should be "hurled to the devil," and since the editors and writers are traitors, this can only be read as a call to eliminate them through force. "Hurl" is a physical word and implies action. By using the word "devil," Editors labels the "Shaws" as condemned sinners as well. What starts out as a harmless lyrical poem about a different view of anti-war poetry has become a call to the uneducated masses to remove, by force, the editors and writers of anti-war "screed" in Punch.

While Siegfried Sassoon echoes some of the sarcasm of Editors, there is never any call to action. Sassoon simply comments. In Does it Matter?, the form of the poem is similar to Editors, but it lacks the immediate violence and evil connotations of its subjects:

Does it matter?—Losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs. (ll. 1-5)

There is anger in this section, but not the language of action like Editors. Sassoon chooses not to label a specific group; he chooses not to use active words like "hurl," "hostile" and "disarm." Losing ones legs is a terrible thought, but the next line describes how people will be kind, and this softens the anger even though it mocks the pro-war effort. While Sassoon writes about a terrible thing, his language is distant from that terror. The rest of the poem has the same tenor, and the tone is consistent.

In Editors, the first stanza starts out with a light, but angry tone, and the seriousness intensifies with each stanza until the last, when it sounds more like a rallying speech than a poem. Editors becomes belligerent and active, while Does it Matter? only illustrates a point and does not suggest a mode of conduct. Even in Base Details, where Sassoon uses his strongest anger and most specific targets, he never implies that the majors should be held accountable; he never labels them as traitors or likens them to a disease like the author of Editors. To Some of Our Editors is an angry poem, written to mock the people who would use poetry to subvert the war effort. It uses class distinction and inciting language to enrage its readers. It makes no pretense at art, instead, it mocks the very form it uses.

Works Cited
Sassoon, Siegfried, Base Details. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Ed. Jon Silken. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 1981
Sassoon, Siegfried, Does it Matter? The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. Ed. Jon Silken. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 1981

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