Wilfrid Wilson Gibson was born in England at Hexham, Northumberland. He attended several local schools, but never went to university. He started writing poetry at the age of eleven, and it became a full-time occupation. His early work is in the Victorian-Romantic tradition, but in 1905-6, driven by a newly-awakened social conscience, he began writing poems about ordinary people in ordinary language, simple stories of life among the rural and urban poor. He seems to have been the first twentieth-century poet to devote himself to this sort of subject, and he became well-known. In 1912 he left Hexham for London, where he was befriended by Rupert Brooke, Edward Marsh and others. He was to appear in all five volumes of Marsh’s anthology, Georgian Poetry (1912-22), his plain style coming to be recognised as a principal ‘Georgian’ characteristic. He lodged for a year at Harold Monro‘s Poetry Bookshop, then married Monro’s secretary and settled for a while near Dymock, Gloucestershire, where a short-lived literary colony grew up in the months before the Great War.
Critics and anthologists have often undervalued Gibson’s achievement as a war poet by assuming he wrote from personal trench experience. Actually he never served abroad, but in 1914 he was ahead of all other poets in responding to the plight of ordinary soldiers. While others were being grandly rhetorical and patriotic, Gibson was trying to imagine front-line realities, using his spare, Georgian style and his ready sympathy with the underprivileged. Probably influenced by Monro’s call for a new poetry that would convey ‘the plain facts of the human psychology of the moment’, he wrote about mental states and may have been the first 1914-18 poet to portray shellshock.
Back from the trenches, more dead than alive,
Stone-deaf and dazed, and with a broken knee,
He hobbled slowly, muttering vacantly…
Those lines are from ‘The Messages’, one of Gibson’s two earliest war poems, both published in The Nation on 17 October 1914. The other poem, ‘Breakfast’ (‘We ate our breakfast lying on our backs / Because the shells were screeching overhead’), often anthologised, is based on a soldier’s anecdote quoted in the same periodical a fortnight before; many of Gibson’s other 1914-15 war poems are likely to have had similar origins in actual – though necessarily second-hand – experience. Most of them are very short, often ironic. He said he wanted them to ‘get at’ people. They were published in various periodicals and then as a book, Battle (1915).
Battle was a key influence on later wartime poets. It was read by Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney and above all by Siegfried Sassoon, many of whose war poems from 1916 onwards were to be like Gibson’s: short, ironic, realistic, Georgian studies of ordinary soldiers, aimed at the civilian conscience.
Gibson felt obliged to volunteer for the army, but he was rejected four times until being accepted as a Private in the Army Service Corps Motor Transport in October 1917, later becoming a medical officer’s clerk in south London. His 1917 volume, Livelihood, contains several narrative poems about soldiers; the best of them, ‘Behind the Lines’, a remarkable description of a wounded Tommy in No Man’s Land, had already appeared in Battle. Shorter poems about Gibson’s own wartime experiences were included in several subsequent volumes, but by the end of the war his reputation was in decline.
W.W. Gibson, Battle (September 1915, reprinted with an introduction by Kelsey Thomton, 1999); other war poems in Friends (April 1916), Livelihood (January 1917), Neighbours (1920); Collected Poems (1926).
Dominic Hibberd, November 2004
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