Winner of the 2004 Whitbread poetry prize for his collection Corpus, Michael Symmons Roberts has published four highly acclaimed volumes of poetry to date. He is currently working on a project for Welsh National Opera with composer James Macmillan, and his second novel, Breath, is published by Jonathan Cape on March 13.
“I went to Primary School on the site of one of the English Civil War’s bloodiest battles. We all knew it was a battlefield, and assumed that the grass mounds outside the school gates were buried heaps of civil war dead. I later discovered them to be Neolithic burial grounds, but the civil war stories stuck with me.
The roads around the school bore names of Royalist or Parliamentary soldiers, and the school itself – Falkland Primary School – was named after a young Royalist so broken by the brutality of civil conflict that he made a reckless charge on the battlefield – effectively committing suicide.
Even growing up through the cold war years of the 70’s and 80’s, those civil war stories of families torn apart, the terrible betrayal and brutality of neighbour turned against neighbour, never went away. The last several decades have seen civil war taken to new horrific levels in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
In compiling this list, I was looking for books that addressed the unique terror of “neighbour against neighbour” conflicts, but also books that explored the particular challenge of peace in the aftermath of civil war. How do you go back to living with these people, nodding in the street, sharing trains, buses, schools, hospitals?”
1. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell
The Spanish Civil War drew many writers in, and produced striking work in fiction and poetry as a result. Orwell’s is one of the great memoirs, though. A novelist and journalist recounting his own experience
2. Complete Poems by Walt Whitman
One of America’s finest poets, a witness to the horrors of the American Civil War. Formally inventive and expansive in imagination, Whitman is often seen – rightly – as a celebrant of the human spirit. The war brought out a different side, though, a strong and politically passionate evocation of suffering.
3. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
A classic examination of the tensions between ideology and action, focusing on an American volunteer soldier in the Spanish Civil War. Driven by his political beliefs, the soldier (Robert Jordan) is forced to test the strength of his character and conviction in the face of adversity.
4. I’m Explaining a Few Things by Pablo Neruda
Okay, so I’m cheating, it’s not strictly a book in itself, but Neruda’s long poem (in Spanish titled Explico Algunas Cosas) is one of the great 20th-century war poems, a stunning example of anger coiled and transmuted into great poetry. Can be found in his Collected Poems.
5. Astraea by Jane Stevenson
Stevenson’s magical novel about the 1640s follows Elizabeth of Bohemia in exile in the Netherlands, corresponding with the rest of the English royal family and powerless to prevent the catastrophe at home. The civil war is presented obliquely through Elizabeth’s letters, which are perfect parodies of C17th prose.
6. Legion by David Harsent
A chilling book by one of our best contemporary poets, full of lyric detail and multiple voices, building an intense vision of life in a fictional civil warzone.
7. Disgrace by JM Coetzee
A remarkable novel set in post-apartheid South Africa. Not directly addressing civil war, but it is a vivid exploration of the aftermath of civil conflict, the sheer difficulty of reconciliation and healing.
8. Poetry and Revolution, edited by Peter Davidson
An anthology of poetry from the English Civil War in all the languages of the British Isles, i.e. English, Scots, Gaelic, Irish, Welsh and Latin. Most of the material existed only in manuscript and is printed here for the first time.
9. Complete Poems of Henry Vaughan
One of the greatest British poets, encountered by many readers alongside Herbert and Marvell as one of the so-called “Metaphysical Poets”. His early works includes poems for serving civil war soldiers, but by the time he wrote his great work Silex Scintillans the war gave his poems a powerful sense of devastation and loss.
10. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Drama and romance amid American Civil War and reconstruction. Ah well, I thought I had to…it is one of the most popular books of all time, after all…