John Edgell Rickword, MC was an English poet, journalist and literary critic who, remarkably, achieved most of his best work with only one eye. He had contracted a severe infection in his left eye at the age of 21 which resulted in it being removed. He is one of the many British war poets whose collected works from that period were published in 1921 under the poignant title, given his disability, Behind the Eyes.
He was born on the 22nd October 1898 in Colchester, Essex, the son of the first municipal librarian of that town. His was a pupil at the Royal Grammar School and then followed millions of other young men into military service, joining the Army in late-1916. He saw active service in France, being wounded twice, and his valiant efforts won him the Military Cross. He spent his off duty times at the front reading French literature and also became obsessed with the powerful poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. Rickword was particularly influenced by the collection called Counter-Attack which showed him how effective language can be in describing, in shocking detail, the true horrors of war. He endeavoured to emulate Sassoon’s colloquial style in his own writings.
After the war he went up to Oxford but only studied French Literature for a short time, leaving the university to get married. During this time though he wrote a great deal and some of his work appeared in a 1921 anthology called Oxford Poetry. Literary contemporaries of this time included men who would also become famous such as Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and L P Hartley. After Oxford he found work as an editor and critic, working for the New Statesman and the Times Literary Supplement.
Rickword was deeply affected by political matters during the 1930s and joined the British Communist Party in 1934. He followed a number of like-minded intellectuals in writing about the struggles, especially those endured by the Spanish during their Civil War, and he was one of the founders of a publication called Left Review. Some will argue that his achievements in the editorial and literary criticism field overshadowed those of his poetry but he was, nevertheless, a notable poet, even though he wrote comparatively little verse.
Here is a particularly striking example of his work, a poem called Trench Poets. It describes the slow decay of a fallen comrade, witnessed by his friend who fights on while enduring at close quarters the gruesome changes that occur in the corpse. The poem is reproduced here:
After his published collection of 1921 he wrote very little poetry, tending to concentrate on his editorial work, but he still managed to establish a place in English literary history as one of the country’s foremost war poets. He also wrote love poetry, in a lyrical, sensual style which was totally at odds with his earlier work. He produced only three collections of poetry in all, the last being Twittingpan, and some others, published in 1931.
A notable piece on the work of other poets was his Essays and Opinion 1921-31, a book published in 1974. This featured well known English writers such as Donne and Swift, and French men of letters including Baudelaire and Rimbaud. Remarkably, despite having lost the sight in his one remaining eye, he was still working on his memoirs during his final years, right up to the end.
John Edgell Rickword died on the 15th March 1982 at the age of 83.