by Pericles Lewis

Ford Madox Hueffer’s “Antwerp” (January, 1915) is one of the few early poems on the war written by a card-carrying modernist. Hueffer, grandson of Ford Madox Brown and son of a German journalist and music critic, anglicized his name to Ford Madox Ford only after the war at the behest of his publisher. He was friendly with the propaganda minister, C.F.G. Masterman, and, although not among the first group of writers enlisted by him (perhaps because of his German parentage), Ford did eventually write two propaganda novels.

Written before either of the novels, the poem “Antwerp” concerns the mystery of why the Belgians resisted the German invasion when it would have been easier to let the Germans pass through on their way to France. Lines like “And you will say of all heroes, ‘They fought like the Belgians!’” do not seem terribly modernist, and yet T. S. Eliot called “Antwerp” “the only good poem I have met with on the subject of the war.” Eliot may have admired the many mythological parallels that Ford draws between his ordinary Belgians and the heroes of Greek or Norse legend. The most Eliotic moment in the poem occurs, however, near its end, with the nightmare vision of Belgian refugees at Charing Cross, mothers “And little children, all in black, / All with dead faces, waiting in all the waiting-places.” The clearest echo of the poem in later modernist literature occurs in Yeats’s “Easter, 1916,” whose famous lines “All changed, changed utterly / A Terrible beauty is born” may be indebted to Ford’s “But that clutter of sodden corses / On the sodden Belgian grass— / That is a strange new beauty.” Not only these lines but the general theme of ordinary reality transformed and sanctified by unexpected violence carries over from “Antwerp” to “Easter, 1916.”[1]

  1. ↑ Adapted from “Inventing Literary Modernism During the Great War.” Forthcoming in “A Terrible Beauty”: Modern Painting, London, and the Outbreak of the Great War, ed. Michael Walsh. Under consideration at Ashgate Press and Cambridge University Press. copyright (c) Pericles Lewis