Robert Graves went to fight the First World War with a knapsack full of ‘Keats, Homer, and the novelist Samuel Butler’. Siegfried Sassoon followed, carrying with him ‘Hardy’s The Dynasts, Conrad’s A Set of Six, Charles Lamb’s essays and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales’, and when they met in a mess in northern France they inevitably talked about books. Harry Ricketts’s admirable new study emphasises the influences shared between the poets of what used to be called ‘the Great War’. These were always poets in company, in the presence of their dead predecessors or, often, their soon-to-be-dead peers.
Strange Meetings is, Ricketts writes, a ‘collective biography’: it sets out fifteen meetings between poets, although his definition of ‘meeting’ is creatively broad. As he notes, ‘eight actually took place, six are near-encounters of various kinds, and one … is faction, fiction closely based on fact’. He opens