Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on poetry. In this essay, he discusses the war reporting of Sir William Howard Russell and the use Carson made of it in “The War Correspondent.”
Ciaran Carson’s “The War Correspondent” is a tribute to the war reporting of Sir William Howard Russell, whose words written in the mid-nineteenth century come to new life in the work of the Irish poet. Reading Russell’s vivid, richly descriptive dispatches from the Crimean War, it is not difficult to see why they have exerted such an influence on the poet, who dedicates the entire volume, Breaking News, in which “The War Correspondent” appears, to Russell. Russell was an Irishman in the days before Irish independence; Carson is an Irish poet from a region of Ireland that remains part of the United Kingdom, who lived through thirty years of sectarian violence that turned his home city of Belfast into a virtual war zone. In Breaking News, Carson becomes a kind of war reporter himself, recording the sights and sounds of Belfast in the years following the uneasy peace settlement of 1998, during which tension and fear still pervade the air, British Army helicopters still fly overhead, and the memory of sudden, deadly violence remains clear. Carson also links the present-day reality of Belfast with the wars that have gone before it, including the Crimean War, an imperial war the traces of which can still be seen in the early 2000s in Belfast in the commemorative names of the streets: Sevastopol, Crimea, Inkerman. As Carson writes in “Exile”:
The poet Carson, however, had little interest in Russell’s patriotism or his accounts of the suffering of the wounded. What most caught his eye was the journalist’s keen observation, his eye for detail, his gift for the telling image.
The work of Russell marked the beginning of a new era in war reporting, through which the educated public became more fully informed about current wars than ever before. Although some of Russell’s dispatches took nearly three weeks to reach London and get printed in the Times—by contrast to instant satellite communications that enable war correspondents in the early 2000s to be heard and seen live by millions of television viewers—in their accuracy and detail they represented considerable progress over former times. Only sixty years earlier, news of a great English naval victory over the French was conveyed by courier to the British Admiralty, and no less a personage than the Duke of Clarence went personally to the theater at Covent Garden and told the manager to announce the news to the audience. It was common during the French Revolutionary wars and the Napoleonic wars to make such announcements in streets and theaters. Newspapers were not the sources of such information; without reporters on the spot, they were dependent on the government, which controlled the channels of communication, to tell them what had happened.
In the Crimean War, the first major war in Europe since the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the dry official dispatches that purported to describe events at the battlefront were eclipsed by the rise of a new type of newspaper reporter, the special correspondent, the greatest of whom was Russell. Russell’s reports not only informed the public about the nature and outcome of key battles but also exposed the mismanagement that led to the extreme hardships suffered by British troops in the severe winter of 1854–1855. Working for the Times enhanced Russell’s influence, since in the early 1850s it had a circulation of forty thousand, greater than that of all its rivals put together.
Russell’s reports give the...
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