Poetry of the First World War

The First World War was the first military conflict in history that evoked the widest possible spectrum of literary responses, ranging from enthusiastic patriotic affirmation to disillusionment. Broadly two phases may be distinguished. The first was one of patriotic fervour, almost of rejoicing in the opportunity of self-sacrifice in the cause of human freedom, and a revival of the romantic conception of the knight-at-arms. Many writers, indeed, lived and served throughout the War and preserved unblemished this fervour of the early years. But, as the carnage grew more appalling and the end seemed as distant as ever, other poets arose with the declared intention of shattering this illusion of the splendour of war by a frankly realistic picture of the suffering, brutality, squalor, and futility of the struggle. The work of this last group, though at first greeted with derision or angry protest, has probably withstood the passage of time better than that of the earlier. Perhaps something of its realism and its depth of understanding has found an echo in the experience of disillusioned post-War generations.

Popularly war poetry is about the Front, and by young combatants: typically, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), who protested against the mechanized slaughter of the trenches; supremely, his friend Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who was killed; as were Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) and Edward Thomas (1878-1917).

Accounts which focus on anti-war poems usually employ Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) as a foil. Brooke had welcomed the war in a spirit of patriotic idealism: ‘If I should die, think only this of me,/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’ (‘The Soldier’). Rupert Brooke's popularity rests on the five war sonnets of 1914. Critics doubt that he would have written the sonnets later in the war had he lived.  They show an enthusiasm that most soldiers and poets eventually lost. Fair or not, Brooke is remembered as a "war poet" who inspired patriotism in the early months of the Great War.

After the battle of the Somme in 1916, the losses of the trenches blighted the idea of heroic sacrifice. Poems such as Sassoon’s ‘The General’, Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ and ‘To His Love’ by Ivor Gurney immerse us in that stalemate in the mud for which even professional soldiers were unprepared. The poems of Sassoon and Owen came to the fore after 1918, and came to express national mourning. The outraged sense that the wastage of the trenches must not be forgotten gave a symbolic value to Sassoon’s savagely effective protest verse and to Owen’s pathos. Both men returned to the front, Owen to die; Sassoon survived, to write Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) based nearly all his most worthwhile work on his experiences in the War. First-hand knowledge of the conditions of trench warfare produced in him a bitter disillusionment, a brief period as a conscientious objector, and, above all, a determination to shock the people at home into a realization of the ghastly truth. Counter-attack (1918), a collection of violent, embittered poems, is still the best known of his collections of poetry. With a studied bluntness and often a provocative coarseness of language, Sassoon painted the horrors of life and death in the trenches, dug-outs, and hospitals, and a merciless and calculated realism gave to his work a vitality not previously found in our war poetry. In a similar vein to Counter-attack, though less successful, were War Poems (1919) and Satirical Poems (1926). His style is simple, lucid, and most appealing, and his handling of language betrays the poet's great sensitivity. A lover of the countryside, of rural sports, of music and painting, Sassoon represented a class which is now fast disappearing, and his work gives an admirable picture of a life of cultured leisure.

 Sassoon inspired the greatest of all the war poets, Wilfred Owen. With a frank realism Owen set out to present the whole reality of war--the boredom, the hopelessness, the futility, the horror, occasionally the courage and self-sacrifice, but, above all, the pity of it. He himself wrote: " My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." And never has the pity of war been more deeply felt or more powerfully shown. Though his satire is often sharp, he never loses his artistic poise, and his most bitter work has a dignity which is truly great.

A gifted artist with a fine feeling for words and a subtle rhythmic sense, Owen was a ceaseless experimenter in verse techniques. Probably the most influential part of his technique was the para-rhyme, which was so enthusiastically adopted by later poets. Indeed, Owen's influence on these writers was very great in spite of the slimness of the volume of his poems, which were collected and published by Siegfried Sassoon in 1920.

In both technique and mood the post-War generation found in him a congenial spirit, and it is tempting, though profitless, to speculate on what he might have become had he not, by a cruel blow of fate, been killed in action just seven days before the Armistice.

The Poems of Wilfred Owen (1931) is a much more complete collection of his works and contains an excellent memoir by Edmund Blunden.

In November 1985, a slate memorial was unveiled in Poet's Corner commemorating 16 poets of the Great War: Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas.

 

Last modified: Saturday, 21 April 2018, 1:23 AM