2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War which raged across the fields of Europe from July 1914 until November 1918. For the four long years of the war everyone from British soldiers stationed in Egypt to children evacuated from Liverpool felt the effects of conflict. But from the war to end all wars (if only that had been the case) came some of the greatest poetry of our time. It was a joyless silver-lining, but it was a silver-lining nonetheless.
(Pssst. 21 March is World Poetry Day. Use the code ‘wpd’ to receive 25% off The Bluffer’s Guide to Poetry!)
5 writers of war poetry to know
- Thomas Hardy – although better known for his novels, Hardy penned a few war poems in his time. He was also part of the Fight for Right Movement, set up in 1915 with the aim of ‘deepen[ing] the conviction…that we are fighting for something more than our own defence.’
- Katharine Tynan – there were far fewer female war poets than there were male so it’s a good idea to bluff up on them. Tynan knew the poet WB Yeats and had two sons serving in the war – one stationed in France, the other in Palestine.
- Siegfried Sassoon – he was the first war poet to volunteer but was forced to leave service in 1918 after being shot in the head by one of his own men. It was an accident… Despite loudly condemning the war he won a Military Cross.
- Rudyard Kipling – Kipling is known across the world for The Jungle Book, a collection of stories now more often associated with the Disney cartoon. He was also involved in writing propaganda leaflets at the beginning of the war, with which he became increasingly disenchanted after the death in the trenches of his 18 year old son John in 1915.
- Rupert Brooke – a socialist and atheist, Brooke joined the navy over the army. He had a rather unstable personality with a tendency towards suicidal thoughts but finally died of blood poisoning from a mosquito bite on his way to the landing at Gallipoli.
WHO WERE THE WWI WAR POETS?
Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenburg, Charles Sorley, Wilfred Owen, T.E. Hulme, Leslie Coulson, Jeffery Day, Julian Grenfell, W.N.Hodgson, Thomas Kettle, Francis Ledwidge, John McCrae, E.A. Mackintosh, R.B. Marriott-Watson, Nowell Oxland, Robert Palmer, Alan Seeger, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, E.W. Tennant, R. Everriede, T.P. Cameron Wilson are just some of the poets that fought and died in the First World War. They were all young, egocentric, talented and almost forced into verse by the horror of their experiences. Some critics have suggested that it was the static nature of their nightmare existence, creating a fruitful routine, that accounts for the excellence of the poetry of this time – fewer poems written in the Second World War are reckoned in the same class.
IS THERE ANY ONE WAR POET I SHOULD KNOW?
We’re not taking sides, but Wilfred Owen nearly always dominates conversations on war poetry, perhaps because he wrote of little else. As he himself wrote in the preface to his posthumously-published collected poems: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.‘ Had he lived however (he was killed a week before Armistice Day at the age of 25), who knows what other poetic feats he may have gone on to. Some might argue that Owen’s death is the single biggest catastrophe to befall poetry since the death of Keats; others may demur, and cite the flowery affectation of his pre-war poetry to illustrate why Owen may not have been able to reach the heights of his war poetry in times of peace.
WHY WAS HE SO RENOWNED?
Owen says it better than we ever could… Read (and if possible commit to memory) his short poem ‘Futility’ and you’ll see what we mean.
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,—still warm,—too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
WHAT SHOULD I SAY ABOUT IT?
There is little one can really say about this small but perfectly formed poem. Not that artistic achievement borne of great suffering has ever prevented your average poetry buff from sounding off about the merits of this or that aspect of form or metre, or whatever; and in the case of this poem there’s always the chance that the reverent silence which is really the only appropriate response to it will be broken by someone wittering on about Owen’s mastery of pararhyme (a kind of rhyme where the consonant remains the same but the vowel changes – e.g. seeds/sides; tall/toil). ‘My great-grandfather was killed at Ypres you know’ is always a pretty effective way of shutting up someone who won’t let the poetry of war speak for itself.
MAXIMUM BLUFFING VALUE
Though Wilfred Owen may have, not every poet wrote solely on the subject of the war. Indeed, Edmund Blunden, himself a soldier in the War, reckoned that the term ‘War Poet’ was inaccurately applied to many of his contemporaries. Some (Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, David Jones) were poets who happened to be caught in Armageddon, but whose work encompasses many other themes.
DO SAY ‘I prefer to read Owen rather than marvel at his mastery of pararhyme.’
DON’T ASK ‘When was the First World War again?’
Would you like to bluff your way through the war poetry of WW2 and the rest of the 20th Century as well? Buy the Bluffer’s Guide to Poetry!