World War I Poetry
The “war to end wars,” as H.G. Wells described it in a series of newspaper articles, began in 1914. The main belligerents were the allied forces of France, Britain, and the dominions, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand; Russia (until 1917) and, after April 1917, the United States—versus the central powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Few believed that the war would last very long, but gradually both sides became mired in a stalemate, and it dragged on until November 1918, with unparalleled loss of life—nearly nine million combatants and millions of civilians died as a result of the war.
One striking difference between the war poetry of the Victorian Age as seen in Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and the poetry of World War I is the shift from a more or less unquestioning acceptance of war to a growing disillusionment. Although Tennyson makes clear that the military command had blundered in this instance, he refuses to dwell on the incompetence of the generals and instead emphasizes the bravery of the British soldier. Similarly, Rupert Brooke, perhaps the public face of the British war effort before his death prior to seeing action, carries forward a romanticized, chivalric view of war, particularly in his poem, “The Soldier,” a poem that Dean Inge, one of the most important clergymen in Britain, read as part of his Easter Sunday sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1914, and to which Winston Churchill referred in an obituary published in the Times three days after Brooke’s death. Even Siegfried Sassoon, the poet who, along with Wilfred Owen, was considered one of the poets most critical of the war, seems to echo Brooke’s romanticizing attitude in an early poem, “Absolution”:
…War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,
And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.
Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion….
But as the war dragged on, “with more and more poets killed and the survivors increasingly disillusioned…a patriotic poem such as ‘The Soldier’ became a ridiculous anachronism in the face of the realities of trench warfare, and the even more blatantly patriotic note sounded by…John Freeman’s ‘Happy is England Now,’ which claimed that ‘there’s not a nobleness of heart, hand, brain/But shines the purer; happiest is England now/In those that fight’ seemed obscene” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 20th Century and After, 9th ed., 2017). And unlike Tennyson’s uncritical response to the effects of blundering generals, Sassoon implies in a later poem, that the cheery old general, safely distant from the front line, who passes two enlisted men on their way to the front, is perhaps the real enemy: “Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead/And we’re cursing his Staff for incompetent swine” (“The General”). Interestingly, Sassoon tempered the sting of the final line in the published version. A draft version, reprinted below, reads, “murdered them” rather than “did for them”.
In “Glory of Women,” Sassoon asserts that women believe that “chivalry redeems” the disgrace of war, but after reading Churchill’s florid obituary of Brooke and the majority of pre-1914 war poems written by men, it becomes clear that such an attitude was pervasive before chivalry collided with the ugly reality of trench warfare—and would have been shared by poets and poetry readers of both genders. Indeed, rather than focus on the apparent misogyny of this poem, it should be possible to see that “women” function thematically in this poem as do other generalized, uninitiated non-combatants, such as the clergyman in “They” or the aforementioned General. Indeed, women played an important role in World War I, the world’s first total war, which involved all sectors of the populace: men and women at home as well as those on the battlefield. England’s industry was mobilized in the service of the war; the war was brought home to everyone.
In this unit, you will be encouraged to look closely at the series of Oxford University’s online tutorials devoted to some major poets of World War I—especially Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Isaac Rosenberg—The First World War Poetry Digital Archive. Each tutorial includes a biographical introduction to the poet, a hyperlinked “feature poem,” some literary criticism of the featured poem, as well as other texts by the poet.
Before looking closely at the tutorials of the major war poets, please read the Seminar Introduction, “What is War Poetry?”
The Seminar Introduction defines war poetry, gives a brief overview of World War I, also known as the Great War, and explains the focus on poets who served on “the Western Front.” You might also wish to bookmark the seminar “map,” which will make it easier to navigate the tutorials.
A major strength of these tutorials is the opportunity they afford students to browse archival materials, including images of original drafts of many of the poems, as well as giving online access to other key documents such as the poets’ correspondence, and to a huge archive of period photographs and other related materials. Students are encouraged to explore, using the search key function. A specific example is to search “Vera Brittain, author of the World War I memoir, Testament of Youth, which has been adapted as a television mini-series (1979) and a full-length feature film (2015).
You will find numerous draft and published poems by her, including the holograph (handwritten) version of her poem “Perhaps,” which commemorates the death of her soldier-fiancé, Roland Leighton, who was also a poet, as well as her correspondence, war diaries, and photographs. View the trailer for the 2015 film Testament of Youth here.
One of the tutorials in the First World War Poetry Digital Archive gives a brief overview of war poems by women, and, like the other tutorials, can be used as a launching pad for future research:
Given that 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, there are numerous detailed websites devoted to the subject. For this unit, students will find the following links particularly useful:
- The articles were later published in book form as The War That Will End War. <https://archive.org/details/warthatwillendwa00welluoft> ↵