The First World War inspired some of the most powerful artistic works that man has ever created. Their potency comes from the fact that the artists and poets experienced first hand the horror, tragedy and violence of war, imbuing their works with emotive, heartfelt themes. They were moved to expressing themselves through a creative outpouring of emotions. There is a great deal of significant art and literature to come out of the war, but in this piece we will focus on three British poets who were among the nation’s favourites. In the second part, we will look at three British war artists.
The poetry of the Great War is simultaneously wonderful and heart-rending. It is what sparked my own interest in this four year battle of power and morality.
Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) wrote patriotic and idealistic war poetry. He was said to have been incredibly good looking. W.B.Yeats described him as “the handsomest young man in England” and Virginia Woolf once boasted of going skinny-dipping with him in a moonlit pool when they were in Cambridge together.
Unfortunately, Brooke died at the tender age of 27, less than a year into the First World War, and it may have been this early death that allowed him to write such positive poetry about the war. Had he lived longer through it and seen all the horrors it brought, his style of poetry may well have changed. In fact, although he enlisted and was stationed with the Royal Navy, he did not die from battle wounds or any kind of war related injury. While in the Mediterranean Sea, he developed sepsis from a mosquito bite and died in a French hospital ship moored off the Greek Island of Skyros in the Aegean sea. Probably his most celebrated poem is “The Soldier”, which opens with one of the best-known lines of any poem.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was an English poet decorated for his bravery on the Western Front. His poetry dealt with the horror of war, but his reaction was also bitter and violent. He made strong statements against the creators of war by satirising their jingoistic propaganda. “Suicide in the Trenches” is one of his most famous poems. It is as short, direct and powerful as any war poetry.
Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Sassoon did in fact become such a strong anti-war voice that he got himself into trouble. His fellow poet, Robert Graves, rescued him by convincing a review board that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock who agreed to admit him to a mental hospital where he met Wilfred Owen, whom he mentored and with whom he built a close friendship.
Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) wrote all his greatest poetry from August 1917 to September 1918.
Among his best known poems are “Futility” and “Dulce et Decorum Est” (Latin for “It is sweet and honourable). The inspiration behind the latter of these two poems was from an incident when Owen was stationed in France in January 1916. He and his platoon had been wading through miles of trenches for the previous few days. on 12th January, they marched three miles over a shelled road and three more along a flooded trench, where those who got stuck in the heavy mud had to leave their waders, as well as some clothing and equipment, and move ahead on bleeding and freezing feet. They were under machine-gun fire, shelled by heavy explosives and were almost unconscious from fatigue when the poison-gas attack occurred. Here is the poem:
Dulce et Decorum Est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Tragically, Owen was killed in action just one week before Armistice in November 1918. Most of his poems were published posthumously.