Reframing First World War poetry

Dr Santanu Das considers how the examination of war poetry has changed and looks beyond typical British trench lyric to explore the variety of poetic responses.
In some papers found in his kit after his death in the Battle of Loos on 13 October 1915, the twenty-year-old Charles Hamilton Sorley had scribbled in pencil what would become one of the most celebrated sonnets of the First World War:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.[1]

Repeatedly anthologised, yet forever startling. The power of this bleak, disturbing sonnet partly lies in the way the insistent rhythm and the desolate imagery of the octave reach some sort of climax in the opening lines of the sestet with the exhortation and the classical allusion (the quotation in line 10 refers to Patroclus’s death in the Iliad), only to be intensified by the haunting gaze (‘Then, scanning. . .’) and the sudden, ominous, darkly comic shock of ‘It is a spook’. The eeriness of the image is enhanced by the poignant circumstances of the poem’s posthumous discovery. Sorley’s poem operates on that fine threshold where poetic form and personal tragedy meet.

Dr Santanu Das explores the manuscript for Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est', revealing new insights into the composition of one of World War One's most well-known poems.

Often regarded as the ‘transitional’ figure between the early and later soldier-poets, Sorley, like his poem, was unusual for the time.[2] Yet, the poem provides one of the earliest examples of what we now regard as the classic features of First World War poetry: the lyric testimony of the broken body – mouth, eyes, the ‘gashed’ head – set against the abstract rhetoric of honour; the address to the reader (‘you’) that we associate with the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, as opposed to the egotistical ‘I’ of Rupert Brooke; the ‘pale battalions’ haunting the shell-shocked dreams of veterans, John Singer Sargent’s dream-like Gassed (1919) and Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), and becoming the iconic image of the war. Robert Graves found Sorley’s poetry so powerful that he introduced it to Sassoon, who in turn introduced it to Wilfred Owen. And spook-like, First World War poetry knows no habitation or rest. Mixing cultural memory with linguistic desire, First World War poetry has ranged far beyond the covers of the book. It appears on postcards, posters and in politicians’ speeches, in memorials and epitaphs, and has inspired every art form, from Sean O’Casey’s play The Silver Tassie (1928) and Benjamin Britten’s musical tribute War Requiem (1962) to the BBC TV series Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) and Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration (1991).
Over the last hundred years, the image of the First World War soldier as damaged but resilient has remained etched on British cultural consciousness, partly formed and periodically reinforced by the reading of a handful of soldier-poets, particularly Owen and Sassoon. Other important soldier-poets include Edmund Blunden, Ivor Gurney, Robert Graves, Edward Thomas, David Jones, Francis Ledgwidge, and Isaac Rosenberg, and of course the golden-haired young man whose ‘begloried’ war sonnets they all opposed and yet one who haunts their work: Rupert Brooke. More than any other genre – fiction, memoir or film – it is the poetry of the trenches, as represented by a small group of ‘anti-war’ soldier-poets, that has come to dominate First World War memory. We seldom read such poetry; it is usually a matter of re-reading, remembering, returning – with familiarity, surprise, sometimes resistance. We associate it with a part of our former selves. Today, the poetry of the soldier-poets has coalesced, beyond literary history and cultural memory, into a recognisable structure of feeling. Herein lies an undeniable part of its power and some of the larger critical problems.

For the scope of First World War poetry is much wider than that of the trench lyric. There is a substantial and distinguished body of war poetry by male civilian poets, including Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and D.H. Lawrence, as well as by women-poets such as Charlotte Mew, Mary Borden, Vera Brittain, Rose Macaulay and Margaret Postgate Cole. The poetry of the First World War is often regarded as peculiarly ‘English’, but many of the soldier-poets had a conflicted relation to ‘Englishness’: Sorley was Anglo-Scottish, Rosenberg and Sassoon (on his father’s side) were Jewish, Ledwidge was Irish, while Owen, Jones and Thomas could trace their recent family history to Wales. Moreover, war poetry was produced across Europe, by poets as diverse as Giuseppe Ungaretti, Georg Trakl, Guillaume Apollinaire and Anna Akhmatova , and further afield from countries such as Australia and New Zealand, Canada, India, the West Indies and Turkey.

Joy of Shipwrecks, a book of poetry

Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti was inspired by the tragedy of war to write the Joy of Shipwrecks.

Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti was inspired by the tragedy of war to write the Joy of Shipwrecks.

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Form and history

One of the achievements of war poetry has been to democratise poetry itself. Its centrality in the school curriculum means that, for many, it represents their first encounter with poetry – and not just in Great Britain. When I was a student in Kolkata, the former capital of British India, the figures of the two ‘Tommies’ standing guard by the city’s Cenotaph-like First World War memorial always blended in my mind with Owen and Sassoon whom we read at Presidency College, which claimed to have the oldest English department in the world. In India, as in many other countries, First World War poetry spoke with a British accent. And of all the literary genres, it was one that remained most tightly cling-filmed around an event, and conjured up the iconic images – trenches, barbed wire, gas, rats, mud. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss has argued that the substance of myth ‘does not lie in its style, its original music, or its syntax, but in the story which it tells’.[3] In the classroom, First World War poetry often ceases to be poetry and begins to look like history by proxy. Neither the transparent envelope of experience nor just language whispering to itself about itself, First World War poetry represents one of those primal moments when poetic form bears most fully the weight of historical trauma.[4] Art and testimony are often yoked together by real-life violence, leading to formal realignment, invention or dissonance. Categories such as ‘pro-war’ and ‘anti-war’ often prove inadequate, when tested against the complexity of individual poems. Similarly, combatant, non-combatant and women’s poetry operated within a larger poetic field and shared common ground. For many scholars, the very term ‘war poetry’ is problematic: indeed, a ‘war poem’ contains much besides the war. As Simon Featherstone has noted, the label may confine the poem, artificially, within the parenthesis of the war years. War is crucial to the poetry and its intensities of meaning, but it is not the only – or isolated – focus of attention or analysis. First World War poetry looks before and after the war, joining past and future, and combatant and civilian zones; it speaks in varying cadences not just of combat, but also of life at large – of beauty, longing, religion, nature, animals, intimacy, historical change, poetic responsibility, Europe and Englishness, race, democracy and empire, or what it is for women to have ‘years and years in which we shall still be young’[5] – all touched directly or indirectly by the war.

Jessie Pope's War Poems

Jessie Pope's pro-war poems were originally published to encourage enlistment and were very popular.

Jessie Pope's pro-war poems were originally published to encourage enlistment and were very popular.

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Copyright: © Jessie Pope, Grant Richards

A constant tension in writings on First World War poetry is whether the accent should fall on war or on poetry, on cultural history or on literary form. If the surrounding material world was important to the soldier-poets, so was a sense of poetic tradition. Investigation into the literary culture of the trenches – from Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1972) to Jon Stallworthy’s Survivors’ Songs: From Maldon to the Somme (2008) – shows the intense engagement of this group of soldier-poets with a vast range of literature, from the Iliad through Shakespeare, Milton and the Romantics to Hardy and Housman. The finest trench poetry revels in the meeting of tradition and innovation: in Gurney’s exquisite handling of meter, punctuation and sibilance in the terrifying image of ‘Darkness, shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –’ (‘The Silent One’); in Sassoon’s powerful rhymes which compact visceral horror and religious blasphemy while conjuring up the commonest trench expletive – ‘And someone flung his burden in the muck/Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck’ (‘Redeemer’); or in Owen’s intricate negotiation with Keats’s ‘To a Nightingale’ as he relocates sensuousness in the frozen landscape of the Western Front: ‘Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us ...’ (‘Exposure’).  Similarly, a number of women-poets both inherit and interrogate different traditions of lyric verse with remarkable power as they try to represent the war and its effects on civilian spaces and minds. Consider the following poem ‘Afterwards’ by Margaret Postgate Cole – at once a poignant elegy, a powerful critique of the war and a negotiation with the pastoral tradition – as it moves beyond the battlefields or the actual years of the war to a postwar sense of futility and desolation:

And peace came. And lying in Sheer
I look round at the corpses of the larches
Whom they slew to make pit-props
For mining the coal for the great armies.
                    ...
And if these years have made you into a pit-prop,
To carry the twisting galleries of the world’s reconstruction
(Where you may thank God, I suppose,
That they set you the sole stay of a nasty corner)
What use is it to you?

The canon: its formation and expansion

The ‘war poet’ and ‘war poetry’, observed Robert Graves in 1942, were ‘terms first used in World War I and perhaps peculiar to it’[6]. From Anglo-Saxon times to the Boer War, war poetry in English was written largely by civilians and did not have a clearly defined identity; with the extraordinary outpouring between 1914 and 1918, it established itself as a genre and the soldier-poet became a species. On Easter Sunday 1915, when Dean Inge read out ‘The Soldier’ by Brooke from the pulpit at St Paul’s Cathedral, he was at once creating and anointing a secular saint: the ‘poet soldier’.

Poems by Rupert Brooke 'The Dead' and 'The Soldier'

Rupert Brooke's The Soldier was one of the most famous poems written during the war.

Rupert Brooke's The Soldier was one of the most famous poems written during the war.

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Copyright: © © Rupert Brooke

Over the next three years, the ‘poet soldier’ would morph into ‘soldier-poet’, and by the 1930s he had become, according to Edmund Blunden, ‘as familiar as a ration card’[7]. The term ‘war poetry’ or ‘war verse’, by contrast, starts gaining currency from 1917 and crests in popularity in the post-war years. In her 1917 essay ‘Contemporary British War Poetry, Music and Patriotism’, Marion Scott – friend and music teacher of Ivor Gurney – noted an ‘enormous increase in poetic output’ related to the war, ranging ‘from genius to doggerel’[8]. This was partly the result of a conjunction of particular historical factors: a late Victorian culture of heroism and patriotism and a dominant public school ethos among the officer classes, as well as the more general spread of education. Above all, the processes of recruitment – first voluntary and then the Conscription Acts of 1916 – meant that the British army included an enormous number of highly educated young men.[9] According to Catherine Reilly’s exhaustive bibliography, some 2,225 poets from Britain and Ireland alone wrote war poetry; only a handful among them are remembered today.[10] In his letters of 1917, Owen refers to ‘war impressions’, ‘war poem’ and ‘War Poetry’, but in the celebrated Preface (1918) to his intended collection of poems, he eschewed the term ‘war poet’: ‘That is why the true War Poets must be truthful’.[11] The conflation of First World War poetry with the trench lyric was encouraged by the soldier-poets and anthologists, and consolidated with the publication of memoirs such as Graves’s Good-Bye to All That (1929) and Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930). Rapidly, the trench poets claimed centre-stage; civilian poets such as Hardy and Kipling moved to the margins. In the politicized climate of the 1930s, Owen and Sassoon became cultural icons. Both figured prominently along with other combatant poets in Frederick Brereton’s Anthology of War Poems (1930) and Robert Nichols’s Anthology of War Poetry, 1914–18 (1943). However, it was with the renewed swell of interest in the group in the 1960s, with the musical Oh! What A Lovely War (1963) and anthologies such as Brian Gardner’s Up the Line to Death (1964) and I.M. Parsons’s Men Who March Away (1965), that the canon began to take shape more firmly. The process was completed by, among others, two literary critics: Paul Fussell, with his enormously influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), and Jon Silkin, with the Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (1979). 

Over the last 30 years, the First World War and its literature have been powerfully reconfigured. The recovery in recent years of poetry by women, civilians, dissenters, working-class and non-English (particularly Irish, Scottish, Welsh and American) writers in anthologies has led both to an expansion and a rethinking of the canon.[12] Moreover, developments in the general critical field – cultural studies, queer theory, work on testimony and trauma – have left their mark. The frameworks and critical idiom used to understand the popular soldier-poets have accordingly shifted: we have moved from a moral register of the ‘truth of war’ to an exploration of textual complexity and wider socio-cultural contexts; there is closer interrogation of the relationship between poetic form and historical, political and psychic processes; and far greater attention is being paid to questions of difference (class, nationality, gender and sexuality, among others).[13]

In spite of this, however, colonial war poetry remains barely visible even in the recently expanded canon. Colonial war poetry, coming out of different political, social and cultural contexts, is a remarkably copious and varied body of work: it ranges from volumes by individual soldier-poets to anthologies such as Soldier Songs from Anzac (1915), Indian Ink (1915–16) and Canada in Khaki (1917) to poems by established figures such as Rabindranath Tagore in India, Robert Service in Canada and Clarence Dennis in Australia. For a variety of reasons, such poetry – with the exception of John McCrae’s ubiquitous ‘In Flanders Fields’ – has proved resistant to assimilation within the war canon. Indeed, the project of recovering colonial or non-white First World War verse is not so much a matter of trying to find an Indian Owen or an Arab Sassoon, but trying to understand how the war affected the colonial poetic cultures more widely,

In his poem, ‘The War Graves’, Michael Longley writes, ‘There will be no end to cleaning up after the war’.[14] The war’s debris – both physical and metaphorical – will be inspected afresh in the next four years. War poetry is often too neatly aligned with a political and moral agenda. While it is crucial to recognise the political force of First World War poetry, individual poems can be more complex and disturbing. Indeed, why does that strange word ‘ecstasy’ (‘Gas! Gas! An ecstasy of fumbling/Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time’) appear in the most grimly realistic of war poems – Owen’s ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’? Indeed, ‘strange’ remains one of the most recurring words in First World War poetry, perhaps testifying to the strange fact that the traumatic debris of war would inspire, energise and even excite poetic language. Powerful war poems, such as Owen’s ‘Dulce’ or Hardy’s ‘I looked Up from My Writing’ often ask the most difficult ethical questions. As we approach the centennial commemoration of the war with ceremony, and young men and women continue to get killed in action, these poems bring us no immediate hope or assurance or comfort, but in their combination of pity, anger, moral complexity and linguistic pleasure, remind us as readers what it is to be idealistic, thoughtful, mortal, guilty – and make us question what it is to be human.

Extracted from the introductory chapter ‘Reframing First World War Poetry’ in Santanu Das ed. The Cambridge Companion to First World War Poetry (2013)

Footnotes

[1] Charles Hamilton Sorley, Marlborough and Other Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1916), 69.

[2] Jon Stallworthy, Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War (London: Constable, 2002), 37.

[3] Claude Levi-Strauss, ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ in Thomas A. Sebeok ed. Myth: A Symposium (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 86.

[4] Edna Longley has powerfully argued that First World War lyric poetry may be a ‘quintessential case’ of the ‘encounter between form and history’. See ‘The Great War, history, and the English lyric’, in Vincent Sherry ed. The Literature of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 58.

[5] Margaret Postgate Cole, ‘Praematuri’ in Catherine Reilly ed. The Virago Book of Women’s War Poetry and Verse (London: Virago, 1997), 22.

[6] Robert Graves, ‘The Poets of World War II’ (1942) in The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949), 307.

[7] Edmund Blunden, ‘Introduction’ to Frederick Brereton ed. An Anthology of War Poems (London, 1930). 13.

[8] The title of Marion Scott’s essay ‘Contemporary British War Poetry, Music and Patriotism’ (The Musical Times, 1 March 1917, 120–1) suggests the recognition of a genre. There were exceptions such as R.H. Thornton’s War Verses: August, 1914 (1914), but it was from 1918 that anthologies with titles such as The Lyceum Book of War Verse (1918) and War Verse began to mushroom. I am grateful to Jane Potter for the reference to Scott’s article.

[9] See, for example, Simon Featherstone ed. War Poetry: An Introductory Reader (London: Routledge, 1995), 15.

[10] Catherine Reilly, English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography (London: George Prior, 1978), xix.

[11] ‘Preface’ in Jon Stallworthy ed. The Poems of Wilfred Owen (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), 192.

[12] See Featherstone ed. War Poetry: An Introductory Reader (1995); ( 2002); Jon Stallworthy, Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War (2002); Vivien Noakes ed. Voices of Silence: The Alternative Book of First World War Poetry (2006); Dominic Hibberd and John Onions, eds. The Winter of the World: Poems of the Great War ( 2007) and Tim Kendall ed. Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology (2013). Also see Catherine Reilly’s anthology Scars upon My Heart (1981) and Jon Stallwothy ed. The Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984).

[13] See the long introduction to Featherstone, War Poetry: An Introductory Reader , 7-115, for an astute discussion of these shifts as registered within First World War poetry criticism. Also see the essays collected in Vincent Sherry ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), Tim Kendall ed. The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) and Adam Piette and Mark Rawlinson eds. The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth-Century British and American War Literature (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012) for a variety of critical approaches.

[14] Michael Longley, ‘The War Graves’, in Collected Poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 256.

  • Santanu Das
  • Santanu Das is the author of Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge, 2005) and the editor of Race, Empire and First World War Writing (Cambridge, 2011) and the Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War (2013). His book India, Empire and the First World War: Words, Images and Objects is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2015.