Reframing First World War poetry
Dr Santanu Das gives an introduction to the poetry of the First World War, providing fascinating commentary on a range of topics, supported by literary manuscripts and historical footage.
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.
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.
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.View images from this item (1)
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Form and historyOne 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’. 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. 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’ – 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.View images from this item (6)
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And peace came. And lying in SheerI look round at the corpses of the larchesWhom they slew to make pit-propsFor 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 expansionThe ‘war poet’ and ‘war poetry’, observed Robert Graves in 1942, were ‘terms first used in World War I and perhaps peculiar to it’. 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.View images from this item (2)
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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. 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).
In his poem, ‘The War Graves’, Michael Longley writes, ‘There will be no end to cleaning up after the war’. 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)
 Charles Hamilton Sorley, Marlborough and Other Poems (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1916), 69.
 Jon Stallworthy, Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War (London: Constable, 2002), 37.
 Claude Levi-Strauss, ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ in Thomas A. Sebeok ed. Myth: A Symposium (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 86.
 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.
 Margaret Postgate Cole, ‘Praematuri’ in Catherine Reilly ed. The Virago Book of Women’s War Poetry and Verse (London: Virago, 1997), 22.
 Robert Graves, ‘The Poets of World War II’ (1942) in The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949), 307.
 Edmund Blunden, ‘Introduction’ to Frederick Brereton ed. An Anthology of War Poems (London, 1930). 13.
 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.
 See, for example, Simon Featherstone ed. War Poetry: An Introductory Reader (London: Routledge, 1995), 15.
 Catherine Reilly, English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography (London: George Prior, 1978), xix.
 ‘Preface’ in Jon Stallworthy ed. The Poems of Wilfred Owen (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), 192.
 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).
 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.
 Michael Longley, ‘The War Graves’, in Collected Poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 256.