Poetry at War
A select anthology of poems of the Great War.
By James S. Robbins
The Best Known Poet of the Great War
Lt. Col John McCrae with Friend
Editor's suggestion: For full appreciation of Mr. Robbins superb selection of War Poems, we recommend you read the article below in its entirety for an overview. Then go back and click on the "Read" icon to access the full text of the poems you wish to enjoy. At the bottom of the selection you will see a "Return" icon to bring you back to this page.
Last Veteran's Day I wrote of the gradual passing of the generation that fought the First World War, known contemporaneously as the Great War until its successor reduced it to a prequel. Few people would associate "sense-of-life" sentiments with warfare, especially the grueling trench warfare that characterized ground operations in the Great War. Of course, every war has poets, men who have marched into the abyss, faced death on a daily basis and responded through verse. Much war poetry is despondent, and that is true of the Great War as any other. Moreover, while some poetry of despair has an underlying tone of hope, many Great War poems are direct expressions of the chaos and violence around the poet, in which desperation is followed by death, and the reader can draw his own conclusions. Often this was protest literature, and some poets compounded the objection by abandoning any semblance of structure in their written work. For example, the anti-rational Da Da movement was born in 1916 as protest against the war then raging. This poetry does not translate well into the 21st century, but if nothing else it places later literary expressions of ennui in perspective - it becomes much harder to take seriously the complaints of a frustrated denizen of Greenwich Village who struggles with heroin instead of mustard gas, and cops with nightsticks instead of bayonet-wielding storm troopers.
Other poets reacted differently to the chaos of the conflict. Surrounded by death, they turned to the topic of life. Their poems take the circumstance of war as a given, and examine human character within it. They reflect on the life they left behind, a life of substance, thus making death more tragic, verse bittersweet. They do not celebrate war, but neither do they surrender themselves to it. War is that process in which they find themselves, in with they preserver, and overcome. Charles John Beech Masefield (first cousin to poet laureate John Masefield) contrasts two versions of himself in Two Julys. "I was so vague in 1914," he begins, his life was listless and without purpose, but through the trials of war, he found himself. Masefield was killed in action, July 2, 1917. J.E. Stewart, in this excerpt from his poem Courage , conquers his fear - not of the Germans but of fear itself, and in so doing achieves self-mastery, his life was listless and without purpose, but through the try, Stewart died in combat in April, 1917. In Canadian physician and artilleryman John McCrae's In Flanders Fields , probably the most famous of the English language poems of the war the dead instruct the living on their duty to carry forth the cause for which they have already made the supreme sacrifice. McCrae died of pneumonia in 1918 and was laid to rest in France.
Of all wars, why is the Great War of special concern to those interested in poetry? First, the overall quality of the literature the war produced. Great War poems are readable. The young men who went to war in 1914 were part of a tradition that placed a value on substance, meaning, and was unashamed to explore themes like nobility, and tragedy. I doubt one could find a group of warriors who produced more memorable literary works. To get a sense of contrast, read some of the poetry that came out of the Vietnam War. In an age in which form had overcome substance, and in which serious literary figures regarded patriotism and heroism as topics to be avoided (since they lacked seriousness and were false portrayals of Life As It Is) and cynicism as the essence of significance, one could expect little of lasting value to emerge. See for example war-monger by "r j s (age 17)."
While the Great War helped bring about the end of an era in literature, it also (and not coincidentally) marked a watershed in political and social history. The war demonstrated what had become unmistakable - the death of classical liberalism. The cycle that had begun with the Enlightenment and reached fruition in the late-Eighteenth and early-Nineteenth centuries had wound down. Individualism, reason and human freedom were in eclipse; collectivism, instinct and human bondage cast their shadows worldwide. The style of war reflected this: the apparent irrationality of trench warfare, the noxious strategic doctrine of attrition, the extension of combat to civilians (seen not as noncombatants but as cogs in a state war machine), and death on a scale unseen in the history of warfare. (See F.S. Flint's Lament. ) Those fighting an intellectual rearguard action against illiberalism were swept away before such violence. As F.W. Harvey observed, it was a development that should have given even Satan pause.
The impact of the Great War's brutality was magnified by its contrast to the material comfort and pleasantness of the decades that preceded it. After the war, fatalism and cynicism became hallmarks of literature, art, music and politics. Progress, which had been deified even as liberalism fell into disrepute, was "finally unmasked" as an "illusion." The Second World War, though more violent than the First, did not suffer from the same comparisons, thus had less impact on popular imagination, with the exception of Holocaust literature, and that attending the advent of nuclear weapons.
The Great War reflects not only the personal tragedy which attends all war, but the debacle of the West discarding the principles and values which had made it great by engaging in a senseless, fratricidal conflict, the effects of which we are only now escaping. Reading the poetry of that period, one grieves not only for the individual soldier, but for the world he represented, a liberal realm of reason beset by forces which would bring about the death of that world as surely as the trench bomb would take the life of the Tommy, the Doughboy, the Poilu, the Soldat. The personal tragedies of the men in the trenches mirrored the larger disaster of the end of the world of the mind. Moreover, while the trench-poet saw only the death of his civilization, we see two things he could not: the greater tragedies that followed in the wake of the war, and, in many cases, the death of the poet himself. Edward Thomas, in his simple yet evocative poem In Memorium (Easter, 1915) gives us the opposite of "Where Have All the Flowers Gone." Flowers are abundant - it is the young men who have gone missing. Thomas would join the dead the day after Easter, 1917.
Rupert Brooke, who made his reputation as a poet before the war, died of blood poisoning April 17, 1915, on the Greek Island of Skyros, whence Achilles set sail against Troy. He missed participating in the Gallipoli bloodbath by one week. (The battle, fought near Hisarlik where once stood ancient Troy, invoked many poetic comparisons from the classically trained poets. See for example Gervais by Margaret Adelaide Wilson, and the magnificent Untitled by Patrick Shaw-Stewart, who was killed in France in 1917.) Brooke's grave on Skyros became that "corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England " of which he wrote, but the impact of this patriotic sentiment was diminished as the years passed and the casualty lists grew to unimaginable bulk. George Dangerfield marked Brooke's death as the symbolic terminus of the Liberal Age in England. Writing in the 1930s, Dangerfield saw Brooke as a symbol of an innocent, unsophisticated age, blind to the "realities" of the world, an age never to return, "and a very good thing too." As a result of the war, proud, optimistic but naive youth had matured into painful, duty-bound adulthood. By 1915, it was clear that a moment had passed. Things afterwards would not be as they were before, they would be worse. We find this sentiment in Louis Simpson's post-Second World War poem The Ash and the Oak .
The theme of wasted youth was a natural for a war in which so many young men rushed to senseless deaths. There is of course Wilfred Owen's oft reprinted Anthem for Doomed Youth (he was doomed himself to die in the final week of the war), but A.E. Housman's Here Dead We Lie is as telling, and much less self-conscious. This selection from Osbert Sitwell's How Shall we Rise to Greet the Dawn? is an arch take on the topic, and Margaret Postgate's Prĉmaturi addresses the same question from the perspective of those left behind, young people losing friends at a rate usually reserved for the aged. Eliot Crawshay-Williams described the end result of this "holocaust of youth and strength" in Sonnet of a Son .
Separation of men and women was another important topic, especially among the women poets writing about the men they loved and who have left, often to die, their dreams of life together unrequited. Leave-takings are the theme of Eleanor Farjeon's Now That You Too , Bernard Freeman Trotter's innocent A Kiss (Trotter was KIA 1917) and the much earthier and more sensual Last Leave by Eileen Newman. Kathleen Montgomery Wallace's Because You Are Dead is an exploration of the love who would not return, as is Marian Allan's haunting The Wind on the Downs . F. William Bourdillon, in The Heart-Cry , artfully expresses the same feelings in a few terse stanzas.
Some poets addressed the relationships that developed on the battlefield between the men who fought together. The relationship of the commander to his men, which in its finest expression is a sacred and indefinable bond, a form of love that will allow, even compel soldiers to follow officers into the maw of deathly peril, and do so willingly, happily, was the topic of many stirring poems. Herbert Read's My Company expresses the many moods of command, at times somber, other times manic. Read survived the war and became a pacifist in the 1930s. Scottish poet Ewart Alan Mackintosh expresses In Memoriam his feelings writing to the father of a deceased trooper, Private David Sutherland. Mackintosh had attempted to save the wounded private under heavy fire, and had failed, but was decorated for gallantry in the attempt. Mackintosh was also awarded the Military Cross at the Somme, and turned down a post of instruction back in Britain, preferring to stay with his men. He was killed in the battle of Cambrai, November 21, 1917, age 24. Sydney Oswald addresses the fighter's love for his fellow in The Dead Soldier . Robert Nichols' Fulfillment contrasts the satisfying and substantive relationships he developed in combat with more ephemeral peacetime loves, and Wilfred Owen takes a similar if more somber and metaphorical approach in Greater Love .
The theme of escape is also prevalent in Great War poems, frequently through appreciation of the natural world. In Gonnehem , Frederick William Harvey relates a unit stopping for the night at a farm, and awakening to the pleasures of a cherry tree. In Night Flying , Frederick V. Branford relates the perspective of the aviator, "aloft on footless levels of the night," for whom the war has become an abstraction. And Richard Aldington's A Moment's Interlude conveys the sense of joy from simple connections to nature taken for granted in peacetime. (In the period anthology in which I found this poem, at Harvard's Widener library, someone had penciled below, "Nothing to do with war.") But Wilfred Wilson Gibson, in his Lament , implies that these simple pleasures would be impossible to enjoy after seeing so many die.
Memory is the theme of Vance Palmer's The Farmer Remembers the Somme , a brief portrait of an Australian rancher who cannot escape his former life in the trenches. He returns to a place where nothing had changed, but the veteran brings the war home with him, and he cannot let it go. Philip Johnstone's 1918 poem High Wood gives a wry glimpse of the way in which spectators experienced the war, as tourists, almost even before it was over. The poem is written in the voice of a tour guide who impassively recounts the action to seemingly distracted sightseers. Clifford Dyment, born in 1914, gives us the perspective of the boy who never met his father in The Son . His only link to his unknown sire is a final letter to his mother, telling of a canceled leave, after which no further missives would follow. Finally, two poems that treat memory of war from distinct perspectives: James Sprent's A Confession of Faith , the plea of the living soldier as he would like to be remembered after death, not in sorrow, but as a worthy friend; and Peter Kocan's haunting Photograph , written over sixty years after hostilities, which encounters this memory as it wanes. Kocan poignantly reminds us that memory is as much a function of body as of mind; as those who actually knew their friend Jim, forever youthful in his photograph, join him in the afterlife, he dies another, slower death of attrition. This is the fate of the generation that experienced the Great War, the gradual, inevitable erosion of time - and as we near the ninetieth anniversary of the war's outbreak, how long will it be before all the soldiers staring from aged photographs have become anonymous? Yet, if we do not know them, it is surely our fault - they have given us every opportunity to share their lives, through the verse they have left behind.
Sources and Thanks: This article is presented with the permission of the author and
National Review On-Line where it originally appeared December 27, 2002. James S. Robbins is a national-security analyst & NRO contributor. Thanks also to NRO Editor Kathryn Lopez for her support. Since Mr. Robbins referred to Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth in his original article I took the liberty of adding it to the anthology. I could not, however, find a place for my single favorite line of World War I poetry which is from Edward Thomas's Roads: "Now all roads lead to France. And heavy is the tread of the living, but the dead returning lightly dance..." Mike Hanlon, Editor