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Poets of the Great War
It is perhaps ironic that a period of such intense suffering and destruction as the Great War should have produced such a remarkable body of great writing—writing that has helped to change the way people think of armed conflict, and to diminish (though not entirely destroy) the myth of war as glamorous and heroic.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, British writers were little different from their compatriots in the excitement they felt—‘Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour’, wrote Rupert Brooke, and even poets like Sassoon and Owen who were later to be so savage in their condemnation began by expressing an equally passionate idealism—one of Sassoon’s earlier responses is entitled Absolution. The sense of religious fervor
suggested by that title did not last very long, as the fighting men began
to realize that trench warfare—a war of attrition—could hardly be quickly concluded, and left little scope for glory.
These poets had grown up in a tradition even then characterized as ‘Georgian’—a mode of writing, which laid stress on a lyrical, and pastoral tenderness set in well-crafted but unadventurous forms. What happens to the lyrical impulse is one of the most interesting aspects of First War poetry. Edmund Blunden, for instance, is often compelled to a kind of inverted
pastoral, as in The Zonnebeke Road:
The wretched wire before the village line
Rattles like rusty brambles or dead bine,
And then the daylight oozes into dun;
Black pillars, those are trees where roadways run.
Something similar happens in Wilfred Owen’s Exposure, where the men’s frozen dreaming transmutes the snowflakes into poignant memories of spring:
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?
Edward Thomas, on the other hand, retains much of the outward form of pastoral and, writing in a deceptively simple, conversational style, exposes through suggestive contrast the poignant losses of war:
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too....
(from As The Team’s Head Brass)
The experience of war, in other words, forges a new poetic, whether it is the Imagist spareness and flexibility of Richard Aldington’s Trench Idyll:
The worst of all was
They fell to pieces at a touch.
Thank God we couldn’t see their faces;
They had gas helmets on.
—or the visionary intensity of Owen, with his disturbing half-rhymes and ability to set the concretely immediate in a context which on occasions approaches the epic, as in Strange Meeting:
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined...
Sassoon, to an extent Owen’s mentor but perhaps not ultimately his equal, developed a line in devastating ironic realism, where a savage anger is resolved into telescoped brevity—poems like The General and Base Details occupy as few as seven or ten lines each.
Isaac Rosenberg still perhaps awaits the recognition he deserves for his extraordinary originality. His uncompromising style is modernist in its
suppressed lyricism and sharpness of focus; his tone by turns tender and ironic:
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German...
The contribution made by woman writers has only quite recently begun to be appreciated. Women were involved in the war as nurses and ambulance drivers, as well as having to endure the waiting at home for news of loved ones, and both these aspects are represented in this selection. If their poetry lacks the urgent directness of the men’s, this is hardly surprising—the tone is more usually pastoral and elegiac, as in Edith Nesbit’s Spring in War-Time:
Now the sprinkled blackthorn snow
Lies along the lovers’ lane
Where last year we used to go—
Where we shall not go again.
The themes of these poets, then, given their overriding need to tell ‘the truth untold, / The pity of war, the pity war distilled’, inevitably focus on despair, death, mutilation both physical and mental, the saving strength of comradeship — and, crucially, protest, ranging from Owen’s agonized cry
O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all? (Futility)
to Sassoon’s bluntly satirical one-liners:
— But he did for them both by his plan of attack. (The General)
I have attempted to suggest something of the ways in which the writers dealt with these and other themes by dividing the poems into sections:
Anticipation, The Trenches, Battle, The Dead, Protest, Pastoral, Loved Ones, and Afterwards.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
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