The First World War had a far-reaching effect on English poetry. It provided a new source of inspiration for the poets of established reputation and brought to public notice many poets, particularly among the young men who fought in the war. Moreover, it serves as a great social document. There can be no clearer reflection of the changing national attitude to the war than that found in war poetry. Broadly two phases of the national attitude can be distinguished in war poetry. The first was one of patriotic fervour, almost of rejoicing in the opportunity of self-sacrifice in the cause of human freedom, and a revival of the romantic conception of the knight-at-arms (Albert). Many poets who lived and served throughout the war had this patriotic fervour of the early years unaffected. But as the carnage went on increasing and there was no hope of its end, other poets arose with the declared intention of blasting this romantic illusion of the glory of war by a frank realistic depiction of the horrors, savagery and futility of war. This realistic attitude to the war was at first cried down as unpatriotic, but it has stood the test of time better than the romantic attitude of the early years. The poets of the 1914-18 war divide themselves into two groups- romantic war poets and realistic war poets.
(A) Romantic War Poets
I. Rupert Brooke
The most outstanding of the romantic (idealistic) war poets was Rupert Brooke (1887-1915). Much of Brooke’s reputation is due to his remarkably good looks, his winning personality and his premature death in action stifling great expectations. He began to write poetry in the Georgian tradition, drawing inspirations from nature and simple pleasures. Out of this Georgian mood he was swept by the high emotions inspired by the rising wave of patriotism on the eve of the world war. He hailed the war with patriotic fervour. He wrote a number of war sonnets to express his patriotic enthusiasm, his pride in England, and his resolve to serve her. He became the spokesman for the dedication of the English people to the cause of their country. Of his war sonnets the most typical is The Soldier. It rings with his pride in being an Englishman and his glorification of the death of English soldiers in the front for England. He enlisted as a soldier and went to war to defend the honour of his motherland. As a war-poet he takes an idealistic view of war and speaks of its glory, glamour and heroism, and not its brutality and ghastliness.
It is natural to speculate what a great poet he might have been if he had lived on. The marks of greatness in his poems are few, but such marks there are. He saw the world with a clear eye and recorded what he saw with directness and clarity. Yet, however poetic in himself, he is more important as the occasion of poetry in others. ”The war-time revival of English poetry,” as Ward says, “had its origin in Brooke alone.”
“Rupert Brooke may be styled as a twentieth century Keats, having many points in common with him. He has the same rich sensuousness, the same maturity of expression, something of the same poignant yearning for beauty.”
His poetry was published in Poems (1911); 1914 and other Poems (1915) and Collected Poems (1918).
II. Julian Grenfell
Another victim of the First World War, Julian Grenfell (1888–1915), maintains a spirit of tranquility and confidence not found in other war poets. In the midst of fire he can withdraw into himself and find solace in the objects of nature–trees, birds, grass, stars, etc. His famous poem Into Battle mirrors this serene attitude in which even death does not appear the horror it is.
(B) The Anti-War Poets
I. Siegfried Sassoon
Siegfried Sassoon (18861967) is the first soldier poet to treat the war with horrifying realism and bitter satire and irony. Invalided early in the war, he writes from his personal experiences in the front. Unlike Rupert Brooke he does not throw any romantic veil over the realities of war, which he depicts “as a dirty mess of blood and decaying bodies.” A pacifist at heart he writes about the nightmare of trench warfare and other horrors. In his Counter-attack (1918), a collection of violent, embittered poems, he paints, with a studied bluntness, and often a provocative coarseness of language, the horrors of life and death in the trenches, dug-outs and hospitals. A merciless and calculated realism gives to his work a vitality not previously found in English poetry. His poetry bears the stamp of his determination to shock the people at home into the bitter realization of the ghastly truth. It burns with anger with the arm chair politicians responsible for war.
His other war poems are War Poems (1919), Picture-show (1920) and Satirical Poems (1926). Sassoon’s work inspired the greatest of all the war poets Wilfred Owen.
War Poetry by Siegfried Sassoon
- The Hero
- The Last Meeting
- The Death Bed
- The Poet as Hero
- Suicide in the Trenches
II. Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) is the greatest of the war poets. He discards the usual romantic notions about war and strikes a new realistic note in his war poetry. Unlike Rupert Brooke he does not find in soldiers’ exploits “a sense of new crusades and modern knightliness.” He expresses in his poems the dreadful experience he underwent as a soldier, Inspired by Sassoon’s war poetry he presents the cruelty and inhumanity of a soldier’s doing, the reality and futility of war and the reckless wastage of nobility, youth and heroism. He looks upon war as a meaningless dance of death and an agency of great suffering to mankind. He regards it as the cruel business of the arm-chair politicians who exploit the blooming youth in the name of patriotism.
But what distinguishes Owen’s war poetry is not the description of the horrors of war, but the exploration of the pity of war. As he himself says, in the preface to his poems (1920):
“Above all, I am not concerned with poetry.
My subject is war and the pity of war,
The poetry is in the pity.”
There is in each of his poems a piercing pity welling out of the colossal waste of human life and opportunity, the callous indifference with which human lives are thrown away in the front a pity more sober and restrained, yet deeper far than the sentimental pity aroused by the tragic tangles of domestic life. This pity has never been more powerfully shown than in his Strange Meeting.
War Poetry by Wilfred Owen
- Strange Meeting
- Spring Offensive
- Dulce et Decorum est
- Anthem for Doomed Youth
- Arms and the Boy
- The Dead-Beat
- Soldier’s Dream