Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth
There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,
Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.
-- From "The Cenotaph" by Charlotte Mew
"Not since the Siege of Troy,” asserts anthologist Tim Kendall about the First World War, “has a conflict been so closely defined by the poetry that it inspired.” The group of soldier-poets who fought in World War One—including prominent figures such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Rupert Brooke—are among the most read and admired poets of the 20th century. Generations of students have contemplated the horror, anguish and contradictions of the Great War by studying, among others, Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Sassoon’s “Attack” and Brooke’s “The Soldier.”
The poetry of the First World War, however, is most profitably approached and understood as a multi-faceted, multi-voiced and multi-national subject. It properly includes women poets like May Sinclair, Vera Brittain and Mary Borden, all of whom served as battle zone nurses; and established civilian poets such as Thomas Hardy, Robert Bridges and Rudyard Kipling (Kipling’s son was killed in the war). It covers a range of poetic forms expansive enough to encompass the high modernism of David Jones, the sonnets of Charles Sorley, the traditional pastoral conventions of Edward Thomas, and the lyrics of popular music hall songs.
And while World War One poetry remains most often associated with those like Sassoon, Owen and Brooke—but also Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden—whose work draws movingly on their experiences as British soldiers at the front, the output of American poets writing about the war, while certainly slighter and less celebrated then that of their British counterparts, includes poems of enduring interest such as Alan Seeger’s “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” and Carl Sandburg’s “Grass.”
Colonial war poetry, which includes, amongst others, the work of the Nobel Prize-winning Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, the Canadian author of “In Flanders Field” John McCrae, and the Australian poet and veteran of Gallipoli Leon Gellert, reflects the contribution of Commonwealth countries to the war effort and the often complicated political, social and cultural situation surrounding the British Empire. The case in Ireland similarly widens the critical, historical and political frame for W.W. I poetry as many Irish poets of the period, like Padraig Pearce who was executed as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, and Francis Ledwidge who joined the Irish Volunteers and fought and died (at Passchendaele), were passionately engaged with the ongoing struggle for Irish independence.
While it is impossible to fully account for why the trenches of World War One produced so many great writers and so much fine poetry, there were particular historical forces at work that are worth noting. The growth in literacy levels driven by the nineteenth-century expansion of public education in Britain, and the popular enthusiasm for reading classical and English literature encouraged by organizations such as the National Home Reading Union, meant that “[b]y 1914,” as Paul Fussell has written, “it was possible for soldiers to be not merely literate but vigorously literary.” Changes in recruitment practices (including conscription after 1916) also resulted in a British army that included larger numbers of highly educated and well-read young men than ever before. Across classes and ranks soldiers with a literary bent turned to poetry to describe their experiences, capture their sensations, express their states of mind, protest their situations and lament the loss of friends, comrades and their idealism. Often drawing on forms, tropes, symbols and national archetypes familiar from the canon of English poetry, which many carried in their pockets and haversacks in the form of Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, the best poetry written in the trenches is rich in literary allusiveness and deeply conscious of the English poetic tradition.
Subject to expansion, critical reconsideration and reconfiguration, First World War poetry is a less settled and more dynamic literary category than is often assumed; what remains constant, however, is the cultural presence of a varied, influential and powerful body of poetic work that has shaped, and will continue to shape, how World War One is represented, commemorated and remembered.
Kendall, Tim. Poetry of the First World War.1977. Intro. Jay Winter. New York: Oxford UP, 2013.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 2013 (1977).
Das, Santanu. “Reframing World War One Poetry: An Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War. Ed. Santanu Das. New York: Cambridge UP, 2013. 3-34.