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The legacy of the First World War poets

Discussed in this essay:

Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew, by Max Egremont. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 352 pages. $28.

“All a poet can do today is warn,” wrote Wilfred Owen in the preface to a book of poems he was planning when he was killed, one week before the Armistice of November 11, 1918. “That is why the true Poets must be truthful.” The warnings of the First World War poets — Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas — are no less urgent for having been so thoroughly ignored over the past century, a time during which the poets themselves paradoxically have become ever more familiar, staples of the British classroom. Owen’s maxims — “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” — are probably as well known as his poems, and in Some Desperate Glory, the British biographer and novelist Max Egremont reproduces Owen’s preface as a kind of prose poem, a venerated text. Its message: that the experience of war might redefine the purpose and responsibility of poetry.

Left: Wilfred Owen in the First World War, by Gerry Wood © Look and Learn/ Bridgeman Images. Right: An early draft of Owen’s “1914” © The English Faculty Library, University of Oxford/The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate

Left: Wilfred Owen in the First World War, by Gerry Wood © Look and Learn/ Bridgeman Images. Right: An early draft of Owen’s “1914” © The English Faculty Library, University of Oxford/The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate

That poetry mattered in the First World War was never in doubt — it mattered to the public, to propagandists, and to soldiers themselves, thousands of whom took anthologies such as Palgrave’s Golden Treasury to the front with them. “Oh What a Literary War” was the apt title of a chapter in Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), a brilliant analysis of the way literature pervaded a conflict that was to defy all literary prototypes. The broad narrative of any survey like Egremont’s will trace the shift from the poeticized unreality of Rupert Brooke and Julian Grenfell to the insistent and unsparing truth-telling of Owen and Sassoon. Both modes cast the poet in a public role, as encourager or warner, recruiting agent or tragic messenger. The public influence of the poets is one reason their work continues to form an integral part of our understanding of the war, especially in Britain. But whether the war poets did indeed redefine English poetry, as Owen had hoped, is a more elusive question.

In many cases, poems of the era have assumed representative status in the general commemoration of war: Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen,” for example, published in the Times of London in September 1914, enshrined in its title the chivalric use of the verb “to fall” which would permeate the language of remembrance and euphemize the horrifying violence of millions of deaths. It is read at Remembrance Day services around the Commonwealth:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

Egremont makes a common error in quoting this: “They shall not grow old.” But the archaic inversion, like the psalmic pause in the middle of the line, is an essential part of the poem’s nobly elegiac address, and one of the reasons the poem has gained quasi-biblical resonance in British memorials.

Left: Siegfried Sassoon in uniform during World War I © The Art Archive. Right: An early draft of Sassoon’s “The General” © The author/The estate of George Sassoon

Left: Siegfried Sassoon in uniform during World War I © The Art Archive. Right: An early draft of Sassoon’s “The General” © The author/The estate of George Sassoon

Egremont, author of a fine biography of Sassoon, does not offer a wide view of the poetry written in response to the Great War; he has selected, in a way that might have pleased Sassoon or the equally cricket-crazy Edmund Blunden, a kind of First Eleven, and followed them as they go in to face some unprecedentedly stiff bowling. There are no surprise inclusions, and some fairly dutiful ones. Some of the eleven wrote rather few poems, and a few of them wrote very bad poems, though in their company the work of Owen, Thomas, and Gurney appears all the more overwhelming. None of them is a mere observer or noncombatant: This is the Great War as reflected in the work of poets who fought in it, and Egremont’s narrative is broken up into five gatherings of poems, one from each of the years 1914 to 1918, with a rich final section entitled “Aftermath” that shows the continuing presence of the war in the later work of those who survived. The most remarkable poetry of these postwar years was that of the Gloucestershire poet and composer Gurney, who was gassed in 1917, committed to a mental asylum in 1922, and died in 1937. He was far outlived by Sassoon (who died in 1967), Blunden (1974), and Robert Graves (1985).

These late dates are a clue to one of the most poignant aspects of the matter, namely the youth of almost all the poets at the time of the conflict. When war broke out, in August 1914, Thomas was thirty-six and wouldn’t enlist till July the following year; but Sassoon and Brooke were twenty-seven, Graves and Charles Sorley only nineteen, and the seventeen-year-old Blunden was still at school. All except Owen, Gurney, and Rosenberg (perhaps the three most imaginative of the lot) had been educated at public schools (which is to say, privately) — Brooke having actually been born in a public school, Rugby, where his father was a housemaster. He, like several of the other poets, got in on the action as soon as he could, becoming an officer after only seven days’ training. (Graves was “completely untrained” at the time he became a second lieutenant, and until he was wounded in 1916 he got through the terror of the trenches only by consuming anesthetic quantities of whisky.)

Brooke was raised in what Egremont calls “an atmosphere of Puritanism and success worship,” a decisive if corrosive mixture, and his five hugely popular war sonnets greet the conflict as a puritanical challenge, a purgative and consciousness-raising experience, “To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,” to

Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Not all enlistees, one imagines, will have been carried into battle on such spasms of moral condemnation and self-disgust. War is not for a moment considered as a response to German aggression, but as something internalized, a battle within English society and the English soul. Thomas made a more reasoned statement of his motives in “This Is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong”: “I hate not Germans, nor grow hot / With love of Englishmen”; what it came down to was a shared desire to save England:

But with the best and meanest Englishmen
I am one in crying, God save England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.

Others saw the war as a kind of defense of poetry. “Do you know what would hold me together on a battlefield?” wrote Owen to his mother in 1914. “The sense that I was perpetuating the language in which Keats and the rest of them wrote.” In 1915 the inexperienced Gurney produced a sonnet, “To the Poet Before Battle,” that echoes Shakespeare’s Henry V on the eve of Agincourt: “Remember thy great craft’s honour, that they may say / Nothing in shame of poets . . . Make / The name of poet terrible in just war, / And like a crown of honour upon the fight.” (By 1917 Gurney had come to doubt whether active service was in fact the best course for artists, who might contribute to the war in other ways: “such is my patriotism, and I believe it to be the right kind.”)

Several of the war poets had prewar experience of Germany — Sorley noted coolly once he got to France that the French were “almost German in their hospitality.” Brooke had written his nostalgic “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” in Berlin’s Café des Westens in May 1912. Graves was the child of a German mother. If Sorley saw the war as “like a picnic,” and early hostilities seemed to many of the poets like a tremendous game of rugby or cricket, this was in part because the enemy was seen at first almost as a sporting opponent, or even as a kind of alienated friend — an idea developed at the end of the war in one of its most resonant poems, Owen’s “Strange Meeting”: “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” The most excitable of the public-school soldier-poets, Julian Grenfell, wrote that “one loves one’s fellow man so much more when one is bent on killing him.”

Grenfell had been in the army for four years already when the war began. The furiously energetic eldest son of Lord Desborough — or, more to the point, of Lady Desborough, one of the most famous hostesses of the age — he combined social, mental, and sporting prowess with a strong streak of class rebellion. Grenfell was a “hearty,” and at Oxford had been a notorious bully of the decadent and effete; but his destructive exuberance concealed a depressive streak. His stormy relations with his powerful and controlling mother perhaps made escape into military life especially desirable; and war, when it came, was best of all. His letters home from the front were designed to reassure, though their manic high spirits might on reflection have sounded alarming: “It’s all the best fun one ever dreamed of,” Grenfell wrote in October 1914. “I adore War. It’s like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy.” A similar sense of well-being was felt by most of the poets in their first experience of military life, where new physical fitness matched the excitement and curiosity of the situation. This could be perplexing to someone also sensitive to suffering: “apart from the tragedy,” wrote Brooke, after his experience in the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium, “I’ve never felt happier or better in my life” [my italics]. Insouciant bravery led to Grenfell’s receiving a head wound from a shell splinter; he died on May 26, 1915. The following day, his poem “Into Battle” was published in the Times of London. It exalts the “joy of battle” as a celebration of the life force, the soldier moving in unison with stars, trees, animals, and birds: “he is dead who will not fight; / And who dies fighting, has increase.”

Publication in the Times — and, in the case of Brooke’s “The Soldier,” a reading of the poem by the dean of St. Paul’s on Easter 1915 — shows how effectively these poems entered the bloodstream of public life. The war memorial in Aldeburgh church, Suffolk, by the sculptor Gilbert Bayes was designed in 1917; its inscription is from Brooke’s sonnet “The Dead” — “These laid the world away, poured out the red / Sweet wine of youth” — and is given without attribution, on the assumption that the poem is already a canonical text. “The Soldier” became and remains one of the best-known English poems, a sonnet entwining an ideal of self-sacrifice with a pastoral vision of England. The words “England” and “English” occur six times in its fourteen lines. There is no talk here of “half-men” and their dirty songs; instead, England is bathed in an idealized light:

Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

The mesmeric repetition of “England” can be traced through Egremont’s book, and through other anthologies of the period, such as Edward Marsh’s Georgian Poetry, five best-selling volumes of which appeared over the decade between 1912 and 1922. The forgotten John Freeman, normally a feeble nature poet, worked himself up to the much-reprinted “Happy Is England Now,” which takes up the Brookean tone of welcome sacrifice: “Happy is England in the brave that die / For wrongs not hers and wrongs so sternly hers . . . Happy is England now, as never yet!” It is this sort of self-excited nonsense that the experience of war was to purge from English poetry, though the honesty that Owen advocated was not mere pacifism: he, like Sassoon, was to feel the unrefusable need to return to the front. “I came out in order to help these boys, directly by leading them as well as an officer can; indirectly by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as a pleader can.”

In Owen the leader and the pleader were united, his insight strengthened by his own experience of nervous collapse, which had providentially brought him into contact with Sassoon at Craiglockhart War Hospital in 1917 — a transforming encounter for the younger Owen. Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est,” first drafted there, marks the starkest meeting of public-school patriotism with the nightmarish horror of a gas attack. The poet observes “through the misty panes and thick green light” of his gas mask the agonizing end of a soldier who has failed to put his on:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

“My friend” here is sternly confrontational in tone, unlike the conciliatory “my friend” of “Strange Meeting”; a draft of the poem makes clear it was addressed “To Jessie Pope etc.” — Pope having been the author of jingoistic rhymes urging enlistment. (In calling his own book Some Desperate Glory, Egremont perhaps aims to draw attention to the ambivalent territory between the heroism and the folly of the war.) Owen’s poem is undeniably overwritten, but in an effective way; the poet forces the language to express the extremity of physical and moral horror. The last line is caught on its bold Latin rhyme halfway to its expected end; the march of pentameters stumbles as if at a premature command to halt.

Rhyme of a more curious kind was Owen’s main technical innovation — the half rhyme of some of his finest poems. If full rhyme is a form of imposed order, a clinching likeness, half rhyme disquietingly hints at disparities and irresolutions.

To-night, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

“But nothing happens” is the refrain of this poem, “Exposure,” and rhymes only with itself. But in the strange meeting of “us” and “ice” a transmutation takes place, as it does between the “crisp” foreheads of the frozen soldiers and the still-living “grasp” of the burying-party. There’s a new kind of verbal chemistry in such evolving rhymes, and a larger resistance to the preexisting poetic norm. “Exposure” was one of Owen’s last poems, though he wrote it when he was only twenty-five: Dominic Hibberd, in his marvelous biography of Owen, reminds us that “at the time of his death Wilfred was almost completely unknown.”

Edward Thomas also created a quiet poetic revolution, and it too was the upshot of close contact with a fellow poet, in this case Robert Frost, who from 1912 to 1915 lived in England. With Frost’s example and encouragement, Thomas, till then a prolific journalist and prose writer, turned, for the brief remainder of his life, into a major poet. Frost’s interest in capturing the movements of speech and thought in a verse freed of poetic mannerisms is beautifully evinced in “As the Team’s Head-Brass,” a poem that views the war from a typically oblique angle. The poet describes himself sitting by a field that is being plowed, on a fallen elm that cannot be moved because the men who might have done so have gone to fight. With each circuit of the plowman the poet catches a further moment of conversation with him about the conflict, until from the wood at the end of the field two lovers, who had disappeared there at the start of the poem, re-emerge:

The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

There is a degree of tonal control here that eluded most other poets of the war, and a magnificent latency of meaning in the imagery, which evokes both the cycles of nature and the harried gun teams of the Western Front, where thousands of horses, as well as men, were to lose their lives.

The local imagery of England was most treasured by Gurney, who repeatedly invokes beloved Gloucestershire places and place-names in his poetry of the war and its aftermath. In “Crickley Hill,” a soldier behind the lines in France speaks a word that triggers an overwhelming shot of nostalgia: “When on a sudden, ‘Crickley’ he said. How I started / At that old darling name of home!” That “darling,” both Shakespearean and amorously intimate, provides a release of its own that Gurney cannot resist tasting again fourteen lines later:

You hills of home, woodlands, white roads and inns
That star and line our darling land, still keep
Memory of us;

Gurney’s directness merges in his most suicidal poems into what we would now call the confessional, and at times his thought patterns have only an air of coherence; at other times he makes a kind of incantation of both war and home, as in “Laventie”:

The letters written there, and received there,
Books, cakes, cigarettes in a parish of famine,
And leaks in rainy times with general all-damning. . . .
Canteen disappointments, and the keen boy braving
Bullets or such for grouse roused surprisingly through
(Halfway) Stand-to

The mixture of simplicity and brilliant phrase-making (“a parish of famine”), and the dry candor which might or might not be funny (“Canteen disappointments”), are uniquely Gurney’s.

How these small, individual adventures in technique contributed to the larger development of poetry is a complex matter, and in fact many British poets today owe more to Thomas than they do to the radical contemporary experiments of Pound and Eliot. Still, if modernism reflected the cultural fragmentation and dislocation of the war in its disruption of forms and its opacity of meaning, little trace of this can be found in the work of the poets who were actually writing amid gas attacks, sniper fire, and exploding shells. The madly disinhibited verse letter that Sassoon, in hospital with a head wound, wrote to Graves in 1918 “lets him be claimed for modernism,” in Egremont’s warily passive phrase, but Sassoon, for all the highly effective shocks and execrations of his war poetry, was an essentially conservative writer. His best war poems are unforgettable, if technically unadventurous. He had a knack for the pungent epigram, as in his famous “The General” — “ ‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack / As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. / But he did for them both by his plan of attack” — but his instincts are generally descriptive and ruminative (Rhymed Ruminations is the title of a collection he published during the next war), and it is surely significant that his greatest success was in prose, in the fictionalized trilogy of George Sherston memoirs that started to appear in 1928 — a period when the prose literature of the war (Graves’s memoir Goodbye to All That, Frederic Manning’s great novel Her Privates We) had its delayed flowering.

Herbert Read (not in Egremont), who won the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross fighting in France, wrote about the war in experimental free verse with an effective modern flatness: “An officer shot him through the head: / Not a neat job — the revolver / Was too close”; but it wasn’t till much later that he shook off the old-fashioned inversions and contractions that sit oddly with his bleak reportorial tone. The often preposterous Robert Nichols made a typically unsuccessful attempt to convey the experience of battle in cartoonish fragments that were metrically free but didn’t abandon rhyme: “A wail./ Lights. Blurr. / Gone. / On, on. Lead. Lead. Hail. / Spatter. Whirr! Whirr!” He also gave embarrassingly histrionic readings of these poems, prompting Aldous Huxley to protest that Nichols “raved and screamed and hooted and moaned his filthy war poems like a Lyceum villain who hasn’t learnt how to act.” Nichols was rated at the time, by critics and by many of his fellow poets, as a major figure, but from this distance most readers will share Huxley’s view. It is extraordinary to read here works such as the maudlin and egocentric “The Secret,” in which Nichols repudiates a woman because she cannot possibly understand what he has been through (“I, that have felt the dead’s embrace; / . . . I, that have kissed a dead man’s face”), alongside the delicacy and strength of Owen’s “Disabled” and “A Terre,” in which the poet enters, with Keatsian attentiveness and intuition, into the suffering of others.

The cleansing and stiffening effects anticipated by Brooke and Grenfell at the outbreak of the war had their critical counterpart, too. Egremont describes a 1914 essay by the sixty-five-year-old Edmund Gosse welcoming “a war that must make literary experiment and obscurity seem redundant and effete” and likening the conflict to a disinfectant “that cleans out the stagnant pools and clotted channels of the intellect.” In his final chapter Egremont suggests that resistance to modernism was entrenched in the work of many of the survivors — not only Sassoon but also Graves and Blunden. Nostalgia for the past and an insular mistrust of Continental influence, among other factors, may have made them treasure convention, and they could hardly be said, as Thomas could, to have opened the way to new practices. There is nothing at all culpable in this, but they are an end rather than a beginning: When another world war came, it was Thomas’s cool intelligence and originality of perception that would be an example to Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas, the best of a new — but far less well-known — generation of war poets.

’s most recent novel is The Stranger’s Child (Vintage).

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