Reviews — From the September 2014 issue

The Fallen

The legacy of the First World War poets

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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.

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