We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
War poets (act. 1914–1918) is a convenient, though somewhat diffuse, term referring primarily to the soldier–poets who fought in the First World War, of whom many died in combat. The best-known are Richard Aldington, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Hamilton Sorley, and Edward Thomas. Most of these writers came from middle-class backgrounds; many had been to public schools and served as officers at the front. In fact, hundreds of ‘war poets’ wrote and published their verse between 1914 and 1918, often capturing the initial mood of excitement and enthusiasm, although only a handful—largely those who wrote in protest—are read and admired today, with Wilfred Owen achieving an iconic status within British literature and culture. Other war poets whose work appeared between 1914 and 1918 were not involved in fighting. The Times supplement, War Poems, August, 1914–15, for example, included contributions from established civilian poets such as Robert Bridges, Rudyard Kipling, Laurence Binyon, and Thomas Hardy. Catherine Reilly's 1978 bibliography of English poetry of the First World War lists over 3000 works by 2225 poets. More than half of this war poetry was written by male civilian writers and a quarter by women. A recent interest in the work of such women poets as Vera Brittain, Margaret Postgate Cole, Rose Macaulay, and Charlotte Mew has also significantly extended understanding of war poetry of the period.

Even so, in the general historical and cultural consciousness it is the soldier–poets with their ‘charred’ senses and ‘seared conscience’ (Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters, 581, 461) who are still considered the representative war poets. Rupert Brooke established the cult of the soldier–poet in England, though the tone of his work differed markedly from writers who experienced later battles on the western front. Brooke's striking good looks and five patriotic ‘war sonnets’ written in December 1914, coupled with his death in a troopship bound for Gallipoli, his burial at Skyros, and the glowing Times obituary over Winston Churchill's initials, made him a symbol of a mythical (or much mythologized) pre-war golden age ended by conflict. As early as April 1915 Charles Hamilton Sorley had accused him of taking the ‘sentimental attitude’ (Collected Letters, 219) but Brooke's 1914 and Other Poems was immensely successful, going through twenty-five impressions between 1915 and 1918 and making him the most popular soldier–poet of the war years.

In contrast to Brooke, the next generation of poets actually went to the trenches and saw action. The reality appalled them. Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Gurney, and Jones were all either wounded or shell-shocked, or both. They wrote powerfully and poignantly about the effects of war on the bodies and minds of men, the horror and the waste. These poems have largely shaped the cultural and literary memory of the conflict, as the critic Paul Fussell argued in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). The soldier–poets were bound together by their first-hand experience of modern industrial warfare, its ‘superhuman inhumanities’ and ‘immemorial shames’, as evoked by Owen:
But what say such as from existence' brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink,
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell
(‘Spring Offensive’, Poems, 170)
Despite the shared experience of combat, the war poets were otherwise separated by class, rank, age, training, and sexuality. Nothing, for example, could be further removed from the experience of the Cambridge-educated fox-hunting country gentleman Siegfried Sassoon, an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, than the world of Isaac Rosenberg, the diminutive and impoverished Jewish private in the ‘bantam battalion’, forced to do manual labour or to beg in his trench letters for a pound to buy a pair of boots. A talented painter as well, Rosenberg had grown up amid poverty in the East End of London and was the only one among the soldier–poets to enlist for financial reasons. His intense isolation—‘this Bantam Battalion (as I was too short for any other) … seems to be the most rascally affair in the world. I have to eat out of a basin together with some horribly smelling scavenger who spits and sneezes into it’ (Collected Works, 219)—is in contrast to the theme of warm comradeship that recurs in the poetry not only of Sassoon, Owen, and Blunden, who served as officers, but also of those who served as privates, particularly Jones and Gurney.

Like Sassoon and Graves, David Jones served with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His First World War narrative In Parenthesis, hovering between prose and poetry, appeared in 1937, and was hailed as a classic by the literary modernists, including T. S. Eliot who called it ‘a work of genius’ (In Parenthesis, ‘A note of introduction’, vii). That year also saw the death of Gurney, who spent the last fifteen years of his life in the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, Kent. His mental instability, dating from before the war, was aggravated by his battle experiences with the 2nd/5th Gloucesters, which included being wounded and gassed before being invalided out in 1917. One of the most poignant stories of post-war life is that of Gurney being visited in this asylum by Helen, the widow of his fellow poet Edward Thomas, who was killed in 1917 and whose work Gurney adored. On one occasion, she brought one of her husband's well-used Gloucester maps, and Gurney lovingly traced with his fingers the lanes over which Thomas had walked, joining him in this strange perambulation. Born in March 1878, Edward Thomas was the oldest member of the group of soldier–poets. He already had a literary reputation when the war broke out, having started writing poetry under the encouragement of Robert Frost and spent twenty years as an impecunious, overworked literary journalist. By contrast, the youngest of the soldier–poets, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves, were under twenty and had just gained scholarships to Oxford University when they signed up. They were to take part in some of the worst fighting, and Graves famously read his own obituary in The Times, having been mistakenly reported dead during the battle of the Somme in 1916.

The First World War poets did not write as a collective, homogenous group though the work of four—Graves, Nichols, Rosenberg, and Sassoon—did appear in Edward Marsh's Georgian Poetry, 1916–1917 (1917). Moreover, there was some individual contact. One of the best-known literary encounters in the trenches began when Graves surreptitiously spotted the name of Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, in a copy of The Essays of Lionel Johnson lying on the messroom table. They enthusiastically showed each other their poems. Sassoon found the poems from Graves's forthcoming Over the Brazier (1916) too realistic; Graves, after having a look at Sassoon's, remarked that once the latter had seen modern warfare, his style would change. Both were idealistic homosexuals at this stage (Graves was to change his sexual preference later on), and in a diary entry in June 1922 Sassoon admitted to a ‘vague sexual element’ in ‘our war-harnessed relationship’ (Diaries, 1920–1922, 162) although he later flatly denied any sexual attraction for Graves (Moorcroft Wilson, Sassoon, 214). Thus, at Le Hamel on 28 November 1915, began a friendship that was fraught but deep, described autobiographically by Graves in Goodbye to All That (1929) and fictionally by Sassoon in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).

In June 1917 Sassoon, who had received the Military Cross and been nicknamed Mad Jack for his bravery, and who was then convalescing in England, came under the influence of a pacifist group led by Bertrand Russell. In response Sassoon wrote his famous public letter of ‘wilful defiance’ declaring that ‘the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it’ (the original statement is now housed in the Imperial War Museum, London). Concerned by his friend's actions, Graves made urgent representations and a medical board was set up to assess Sassoon's health and conduct. There he testified that Sassoon, who had by then thrown the ribbon of his Military Cross into the Mersey, was suffering from shell-shock and hallucinations of corpses in Piccadilly. The authorities willingly sent their distinguished, errant officer to Craiglockhart War Hospital outside Edinburgh. There he met Wilfred Owen and formed the most celebrated friendship in the literary history of the war; perhaps more significantly for Sassoon, he also got to know the noted Cambridge neurologist W. H. R. Rivers.

Wilfred Owen had been admitted to Craiglockhart in May 1917. He had been diagnosed with shell-shock after some terrible experiences at the front, including coming under a ‘terrific bombardment’ for ‘fifty hours’ (Collected Letters, 427), a fall into a cellar where he was trapped for three days, and finally being blown up in the air by a shell. In contrast to the public-school and Oxbridge backgrounds of Sassoon, Graves, or Blunden, Owen had been educated at the local Birkenhead Institute and had experienced a strong evangelical upbringing under his mother. At Craiglockhart, through his doctor Captain Arthur Brock's philosophy of ‘work-cure’, Owen started contributing to—and finally became the editor of—the hospital magazine, Hydra, which published two of his own poems and four by Sassoon. Owen fell completely under the spell of Sassoon, regarding him, in one instance, as ‘Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile’ (ibid., 505). After reading Sassoon's ‘trench-sketches’ in his just-published book The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, Owen wrote to his mother, ‘Shakespeare reads vapid after these’ (ibid., 484). Under Sassoon's influence, Owen's hitherto decadent style began to change, acquiring a leanness of expression, density of meaning, and rich music that his mentor was never able to achieve. Some of the most poignant documents of this literary friendship are the manuscript drafts of Owen's poems with Sassoon's handwritten corrections, notably that of ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, now in the British Library. Like Sassoon, and many in Robert Ross's circle whom he came to know during his visit to London in 1917, Owen was homosexual, but we do not know whether he ever had any same-sex encounter or relationship. Repression rather than consummation seems to give his poetry its pulse. In March 1918 he was transferred to Ripon in Yorkshire where he wrote or revised some of his finest poems, including ‘Strange Meeting’, ‘Exposure’, and ‘Futility’. Though fiercely critical of the war, he returned to the front in September 1918, ‘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 well as a pleader can’ (ibid., 580). He was killed early on the morning of 4 November at the age of twenty-five.

In his famous draft preface Owen wrote: ‘Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of war’ (‘Poems of Wilfred Owen’, BL, Add. MSS 43720–43721). First World War trench poetry was a unique phenomenon whereby testimony and poetry were yoked together, both registering new forms of violence, and the war-torn male body was the central subject. The felt reality of this body was set against the abstract language of heroism, and became the ground of protest. Most of these writers started under the shadow of the Georgian poets, but the moods, emotions, and rhythms vary widely, from the ardent patriotism of Brooke and Grenfell to the angry sensuality of Sassoon and Owen; or from the pastoral poignancy of Blunden and Thomas to the modernist wit and irony of Rosenberg. A few of the war poets saw their verse in print during the war: Sassoon's The Old Huntsman and Other Poems, Gurney's Severn and Somme, and Nichols's Ardours and Endurances all appeared in 1917. However, for the majority, including the two best-known writers—Owen and Rosenberg—fame was posthumous. Two of the most celebrated war poems—Grenfell's enthusiastic ‘Into Battle’ and Sorley's angry protest ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’—were also published posthumously, the latter discovered in the dead poet's kitbag. At the time of Owen's death only five of his poems were in print. In 1920 Sassoon introduced and arranged Owen's Poems while two years later Gordon Bottomley edited Rosenberg's Poems from tattered, mud-stained manuscripts, with an introduction by Laurence Binyon.

The concept of the war poets, as commonly understood today, is therefore essentially a post-war phenomenon, bolstered by the deluge of prose accounts that came out in the late 1920s: Blunden's Undertones of War (1928), Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End (1924–8), Graves's Goodbye to All That (1929), Erich Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), and Sassoon's Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930). It was in the 1930s that the war poets, partly because of their advocacy by left-wing writers, became national icons, with Owen as the leader, prophet, and martyr. Thus, W. B. Yeats's decision to leave Owen out of The Oxford Volume of Modern Verse (1936), stating in the introduction that ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’ (xxxiv), was greeted with outrage.

A precise definition of the term war poet, which has been considered by poets from Robert Nichols to Philip Larkin and Andrew Motion, has never been fully agreed upon. While early anthologies like E. B. Osborn's The Muse in Arms (1917) and Robert Nichols's Anthology of War Poetry, 1914–1918 (1943) focused largely on the work of soldier–poets, Brian Gardner's Up the Line to Death: the War Poets, 1914–1918 (1967) also included poems by non-combatant writers, though it too was a collection of male authors. More recent anthologists have questioned limiting the definition of war poetry to the work of a group of predominantly well-educated, largely middle-class soldier–poets. Catherine Reilly's anthology Scars upon My Heart: Women's Poetry and Verse (1981), for example, opened up a new and important area of experience and expression, and was enthusiastically received. Reilly's title came from the first line of ‘To My Brother’ by Vera Brittain, who served from 1915 as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) and who lost her fiancé, brother, and two of her closest male friends during the war.

Brittain was representative of a generation of women whose lives were traumatized by the war, and in her memoir Testament of Youth (1933) she deplored ‘that terrible barrier of knowledge’ (p. 215) that existed between the sexes during the war. Such barriers in the literary canon have started to be broken down, with the inclusion of such women poets as May Weddenburn Cannan (1895–1975) and Alice Meynell, as well as Margaret Postgate Cole and Charlotte Mew, in Jon Silkin's enlarged edition of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (1996). Similarly, greater attention is now also being paid towards the poetry of working-class writers from the period. Simon Featherstone's War Anthology, for example, includes a selection of working-class poems or songs excerpted from the Ilkeston Pioneer and Ilkeston Advertiser, among them Private Thomas Beardsley's ‘Me and 5 pals made this up’ (sung to the tune of ‘This is my story’) and Private George Shipstone's ‘My little wet home in the trench’ (sung to the tune of ‘My little grey home in the west’). With the passing of the last survivors of the First World War generation, the voices of the war poets of 1914–1918 retain their significance. They testify to the tragedy and cost of war, to the spirit of survival as well as to the ‘terrible beauty’ of art born out of violence, but, above all, they speak to us, as Owen envisaged, ‘to warn’ (Poems, preface, 192).

Santanu Das

Sources  

V. Brittain, Testament of youth (1933) · J. Brophy and E. Partridge, eds., The long trail: what the British soldier sang and said in the Great War of 1914-18 (1965) · S. Featherstone, ed., War poetry: an introductory reader (1995) · B. Gardner, ed., Up the line to death: the war poets, 1914–1918 (1967) · R. Graves, Goodbye to all that (1929) · D. Jones, In parenthesis (1937) · A. Motion, ed., First World War poems (2003) · C. W. Reilly, ed., Scars upon my heart: women's poetry and verse of the First World War (1982) · S. Sassoon, foreword, in The collected works of Isaac Rosenberg: poetry, prose, letters, paintings, and drawings, ed. I. Parsons (1984) · J. Silkin, ed., The Penguin book of First World War poetry (1996) · Wilfred Owen: collected letters, ed. H. Owen and J. Bell (1967) · The poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. J. Stallworthy (1990) · S. Sassoon, Diaries, 1920–1922, ed. R. Hart-Davis (1981) · S. Sassoon, Memoirs of an infantry officer (1930) · J. Moorcroft Wilson, ed., The collected letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley (1990) · A. Caesar, Taking it like a man: suffering, sexuality and the war poets (1993) · P. Fussell, The Great War and modern memory (1975) · D. Hibberd, Owen the poet (1986) · D. Hibberd, ed., Poetry of the First World War (1990) · S. Hynes, A war imagined: the First World War and English culture (1990) · P. Quinn, ed., British poets of the Great War: Brooke, Rosenberg, Thomas, a documentary volume (2000) · P. J. Quinn, The Great War and the missing muse: the early writings of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon (1994) · C. W. Reilly, English poetry of the First World War: a bibliography (1978) · J. Silkin, Out of battle: the poetry of the Great War (1972) · J. Stallworthy, Anthem for doomed youth: twelve soldier poets of the First World War (2002) · J. Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen (1974) · J. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, the making of a war poet: a biography, 1886–1918 (1998)