The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

RG

RG

IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

World War I poets

BEFORE

1915 Rupert Brooke, a poet of war’s noble sacrifice, writes in his sonnet “The Dead” that “dying has made us rarer gifts than gold” – a sentiment echoed in another sonnet, “The Soldier”.

1916 While serving in the Foreign Legion, Alan Seeger, the “American Rupert Brooke”, writes “I Have a Rendezvous with Death” – a high-flown, solemn, prophetic poem later admired by President Kennedy.

1916 A “sardonic rat” scurries among the dead and the wounded in Isaac Rosenberg’s vivid, unrhyming poem “Break of Day in the Trenches”.

1917 The archetype of the affable but incompetent leader of men is satirized by Siegfried Sassoon in “The General”.

Poets of many nations wrote of their experiences of combat in World War I. They bore witness to the harrowing events; many of them died young. Among those most admired are the English poets: Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, and Wilfred Owen.

The pity of war

Owen (1893–1918) worked as a tutor in France before joining the army. At first his work was patriotic: “Anthem for Doomed Youth” tells of men “who die as cattle” but closes with “bugles calling for them from sad shires” – a plaintive note of tribute. The slaughter on the Somme, and the influence of Sassoon, toughened up his verse. In “Dulce et Decorum Est”, observing blood “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs”, Owen knew that a witness to the horror would not repeat to “children ardent for some desperate glory, / The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est /Pro Patria mori” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”). “The poetry,” he said in a draft preface, “is in the pity.”

Some poems focus on the surreal nightmare. In “The Show”, his soul looks upon the aftermath of battle, where dying men crawl like caterpillars over the ground. In “Strange Meeting”, the poet meets, in Hell, a loquacious stranger who claims to be the enemy he “jabbed and killed”. Owen, when he was killed aged 25, was still learning his craft. He is valued for his moral and artistic integrity in powerful poems about man’s inhumanity to man.

"What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?"

"– Only the monstrous anger of the guns."

“Anthem for Doomed Youth”

See also: The Waste Land • Catch-22