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Brief account of English poetry of the World War of 1914-1918

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

What is War Poetry?

The First World War was the first military conflict in history that induced the widest possible spectrum of literary responses, ranging from keen patriotic assertion to disillusionment. Largely two stages may be distinguished. The first was patriotic dedication, where self-sacrifice for the cause of human freedom was widely accepted, and a revival of the romantic origin of the knight-at-arms. Many writers lived and served throughout the War had preserved this enthusiasm of the early years.

Soon the carnage grew more horrendous and the end was blurry, this promoted other poets to declared the intention of shattering this illusion of the splendour of war by painting realistic picture of the suffering, brutality, squalor, and futility of the struggle. The work of this last group, though at first greeted with derision or angry protest, has probably withstood the passage of time better than that of the earlier.

The Great War had left no one untouched by it. Suffering, mourning, patriotism, pity, and love were universally, if not equally, experienced. Thus "war poetry" is as all-encompassing as total war itself.

Poetry of the First World War

Popularly war poetry is about the Front, and by young combatants: typically, Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), who protested against the mechanized slaughter of the trenches; supremely, his friend Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who was killed; as were Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) and Edward Thomas (1878-1917).

Accounts which focus on anti-war poems usually employ Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) as a foil. Brooke had welcomed the war in a spirit of patriotic idealism: ‘If I should die, think only this of me,/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’ (‘The Soldier’). Rupert Brooke's popularity rests on the five war sonnets of 1914. Critics doubt that he would have written the sonnets later in the war had he lived. They show an enthusiasm that most soldiers and poets eventually lost. Fair or not, Brooke is remembered as a "war poet" who inspired patriotism in the early months of the Great War.

After the battle of the Somme in 1916, the losses of the trenches blighted the idea of heroic sacrifice. Poems such as Sassoon’s ‘The General’, Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ and ‘To His Love’ by Ivor Gurney immerse us in that stalemate in the mud for which even professional soldiers were unprepared. The poems of Sassoon and Owen came to the fore after 1918, and came to express national mourning.

Battle of the Somme trench map - The National Archives

Sassoon inspired the greatest of all the war poets, Wilfred Owen. His poem ‘Strange Meeting’ is one of the most flawless of and visionary, this reaches back to the heroic epics of Homer and Virgil and forward to voice in its last lines a compassionate humanity in striking contrast to the last speech of Byrhtnoth, the doomed warrior in The Battle of Maldon.

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson didn't see the British cavalry charge against Russian artillery in the Crimean war – other than with his mind's eye – but his lifelong absorption in Arthurian legend and chivalry enabled him to take his place, imaginatively, with the "Noble six hundred". He celebrates their courage, but recognising that "Someone had blundered", begins to question the value of the heroic code.


A global perspective of First World War poetry – by men and by women composed in diverse languages, from different national perspectives, and on various fronts – provides a basis for a new understanding of how this literary form has enshrined the human experience of 1914-1918.




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