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Comments by Bob Corbett
This is a fascinating short little book. It contains poems by 16 British poets. All poems are related to World War I, and many of these poets died in the war itself. They represent differing perspectives: pro-war, pro-Britain, anti-war, horror of war and so on. I came away from the volume having a strong sense of the divisions that World War I created in many participant nations.
Further, it is interesting to see when each poem was written. It seems like the later the poem the less “pro-war” sentiment is expressed.
This little volume is well worth reading and owning.
Notes along the way on selected poets and poems
Rupert Booke was an up and coming poet. He died in 1915 in his first year of military service. His most famous war poem, “The Soldier” tells of a soldier who dies, thus almost ensuring the poem’s popularity and importance. He writes:
“If I should die think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.”
While the poem is touching, for sure, I couldn’t help but think that if one could change the last word to “Germany” then the poem would probably have been immortalized in Germany.
Charles Hamilton Sorley was also killed in 1915. He was skeptical of the war and even criticized Booke’s “The Soldier” as being too obsessed with his own sacrifice. Sorley himself experienced the early poison gas attacks. In “To Germany” he addresses the German people, especially soldiers, telling them that in the war
“. . . the blind fight the blind.”
In his poem “Route March” he speaks ironically, almost angrily, of how marching soldiers sing so cavalierly of death. He attacks the song:
“So sing with joyful breath.
. . .
Earth that never doubts nor fears
Earth that knows of death, not tears,
Earth that bore with joyful ease
Hemlock for Socrates,
Earth that blossomed and was glad
‘Neath the cross that Christ had,
Shall rejoice and blossom too
When the bullet reaches you
Wherefore men marching
On the road to death, sing!
Pour gladness on earth’s head,
So be merry, so be dead.”
John McCrae was a Canadian who was already 46 when he died in the war in 1917. He wrote of the uselessness of the war if the living didn’t continue the war for them:
“IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
Isaac Rosenberg was not from the comfortable class as most of these poets were. He came from a poor Jewish family. He didn’t fight “for patriotic reasons” but held that war could never be justified, yet it had to be fought. He wrote powerfully about the horrors of the war. He died in 1918.
“The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dream of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
A man’s brains splatter on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.”
Wilfred Owen died at age 25 in 1918. He was killed only days before the Armistice was signed. His powerful poem “Insensibility” seems to me to capture the hopeless insanity of being in war.
“Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds save with cold cannot more ache.
Having seen all things red.
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.”
I think Owen’s poem “Mental Cases” is so extraordinary in its capturing the sense of human suffering in such an unimaginable world that I want to cite it in its entirety:
“Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slow their relish,
Barring teeth that leer like skull’s teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Even from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
These are men who minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because of their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.”
Ivor Gurney survived the war and didn’t die until 1937. However, he was a musician and composer and was wounded and gassed in the war and spent the rest of his life in mental asylums, yet he composed music to set the poems of many famous poets including A.E. Housman and Gerald Manley Hopkins.
Siegfried Sassoon was a soldier and survived the war. In the beginning he supported the war and even won a Military Cross for bravery. However, by 1917 he turned against the war, believing it was being carrying on unnecessarily. He began to write satires condemning the war and would likely have gone to jail except for the intercession of fellow poet, Robert Graves whose influenced led to Sassoon being judged to be suffering from shell shock. His war poems are rather bitter “satirical drawings.”
“Shaken from sleep, and numbed and scarce awake,
Out in the trench with three hours’ watch to take,
I blunder through the splashing murk; and then
Hear the gruff muttering voices of the men
Crouching in cabins candle-chinked with light
Hark! There’s the big bombardment on our right
Rumbling and bumping; and the dark’s a glare
Of flickering horror in the sectors where
We raid the Boche; men waiting, stiff and chilled,
Or crawling on their bellies through the wire.
‘What? Stretcher-bearers wanted? Some one killed?”
Five minutes ago, I heard sniper fire;
Why did he do it? . . . Starlight overhead –
Blank stars. I’m wide-awake; and some chap’s dead.”
Thomas Hardy became known primarily as a novelist having written Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure. However, he ceased writing prose and became a poet. He held a world view that individuals didn’t really control their fate, which led him to write war poetry which confirmed the horrors of the war.
“So, when old hopes that earth was bettering slowly
Were dead and damned, there sounded, ‘War is done!’
One morrow, Said the bereft, and meek, and lowly.
‘Will men some day be given to grace? Yea, wholly,
And in good sooth, as our dreams used to run?’
Breathless they paused. Out there men raised their glance
To where had stood those poplars land and lopped,
As they had raised it through the four years’ dance
Of Death in the now familiar flats of France;
And murmured, ‘Strange, this! How? All firing stopped?’
. . .
Calm fell. From Heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth not, shake off misery:
The Sinister Spirit sneered: ‘It had to be!’
And again the Spirit of Pity whispered, ‘Why?’
Rudyard Kipling wrote of the importance to welcome the U.S. into the war, and to patch up the old grudges. In “The Choice,” subtitled “The American Spirit Speaks” he calls for acceptance and fence mending!
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org“Let Freedom’s land rejoice!
Our ancient bonds are riven
Once more to us the eternal choice
Of good or ill is given.
. . .
Not at a little cost
Hardly by prayer or tears
Shall we recover the road we lost
In the drugged and doubting years.
Bob Corbett email@example.com