Poets have long used their poignant words to laud, memorialize, describe, and decry war. WWI poets were no different; it was the war itself which was different, with a record around 10 million soldiers dead. This was the War to End All Wars, a rather poetic statement in and of itself, albeit one proved untrue by subsequent events. The idea of war as honorable, just, and somehow glorious, was common at the beginning of 1914, as evidenced by The Call by Jesse Pope, below, but by 1917 it had segued into tragic, grieving, bitter poetry like that of Wilfred Owen in Dulce et decorum est, “ …if you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs/ Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues/My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/ The old lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori.” This lie, that it is sweet and right to die for one’s country, is expressed in The Call in these stirring lines, “Who’ll earn the Empire’s thanks—/Will you, my laddie?/Who’ll swell the victor’s ranks–/Will you, my laddie?” But it may be to this poet, Jesse Pope, that Wilfred Owen directed those final, pleading lines of his poem, as he himself had now lived through the realities of trenches and gas and death and fear and was destined to die within the year in this very war.
This evolving, dichotomous view expressed by poetry can be used to trace the history of WWI, from 1914 to 1918, from innocent confidence and eager step to horror and doom and regret. In 1914, in her poem Joining the Colours, Katharine Tynan observes “There they go marching all in step so gay!/Smooth-cheeked and golden, food for shells and guns./Blithely they go as to a wedding day,/The mothers’ sons.” 1915 brings us the famous In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, with its imagery and symbolism of red poppies to mark the first use of poison gas, while 1916 offers The Poet as Hero by Siegfried Sassoon with his lines, “You’ve heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented,/Mocking and loathing War: you’ve asked me why/Of my old, silly sweetness I’ve repented–/My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry…now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad,/ and am no more the knight of dreams and show…” while the terrible effects of war continue to rend. As the US finally enters the war in 1917, poet Ivor Gurney, in his poem Servitude, opines “If it were not for England, who would bear/This heavy servitude one moment more?/To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor/Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare/With this brass-cleaning life.” Finally, in 1918, comes the fatalistic words of Carl Sandburg in Grass, as he orders sadly “Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo./Shovel them under and let me work–/I am the grass; I cover all.”
The years following WWI provide a surfeit of emotions, ranging from anger to irony to wry commentary on those who send the young to war, with G.K. Chesterton’s Elegy in a Country Courtyard, “But they that fought for England,/Following a falling star,/Alas, alas for England/They have their graves afar. And they that rule in England,/In stately conclave met,/Alas, alas for England/They have no graves as yet.” The scars and loss of this brutal war are felt still, and these later poems exhibit the change in how war’s sacrifices are viewed. From ancient Horace’s The Iliad to today’s modern bards, we will continue to look to our poets to help express the deep and warring emotions caused by the seemingly never-ending sacrifice and loss of war.
“The Poetry of World War I.” The Poetry Foundation. N.p., 04 Aug. 2014. Web. 26 June 2017.
“Poetry from World War I.” Poetry from World War I. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 June 2017.