Research Notes – The Great War (15) The War Poets

In the course of researching my historical novel: Here Lies a Soldier, I’ve read books on the battles, the origins of the conflict, the Spanish Flu epidemic which came close on its heels, and of the life and struggle of the average citizen striving to weather that horrible storm. Among some of the most compelling subjects I’ve researched are the works of art, the literature and especially the poetry composed at the time.

During the First World War, unlike previous wars, a significant number of important British poets served as soldiers. As one might expect, they composed poetry that reflected their experiences in battle, the conditions in the trenches and the spirit of the men they fought beside. Some of them died in battle: Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley and Wilfred Owen. The ones that survived, like Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney and Robert Graves, were deeply affected by the horrors of war and their work demonstrates their traumatization.

In Westminster Abbey, Poet’s Corner is a section of the South Transept. Among the graves and other memorials of Britain’s famous poets, lies a stone slab with the names of the War Poets inscribed on it. It’s also inscribed with words from Wilfred Owen’s “Preface”

“My subject is war, and the pity of war. The Poetry is in the pity.”

Anthologies of these poems were very popular during the war. In my collection of War Poems: Men Who March Away, the editor has grouped the collection by date, giving the reader a glimpse of how attitudes toward the war changed over time. Here is one of Wilfred Owen’s poems – Exposure. The soldiers faced not only the enemy in battle but also the terrible conditions in the trenches – the mud, the filthy water, the lice, the rats and the cold. Sometimes the waiting was as dreadful as the action.

Exposure – Wilfred Owen

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . . 

Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .

Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .

Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,

       But nothing happens. 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,

Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.

Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,

Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.

       What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.

Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army

Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,

       But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.

Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,

With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,

We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,

       But nothing happens.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—

We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,

Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,

Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.

       —Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed

With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;

For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;

Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—

       We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;

Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.

For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;

Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,

       For love of God seems dying.

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,

Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.

The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,

Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,

       But nothing happens.

30 thoughts on “Research Notes – The Great War (15) The War Poets

  1. I Was not aware of the fact that poets had to go into battle, during WWI. Well, It is common sense to think that during a war all people have to be involved and serve, but to me poets are artists and I cannot see art and war in the same page of history.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some volunteered in the beginning, no one thought it would last more than a few weeks to months. And patriotism ran very high. Eventually conscription pulled in others. Really very few were exempt but for health reasons or conscientious objection. And the latter were often put to work in noncombat roles like stretcher bearers or ambulance drivers.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wilfred Owens really does express the horrors of World War 1 with powerful images. I always think of Walt Whitman when I think of poets and war, his writing of letters for soldiers, Whitman’s time in the hospitals etc. This is quite a new perspective for me to think of World War 1. Excellent post Meg, and surrounding you with good wishes with your writing project. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much JoHanna. The ways this war changed the world going forward, is really amazing. No area of life was spared, including the arts. The soldiers went in thinking war was glorious, they came out scarred for life.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No doubt! That’d be an interesting story. Did I ever tell you I had a WWI vet as a patient years ago? He lived to be 108! He had lied about his age to enlist and was on the boat to Europe when the Armistice was signed. He never actually saw combat, but he was honored every year on his birthday with some pomp and circumstance. He had volunteered at our VA hospital for years and they even named the VA Medical Center after him when he passed. He was something else. 😃

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well… i had a bit of a weepy day of Friday – my last day. And fortunately going into the long weekend helped because H is home. But this morning I just cancelled my malpractice insurance and my business insurance and it kinda felt great! 😜

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Henry Nicholas John Gunther (June 6, 1895 – November 11, 1918) was an American soldier and the last soldier of any of the belligerents to be killed during World War I. He was killed at 10:59 a.m., one minute before the Armistice was to take effect at 11 a.m.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dear Meg, this is a wonderful post, thank you. I like that you featured a work of Wilfred Owen. I just recently read his poem, “Dulce et Decorum est”. These works shows us that poetry is not always concerned with pretty, rather the focus is on the experience, like it or not. Continued successes with your research, I imagine it’s incredibly easy to be distracted, finding all sorts of interesting things not intended for your novel. Wishing you a lovely Wednesday evening. ~ Mia 💖

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Mia. Yes, that is Owen’s most well known work. It’s interesting to see how the tone of the poems changed as the war dragged on. From enthusiasm and seeking glory to shell shock and disillusionment. And you are right about the distraction! I have read far more than I have written! Enjoy the rest of your day! 💗

      Liked by 1 person

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