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Offline Kurt Steiner

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Poetry of World War I
« on: November 27, 2007, 02:20:36 PM »
Excuse me if I got pedantic on this issue, but, dealing my PhD with WW1 English literature I tend to be pedantic even if I don't realize. So, I get carried out, just forgive me, please.

My favourite WW1 English poets are Robert Graves, Sigfried Sassoon and, above them all, Wilfred Owen. Ruppet Brooke died too young and to early. Had he lived longer, he would have turned into Sassoon's or Owen's style, for sure. On his last poems we can see this change of attitude, as in the ones he started in his fateful trip to Gallipolli.

So, let me quote perhaps one of the finest sonnets ever written about war.

Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen.

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then ,as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall, -
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.

I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now...'

Moving, isn't it?

PD: Take a look also at Isaac Rosemberg, Ivor Gurney or Vera Brittain, too.
« Last Edit: April 12, 2009, 10:40:42 PM by Alixz »

Offline Kurt Steiner

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #1 on: November 27, 2007, 02:23:16 PM »
Well, could WWI have been prevented?

No. As the alliance system worked, with all the interest the every single nation had, any single trouble would have started the war. France and the UK almost came to blows in 1898 at Fashoda, and look at them later on.

Hadn't been at Sarajevo, the spark would have taken place anywhere else.

Offline jehan

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #2 on: November 27, 2007, 06:53:29 PM »
Has anyone else read Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth", or her war diaries?

She is a good writer and her writings are one of the few views of WW1 from a woman's perspective- she served as a VAD near the front and in England.  And she lost most of the young men she was close to (including her fiance and her brother).  After the war she became an outspoken pacifist.

Anyway- my favorite WW1 poem was written by her fiance Roland Leighton  a few months before he was killed in action December 1915.


Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head;
It is strange they should be blue.)

Violets from Plug Street Wood-
Think what they have meant to me-
Life and Hope and Love and You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest it was better so.)

Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand. (3)
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in. 
(leonard Cohen)


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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #3 on: November 27, 2007, 10:25:15 PM »
jehan -

That is the most beautiful and yet heartbreaking poem yet!

Arch Duke Rudolph, the heir to the Austrian throne before his suicide at Mayerling had often spoken of the "need for" and the "inevitability" of a war with Russia.  As early as 1881, Rudolph developed this view:  Appeasement pf Russia would have to cease, she should be pressed back behind an enlarged Romania, and Poland would have to be resuscitated

He then said:  Because the great mission of this state is still unfulfilled.  It has yet to play a great part in the European Orient which it will then reform basically.... I go so far as to maintain that a great war which forces us to fight out the whole issue of the Near East would be of great advantage to our internal conditions and for our whole right to exist...."

Rudolph died in 1889, but this memorandum was written in 1881.  There is much more to it and much more to his assertion that a war with Russia conducted by Austria-Hungry with Germany at its back was necessary.

Thirty three years later, with the death of Franz Ferdinand (who of course would not have been the heir if Rudolph had not committed suicide) that Austrian idea of a war with Russia over the Balkans and Austria's right to over see the Balkans and to be the controlling force in that area of the world was still very much in evidence.

And the one other thing that I always bring up about the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 is that Ho Chi Min was a bus boy or waiter at the conference.  He tried to get the delegates to listen to him and to set in motion the withdrawal of the French from Indochina.  But not one of those self satisfied and egocentric men would listen to a mere "bus boy".

And the need for natural resources that were not available in their own countries and the determination to control and humiliate the defeated Central Powers plus the insensitive drawing and redrawing of map lines in the Middle East were the direct causes of World War II and Korea and Viet Nam and now Iraq and Iran.
« Last Edit: November 27, 2007, 10:26:59 PM by Alixz »

Offline imperial angel

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #4 on: November 27, 2007, 11:24:52 PM »
I am not familiar with Vera Brittain, but I have to agree with the last poster about that poem- so beautiful. I also like that is not as well known as some of the poems I posted- they are familiar enough to have been beaten into the ground. It is always nice to read World War I poetry that is not as familiar to people yet is lovely, and I really appreciate the last four responses to this thread- hope it continues..

Offline Kurt Steiner

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #5 on: November 28, 2007, 03:27:41 AM »
Has anyone else read Vera Brittain's "Testament of Youth", or her war diaries?

I did. I still remember the parts where she talks about the death of Roland.

As Imperial Angel has asked... You've given me an idea. I'll try to show with examples how the mood in poetry changes from the beginning of the war till the end. I'll also add some biographical information about the writer, if you like.

So, let's do it.

A poem by Thomas Hardy, in the early stages of the war.

“Men who March Away” (Song of the Soldiers)

WHAT of the faith and fire within us   
  Men who march away   
  Ere the barn-cocks say   
  Night is growing gray,   
To hazards whence no tears can win us;          
What of the faith and fire within us   
  Men who march away!   
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,   
  Friend with the musing eye   
  Who watch us stepping by,          
  With doubt and dolorous sigh?   
Can much pondering so hoodwink you?   
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,   
  Friend with the musing eye?   
Nay. We see well what we are doing,          
  Though some may not see—   
  Dalliers as they be—   
  England’s need are we;   
Her distress would leave us rueing:   
Nay. We well see what we are doing,          
  Though some may not see!   
In our heart of hearts believing   
  Victory crowns the just,   
  And that braggarts must   
  Surely bite the dust,          
Press we to the field ungrieving,   
In our heart of hearts believing   
  Victory crowns the just.   
Hence the faith and fire within us   
  Men who march away          
  Ere the barn-cocks say   
  Night is growing gray,   
To hazards whence no tears can win us;   
Hence the faith and fire within us   
  Men who march away.

  September 5, 1914

Notice the data, to understand the poem. Have you noticed the rhythm of the poem? It's was written to be sung, I think.

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was a war poet before 1914, and was regarded by many young poets -for instance, by Sassoon-, as the greatest living English poet. He wrote The Dynasts (1904-08).

Also, I would like to ask for something: Can anyone please some Russian war poems of the Great War? I'm sure there must be some of them, but I'm not familiar with Russian war poetry, shame on me.

Offline Mari

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #6 on: November 28, 2007, 04:00:49 AM »
I would like to offer this as a Russian Poet's work from WWI! Anna Gorenko experienced the War, the Revolution and the death of Nikolai Gumiley.
Akhmatova was born Anna Andreevna Gorenko. She was raised in an upper class family in the town of Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg. At an early age, she became interested in poetry, though it was not fashionable at the time. When her father found out about her aspirations, he told her not to shame the family name by becoming a "decadent poetess" (Kenyon 2). He forced her to take a pen-name, and she chose the last name of her maternal Great-Grandmother, a Tartar. In 1910, Akhmatova married Nikolai Gumilev.

n 1917, during World War I, Akhmatova's third book, White Flock, was published. Russia experienced extremely heavy losses during the war, and Akhmatova often gave poetry readings for the benefit of the wounded (Reeder 89). White Flock contains Akhmatova's famous poem about World War I, "In Memoriam, July 19, 1914." It begins with the lines, "We aged a hundred years, and this/Happened in a single hour" (Herschemeyer 210). Another poem in this book, "We thought: we're poor," gives voice to the suffering of those who lost loved ones in the war:
                              We thought: we're poor, we have nothing,
                              but when we started losing one after the other
                              so each day became
                              remembrance day,
                              we started composing poems
                              about God's great generosity
                              and--our former riches. (1-7)
                              (McKane 74)

With this book, Akhmatova's connectedness with the suffering of her country began to be an important theme in her writing. In the poem, "Prayer," this is an almost mystical union:
                              Give me bitter years of sickness,
                              Suffocation, insomnia, fever,
                              Take my child and my lover,
                              And my mysterious gift of song--
                              This I pray at your liturgy
                              After so many tormented days,
                              So that the stormcloud over darkened Russia
                              Might become a cloud of glorious rays. (1-8)
                              (Hemschemeyer 203)
A poem about Gumilev's death also appeared in this book. This version has also been translated by Judith Hemschemeyer:
                              You are no longer among the living,
                              You cannot rise from the snow.
                              Twenty-eight bayonets,
                              Five bullets.
                              A bitter new shirt
                              For my beloved I sewed.
                              The Russian earth loves, loves
                              Droplets of blood.
                              (Hemschemeyer 287-288)

works cited:  khmatova, Anna. Selected Poems. Trans. Richard McKane.
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1989.

Akhmatova, Anna. Twenty Poems of Anna Akhmatova.
Trans. Jane Kenyon. St. Paul: Eighties Press, 1985.

Akhmatova, Anna. Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova. Trans.
Judith Hemschemeyer, Ed. Roberta Reeder. 2nd ed. Boston:
Zephyr, 1992.

Offline Kurt Steiner

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #7 on: November 28, 2007, 04:56:06 AM »
Wonderful post, Mari. Thank you very much, really!

Another British poet:

Peace, by Rupert Brooke

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there's no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

Rupert Brooke (August 3, 1887–April 23, 1915) was an English poet known for his idealistic War Sonnets written during the First World War (especially The Soldier), as well as for his poetry written outside of war, particularly The Old Vicarage,and The Great Lover. He was  described as "the handsomest young man in England".

He was educated in Rugby and Cambridge, a very talented poet. He had friends among the Bloomsbury group of writers, and belonged to  the Georgian Poets. In the poem we see his desillusionment about love, which may refer to the severe emotional crisis he suffered in 1913, some say caused by sexual confusion and jealousy, resulting in the breakdown of his long relationship with Katherine Cox.

He was a very accomplished poet. When the Great War started, he was commisioned in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a temporary Sub-Lieutenant. Shortly after his 27th birthday he took part in the Antwerp expedition in October 1914. His five War Sonnets were the result of this experience, when he saw the suffering of the civilian population, which convinced him that the Allied cause was just. He sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on 28 February 1915 but developed septic pneumonia from an infected mosquito bite. He died on 23 April 1915 off the island of Lemnos in the Aegean on his way to Gallipoli. He was buried at 11 pm in an olive grove on the island of Skyros, Greece. Had he lived the ordeal of Gallipoli, I'm sure he would have changed his mind about war.

As a side-note, Rupert Brooke's brother, 2nd Lt. William Alfred Cotterill Brooke was a member of the 8th Battalion London Regiment (Post Office Rifles) and was killed in action near Le Rutoire Farm (Loos) on 14 June 1915, aged 24. He had only joined the battalion on 25 May.


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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #8 on: November 28, 2007, 07:49:50 AM »
I have never read such beautiful and soul searching collection of poetry about the Great War and death as you have accumulated here.

I know that this was not Annie's intent when she started this thread, but I am glad that you took it in this direction.  This is a direction that we have not gone in before in the study of European history.


Offline Kurt Steiner

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #9 on: November 28, 2007, 05:26:45 PM »
To add more hindsight on this topic:

Another example, that I'll explain a bit further:

The Game

On through the hail of slaughter,
Where gallant comrades Fall,
Where blood is poured like water,
They drive the trickling ball.
The fear of death before them
Is but an empty name.
True to the land that bore them-
The SURREYS play the game.

On without check or falter,
They press towards the goal;
Who falls on freedom's altar
The Lord shall rest his soul.
But still they charge, the living
Into that hell of flame;
Ungrudging in the giving,
Our souldiers play the game.

And now at last is ended
The task so well begun.
Though savagely defended
The lines of death are won.
In this, the hour of glory,
A deathless place they claim
In England's splendid glory,
The men who played the game

This poems was written by E.C.H. Burton under the pen name of Touchstone.

It refers about a REAL attack, carried out by the 8th Bn. East Surrey Regiment durimg the first day of the battle of the Somme. Trust me, what I'm going to writte right now is not a joke, nor a lie. It took place like that:

Captain WP Nevill, attached from the East Yorkshire Regiment and commanding "B" Company, while on leave, bought four footballs, one for each of his platoons. Back in the trenches, he offered a prize to the first platoon to kick its football up to the German trenches on the day of the attack.

At 7.27 a.m., led by Nevill, "B" Company climbed out of their trenches and the attack commenced. In the face of murderous fire, and sustaining heavy casualities, they charged across the intervening ground with the footballs bouncing encouragingly before them. The combination of Nevill's initiative and their gallantry proved successful and they gained their objective on the Ridge. Sadly, Nevill was not there to pay the reward. He had been killed just outside the German wire just he as he had kicked one of the balls. Two of the footballs were found there later. Captain Nevill's sporting feat seems to be the result of the literary inspiration of produced by Henry Newbolt's poem "Vitai Lampada" about a cricket-boy.

This wasn't the first and last time it was done. The first time it took place was during the battle of Loos in 1915, by the 1st Battalion of the 18th London Regiment. It would be repeated, with success, during the battle of Beersheba (Palestine) in 1917.

What can be said about this... well... War is madness, methinks.


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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #10 on: November 28, 2007, 06:20:00 PM »
In war the only winner is death.

Offline Kurt Steiner

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #11 on: November 29, 2007, 03:37:21 PM »
Sadly true, Alix...

A poem by Rupert Brooke when we can see the change of mood about war:


I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night
Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table,
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,
Or coming out into the darkness. Still
No one could see me.

             I would have thought of them
—Heedless, within a week of battle—in pity,
Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness
And link’d beauty of bodies, and pity that
This gay machine of splendour ‘ld soon be broken,
Thought little of, pashed, scattered, . . .

                                    Only, always,
I could but see them—against the lamplight—pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave’s faint light,
That broke to phosphorus out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts—soon to die
To other ghosts—this one, or that or I.

written in 1915

Rupert Brooke. 1887-1915

Offline Kurt Steiner

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #12 on: November 30, 2007, 04:22:43 AM »
No One Cares Less Than I by Edward Thomas

"No one cares less than I,
Nobody knows but God,
Whether I am destined to lie
Under a foreign clod,"
Where the words I made to the buggle call in the morning

But laughing, storming, scorning,
Only the buggles now
What the buggles say in the morning,
And they do not care, when they blow
The call that I heard and made words to early this morning

Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was a seasoned writer before the outbreak of war, and had worked as a journalist before becoming a poet, with the encouragement of his close friend Robert Frost. When war broke out, Thomas joined the Artists' Rifles, despite being a mature married man who could have avoided enlisting. In fact, few of his poems deal directly with his war experiences. His poems are noted for their attention to the English countryside. He was killed in action at Arras on April 9, 1917, soon after he arrived in France. He had a wife, Helen, a son, Merfyn and two, daughters Bronwen and Myfanwy.

Offline Mari

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #13 on: November 30, 2007, 05:02:09 AM »
So many of these War time Poets were killed!   Imagine the realm of creativity that most certainly would have poured from them if they had lived a long life.  Just this glimpse into their World....and then they were gone.

Offline Kurt Steiner

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Re: Poetry of World War I
« Reply #14 on: November 30, 2007, 09:17:39 AM »
Many of the British WW1 poets died, indeed. A lost generation.

Robert Graves (1895–1985).   

TO you who’d read my songs of War   
  And only hear of blood and fame,   
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)   
  ”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,   
Today I found in Mametz Wood          
A certain cure for lust of blood:   
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,   
  In a great mess of things unclean,   
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk   
  With clothes and face a sodden green,          
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,   
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.   

Robert Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985) studied at the King's College School and Copthorne Prep School, Wimbledon and Charterhouse School and won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford. At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Graves enlisted almost immediately, taking a commission in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RWF). He published his first volume of poems, Over the Brazier, in 1916. He developed an early reputation as a war poet, and was one of the first to write realistic poems about his experience of front line conflict. He participated in the Battle of Loos (1915) -- where Charles Sorley was killed -- and was wounded during the Battle of the Somme (1916). He was so badly wounded he was expected to die, and indeed was officially reported as died of wounds. He gradually recovered, however, and apart from a brief spell back in France, he spent the remainder of the war in England. One of Graves's closest friends at this time was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who like Graves was an officer in the RWF. When in 1917 Sassoon tried to rebel against the war by making a public anti-war statement, Graves, who feared Sassoon could face a court martial, intervened with the military authorities and persuaded them that he was suffering from shell shock, and to treat him accordingly. As a result Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart, the military hospital near Edinburgh, where he was treated by Dr Rivers and met Wilfred Owen. Graves also suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it is sometimes called, though was never hospitalised for it.

A prolific writer throughout his long life, Robert Graves published three volumes of poetry during the war, Over the Brazier (1916) Goliath and David (1916), and Fairies and Fusiliers (1917) -- which includes the poem "Sorley's Weather" -- and several volumes afterwards (click here to see more volumes of Robert Graves' poetry held by the Lee Library). (Also, click here to see a fanciful comparison of the "war poetry" of Robert Graves and American Edgar A. Guest.)

Following his marriage and the end of World War I, Graves belatedly took up his scholarship at St John's College, Oxford. He later attempted to make a living by running a small shop, but the business soon failed. In 1926 he took up a post at Cairo University, accompanied by his wife, their children, and the poet Laura Riding. He returned to London briefly, where he split up with his wife under highly emotional circumstances before leaving to live with Riding in Deià, Majorca. There they kept writting. In 1927, he published Lawrence and the Arabs, a commercially successful biography of T. E. Lawrence. Good-bye to All That (1929) proved a success but cost him many of his friends, notably Siegfried Sassoon. In 1934 he published his most commercially successful work, I, Claudius. Using classical sources he constructed a complex and compelling tale of the life of the Roman emperor Claudius, a tale extended in the sequel Claudius the God (1935).

Graves left Majorca in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, he moved to the United States. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Graves tried to enlist, but was turned down (unfortunately, it was Graves' son David, instead, who went to war and was killed in 1943 fighting the Japanese on the subcontinent). In 1946 he and his new wife Beryl re-established a home in Deya, Majorca. In 1955, he published his version of The Greek Myths, which continues to dominate the English-language market for mythography despite its poor reputation among classicists, perhaps unsurprisingly given the unconventional nature of his interpretations and his own open and scathing opinion of literary scholars. In 1961 he became professor of poetry at Oxford, a post he held until 1966.

Graves died in December 1985 at the age of 90, following a long illness and gradual mental degeneration. He and Beryl are buried in the small churchyard on the hill in Deia, overlooking the sea on the northwest coast of Majorca.