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Anthems to doomed youth

November 3, 2018


This Sunday (4th November) it is 100 years since the death of Wilfred Owen, perhaps the most brilliant of that group of soldiers who committed to poetry their experiences of the First World War.

Owen died but a week before the ending of hostilities in a brave attack on the Sambre-Oise canal. There are no eye witness accounts of his death and he is buried in the corner of the cemetery at Ors.   In the intervening century he has become the embodiment of First World War poetry and many more British schoolchildren will be familiar with his poem “Dulce et Decorum est” than would be with the Latin quotation from Horace after which the poem is named and which was staple fare for pupils of Owen’s own generation.

Owen, while the most familiar name, was one of many outstanding poets from this generation of doomed youth. Some like Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves knew each other and encouraged each others’ work.    They came from many different backgrounds but lived in an era where poetry had an acknowledged currency as a mode of expression.  Few, perhaps with the exception of Rupert Brooks, author of the famous line “That there’s a corner of some foreign field which is forever England” acquired fame at the time but they now define our understanding of the Great War.

I’ver been familiar with First World War poetry since my own schooldays but in recent years have had the chance to broaden my reading. When I toured the Western Front on my bike in 2016, I included a volume of First World War poetry in my luggage as a psychological guide to the landscape I was about to visit.

So what is the essence of First World War poetry and why is it so special? I wanted to share in this blog a few thoughts.

The first objective of many of the poems is to give expression to some of the intense experiences and feelings which the poets were going or had gone through.  While there is some wonderful prose writing from the period, it takes the intensity of poetry and its language and imagery to do justice to some of what soldiers in the trenchs were going through.

Take Owen’s own description of a gas attack in “Dulce et Decorum est”:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – an ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime

Some of the urge to write is also an attempt to process unbearable feelings and it is striking that a number of  War Poets, including Owen, were treated for shell shock. In one case, that of the Gloucestershire poet, Ivor Gurney, the war left a lifelong history of mental illness.

The second feature of War Poetry is to portray a realistic view of the war, in contrast to that portrayed through the newspapers or official communications. It is that spirit in the poems which has often most captured the imagination of readers. For the most part the soldier poets were not pacificists. They fought as bravely as anyone and many such as Owen, Edward Thomas and the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn were killed in the fighting, often avoiding the opportunity for the chance  to escape the front line by taking on, for instance, a training assignment. This perspective is summed up by Edward Thomas’ poem “This is no case of petty right or wrong” which, while rejecting jingoism, is filled with a deep sense of patriotism, grounded in Thomas’ love of the English (and Welsh) countryside and life.

By contrast there is hardly a word, in any of the poetry I have read, of hatred for the enemy. Indeed in a number of poems there is a recognition that the horrific experience of the War is something which soldiers on both sides are experiencing.  There is lovely poem by Ivor Gurney “Serenade” which captures the moment when the sound of Schubert on a gramophone in the German trenches connects the two sides for a minute. More hauntingly, Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting” describes the tormenting image of a German soldier whose life he, himself, has taken.

Some of the most moving poems are those which mark the intense bonds between fellow soldiers, including the feelings which officers will have for the men under their charge.  Nowhere is this captured more intensely than “In Memoriam Private D Sutherland” by EA Mackintosh which so poignantly marks the deaths of the young men in his command as if the poet was a second father to them.

You were only David’s father

But I had fifty sons

When we went up in the evening

Under the arch of the guns

And we came back at twilight –

O God! I heard them call

To me for help and pity

That could not help at all.

It was Horace again who pointed to his poetry as his everlasting monument.  Little could be more true of the poetry of the First World War and the amazing descriptions they have left of one of the most horrific conflicts in human history.








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