Some of the most moving poetry in English was written as a result of direct experience of the First World War.
Feminist author and poet Vera Brittain wrote her autobiography Testament of Youth as a result of losing her fiancé, her brother and two of her dearest male friends before peace was declared in November 1918. “Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart/Received when in that grand and tragic show/You played your part/Two Years Ago” are words from her poem ‘To my Brother (In Memory of July 1st 1916)’
In Flanders Fields is one of the most memorable poems from the First World War written by a Canadian Officer John McCrae. “In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.” Poppies were everywhere on the battlefield of Ypres as they only flower in rooted up earth, and the whole of the Western Front consisted of churned up soil.
Rosenberg (Isaac) wrote some of the best poems of the First World War. His poem ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ had a special mention in Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory. He was born into a working class Jewish family in Dvink (now Latvia) – his parents then emigrated to the East End of London. It was thought that he might have been one of the outstanding poets of his generation had he survived the war – his work was admired by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He was killed at the front in April 1918.
Sixteen Great War poets are commemorated in Westminster Abbey’s Poets Corner. The inscription around the names reads “My subject is War and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity” (Wilfred Owen)
Trained as a chorister in Gloucester Cathedral, Ivor Gurney was a composer as well as a poet. His lifelong friend was Herbert Howells, a director of Music in St Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith. Gurney wrote a collection of poetry for his first book Severn and Somme, which was published in October 1917. He suffered from a mental health condition and spent the last fifteen years of his life in a mental hospital having been gassed in 1917, but it was in hospital that he returned to his wartime experiences and wrote some of his best works.
Wilfred Owen is one of the most famous of the War Poets who tragically died in 1918 just one week before the end of World War I. He encapsulated the horrors of the battlefield in his writing.
On 1 August, Cambridge University celebrated putting Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and diaries from the First World War online to mark the centenary of the war. They include an account of the ‘horrifying slaughter’ of the first day.
Rupert Brooke was famous for his War Sonnets which included the poems ‘Peace’ and ‘The Soldier’. “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England”. Yates described Brooke as “the handsomest young man in England”. He tragically died from an infection caused by a mosquito bite on the way to Gallipoli.
Love poet Robert Graves wrote his first known and loved poems behind the front line in World War I. He was wounded and pronounced dead by his surgeon during a battle but amazingly recovered to read an account of his death in the Times. He was one of the first War Poets to write realistically about life in the “soul-deadening” trenches.
‘Dulce et decorum est’ is a famous poem written by Wilfred Owen, who in October 1917 wrote to his mother “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday – the famous Latin tag (from Horace Odes) means Sweet! And decorous!”. The title was ironic. The intention was to shock people at home who thought war was noble and glorious.
Websites – The War Poets Website contains lots of useful information about the First World War Poets and their poems. as does the First World War Poets Digital Archive . Poetry by Heart incorporates a First World War Poetry Showcase.
A Winner of the Costa Biography award in 2012, the title of Matthew Hollis’s biography about the Anglo/Welsh poet Edward Thomas, Now all roads lead to France: the last years of Edward Thomas alludes to his poem ‘Roads’ (1916) in the verse “Now all roads lead to France/And heavy is the tread/Of the living,but the dead/Returning lightly dance”
Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘My boy Jack’ was written when his dear son Jack went missing during the Battle of Loos in 1915.
P O E T R Y
All the above books, and many more, can be found in our libraries. Click on the image links, or take a look at our First World War – War Poets and Poetry reading list, where you will also find several other WW1 book selections.