As Simon Featherstone has noted, the label may confine the poem, artificially, within the parenthesis of the war years.War is crucial to the poetry and its intensities of meaning, but it is not the only – or isolated – focus of attention or analysis.First World War poetry looks before and after the war, joining past and future, and combatant and civilian zones; it speaks in varying cadences not just of combat, but also of life at large – of beauty, longing, religion, nature, animals, intimacy, historical change, poetic responsibility, Europe and Englishness, race, democracy and empire, or what it is for women to have ‘years and years in which we shall still be young’ A constant tension in writings on First World War poetry is whether the accent should fall on war or on poetry, on cultural history or on literary form.
Investigation into the literary culture of the trenches – from Paul Fussell’s through Shakespeare, Milton and the Romantics to Hardy and Housman.
The finest trench poetry revels in the meeting of tradition and innovation: in Gurney’s exquisite handling of meter, punctuation and sibilance in the terrifying image of ‘Darkness, shot at: I smiled, as politely replied – ’ (‘The Silent One’); in Sassoon’s powerful rhymes which compact visceral horror and religious blasphemy while conjuring up the commonest trench expletive – ‘And someone flung his burden in the muck/Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck’ (‘Redeemer’); or in Owen’s intricate negotiation with Keats’s ‘To a Nightingale’ as he relocates sensuousness in the frozen landscape of the Western Front: ‘Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knife us ...’ (‘Exposure’).
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto, ‘Yet many a better one has died before.’ Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, It is a spook. Sorley’s poem operates on that fine threshold where poetic form and personal tragedy meet.
The eeriness of the image is enhanced by the poignant circumstances of the poem’s posthumous discovery.
Other important soldier-poets include Edmund Blunden, Ivor Gurney, Robert Graves, Edward Thomas, David Jones, Francis Ledgwidge, and Isaac Rosenberg, and of course the golden-haired young man whose ‘begloried’ war sonnets they all opposed and yet one who haunts their work: Rupert Brooke.
More than any other genre – fiction, memoir or film – it is the poetry of the trenches, as represented by a small group of ‘anti-war’ soldier-poets, that has come to dominate First World War memory.We seldom read such poetry; it is usually a matter of re-reading, remembering, returning – with familiarity, surprise, sometimes resistance. Today, the poetry of the soldier-poets has coalesced, beyond literary history and cultural memory, into a recognisable structure of feeling.Herein lies an undeniable part of its power and some of the larger critical problems.Similarly, a number of women-poets both inherit and interrogate different traditions of lyric verse with remarkable power as they try to represent the war and its effects on civilian spaces and minds.Consider the following poem ‘Afterwards’ by Margaret Postgate Cole – at once a poignant elegy, a powerful critique of the war and a negotiation with the pastoral tradition – as it moves beyond the battlefields or the actual years of the war to a postwar sense of futility and desolation: And peace came.For the scope of First World War poetry is much wider than that of the trench lyric.There is a substantial and distinguished body of war poetry by male civilian poets, including Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and D H Lawrence, as well as by women-poets such as Charlotte Mew, Mary Borden, Vera Brittain, Rose Macaulay and Margaret Postgate Cole.One of the achievements of war poetry has been to democratise poetry itself.Its centrality in the school curriculum means that, for many, it represents their first encounter with poetry – and not just in Great Britain. Robert Graves found Sorley’s poetry so powerful that he introduced it to Sassoon, who in turn introduced it to Wilfred Owen. Yet, the poem provides one of the earliest examples of what we now regard as the classic features of First World War poetry: the lyric testimony of the broken body – mouth, eyes, the ‘gashed’ head – set against the abstract rhetoric of honour; the address to the reader (‘you’) that we associate with the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, as opposed to the egotistical ‘I’ of Rupert Brooke; the ‘pale battalions’ haunting the shell-shocked dreams of veterans, John Singer Sargent’s dream-like (1920), and becoming the iconic image of the war.