Lesser-Known Poets of the First World War
One blustery morning in March 1916, the editors of the trench newspaper The Wipers Times expressed their anxiety about a dangerous phenomenon overtaking the soldiers stationed at the front line:
We regret to announce that an insidious disease is affecting the Division, and the result is a hurricane of poetry. Subalterns have been seen with a notebook in one hand, and bombs in the other, absently walking near the wire in deep communication with their muse. Even Quartermasters with ‘books, note, one’ and ‘pencil, copying’ break into song while arguing the point re ‘boots, gum, thigh’. The Editor would be obliged if a few of the poets would break into prose as the paper cannot live by poetry alone.
To the modern reader, consulting the magazine almost a century after it was written, and familiar with the stark, grim poetry of the two most famous war poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, perhaps the most surprising thing about the address might be its dry humour. The soldier-poets now remembered for their suffering, misery and the power of their often corrosively sarcastic verse to shock and horrify, are made into figures of fun: ubiquitous, dreamy, neglectful of the duties of war in favour of ‘deep communication’ with the poetic muses.
A glance through a couple of the many newspapers that circulated through the trenches confirms the truth in the editors’ worry: poetry, ranging in quality from clumsy, childlike ballads, bawdy rhymes and scrawled couplets to the sophisticated, graceful and haunting verse familiar from the work of the canonical war poets, is everywhere. It expresses a range of emotions and perspectives on the war, from the humour evident in the quotation above, to hope, to exhaustion, to bitter condemnation. In 1916, for example, The Wipers Times printed the lament of an anonymous soldier that:
The world wasn’t made in a day,
And Eve didn’t ride on a bus,
But most of the world’s in a sandbag,
The rest of it’s plastered on us.
Around roughly the same time, the British pastor Geoffrey Kennedy published a number of poems under the pseudonym ‘Woodbine Willy’: for all the clumsiness of their rhyme, and their deliberately slangy vocabulary, they move almost seamlessly from depictions of the mundane, almost comical frustrations of life on the front to the reality of its misery. Humour everywhere gives way to a desire to offer comfort, as in ‘The Spirit’:
When there ain’t no gal to kiss you,
And the postman seems to miss you,
And the fags have skipped an issue,
When ye’ve got an empty belly,
And the bulley’s rotten smelly,
And you’re shivering like a jelly,
When the Boche has done your chum in,
And the sergeant’s done the rum in,
And there ain’t no rations comin’,
When the world is red and reeking,
And the shrapnel shells are shrieking,
And your blood is slowly leaking,
The poetry that circulated in trench magazines like The Wipers Times, or was sent home for publication in literary journals or newspapers, represents only a fraction of what was written: Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive (which you can check out here) has recently made a huge amount of poetry gathered from soldiers’ notebooks, scraps of paper, and even the backs of ration packets, available online. Alongside the poetry with which we are familiar, then, there existed a lively culture of writing and publishing rhyme from the trenches that persisted throughout the war. Poetry seems to have served a number of purposes: to entertain, to offer comfort and to expose the reality of life at the front- and even to pass on gossip. The unpublished poem ‘Sunday night in the army’, for example, from the notebook of the soldier Frederick George Barcock, about whom little is known today, ends with something of a surprise:
He stands right on the corner,
And whistles to the breeze,
He looks into a window,
And this is what he sees.
A very close communion,
Of moustache and curl.
The other fellow’s kissing
The other fellow’s girl.
In addition to the almost private sort of poetry above, intended primarily for the entertainment and amusement of the authors and their friends and colleagues, a number of soldiers did also write poems we might now consider more serious or ‘literary’, published in magazines, editions and anthologies- after the war, a few soldiers even built careers out of writing. Alongside Owen, Sassoon and Robert Graves, Vera Brittain, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, Roland Leighton, Edmund Blunden, and Edward Thomas can all be counted ‘war poets’ with significant literary outputs whose quality has long been recognised. While it’d be impossible to do a single one of their work justice in what remains of this article, I’m going to try to discuss a couple of my favourite lesser-known poems from trenches.
Edmund Blunden joined up in August 1915 when he was 19, and still at school. He was a student at Christ’s Hospital school, and had a place at Oxford to study Classics – but he deferred his place to serve as a lieutenant in France. Even before he arrived at the front, he’d begun to write poetry in earnest: during his training, he had three volumes privately published. His pre-war poetry was pastoral and Romantic in tone: he was inspired by the English countryside, and one of his poems opened ‘I sing of the rivers and hamlets and woodlands of Sussex and Kent’. He left for France in 1916 and remained at the front for two years, until February 1919. During this time he wrote a number of poems – but the majority of his poetic output came after the war, as the writer contemplated the fighting, the suffering of his comrades and the destruction of nature in retrospect. Blunden’s friend Siegfried Sassoon called him ‘the poet of the war most lastingly obsessed by it’: and indeed, much of Blunden’s poetry is concerned with the lasting trauma of the experience of fighting. In one of his most famous poems, ‘Concert Party: Busseboom’, an evening’s entertainment is interrupted and ruined by the memory of a battle in the trenches:
The stage was set, the house was packed,
The famous troop began;
Our laughter thundered, act by act,
Time light as sunbeams ran.
Dance sprained and spun and neared and fled,
Jest chirped at gayest pitch,
Rhythm dazzled, action sped
Most comically rich.
With generals and lame privates both
Such charms worked wonders, till
The show was over: lagging loth
We faced the sunset chill;
And standing on the sandy way
With the cracked church peering past,
We heard another matinee,
We heard the maniac blast
Of barrage south by Saint Eloi,
And the red lights flaming there
Called madness: Come, my bonny boy,
And dance to the latest air.
To this new concert, white we stood,
Cold certainty held our breath;
While men in the tunnels below Larch Wood
Were kicking men to death.
Blunden evokes the lasting psychological trauma of the experience of fighting by allowing the past to intrude into the present: in the space of a single line the dancing colours of the show the narrator is watching blur, and resolve into a scene of battle. The war has an irresistible, magnetic pull, always dragging the narrator away from what is in front of him and back into a prison of remembering. And Blunden’s language, too, everywhere works to muddy the distinction between past and present: the entertainment is described in military language as a ‘troop’, and laughter almost violently ‘thunders’; the poet uses an army metaphor to convey the diversity of the audience, from ‘generals’ to ‘lame privates’. Later, battle is described in the language of the stage: it is ‘another matinee’, a ‘new concert’, an ‘air’ (a song).
Elsewhere, Blunden’s poetry uses juxtaposition to different effect, in a manner similar to that of Wilfred Owen in his famous, scathing attack upon the propaganda that encouraged young men to go to war, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’. Owen’s poem describes in horrific detail the gruesome death of a soldier who has breathed in chlorine gas, and ends with the declaration that if his addressee, too, could watch the soldier die:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The Old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Elsewhere, and perhaps most famously in his poem ‘Mental Cases’, Owen forces his reader to confront the gruesome and the monstrous effects of battle upon men once full of grace and beauty: and Blunden’s poetry displays much the same impulse, playing on the distance between the glorified image of soldierly heroism, bravery and beauty, and the often revolting reality. In ‘Can you remember?’ for example, the speaker describes the images that constitute his memory of the war and will not allow him to escape:
New-old shapes for ever
And some are sparkling, laughing, singing,
Young, heroic, mild;
And some incurable, twisted,
Shrieking, dumb, defiled.
Isaac Rosenberg was born in 1890 in Bristol, the son of Lithuanian Jews who had moved to Britain a few years earlier. As a child, his teachers noticed his talent for drawing and writing poetry, but his parents couldn’t afford to keep him at school, and so he was apprenticed to an engraver’s company in 1905. In spite of this, Rosenberg attending evening classes in painting and drawing, and in the early 1910s a wealthy Jewish woman offered to pay his fees to attend art school. Before the war started he published two volumes of poems, one called Night and Day, and another Youth. Despite being resolutely pacifist, he enlisted for the war in 1915 – and wrote many poems while he was in the fighting until his death in 1918.
In perhaps his best-known poem, ‘Returning, we hear the larks’, Rosenberg plays with the idea that the dread, foreboding and ultimate violent destruction of war has poisoned all of nature. The innocent song of larks in the dark is a pure, beautiful and strange comfort – but it is everywhere underlain with the threat that bullets, gas, and death might rain out of the night and onto the soldiers. The images of weightlessness and insubstantiality that pervade the final stanza: ‘a blind man’s dreams’ dropped on the sand by a violent sea, or the hair of a girl, are ultimately reversed, replaced in the final line by an image of a kiss that seems soft and light but conceals the poison of a snake:
Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering on our upturned list’ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl’s dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.
A writer and physician from Ontario in Canada, John McCrae wrote perhaps the most famous of our ‘lesser-known’ poems. First published in December 1915 in the London magazine Punch, ‘In Flanders Fields’ was inspired by McCrae’s witnessing the death and funeral of a younger soldier and friend from his battalion. Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the poppy becoming one of the most recognised symbols of remembrance for those who died in the war.
The poem’s last stanza makes a strange demand: that its reader honour the sacrifice of the ‘dead’ by taking up the war that they have left behind. Owing to this stanza, the poem was used as propaganda during the war, and subsequently criticised in the climate of condemnation of its needless loss of life in the years that followed it. But given the poem’s opening, conveying the horrific truth that the rows and rows of graves in Flanders Fields belong to men who only days ago were young, alive, sons, fathers and brothers, I can’t help but feel the final lines must be at least deliberately incongruous, if not outright ironic:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Tell us your thoughts about the poetry of the First World War! Have we missed anyone that ought to be here? Do you agree with our readings of the poems above? Let us know in the comments below!