Dr Santanu Das gives an introduction to the poetry of the First World War, providing fascinating commentary on a range of topics, supported by literary manuscripts and historical footage.
SOURCE: The British Library (2014) World War 1 Poetry. YouTube Duration 10:05 mins.
Poets have written about the experience of war since the Greeks, but the young soldier poets of the First World War established war poetry as a literary genre. Their combined voice has become one of the defining texts of Twentieth Century Europe.
In 1914 hundreds of young men in uniform took to writing poetry as a way of striving to express extreme emotion at the very edge of experience. The work of a handful of these, such as Owen, Rosenberg and Sassoon, has endured to become what Andrew Motion has called ‘a sacred national text’.
Although ‘war poet’ tends traditionally to refer to active combatants, war poetry has been written by many ‘civilians’ caught up in conflict in other ways: Cesar Vallejo and WH Auden in the Spanish Civil War, Margaret Postgate Cole and Rose Macaulay in the First World War, James Fenton in Cambodia.
In the global, ‘total war’ of 1939-45, that saw the holocaust, the blitz and Hiroshima, virtually no poet was untouched by the experience of war. The same was true for the civil conflicts and revolutions in Spain and Eastern Europe. That does not mean, however, that every poet responded to war by writing directly about it. For some, the proper response of a poet was one of consciously (conscientiously) keeping silent.
War poetry is not necessarily ‘anti-war’. It is, however, about the very large questions of life: identity, innocence, guilt, loyalty, courage, compassion, humanity, duty, desire, death. Its response to these questions, and its relation of immediate personal experience to moments of national and international crisis, gives war poetry an extra-literary importance. Owen wrote that even Shakespeare seems ‘vapid’ after Sassoon: ‘not of course because Sassoon is a greater artist, but because of the subjects’.