The war poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney among others, marks a transition in English cultural history. These were all young men who, pushed to the limits of experience, found in poetry a means of expressing extreme emotions of fear, anger and love. Their combined voice is more than a personal witness to military events in France from 1914 to 1918. The poems they wrote have become part of the national consciousness, and conscience. They themselves have become icons of innocence, vulnerability, courage and integrity, in a world which after the war felt that these values were increasingly under threat.
Owen wrote that: ‘All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poet must be truthful’. Many of their best poems are driven by a need to communicate the reality of the evils of war, particularly to those back home. At the start of the conflict, poets like Rupert Brooke buoyed the popular enthusiasm for war with rhetoricised feelings of idealism and patriotism. CH Sorley and Robert Graves were among the first to attempt to write in a way which challenged the prevailing spirit by trying to capture the awful reality of the experience.
Sassoon, a fellow officer in Graves’s regiment and his closest friend during the war, was at first shocked by Graves’s early realism and thought his poems ‘violent and repulsive’ in both their use of language and their presentation of trench life. Sassoon was, in the early stages, writing in a stylised, artificial way about the war, but later changed his views and went on to write blunt, satirical and angry protests about the violence and stupidity he witnessed.
Both Graves and Sassoon influenced Wilfred Owen, whom they met at Craiglockhart Military Hospital. All three suffered from neurasthenia, or shell shock. Owen and Rosenberg wrote the most enduring and compassionate poetry of the war, which transcends their immediate environment. They both died in action in France.
- Poetry of the Great War,edited by Dominic Hibberd and John Onions (Macmillan, 1986)
- First World War Poems, edited by Andrew Motion (Faber, 2003)
- Minds at War, The Poetry and Experience of the First World War, edited by David Roberts (Saxon Books, 1996)
- The Great War and Modern Memory, by Paul Fussell (Oxford, 1975)
- A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, by Samuel Hynes, (Bodley Head, 1990)
- Poetry of the First World War: A Selection of Critical Essays, edited by Dominic Hibberd (Macmillan Casebook Series, 1981)
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