Welcome To Talking Verse

This blog is dedicated to discussion on poetry.

Poetry, on the European side of the Atlantic, has hardly progressed since the early 20th Century. Whilst in the USA poetry continues to evolve and present itself afresh.

Part of the reason for this is that the issue of poetry has been debated widely in the USA whereas in Britain, for example, you will be hard pressed to find anything that challenges the status quo of poetry.

There have been a few attempts: the Liverpool Beat poets made an short-lived impact during the early 1960s, but they could only offer a poor imitation of a style from the USA.

A handful of poets in the 20th century did make an impact. Basil Bunting and Tom Leonard shook up the established schools. But compared to the US the impact is small. Whilst other art forms have managed to progress over the years, poetry has stood still. Only the narrative has altered to keep abreast of the times.

Many people look to poetry to ‘tell’ them something; as if poetry were some form of journalism or propaganda. The laureateship of Carol Anne Duffy has only reinforced that view. But it is not simply a case of blaming the poets. Duffy is only responding to a demand that arises out of a society that pushes art for other ends, rather than simply art for the sake of it.

Today there is a wide awareness of poetry, the internet is weighted down with poetry sites that offer varying degrees of quality. Poetry is as valid as any other art form but only as long as it operates as an art form. Poets should not be seen as harbingers and the audience should look for meaning rather than rely on the poet or critic to provide answers.


This blog welcomes essays and book reviews about poetry. Please do not submit any poetry. If you wish to use a blog to submit poetry then I would recommend The Poets' Graves Workshop.

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Talking Verse follows no particular school of thought and has no other remit apart from the widest debate on matters of poetry.

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Monday, 4 April 2011

The War Poets: The Sound of distant drums

Essay by Denis Joe

Recently a Birkenhead (Wirral, UK) society opened a centre devoted to Wilfred Owen.  I lived in Birkenhead for seven years and was always bemused by the fact that the town saw little merit in celebrating this most famous of poets.  There is a stain glass window in the Museum and there is a small thoroughfare named after him, but that was all. 

The new centre is modest in the extreme, it looks like just another shop and it is hard to imagine it as a ‘tourist spot’ as it has very little of interest in it.

Though I have little time for themes in poetry, preferring that the poem stands on its structure rather than on its literal meaning, with the War Poets it is nigh on impossible to mention them without , primarily, looking at the historical events in which they composed their poetical works[i].  Whilst personal experience may drive the poet in their work it is only as material; manipulated into a form for the audience to make sense of and even relate to their own lives.  It is not the role of the poet to become an agitator for some cause or other and whilst Owen, Sassoon, Brookes, Graves, etc.  called on their experience of fighting in World War 1, to inform their work it is laziness to see the work as comments on warfare.

Whilst I would argue that Owen, for example, used structure rather than a simple message, in order to create sensation within his work, it is also questionable as to what drove him (and others) in using the War as a narrative.

I think that it is a mistake to look at the War Poets as anti-war; had Owen lived half-a-century earlier he may well have been a rival to Kipling.  I would argue that rather than the poems being expressions of pacifism or anti-war, that the works stand as early examples of questioning Modernism.

For many people the War Poets are, primarily, Owen and Sassoon as these two are strongly identified with the poetry of the First World War.  Rupert Brookes was seen more as a poet who wrote about love, Robert Graves, although a capable poet, is remembered more for his prose.  Another poet, who was highly regarded at the time but did not see himself as a ‘war poet’[1] was Isaac Rosenberg. 

The first World War can be seen as the first major conflict in which modern technology played a large role.  Prior to this war much of the fighting of war took place on the battlefield, where men could see the enemy as well as the threats they faced.  The infantry played a major role in many of the wars and it was this that became the material for many of the poems of Kipling as well as the ballads such as Tennyson’s The Charge Of The Light Brigade which spoke of virtues that were seen to make England ‘great’.  Increasing competition from other nations fuelled technological innovation in Britain and other nations that set to challenge the honourable vision of war. 

Tanks, trench gasses and machine guns helped to create an emotional distance between soldiers, but it was not simply the quality that mattered.  Modern technology allowed for a greater number of casualties to occur in a shorter space of time.  Battles were no longer a question of heroics but of human ingenuity.  Whilst the closeness of hand-to-hand combat, for example, could determine the emotional qualities of combatants the new technology gave distance to the killings. There is nothing valiant about such warfare. 

For many artists (and particularly for poets) World War One gave rise to an existential crisis.  The view of the individual  as the heroic figure of the Romantics had been dealt a blow by the horror of reality.  World War meant mass mobilisation, bringing war closer to home.  And it was in this situation that the War Poets found themselves.

It must be remembered that many of these artists had been brought up on the stories of bravery in war.  Although the Napoleonic wars impacted greatly on British society, there was still the distance of what was read in newspapers and the actuality of war.  Mass mobilisation spelt the end of the warrior(s) and the beginning of warring nations.

The romance of war is very much suggested in the first of Rupert Brooke's sonnets in the 1914 sequence:


Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour, 
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping, 
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power, 
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping, 
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary, 
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move, 
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary, 
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there's no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath; 
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there 
But only agony, and that has ending; 
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

The opening line seems to set the feeling that the war is something to be welcomed.  Initially this may well have been the case for Brooke, whose personal life was a shambles and there seems to be a sense of relief in the line ‘And all the little emptiness of love!’. The sonnets are atypical of the English Sonnet form and in this particular one Brooke uses the octet’s first seven lines to give a feeling of a present (real) time, then after the turn (eighth line) we feel the possible.  But there is nothing positive in Brookes’ ‘possible’, and death seems to be a better alternative than the disillusion of his intimate life.

For me this is why Brooke could not really be called a ‘War Poet’ .  His theme was never about war, but about love; whether basking in it or disillusioned.  The 1914 sonnets make this perfectly clear.  Whereas Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg acknowledged the suffering of others in their poetry, Brooke was concerned only with himself.

The famous opening of the fifth sonnet:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

testify to the fact that Brooke saw himself as some sort of Shelly: a Romantic wanting only a Romantic death.  In Brooke’s sonnets there is none of the humanism that one encounters in Rosenberg’s Home Thoughts From France or Sassoon’s Prelude: The Troops; instead we get the whining of some petulant brat[ii]

Brooke's name is still with us, perhaps on the strength of those very lines from the fifth 1914 sonnet that have a ring of jingoism to them.  But that feeling is misplaced.  If one looks at the poem in context of his whole work (or even just the 1914 sonnets) we can see that Brookes’ concerns were neither the war or poetry or even nationhood, but a sense of self that never rises above the infantile.

Whereas Brooke was a versifier, in that he used simple structures and language,  Isaac Rosenberg, though a fine artist by training, was a serious poet.  He is considered to have composed the greatest poem “to come out of the trenches.”[iii]

 Break of Day in the Trenches 

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

It is hard to disagree with the statement.  The humanity that Rosenberg draws out with this image of a rat is heart-rending.  The rat seems to represent the freedom (Your cosmopolitan sympathies) that is denied the soldier.

It is easy to find the models that influenced Rosenberg, Robert Browning is, to me, an obvious one. But what makes this poem so unique is the manner in which the narrative and the sound of the words are conjoined.  The poem turns after the 16th line and we are thrown into the horror of it all:  Sprawled in the bowels of the earth”;  “At the shrieking iron and flame”; “Poppies whose roots are in men's veins”.  Not only are we exposed to the outward horrors but also the inward terror.  Rather than calmness at the closing two lines, we are left bemused by it all.

What is also noticeable about this poem, when placed in the context of his poetic output, is the manner in which the language changes.  Rosenberg’s earlier poems are full of the Romanticism such as ‘ye’ and ‘thou’.  In the poems that he wrote from the outbreak of World War One the language becomes more everyday.  This has a rather unsettling impact in that it seems to suggest the ordinariness of war.  It is that very disquieting feeling that gives the poetry its strength.

Much the same thing can be seen in the poetry of Sassoon and Owen.  Though both poets composed in a 'common' vernacular, one can see a marked difference between their earlier and later (post-war) work.

The helplessness  and confusion that many soldiers faced against the modern warfare was summed up in this short poem of Wilfred Owen:

Soldier's Dream 
 I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he'd seen to our repairs.

The rhyming of ‘pikel’ and 'Michael' seems to jar a little.  John Stallworthy suggests that ‘pikel’ (an old pitch-fork) may intend to suggest a bayonet[iv].  I think that this is wrong. The line seems to be saying that there are no weapons, not even old ones (that might be to hand). 

The rhymes introduce a hard ‘k’ sound that works against the poem and it is not one of Owen’s best.  What the poem does do though is introduce (for want of a better phrase) ‘product placement’ and rids Modernism of the existential crisis that we commonly associate it with (TS Elliot’s Prufrock, or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake,  for example) creating a social realist feel to the poem, concerned with the issue of identity, in order to distance the human from the weapons (there is also a distance created by the fact that the weaponry is not British but produced in the USA)

Sassoon creates  that feeling of helplessness  in an earlier poem, Christ and the Soldier and though he saw the poem as a failure[v] it is a far more successful poem than Owens.  Whereas Owen creates distance and, to an extent, suggests that the fault lies away from the soldier, Sassoon’s poem creates an intimacy and reads almost like Augustine’s Confessions in that the soldier sees himself as the cause of wrongdoing.  Once you have that tension within the narrative – suggested by the title – it is with us throughout the poem:

The straggled soldier halted -- stared at Him –
Then clumsily dumped down upon his knees,
Gasping "O blessed crucifix, I'm beat !"
And Christ, still sentried by the seraphim,
Near the front-line, between two splintered trees,
Spoke him: "My son, behold these hands and feet."

The soldier eyed him upward, limb by limb,
Paused at the Face, then muttered, "Wounds like these
 Would shift a bloke to Blighty just a treat !"
Christ, gazing downward, grieving and ungrim,
Whispered,  "I made for you the mysteries,
Beyond all battles moves the Paraclete."

The soldier chucked his rifle in the dust,
And slipped his pack, and wiped his neck, and said --
"O Christ Almighty, stop this bleeding fight !"
Above that hill the sky was stained like rust
With smoke. In sullen daybreak flaring red
The guns were thundering bombardment's blight.

The soldier cried,  "I was born full of lust,
With hunger, thirst, and wishfulness to wed.
Who cares today if I done wrong or right?"
Christ asked all pitying,"Can you put no trust
 In my known word that shrives each faithful head ?
Am I not resurrection, life and light ?"

Machine-guns rattled from below the hill;
High bullets flicked and whistled through the leaves;
And smoke came drifting from exploding shells.
Christ said,"Believe; and I can cleanse your ill.
I have not died in vain between two thieves;
Nor made a fruitless gift of miracles."

The soldier answered, "Heal me if you will,
Maybe there's comfort when a soul believes
In mercy, and we need it in these hells.
But be you for both sides ? I'm paid to kill
And if I shoot a man his mother grieves.
Does that come into what your teaching tells ?"

A bird lit on the Christ and twittered gay;
Then a breeze passed and shook the ripening corn.
A Red Cross waggon bumped along the track.
Forsaken Jesus dreamed in the desolate day –
Uplifted Jesus, Prince of Peace forsworn –
An observation post for the attack.

"Lord Jesus, ain't you got no more to say ?"
Bowed hung that head below the crown of thorns.
The soldier shifted, and picked up his pack,
And slung his gun, and stumbled on his way.
"O God," he groaned,"why ever was I born ?"...
 The battle boomed, and no reply came back.

Whereas Owen’s poem suggests a passivity in that the desperation is felt by means of a dream, and thus a distance, in Sassoon’s poem we have a more direct confrontation.  The last line is, I believe, one of the greatest denouements of a poem, because whilst there is a closure there remains the question of belief: Is religion just an illusion; or should humanity feel the pain of Jesus?  Whatever one’s belief this conclusion has the strength of appealing to Christian, agnostic and atheist.  That ‘The battle boomed . . .” could also be seen as raising the question as whether God has a place in this modern, man-made world, raising one of the great questions of modernity.

Another aspect of the emphasis on modern times is the use of vernacular.  Sassoon  uses slang and common parlance in his poems.  This is not anything as crude as caricature – the camaraderie is obvious throughout his work.  What is also noticeable is that they help, rather than hinder, the flow of the poem.  Owen never does this in  his poems, but there is little dialogue.  Owens compassion is one of detachment.  He sees the fellowship and suffering as if he is an onlooker rather than a participant.  Perhaps the horror was too much.

Sassoon identifies the individual, who then speaks for all soldiers.  In a way this this also maintains objectivity and whilst there is an element of ‘reportage’ it is not the sort of journalistic approach that borders on moralism, that peppers much of today’s British poetry. 

Creating a distance seems to be all important in generating atmosphere.  The ABCABC structure of Sassoon’s poem provides a distancing between the rhymes that seems to help the audience engage with the horror – through the actual narrative – yet maintain a distance.  There is no satisfactory resolution in this poem (or any modern ‘war’ poems, come to that) but the structure of Christ and the Soldier creates a tension not realised in much of Sassoon’s other work.  For me the poem succeeds because it engenders a unique view of war: it suggests a feeling of humanity within the least humane of situations.

That distancing of events was also a feature of the later poetry of Edward Thomas.  Although Thomas saw less of the fighting, he had spent 18 months training with the Royal Garrison Artillery and the war seemed to affect much of his poetry.  This poem captures well the dissolution of many of those preparing to go to war.  There is a sense of farewell to an idyllic ideal of England.  Much of Thomas’s poems were concerned with nature, but with the onset of war the poems said less about Thomas’s love for nature and more about the realisation that war was about to change everything.  And whilst Thomas exhibited a greater degree of hostility to the encroachment of the modern world it is hard not to appreciate that he did so with such loving care.

When First I Came Here
When first I came here I had hope,
Hope for I knew not what. Fast beat
My heart at the sight of the tall slope
Or grass and yews, as if my feet

Only by scaling its steps of chalk
Would see something no other hill
Ever disclosed. And now I walk
Down it the last time. Never will

My heart beat so again at sight
Of any hill although as fair
And loftier. For infinite
The change, late unperceived, this year,

The twelfth, suddenly, shows me plain.
Hope now,--not health nor cheerfulness,
Since they can come and go again,
As often one brief hour witnesses,--

Just hope has gone forever. Perhaps
I may love other hills yet more
Than this: the future and the maps
Hide something I was waiting for.

One thing I know, that love with chance
And use and time and necessity
Will grow, and louder the heart's dance
At parting than at meeting be.

In one sense, the best of these poets, Owen and Sassoon and, to some extent, Rosenberg, did not view modernism in the same, existential manner as did, say Elliot in Portrait of a Lady, for instance.  But then, these poets experienced another side of Modernism: one that could create a similar degree of passion but one that did not allow for quiet contemplation.  Both groups of artists recognised a distancing as a factor of modern life.  The search for harmony "man with man" (what the philosopher Martin Buber saw as das Zwischenmenschliche: "sphere of between") seemed to become more arduous But whereas the 'Modernists' concerned themselves with the impact of the era on the individual, Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon and, to some extent, Thomas saw that impact in the wider sense of mankind.

I think that the poets commonly referred to as ‘The War poets’ were the standard bearers of Modernism in poetry.  Where versification became more fractured in its structure, around the turn of the 20th century, these poets held to tried and tested forms such as the sonnet or the ballad in order to make sense of the confused times.  But in doing so, they seemed to be clinging onto a past that could not be resurrected (even, to paraphrase Karl Marx: as farce!).

What they did say to future generations was that poetry did not have to be about love or Grecian Urns or romantic deaths.  It is alright to strip away the illusion and show reality in its nakedness.  In doing so they rejected the spiritual (imperial?) essence of Kipling, Longfellow and all the Victorian balladeers.

It is interesting that there were no ‘war poets’ since then.  Whilst there were poets who fought in WW2, none became associated with war to the extent of those of the First World War.  Perhaps this says more about the nature of modern warfare.

The first war certainly did introduce an element of distance between the fighting parties.  Tanks, mustard gas and the developing air forces helped to create greater casualties, but they were not the deciding factor.  Troops were still called upon to engage the enemy in combat.

By the closing years of the Second World War there was a dramatic shift in regard to human life as the ‘enemy’ was replaced by ‘the target’.  Rocket technology led to the bombardment of London by V2s.  The RAF carried out carpet bombings in Dresden and the A bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima stated that war was no longer determined by human valour and that the killing of thousands of people could be done by the simple flick of a switch.

But the horrors of those experiences could not compare with the horror of the Holocaust.  That humanity could allow for such barbarism was (and still is) incomprehensible. As the German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously commented: "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” 

[i] Foreword by Siegfried Sassoon p. vii.  The Collected Poems Of Isaac Rosenberg.  Chatto and Windus London 1949
[ii]  A fine example of this is a sonnet from 1908:  In Times Of Revolt, worth quoting in full to illustrate an immaturity that never left him:
The Thing must End. I am no boy! I am
No BOY! I being twenty-one. Uncle, you make
A great mistake, a very great mistake,
In chiding me for letting slip a "Damn!"
What's more, you called me "Mother's one ewe lamb,"
Bade me "refrain from swearing--for her sake--
Till I'm grown up" . . . --By God! I think you take
Too much upon you, Uncle William!

You say I am your brother's only son.
I know it. And, "What of it?" I reply.
My heart's resolved. Something must be done.
So shall I curb, so baffle, so suppress
This too avuncular officiousness,
Intolerable consanguinity.
[iii] The Great War and Modern Memory  Paul Fussell Oxford Paperbacks 2000 p. 253
[iv] The Poems of Wilfred Owen.  John Stallworthy (ed)  Chatto Poetry 1985 footnote p.159
[v] War Poems Siegfried Sassoon faber and faber London 1983 p.35