Poetry Before and After the Great War

Pre-war poetry in (primarily in England) was inevitably more romantic than after the Great War; concepts of chivalry, gallant knights, and valiant battles. This was partly due to the fact that that war and hardships, at least compared to what happened in the Great War, wasn’t something that the common populace experienced; especially the scholars and literary figures who actually wrote poetry. Now, although the Romanticism “movement” was about 70 years before the Great War, it is fair to say that poetry did not change very much.

When the English poet and painter William Blake was asked whether he saw a round, shining ball of fire when the sun rose, he replied, “Oh no, no. I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!'” This is just an example for the romantic nature of not only the poets works, but their mindset, too.

Ah! Sun-flower – William Blake

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done. 
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow: 
Arise from their graves and aspire, 
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

Not only were poems about war uncommon, but they were unfavored; poets back then much preferred to write about nature; the beauty of nature, for which they developed a great love for, as is visible in the more popular poems of that time.

Now, I would like to contrast that sunflower, to one of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems; one I actually wrote an essay about in my English exam, which hopefully when I get it returned I can post it here.

Suicide in the Trenches – Siegfried Sassoon

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

Although some of the vividity of the prose remains, the harshness and matter-of-fact phrases are clearly a new addition. I think this is partly because the poets were trying to describe what war was actually like; they couldn’t move to more abstract metaphors, because people hadn’t actually experienced war before. This also worked as a force of inspiration, and was also a way of voicing ones opinion against the patriotic propaganda of war, such as Wilfred Owen. This poetry was starkly contrastive to others, mainly due to the fact that in addition to fighting in the war, they also suffered personal losses. Owen and Sassoon both lost loved ones and Kipling, his son, being wholly and totally disillusioned towards the grim reality of war.

Anthem for Doomed Youth – Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; 
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

In this small essay, I am only referring to a few specific poets, but it is perfectly probable that some poets mingled the two styles; it is not exclusive to all poetry. I have not read sufficiently into the area, but perhaps I could write something more on the topic in the future, if you readers enjoyed this.

2 thoughts on “Poetry Before and After the Great War

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