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Apropos the ongoing discussions of WWI. This
appeared in today's NYTimes, 11/27/2002.
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From the Front, a Corner of Hell That Is Forever Lyrical
November 27, 2002
By ALAN RIDING
LONDON - Is tragedy less painful when presented in poignant
verse? Does organized violence seem less futile when
described in patriotic poetry? Today photography is
considered by many to be the most effective way to convey
the plight of war's combatants, victims and mourners. But
during World War I it was through poetry that many Britons
came to share the horror of life and death in the muddy
trenches of northern France.
The impact of that war poetry was enormous, and not only on
those reading verse messages from the Western Front in
newspapers. For hundreds of British soldiers, writing
poetry released bitter feelings that would have caused
consternation if expressed in letters home. Often scribbled
in little notebooks by candlelight, many of these poems
were not good enough to merit publication. Yet more than
any war before or since, the memory of World War I lives on
in Britain through poetry.
To this day, every time Britons go to war, the opening
lines of Rupert Brooke's 1914 poem, "The Soldier," are
remembered: "If I should die, think only this of me:/That
there's some corner of a foreign field/That is forever
Now, to coincide with the 84th anniversary of Armistice Day
on Nov. 11, the Imperial War Museum here has organized the
exhibition "Anthem for Doomed Youth," which takes its name
from the title of a poem by Wilfred Owen. The exhibition
focuses on 12 soldier poets from World War I. A few of them
- notably Owen, Brooke, Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon
- are still read today. Others, like the Irish poet Francis
Ledwidge, have been rediscovered thanks to the show, which
runs through April 27.
Each writer has his own small section, where handwritten or
typed originals of poems are displayed beside brief
biographies, photographs, letters and in some cases
drawings, a uniform or pair of boots, locks of hair or a
medal for bravery. In seven cases there are also the
telegrams informing the poets' families of their deaths.
Piano music by the composer and poet Ivor Gurney, who went
mad after the war, plays softly in the background.
The show's faintly hallowed ambience seems appropriate. "In
times of war and national calamity, large numbers of people
seldom seen in church or bookshop will turn for consolation
and inspiration to religion and poetry," Jon Stallworthy, a
former professor of English literature at Oxford
University, wrote in a book accompanying the show. "Never
was the interaction of these two more clearly demonstrated
than in the Great War."
Few of these war poets made direct references to God, but
it was taken for granted that God was on Britain's side.
For instance, Brooke's "Soldier" was read in St. Paul's
Cathedral on Easter Sunday 1915 as an example of what the
dean of St. Paul's called "pure and elevated patriotism."
Further, as Mr. Stallworthy notes, "many other poets,
soldiers and civilians alike, found inspiration for their
battle hymns, elegies and exhortations in `Hymns Ancient
and Modern,' " of the Church of England.
Still, the 12 poets in this exhibition were hardly typical
soldiers. Eight were officers, six were Oxford or Cambridge
graduates, and only one was a career soldier. Two, David
Jones and Isaac Rosenberg, the diminutive descendant of
Russian immigrants who was assigned to a bantam battalion,
were also visual artists. Most joined the army as
volunteers while in their 20's; Edward Thomas was married
with children when he was killed in 1917 at 39.
Their poetry varied in tone, with enthusiasm giving way to
despair. Brooke, whose good looks had made him a pin-up
poet before 1914, embraced the conflict with passion. In a
letter to a friend, he wrote: "Not a bad place to die,
Belgium 1915. Better than coughing out a civilian soul amid
bedclothes and disinfectant and gulping medicines in 1950.
Come and die. It will be great fun."
Instead, Brooke died of blood poisoning in April 1915 on
his way to fight in the Dardanelles, the strait joining the
Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea. He was quickly enshrined
as a romantic saint. The poet Charles H. Sorley, however,
was one of Brooke's critics, noting the sentimentality of
his work, and remarking that "he is far too obsessed with
his own sacrifice."
Sorley's view of the conflict was darker. A 1915 sonnet
begins: "Such, such is Death: no triumph: no
defeat:/Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,/A
merciful putting away of what has been."
Sorley was 20 when he was killed in October 1915. A poem
was found in his kit bag that seemed to challenge the "I"
of Brooke's "Soldier." It begins: "When you see millions of
the mouthless dead/Across your dreams in pale battalions
go,/Say not soft things as other men have said,/That you'll
remember. For you need not so."
Ledwidge, the Irish poet who joined the British Army to
fight "an enemy common to our civilization," was appalled
when Britain executed Irish nationalists after the 1916
Easter Rising, the republican insurrection in Ireland
against the British government there. But he was still
fighting on the Western Front when he was killed in July
1917. The opening lines of "A Soldier's Grave" captures the
lyricism of his verse: "Then in the lull of midnight,
gentle arms/Lifted him slowly down the slopes of
death,/Lest he should hear again the mad alarms/Of battle,
dying moans, and painful breath."
Owen arrived in France in December 1916 and proved a
valiant soldier, but six months later he returned to
Britain because he suffered from shell shock. He was sent
for psychiatric treatment to a Scottish hospital, where he
became good friends with Sassoon, another recuperating
poet. The exhibition displays the handwritten copy of
Owen's poem "Anthem for Doomed Youth," which shows changes
made by Sassoon, including substituting "doomed" for "dead"
in its title.
Owen's pessimism is evident in this poem's opening lines:
"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." In a 1918
letter Owen wrote: "Above all I am not concerned with
Poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The Poetry
is in the pity." He died one week before the war ended. The
telegram announcing his death reached his parents on
Meanwhile Sassoon issued an astonishing public protest,
noting in part, "I believe that this war, upon which I
entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become
a war of aggression and conquest." He was saved from
court-martial by friends, including Graves, who argued that
he was unbalanced. Recognizing that his protest had failed,
he rejoined his regiment in France and survived the war.
Sassoon, who died in 1967, would later become best known
for "Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man" and other volumes of his
While Graves also published his war memoirs, "Goodbye to
All That," he was alone among the surviving war poets to
become a major 20th-century poet, dying in 1985 at 90. At
the front in 1916, when 21, he showed his disgust with war
in a poem called "A Dead Boche" (boche is a disrespectful
French nickname for Germans), which ends: "he scowled and
stunk/With clothes and face a sodden green,/Big-bellied,
spectacled, crop-haired,/Dribbling black blood from nose
Some of this poetry was published only after the war ended,
and this kept alive the memory of a war in which 900,000
British Empire troops died, more than 19,000 of them on a
single day, July 1, 1916, in the Battle of the Somme. In
"Prelude: The Troops," Sassoon remembered them: "Battalions
and battalions, scarred from hell;/The unreturning army
that was youth;/The legions who have suffered and are
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