The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

April is National Poetry Month, and I like to take time around April reading a lot of poetry. When I thought to devote my blog postings for the library during 2015 to books written during, or about World War I, one of the first things I did was make sure that there were volumes of poetry available.

Of course, there are several books of poetry written during the war, or written afterwards which reflect the experience of the war. Some of the poets associated with World War I are among the greatest of the 20th century: Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, to name a few. Owen, Rosenberg and Charles Hamilton Sorley died during the war, and their loss was seen as especially tragic. Sorley's death happened early in the war, just as his poetic career was beginning, while Owen tragically died a week before the armistice, having returned to France to fight, though he might very well have remained in Britain until the war’s official end.

In the trenches, poetry was encouraged as a pastime. Poems were generally short pieces, and it was possible for one to write poetry in short concentrated bursts. And it was very portable, in a way that novels were not.

Read more of Bernard Norcott-Mahany's 2015 reviews of books about the First World War:

January 12, 2015
The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

February 5, 2015
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

March 13, 2015
Tarzan the Untamed by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Poetry, as an art form, tends towards personal reflection, and the poets in this collection had a lot on which to reflect. Many had gone to elite schools where they received a rigorous classical education, which education tended toward idealism and especially the idealism of patriotism and fighting the good fight. But World War I was unlike any war that had preceded it. In addition, there had been general peace in Europe and the Mediterranean for 40 some years, and there was a hope and belief that such stability would be maintained.

In the 40 years since the Franco-Prussian War, the last great war in Europe, there had been tremendous advances in the weaponry of war, and in the manufacture of weapons. Weapons were much more powerful, and produced at a greater rate. Advances in science had also increased the murderous efficiency of warriors. There was now poison gas with which to contend, and artillery shells and bombs that could do tremendous damage. Wars were no longer fought solely between armies on the battlefield, but often included tremendous collateral damage among the civilian population. Though in its infancy, aerial warfare contributed to the spreading of the devastation.

So the war that the idealistic young men entered so eagerly was not the war they experienced. The discrepancy between the rhetoric and the reality is reflected again and again in many of the poems. Rudyard Kipling was a very vocal supporter of the war, but after his son died in the war, he became just as vocal a critic, as his poem “Gethsemane” demonstrates. Siegfried Sassoon was a decorated officer in the war, but came to hate it. He even sent an open letter to his commanders, “Finished with the War: a Soldier’s Declaration,” which publication almost got this decorated officer court-martialed. Instead, his commanders declared that he was suffering from shellshock (what PTSD was called in WWI) and sent him to spend the final year in a psychiatric hospital in England. While there, he had a tremendous influence in other poets and war opponents, such as Wilfred Owen.

There is a lot to be said for immersing oneself in the poetic output of a poet like Sassoon, or like Owen, Blunden, or Rosenberg. But to make a good start of reading verse profoundly affected by the news of its day, a book such as The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry has a lot to recommend it. What it lacks in the breadth of works by a single poet, it makes up in providing a broad overview of the verse of the time. Though most of the poems take a hard cynical look at the jingoism that resulted in so many young men dying or ruined by war, there are some voices here of poets who retained a certain idealistic view of the war (as, for instance, Edward Thomas’ “This is No Case of Petty Right and Wrong”).

Silkin’s selection of poems is primarily that from the British Expeditionary Forces, as one might expect for an English collection. He does include poems from the Germans, Russian, French and Italian in translation; there are a few poems from the US as well, including one by Edna St. Vincent Millay called “Conscientious Objector,” in which the speaker declares “I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death,” expressing opposition to the war from a more personal position. And Silkin’s excellent introduction to the poems, the poets and the time, is the best reason for choosing this particular collection of verse.

In addition to this collection of poems, I would recommend a visit to a site like poets.org or poetryfoundation.org and find poems by Sassoon, Owen, Blunden, Rosenberg, and Sorley. You can also find me on YouTube during April reading poems by World War I poets as my way of celebrating National Poetry Month 2015.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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