Listening to a podcast today that featured one of Siegfried Sassoon’s poems, my mind drifted off to the savagery and carnage of the First World War. And yet this dystopian paroxysm produced some great poetry. My personal favourites:
Wilfred Owen: Anthem For Doomed Youth
Owen went to war in 1916, and was dead by November 1918 – shortly before the Armistice. In that short space of time, he felt the horror of war in full measure. Most of his poems were published posthumously, with help from Siegfried Sassoon. After being diagnosed with shell shock, he was sent for recovery to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh – later to feature in Pat Barker’s remarkable trilogy.
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.
Rupert Brooke: The Soldier
The first line of this poem has come to mean memory and legacy, and is evoked at the many war memorials that dot the world today where a foreign soldier has died fighting for something. By the time the War began in 1914, Brooke was already a literary celebrity. He joined the Navy, wrote a set of sonnets of which this is one and achieved great fame. He died of illness in 1915.
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;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Siegfried Sassoon: The Attack
Sassoon was a well-known bon vivant by the time the war began. He had written and published his work and his poems. When the war began, he jumped into it enthusiastically, and was soon well known for his almost suicidal bravery. In one instance he cleared out a German trench while on patrol but sat inside it, reading poetry, delaying the attack. He was told he should have got a DSO for it, but for this act of individualism. In 1916, he was awarded the Military Cross and was also recommended for a VC. By 1917 he was convinced, along with Wilfred Owen, that the war had to be stopped. (He met Owen at Craigslockhart, and Siegfried is one of the main protagonists in Pat Barker’s trilogy).
At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to, meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!
John McCrae: In Flanders Fields
Dr McCrae was a surgeon in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces that joined the mother country when Britain went to war, and he landed in France in 1914. He wrote this poem in 1915 – first anonymously – and later, when the true authorship became known, his fame spread all over England and among the fighting forces. He contracted a virulent form of pneumonia and was dead by January 1918. Every line in the poem today is evocative of the war, and the lines themselves have passed into popular memory – indeed the War is remembered every November with the poppy.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.