The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Second Edition, 1997) edited by the late British poet Jon Silkin features poems from numerous poets who served on the front lines, some of whom were prophetic in predicting their own deaths in battle, giving a haunting quality to the verses. There are poems translated from German, French, Italian, Russian, and Hebrew, and in the introduction, Silkin said he selected these based on the English versions. He adds that the second edition was revised to include poems by women. Silkin states that he chose the poems for the anthology based on what he deemed good, noting that “the reader will be correct in thinking that the more poems there are by a poet, the more highly I think of him (translated works excepted).” (page 74)
Before I discuss the poems, I want to say a few things about the introduction, which at 77 pages was the longest I’d come across in an anthology. I admit to skimming and skipping because it was (sorry to say) boring, too heavily focused on the work of Wilfred Owen, and featured too much discussion of meter and form. I did study meter and form in college, but these days I read poetry to simply enjoy the language and imagery and not think about how many beats there are per line. Still, I can appreciate that Silkin included a wide range of poetic styles. Moreover, since I took a course on the English Romantic Poets, I thought it was interesting how he made comparisons between the works of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the poetry of The Great War.
Looking at the list of poets included in the anthology, it’s obvious that Silkin is a fan of Edward Thomas, Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg because of the number of their poems he included. He also features the work of Thomas Hardy, Robert Graves, Rudyard Kipling, E.E. Cummings, D.H. Lawrence, Carl Sandburg, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, to name a handful.
There are so many poems in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry that it’s impossible to mention them all, but there are some common themes throughout the collection. Religion and patriotism come to mind right away. These poems also touch upon a soldier’s disillusionment and the sadness and the anger that rise to the surface when they begin to question why they are fighting.
I have been young, and now am not too old;
And I have seen the righteous forsaken,
His health, his honour and his quality taken.
This is not what we were formerly told. (from Edmund Blunden’s “Report on Experience,” page 113)
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied. (from Rudyard Kipling’s “Epitaphs of the War (1914-18),” page 136)
And after witnessing the effects of a gas attack:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (from Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” page 193)
In “Lament,” F.S. Flint writes about young men going off to war, but there is no excitement, no being gung-ho about going off to serve one’s country and fight the enemy.
The young men of the world
Are condemned to death.
They have been called up to die
For the crimes of their fathers. (page 147)
The shift from excitement at the beginning of the war to despair and anguish after they have seen fighting is best summed up in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Glory of Women,” which takes a harsh look at the patriotism on the home front.
You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace. (page 132)
But even the women soon feel the impact of the fighting and understand the senseless loss. May Wedderburn Cannan’s “Lamplight” is so sad in that war took away their hopes and dreams along with the men they loved.
We planned a great Empire together, you and I,
Bound only by the sea;
Now in the quiet of a chill Winter’s night
Your voice comes hushed to me
Full of forgotten memories: you and I
Dreamed great dreams of our futures in those days, (page 151)
Of course, no anthology of war poetry would be complete without a description of the horrors of the trenches and the lasting impact of all that the soldiers saw and did.
‘Well, as to that, the nastiest job I’ve had
Was last year on this very front
Taking the discs at night from men
Who’d hung for six months on the wire
Just over there.
The worst of all was
They fell to pieces at a touch.
Thank God we couldn’t see their faces;
They had gas helmets on…’ (from Richard Aldington’s “Trench Idyll,” page 143)
One of my favorite poems in this collection, Edgell Rickword’s “Winter Warfare,” personifies winter and the freeze that covered the trenches.
Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all that met his glare:
horses, men, and lice. (page 139)
As in all wars, the mental and physical state of the veterans is an important consideration. The men did heroic things in battle, were courageous under fire, but war takes a toll and breaks these heroes down, and some cannot show how broken they are on the inside.
Where are they now, on state-doles, or showing shop-patterns
Or walking to town sore in borrowed tatterns
Or begged. Some civic routine one never learns.
The heart burns — but has to keep out of face how heart burns. (from Ivor Gurney’s “Strange Hells,” page 119)
Although there is diversity among the poetic styles and the poets’ experiences, each of the poems in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry lead to the same conclusion: that war is hell. It makes me wonder how many of these poets were poets before, and how many used poetry as a way to deal with the loss, anger, and haunting memories tied to the war. Some of the poems made me feel like I was staring into the poet’s soul. I am in awe of men and women who can put such awful tragedies into words, and I believe that war poetry is among the most powerful and vivid, bringing to life the internal and external struggles in a way that non-fiction and prose cannot.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.