Monday, November 10, 2014

Poetry of WWI

In commemoration of the centenary of WWI we had a panel discussion at AACI.  Raymond Cannon gave a general introduction and background to the conflict, Elkan Levy spoke about WWI in the Middle East and I spoke about the poetry of WWI.  I will describe that here.

The Poetry and literature of WWI are unique, there has never been any other war that produced such a flowering of poetry and literature as WWI.  The reasons are complex, but one of them was the static nature of the war, millions of men sat in trenches for months waiting for the next action, they had no distractions, no papers, no books, no radio and TV and of course, no smart phones.  In WWII the fast pace of armies, the blitzkreig and the the tank battles resulted in a much more mobile pace of the war, leaving men little time to spend contemplating the fine art of poetry.  Also, in WWI the vast majority of casualties were soldiers, while in WWII the vast majority of casualties were civilians, due to the bombing of cities and the concentration camps.   Most of the literature of WWII was descriptive novels or personal stories, but the poetry of WWI was a distilled essence of the experience of the soldiers at the front. In describing the horrific conditions they experienced in the trenches, they evinced a natural opposition to war that lasted until WWII (only 21 years later) and beyond.  There were many nationalities involved in WWI, English, German, French, American, Russian, etc.  But, the English poetry that came out of WWI is unique.  In Wikipedia there are analyses of the poetry of each country, that of most takes 5 pages, that of England takes over 50.

The poetry of WWI is both extremely modern and political in the sense that it exposed the futility of the age-old concept of the nobility of dying for one’s country.  It did this not by shouting slogans, but by describing in vivid detail the suffering of the soldiers at the front.  The poetry of WWI had a profound influence on the subsequent culture of England and the West.  It led to cynicism regarding governments and the development of concepts of liberalism and human rights.  Every poet and writer must consider the sometimes opposite effects of choosing the right word and rhyme and the message he wants to convey.  Gory death cannot be described in glorified stanzas.   Gen. Montgomery, who fought as an officer in WWI and a General in WWII, was once asked what was the chief difference, and he answered that in WWI the lives of the men were expendable, while in WWII the officers had to treat the soldiers as people.

Here are some famous English poets of WWI: Rupert Brooke (1887-1915); Siegfried Sassoon (1865-1967); Edmund Blunden (1896-1974); Wilfred Owen (1893-1918); Robert Graves (1895-1985); Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918); Herbert Read (1893-1968) and many more.  At the beginning of WWI there were still a few poets who glorified war and were idealistic, such was Rupert Brooke, here are excerpts of his poetry: 

    Stands the church clock at ten to three?
     And is there honey still for tea?
   (Showing nostalgia for home).

          The Soldier
     If I should die think only this of me
     That there is a corner of a foreign field
     That is forever England.

Fortunately he died early enough, in 1915 (from a mosquito bite) to avoid the worst suffering of the War.

Wilfred Owen is perhaps the most famous of the WWI poets.  Two of his poems have entered the canon of English literature:

           Strange Meeting:
    It seemed like out of battle I escaped
    Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
    Through granite which titanic wars had groined…..

           Anthem for doomed youth:
     What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
    - Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
     Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
     Can patter out their hasty orisons…..
    The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall
    Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
     And each slow dusk the drawing-down of blinds.

This last line is a famous poetic metaphor to the memory of the fallen.

Isaac Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890, and studied art at the Slade School in London.  He was visiting family in S. Africa when WWI was declared.  He returned to England and enlisted in the British Army in 1914.  He fought in the trenches and was killed at the age of 28 as the war ended.   Here are some examples of his poetry:
My eyes catch ruddy necks
Sturdily pressed back -
All a red brick moving glint.
Like flaming pendulums, hands
Swing across the khaki -
Mustard-coloured khaki -
To the automatic feet.
     Dead man’s dump
None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.
This last metaphor for a bullet "the swift iron burning bee" that "drained the wild honey of their youth," is for me perhaps the greatest poetic image of WWI.  Yet, Isaac Rosenberg is little known, he was forgotten for many years and his name and fame have only been resurrected in recent years.  Why was Rosenberg ignored?   He was Jewish in WWI England; he was poor; he was a private, when all the other famous poets were officers; he died young and in obscurity.  In his study “First World War Poetry” (Penguin 1979) Jon Silken compares  the poetry of Rosenberg with that of Owen:   He states, “One of the principal differences in the Owen /Rosenberg contrast is that Owen’s poems are,  in the main, recollected…Rosenberg’s lines do have fierce immediacy not present in Owen’s”; “Owen’s language narrates or carries the ideas; Rosenberg’s language is them, sensuously enacts them, and experiences them.”  One might attribute this difference not only to their different styles, but also to the fact that Owen was British and Rosenberg was Jewish, his approach is more direct and sensual. Owen like most of the officers had leave during which he could hone his poetry, Rosenberg as a private had no leave.  But Rosenberg now has a plaque dedicated to him outside the Whitechapel Library in the East End of London, where many poor Jewish intellectuals worked.

In summary, Wilfred Owen famously wrote: “This book is not about heroes.  English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.  Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honor, might, majesty , dominion or power, except War.  Above all I am not concerned with Poetry, my subject is War, and the pity of War.

To also mention several influential novels of WWI: 
• “Goodbye to all that” is a memoir by Robert Graves, published in 1929, of his time before during and after WWI, that as its title implies rejects the cosy, stable pre-war world.  It was a very influential book.
• “All Quiet on the Western Front,” is a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German author, also published in 1929, who experienced the trench warfare.  It is a profoundly anti-war account and influenced many.  It has been made into several movies. 
• "The Forty Days of Musa Dagh" by Franz Werfel (1933).  This poignant novel based on real historical events unfolds the tragedy that befell the Armenian people in the dark year of 1915 when the Turks systematically exterminated their Christian subjects
• "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway (1929) is set during the Italian campaign of WWI, the book, relates the story of a US officer in the Italian ambulance corps and his love affair with an American nurse.

The long-term influence of the literature and poetry of WWI was that it opened people’s eyes to the tremendous suffering and terrible treatment of soldiers by their own armies and leaders.   It emphasized the futility of war and the need for people to have a greater say in when wars are declared and how they are conducted. It gave rise to an anti-war movement that is still with us today.


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