At first glance, art and war appear to be very differient activities. Yet some soliders, paint or sing about their experiences. Perhaps the most well-known example of how war has influenced art, however, is poetry. This delicate and sensitive art captures the emotional aspects of conflict and the aftermath of war as well as a map shows where troops marched and fought. In many ways, war poetry provides a map of the emotions. On reading these poems, we see that the emotional terrain could be just as hostile and damaging as the battlefield.
Shropshire-born Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) fell a week before the war ended. This untimely end makes his work all the more poignant. His poems, of which only five were published before his death, are noted for their combination of technical skill and bitterness. Disabled criticised those women who, despite encouraging men to fight, paid little attention to the wounded solider and whose ‘eyes passed from him to the strong men that were whole’. Owen, who had attended Birkenhead school, wrote poetry before the war. When the war started, he was teaching English in France. He came back to England, joined the army and was injured at the Somme, a fate he shared with fellow war poet Robert Graves (1895–1985). Graves met Owen while the latter was convalescing in Edinburgh and the two became friends. After recovering, Owen returned to the front where he won the Military Cross before being killed as he tried to lead a company of 2nd Manchesters across the Oise and Sambre Canal.
While at Edinburgh Owen also met Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967). Like Owen, Sassoon was awarded a Military Cross yet also wrote poetry that emphasised the horror and drudgery of war. Both Owen and Sassoon’s work has been described as the ‘poetry of disillusionment’. For them, there was little honour and no glamour in the trenches. Their poetry does not praise war, though it does demonstrate the value of the comradery among those who served in the trenches. Although he was from the south of England, one of Sassoon’s poems owes something to an experience he had in a Liverpool music hall. Blighters was inspired by a visit to the Liverpool Hippodrome in 1917 where the jingoistic jollification of the performances inspired Sassoon to imagine a tank tearing through the building and slaughtering the complacent audience. Like his poetry, Sassoon’s imaginary tank brought the war home.
Most of the published war poets went to university or at least attended school until their late teens. Even Isaac Rosenberg (1890–1918), the son of Russian Jewish migrants who had moved to the east end of London, attended Slade School of Art. That said, Rosenberg is unusual among war poets. He was Jewish, was not an officer and was rasied in a city. His work, such as Break of day in the trenches, is gritty and contains memorable images such as a rat that moves between the British to German trenches. This rodent acts, among other things, as a reminder of the way in which people are divided by nationalism. One of the poets who inspired Rosenberg was Lascelles Abercrombie (1881–1938), who became professor of English Literature at Liverpool University from 1919 to 1922. Rosenberg proclaimed that Abercrombie was ‘the best living English poet’, and in 1915 Abercrombie praised Rosenberg’s ability ‘to make the concealed poetic power in words comes flashing out’.
While he admired the poems penned by Abercrombie, who was a munitions examiner during the war, Rosenberg criticised the poetry of the fellow war poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915). Indeed, he described the Cambridge-graduate’s poetry as being full of ‘second-hand phrases’. Brooke’s poems are often set against those who wrote the ‘poetry of disillusionment’. Already an established writter before the war, Brooke was more than capable of capturing the less pleasant aspects of life. His one-act play Lithuania, published in 1913, has been described as being grisly and stark. Yet his war lacked these features and often painted a picture of a peaceful, rural England. Brooke, who joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, became the poet of the war. His untimely death, from blood poisoning, while on the way to the Dardanelles meant that he came to represent all the young men who had died in the war. Nonetheless, later generations came to see Brooke as an idealistic patriot who presented an unrealistic, romanticised view of the war. His work may lack the angst expressed by other poets, but his verses also tell us something about the values of the time.
Historians have pointed out that Brooke, along with other poets like John Oxenham and Jessie Pope (neither of whom appear on the memorial of sixteen war poets in Westminster Abbey), were widely read and appreciated by contemporaries. Rosenberg and Owen, on the other hand, were marginal poets whose talents were only appreciated after the war. It is important to remember this distinction between the poets that were popular at the time and those who become more well-known after the war. Each generation has a different impression of the First World War. After the Second World War, the earlier conflict was often described as a pointless war. It was thought that the First World War lacked the clear cut lines between good and evil that were present in the Second World War. For many of those who lived during the First World War, however, the conflict was between good and evil.
In September 1917 thousands of Welsh men and women gathered in Birkenhead for the National Eisteddfod. When the poet who had won the bardic chair was announced, there was a deathly silence. On 31 July, Ellis Evans (1887–1917), who went by the bardic name Hedd Wyn, had died at the Third Battle of Ypres (commonly known as the Battle of Passchendaele). Evans had opened his best known poem entitled Rhyfel (War) with a rhetorical question: ‘Why must I live in this grim age’. Although the war poets do not provide an answer to this question, and some offer very different impressions of the conflict, they compel us to think about the impact of the war on individuals and society as a whole. War poetry gives us some idea of the excitement, enthusiasm, horror and resentment that went through the minds of those who experienced the war.
By: Mike Benbough-Jackson