Elin Jones (Tri-borough Stock Librarian) inspired by the poetry books available in the libraries, writes:
Some of the most moving poetry in English was written as a result of direct experience of the First World War. Here is a quick browse of some of the best-loved and most profound poetry of the era- and it is all available in the library.
Feminist author and poet Vera Brittain wrote her autobiography Testament of Youth as a result of losing her fiancée, her brother and two of her dearest male friends before peace was declared in November 1918. Words from her poem “To My Brother” (In Memory of July 1st 1916), still move us today:
Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart
Received when in that grand and tragic show
You played your part
Two years ago
“In Flanders Fields” is one of the most memorable poems from the First World War written by Canadian Officer John McCrae:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.
Poppies were everywhere on the battlefield of Ypres as they only flower in rooted-up soil, and the whole of the Western Front consisted of churned mud. McCrae, in his poem, gave us an enduring image of war: the poppy.
Wilfred Owen is one of the most famous of the War Poets who tragically died in 1918 just one week before the end of World War I. He encapsulated the horrors of the battlefield in his writing. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is one of his best-known pieces, written by Owen who in October 1917 wrote to his mother, “Here is a gas poem, done yesterday – the famous Latin tag (from Horace Odes) means Sweet! And decorous!”. The title was, of course, ironic: the intention was to shock people at home who thought war was noble and glorious.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…
Poetry of the First World War reflects the mixture of social status, class and backgrounds of the men fighting in the trenches: Isaac Rosenberg wrote some of the best poems of the First World War. His poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” had a special mention in Paul Fussell’s book The Great War and Modern Memory.
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
He was born into a working class Jewish family in Dvink (now Latvia) and his parents then emigrated to the East End of London. It was thought that he might have been one of the outstanding poets of his generation had he survived the war: his work was admired by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He was killed at the front in April 1918.
In contrast to Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney was trained as a chorister in Gloucester Cathedral and a composer as well as a poet. His lifelong friend was Herbert Howells, a director of music in St Paul’s Girls School, Hammersmith. Gurney wrote a collection of poetry for his first book Severn and Somme, which was published in October 1917. He suffered from a mental health condition and spent the last fifteen years of his life in a mental hospital having been gassed in 1917, but it was in hospital that he returned to his wartime experiences and wrote some of his best works.
We said no word. Yet, as such comrades would,
Such friendship is not touched by death’s disaster,
But stands the faster…
If you are interested in finding out more about the poetry of the First World War, take a look at these websites: the War Poets Website contains lots of useful information about the First World War Poets and their poems, as does the First World War Poets Digital Archive . The website Poetry by Heart incorporates a First World War Poetry Showcase. On 1st August, to mark the centenary of the war, Cambridge University put Siegfried Sassoon’s poems and diaries from the First World War online . They include an account of the ‘horrifying slaughter’ of the first day (http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/sassoon)
Or try some further reading, from books available on the catalogue (For a full reading list from our libraries, please click here):
Carol Ann Duffy – 1914: Poetry remembers Faber & Faber 2014 9780571302154
Tim Kendall – Poetry of the First World War: an anthology OUP 2013 9780199581443
Gaby Morgan – Poems from the First World War, Published in association with the IWM, 2013. ISBN 9781447248644
The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, Penguin 2006 ISBN 9780141181905
Poems of the Great War 1914-1918 Penguin 1998 9780141181035
Poems of War and Remembrance Talking Book BBC Audio, 2012 9781445896182