What is 'War Poetry'?
Without doubt this question is central to this series of seminars on the poets of the First World War, and worth confronting from the beginning. Jon Stallworthy, in his introduction to The Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984) begins by evoking the emotive force of the poems in his anthology:
"'POETRY', Wordsworth reminds us, 'is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings', and there can be no area of human experience that has generated a wider range of powerful feelings than war: hope and fear; exhilaration and humiliation; hatred - not only for the enemy, but also for generals, politicians, and war-profiteers; love - for fellow soldiers, for women and children left behind, for country (often) and cause (occasionally)." (p.xix)
Yet, though unquestionably accurate, this does little to help define 'War Poetry'. Loss of a loved one through natural causes, or the accidental discovery of a picturesque field of daffodils can generate a wide 'range of powerful feelings', yet such poems would not have found their way into Stallworthy's anthology.
War Poetry could be described as being: a) Poems which concentrate on the subject of war; or b) Poems which are written during a war that seems to have a noticeable influence on the poet. Of these two, 'a' would be widely accepted by most as a standard definition of the genre, and is clearly the raison d'etre behind Stallworthy's collection. To include poems under the category of 'b' is more troublesome. It would be hard to envision any circumstances under which the 1914–1918 conflict failed to have an influence on anyone living in Britain at the time, yet to include Wilfred Owen's love poems from the period before he enlisted in a collection of War Poetry would be unusual (though Stallworthy (1994) in his War Poems collection does include poems written by Owen before he enlisted, but only ones which deal with the subject of war.
The seminars contained in this Web site reflect definition 'a'.
The central focus of these seminars is one war in particular: namely the First World War, or The Great War, fought over the period August 1914November 1918. Although this was fought in many theatres, and in a number of continents, the poets detailed here are drawn predominantly from British soldiers serving on the Western Front, i.e. the almost continuous series of trenches running through Belgium and France that formed the front line between the Allied and German armies. It was on this front that some of the most important (and bloodiest) battles of the War were fought (though that is not to discount the importance of such battles as Tannenberg and Caporetto or the horrendous cost of the failed Gallipoli campaign) - a list which includes such fields of slaughter as: Mons, Loos, Ypres, the Somme, Verdun, and Passchendaele.
Why the First World War?
Vernon Scannell, in his poem 'The Great War' (written after the Second World War) states:
Whenever war is spoken of
The war that was called Great invades the mind:
Summoning up the images of trench warfare with a litany of appropriate details ('fractured tree-trunks', 'wire', 'zero-hour', 'Duckboards, mud and rats') Scannell claims that the conflict itself had a greater influence on him than the 1939–45 war in which he served:
And I remember,
Not the war I fought in
But the one called Great
Which ended in a sepia November
Four years before my birth.
The First World War runs through the British modern-day psyche like no other conflict. On Remembrance Day Sunday thoughts (of those who have not fought) turn to the fields in Flanders and the slaughter of the Somme and Passchendaele more readily than Dunkirk, El Alamein, or Arnhem (unless, of course, the date is an anniversary of a specific battle). It has been described as Britain's 'Vietnam', where the true horror of War touched everyone and everything in the country, breaking through the class barrier and irreversibly altering the social structure of the nation. It also closely parallels Vietnam as it represents an overwhelming feeling of futility, in that so many lives were wasted for such little gain. Unlike the Second World War, which more easily falls into the 'just war' definition of right versus wrong, the First World War appears as a conflict with aims that were quickly lost, degenerating to a war of attrition in unbelievable conditions.
Martin Stephen in The Price of Pity (1996) summarises the horror of the conflict as follows:
"The European powers were mighty in their strength and wealth. They were neither wholly good nor wholly bad, and were brought to near- destruction by powers of ambition, greed and aggression that had always been there but which had never before led to destruction on such a scale. The war evoked pity and terror like no other, and when peace was declared there was an almost animal venting of emotion in the streets of Britain. It unleashed untold suffering on Europe, a suffering that went out of the control of any human agency and which toppled some monarchies and shook other nations to their roots. And of course, when it was all over, the world had been made safe, and the war to end all wars had been fought." (p. 236)
© Martin Stephen 1996, reproduced by permission of Leo Cooper, London
Moreover, the War was dehumanising. It brought home how quickly and easily mankind could be reduced to a state lower than animals. Pat Barker, in her novel Regeneration (1992), reflects on the War's terrible reversal of expectations:
"The Great Adventure. They'd been mobilized into holes in the ground so constricted they could hardly move. And the Great Adventure (the real life equivalent of all the adventure stories they'd devoured as boys) consisted of crouching in a dugout, waiting to be killed. The war that had promised so much in the way of 'manly' activity had actually delivered 'feminine' passivity, and on a scale that their mothers and sisters had scarcely known." (p. 107108)
© Pat Barker 1991, reproduced by permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd., London
The First World War provides one of the seminal moments of the twentieth-century in which literate soldiers, plunged into inhuman conditions, reacted to their surroundings in poems reflecting Wordsworth's 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. Stephen (1996) states that 'no school of verse has ever been linked more clearly to a historical event' (p. xiii) and that 'Society's vision of this historical event...was ironically determined by a literary response to it, and it is the vision of some of the war's poets that has dominated the popular image of what that war was to those who fought in it and lived through it.' (p. xii).
Why British Poets?
Justification for limiting these seminars predominantly to the British poets of the Western Front is somewhat more difficult. The poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, Thomas, and their compatriots, is clearly good literature despite Yeats' misguided claims to the contrary. Yet these seminars could be seen as perpetuating the canonical stance that has often been the bane of English literature. By concentrating on these poets it is not being suggested that they are the best writers of their period or that poets and poems omitted are in any way inferior. This simply reflects the material and expertise to hand. More importantly, these seminars should be viewed as introductory guides, not replacements for books but keys to the reading of other books (an idea first forwarded by Mike Best with his pioneering software 'Shakespeare's Life and Times').
It is hoped that users will be interested enough to go to their libraries and bookshops and pick up such collections as Stallworthy's Oxford Collection, or the anthology of women poets of the War Scars Upon My Heart. Furthermore, this archive is an electronic one and therefore is not set in stone. Electronic archives are not limited by the financial costs of reprints and associated distribution charges. This project can and will add to the material available, willingly accepting any contributions that will widen the scope of the corpus.
Yet I will defer from any further apologies and forward a personal viewpoint. If literature is 'not for an age, but for all time' (as Jonson said of Shakespeare) then the poetry offered here is fine literature. To paraphrase: 'the poetry is in the power'. I make no attempt to hide my respect for the soldiers of the conflict (on both sides) but hope I can remove that from my critical attitude to the poems. It is perhaps too much to claim that if more people read Owen then there would be less wars, but if nothing else his poems bring home the harsh realities of war and the continuity of human suffering. If literature should not only indicate how mankind thinks, but also how mankind feels, then the poems of the First World War succeed on both counts. How much they represent the attitudes of the average British soldier who, although facing the same horrors, may clearly have had a different perspective of the conflict to that presented by some of the poets, is a question that many historians have raised, and one which is alluded to here.
Our aims then are to present material for guidance and discussion. By delivering 'off-the-shelf' seminars we hope we are supplying workable examples of the types of issues users might wish to concentrate on. By providing a WWI Poetry Discussion Board, we are giving users an opportunity to discuss these issues with people around the world. By creating an electronic archive we are offering the interested user a chance to explore further their research interests.
Dr. Stuart Lee, 1996
See also: War Poetry as Historical Fact?