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World War I Poetry: Themes, Analysis & Quotes

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Instructor: Leslie McMurtry

Leslie holds a PhD in English and a M.A. in Creative and Media Writing from Swansea University, as well as a B.A. in English and French from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. She has experience teaching at the University level, and has taught courses ranging from science fiction and gothic horror to script development. She has multiple academic and non-academic publications, and work experience as a fiction editor.

In this lesson, you'll be introduced to some of the most important figures in World War I poetry. These will include soldier-poets and civilians. We will look at some of the most enduring poems and examine their themes and what they have to say, analyzing individual lines.

World War I Poetry

World War I (1914-18) was one of the most climactic events of the twentieth century. There were more than 41 million casualties worldwide. The mechanization and sheer scale of the conflict was matched by a change in poetry; more than 2,200 poets from Great Britain and Ireland alone wrote war poetry. For the first time, the soldier-poet became a distinct figure in literature. In the last one hundred years, the idea of World War I poetry has typically emphasized soldier-poets over civilians, male writers over female writers, and English poets over other nationalities. World War I poetry includes a wide range of themes and voices. Four of the most important themes are the abstract rhetoric of honor, injury, gender relations, and poetic formalism.

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  • 0:04 World War I Poetry
  • 0:50 Honor
  • 2:23 Injury
  • 3:50 Gender Relations
  • 5:16 Formalism
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Honor

Generally, the soldier-poets of World War I are divided loosely into two groups: the early and late poets. The early poets tended to write poems that endorsed the cause of war and emphasized abstract notions of honor. The late poets tended to be more anti-war and either abandoned abstraction to focus on the details of the war experience or contrast abstract ideas with cold, hard reality. Probably the most famous World War I poem, which belongs to the early group, is ''In Flanders Fields'' (1915) by Canadian John McCrae, which begins with the lines ''In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.'' In this poem, which commemorates the war dead, McCrae's use of the imagery of the red poppies in a Belgian field was so striking, the red poppy remains a well-known symbol for World War I in Great Britain in particular, and for veterans in general.

Armistice Day artificial poppies at Ypres
Armistice Day poppies

Rupert Brooke is also one of the early soldier-poets. A well-to-do man educated at Cambridge, Rupert Brooke's patriotic verse was celebrated during his lifetime. Poems such as ''The Dead'' (1914) are awash with imagery and lyricism. The poem concludes by equating a good death with glory, ''He leaves a white / Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance, / A width, a shining peace, under the night.'' The abstract rhetoric of honor formed the basis for much wartime poetry, but little of it strikes a modern audience as effective or unpretentious. Rupert Brooke died early during the war, and later poets lived to provide a much more harrowing experience of life in the trenches.

Injury

Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, two of the later war poets, epitomize the dirty, frantic, and painful nature of trench warfare. Despite the persistent belief that all World War I poets were upper-class English officers, soldier-poets tended to be educated and come from largely middle-class backgrounds (Rosenberg was an exception).

Wilfred Owen was one of the most important World War I poets, writing that: ''My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.'' Isaac Rosenberg discusses the aftermath of injury on dead bodies in the nightmarish ''Dead Man's Dump'' (1922). The bodies of soldiers killed, Rosenberg writes, are returning to the earth; there is no appeal to glory and a peaceful end, as Brooke had previously alluded. Mutilation is written about baldly, as in these lines: ''The wheels lurched over sprawled dead / But pained them not, though their bones crunched, / Their shut mouths made no moan.''

Injury became a major theme in World War I poetry as disfigurement and emotional damage were suffered by so many combatants. Wilfred Owen's confrontational ''Disabled'' (1917) tackles the theme of injury head-on. The wounded veteran has lost arms and legs, and this visual record of his injuries ostracizes him from civilian society. Shocking lines like, ''leap of purple spurted from his thigh'' emphasize war injuries and post-war trauma whereby able-bodied readers are invited to imagine the man's existence.

Anvil Wood, 1918, Collection of National Media Museum (Frank Hurley/Australian War Records Section)
Anvil Wood, 1918

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