The Lost Generation : World War I Poetry : The Soldier Poet

While there have probably been soldier poets in all wars, the visibility of the poets who fought in the First World War has been particularly prominent. Figures such as Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, and others are frequently anthologized and regularly taught in classes on modern literature. The striking contrast between what these young men expected to find when they enlisted and what they discovered in course of the conflict seems to have provided a catalyst for their creative energies. The poets of World War I came from very different backgrounds, from the wealth and privilege of Sassoon to the impoverished immigrant heritage of Rosenberg, from the youth of Edward Thomas to the maturity of Ford Madox Hueffer. What bound them in their artistic endeavors was their shared experience of the conflict. All of these poets wrote of their personal experience, and that first-hand knowledge provides much of the power in their works. But these writers were not mere observers recording the death and carnage of others. Most were among the casualties: Owen, Rosenberg, Thomas, and Brooke died in the war, while Sassoon, Graves, Gurney, and Hueffer were wounded. In this way, they shared among themselves and with their fellow soldiers the realities of the conflict and expressed their common struggles in verse, a poetry that questioned the heroic view of a war championed at home, a poetry whose power came to silence the idea of a romantic conflict and gave voice to the realities of the horrors they witnessed. 

During World War I, a genre of poetry emerged from the front lines termed “Trench Poetry.” It was inspired by the soldiers’ daily life on the front, especially the constant witnessing and interacting with horrifying scenes. The editor of this book, Lieutenant C. E. Andrews, served in the Aviation Section, Signal Reserve Corps during World War I. Surprisingly, during the course of his examination of “thousands of the poems from the front [that] have appeared in newspapers and magazines,” Andrews learned that most trench poetry was not written by soldiers, but by “men of cultivation, Doctor, dons, actors, journalists university students” since the soldiers in the front lines had no time to absorb their experience in order to reflect it in a condensed rhetorical form. In his introduction on “trench poetry,” Andrews argues that the most canonical poetry is not written by “forgers of experience” but by “men with sense of the word.” As a result, the reactions of soldiers normally appeared either through letters to their families and loved ones or through familiar, short lyrics. This is what Andrews selects for his collection From the Front.

The book was published by D. Appleton & Co, London 1918 and all its royalties went to the British Red Cross fund. It is bound in an uniform green cloth binding, and the front cover bears the title “From the Front,” the full name of the editor in all caps, and a logo of two swords crossed, a hat in the middle, and olive leaves wreath circling the swords, all of which was stamped with gold metallic color. The book includes an index of authors and of first lines in the back, which allows the reader to navigate the collection and find poems by specific authors. 

Find From the Front in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of From the Front my Andrews.
Andrews' Good-by
Andrews' Good-by
Andrews' Good-by

Find The Bombing of Bruges in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Bewsher's The Bombing of Bruges.

Scottish philosopher and poet Allan Archibald Bowman (1883-1936) was working as a professor at Princeton University when World War I began. He took a leave of absence in 1915, enlisted in the British Army, and was assigned to the Highland Light Infantry. Three years later, Bowman was taken prisoner by German forces during the Battle of Lys. The poems collected in Sonnets from a Prison Camp were written after Bowman’s capture, between April 27 and July 25, 1918. Most were composed at the Rastatt prison camp, though some were written after Bowman was transferred to Hesepe. The volume itself contains twelve chronologically arranged sections and a clean, minimal layout with one sonnet per page. This neatly bound, 152-page book has a board cover with thread wear on the bottom and top of the spine. A lithographed errata slip on different paper is pasted into the binding and precedes the title page.

Part of the Soldier Poets section of the exhibit, Sonnets from a Prison Camp contains poems that reflect on the horrors of war, the boredom of life in a prison camp, and a deep longing for home and peace. Bowman also employs Christian theology to decry the power of “Nations,” asserting that “Earth’s glory sinks confronted with Christ’s cross” (p. 104).  In the following sonnet, he writes that the “Commonwealth” cannot “unchallenged claim / To be the First and Last.” There is “a holier Name” (p. 105). Each sonnet includes a date and location, allowing the sequence to function like diary entries, and in his foreword, Bowman notes that during his early days as a prisoner of war, these poems “stood between my soul and madness” (p. v). The author then goes on to thank Captain Honholz (Commandant of the Hesepe prison camp), “to whose kindness I owe it that I am able to offer the sonnets as they stand” (p vi). Given his status as a prisoner of war, Bowman’s writing—not only his access to pen and paper, but the very act itself—was contingent upon the permission of his captors.

Find Sonnets from a Prison Camp in the UNT Library Catalog.

Title page of Sonnets From a Prison Camp by Bowman.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) was the son of a Rugby schoolmaster and attended school at Rugby and later at King’s College of Cambridge University. After completing his education, Brooke continued writing poetry and became one of the founders of the first anthology of Georgian Poetry. Now little studied, it was a dominant poetic movement of the time until it was supplanted by Imagism and the High Modernism of T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. B. Yeats. While not as experimental as the Modernists, the Georgian poets did look to free poetry from the ornate language of Victorian verse and employ in its place plain and concrete language. Along with the Georgian poets, Brooke also interacted with members of the influential Bloomsbury Group, which included such prominent writers as Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. When war broke out, Brooke enlisted but never saw combat, instead dying of illness in March 1915 on his way to Gallipoli. Despite this, Brooke became a touchstone for other WWI poets, who dedicated volumes of verse to him, wrote essays celebrating his work, and published memoirs of his life. 

Rupert Brooke’s most anthologized poetry is often selected to represent a more inspirational and conventional perspective than the soldier poets that follow him. The patriotic sensibility in his most famous poem “The Soldier,” for example, is often contrasted with the disillusionment, horror, and lack of sentimentality of other WWI poets. This is not surprising, considering that Brooke did not see combat, but it has had unfortunate consequences for Brooke’s reputation and much of his best poetry has been neglected. It is important to see the overt nationalism of his self-characterization in “The Soldier” as “A body of England's, breathing English air, / Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home” in the context of the rest of the volume, particularly the poems of 1913-1915, when Brooke traveled across North America, to Hawaii, New Zealand, and finally Tahiti. In the progression of 1914 and other poems, the certain knowledge and stable geography of “The Soldier” gives way to the dark scents and murmuring of the “soft Hawaiian sea” in “Waikiki,” and in “Hauntings,” Brooke presents a less certain vision of human destiny. In the sonnet’s octave, “a shade, through the toss'd ranks of mirth and crying / Hungers, and pains, and each dull passionate mood,— / Quite lost, and all but all forgot, undying,” comes back to haunt the speaker’s “quietude.” This haunting presence transforms the speaker himself into a “poor ghost,” one who,

“Is haunted by strange doubts, evasive dreams,

  Hints of a pre-Lethean life, of men,

Stars, rocks, and flesh, things unintelligible,

  And light on waving grass, he knows not when,

And feet that ran, but where, he cannot tell.”

In this context, Brooke’s celebrations of patriotic duty in war are tempered by a more reflective and less confident poetic sensibility.

Find 1914 and Other Poems (First Edition), "1914" Five Sonnets, The Collected Poems of Rupert Brooke, Friends, Rupert Brooke: A Memoir, Rupert Brooke's Death and Burial, and Rupert Brooke in the UNT Library Catalog.

Title page of 1914 and Other Poems by Brooke.
Frontispiece in 1914 and Other Poems by Brooke. Profile portrait of Brooke.
The Dead and The Soldier from Brooke's 1914 and Other Poems.
Waikiki and Hauntings from Brooke's 1914 and Other Poems.
Cover of Collected poems of rupert brooke
Cover of Marsh's Rupert Brooke A Memoir
Cover of Perdriel-Vaissiere's Rupert Brooke's Death and Burial
cover of Gibson's Friends
Dedication page of Gibson's Friends. To the memory of Rupert Brooke.
Gibson's Friends dedication poem.

Find The Other Side in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Frankau's The Other Side

Find Songs of the Shrapnel Shell in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Horne's Songs of the Shrapnel Shell
Portrait of Horne in uniform and cover page for Horne's Songs of the Shrapnel Shell.
Chrysallis in Cyril's Songs of the Shrapnel Shell

Find On Heaven and other poems in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Hueffer's On Heaven

Find Main Street and Other Poems in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Joyce Kilmer's Main Street and Other Poems
Title page of Joyce Kilmer's Main Street and Other Poems.

Find Songs of Youth and War in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Songs of Youth and War by Lyon.
Intermezzo, On a Sergeant's Grave in Flanders, and The Dead Who Die Not in Lyon's Songs of Youth and War.

Find In Flanders Fields in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of McCrae's In Flanders Fields
Frontispiece of McCrae's In Flanders Fields. Portrait of McCrae in uniform.
Facsimile of handwritten poem, In Flanders Fields, in McCrae's In Flanders Fields.
John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" poem.

Find Aurelia and Other Poems in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Aurelia and Other Poems by Nichols.

Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” stands as the most widely anthologized example of a poem by a WWI soldier who positions his passion and vision in direct opposition to the euphemistic rhetoric about war so prevalent in patriotic verse and political discourse. That said, part of its persuasive strategy is that of rooting its vision in the immediacy of the personal, such that whatever didactic energy of the closure grows out of a dramatic context and the sense of personal authority gathered in the process. Much of the success of this structure relies upon a series of “turns,” or “voltas,” that delineate the poem’s development. The immediate physicality and collective sweep of perspective will be critical to the gathering force of argument. The first turn (“Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!) turns our gaze from the collective to the individual: the moment of crisis and the individual victim who then plunges toward the individual witness clear into his unconscious. The next turn, the most major of the poem, thus breaks from narrative into a higher register of voice that raises the stakes and ambition of the poem. So too we move to second person point of view, so that the poem overall takes on a funnel structure that moves toward greater intimacy from men, to man, to I, to the unconscious, to you, that “friend” who gives to the poem the immediacy of the act of telling. With the expanding pitch of anger and emotional logic, this new imperative music and speculative broadening nevertheless maintain something of the familiar, of that tough and measured discipline of form, itself a breed of decorum. The authority of the whole thus comes from both the scale of the tragedy and its eventual focus: the internalized sense that, as the final couplet of the octave splits off, the speaker’s narrative and formal control reaches the flashpoint of nightmare and compulsion.

Find Poems by Wilfred Owen in the UNT Library Catalog.

Title page of Wilfred Owen's Poems.
Frontispiece of Wilfred Owen's Poems. Portrait of Owen in uniform.
Dulce et decorum est in Wilfred Owen's Poems.

Find Poems by Isaac Rosenberg in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Poems by Isaac Rosenberg.
Portrait of Isaac Rosenberg in Poems by Isaac Rosenberg.
Poems by Isaac Rosenberg, "The Dying Soldier" and "Dead Man's Dump"

The poet Siegfried Sassoon, recipient of the Military Cross for acts of heroism, became famous not only for his angry and candid war poems, but also for his open letter of protest to the War Department after being wounded in action. “I believe that this War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it,” he wrote, and after the letter was read aloud in the House of Commons, Sassoon expected to be court-martialed. Once the poet Robert Graves intervened, claiming that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock. Sassoon was then sent to a facility for mentally infirm soldiers, where he later mentored Wilfred Owen. The poem “The One-Legged Man” represents one of Sassoon’s more bitterly ironic poems in which a man blesses the fortunes of one horror—his own amputation—since it spares him the greater horror of further military service. Doubtless the story resonates with Sassoon’s own, where his patriotism as a citizen of England became subordinate to more peaceful allegiances as a “citizen of life.” The irony of the poem suggests one man’s limitation is another’s mobility, his reinstated power to “choose.” 

Find The Old Huntsman, Counter-Attack, and The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon in the UNT Library Catalog.

Sassoon's The One-Legged Man from The Old Huntsman.
Cover os Sassoon's Counter-Attack
Sassoon's "How To Die" and "The Effect" in Counter-Attack.
Cover of The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

Find Rhymes of a Red Cross Man in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Service's Rhymes of a Red Cross Man.

Find Soldier Songs From Anzac in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of Skeyhill's Soldier Songs from Anzac

Find En Repos and Elsewhere Over There in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of En Repos and Elsewhere Over There.

In 1919, a collection of poems titled Any Soldier to His Son, authored by George Willis, was published by George Allen & Unwin LTD out of London. Although there is not much readily available biographical information on Willis, it is known that he was a soldier in the British army during World War I. The book itself is small, with an olive green cover designed by C.R.W. Nevinson but otherwise lacking illustrations other than the ornate publisher’s insignia on the title page. There is also no dedication or foreword, leaving the reader with little direction on how to read the book. However, the book concludes with a one-page advertisement for three other books of war poetry also published by George Allen & Unwin, including A Gallipoli Diary by Major Graham Gillam, another first-hand account of battle.

Any Soldier to His Son contains eighteen poems, ranging in length but written primarily in rhyming couplets. Notable titles include “Any Soldier to His Son,” “To My Mate,” and “By Green Envelope,” addressed to the poet’s beloved wife. The subject matter of Willis’ poetry revolves around the experiences of a soldier, both during and after the war. Willis investigates the change in a soldier brought on by combat, and the book ends with “A Testament,” in which the soldier is asking for peace in death. In the progression of the poems, Willis is arguably imagining himself as a mouthpiece for all soldiers. Through his poetry, he seeks to help civilians better understand what it meant to be on the front lines or in the trenches, and why soldiers came out of it “shell shocked” (18).

Find Any Soldier to His Son in the UNT Library Catalog.

Cover of George Willis' Any Soldier to His Son