Intro to WW1 Poetry

WW1 Poetry and 'Injury'

[This seminar was originally published in 1998].

This seminar is intended as an introduction to First World War poetry. In order to provide a focus for this seminar, all of the 'featured' poems have been selected for their appropriateness to a given theme. The theme selected is that of injury and the physical, mental and other consequences of this. 

You should begin by reading the small essays below introducing you to war poetry and questions surrounding the topic, and then visit the pages on the poets themselves (at the foot of the page or through the side bar on the left).

The Poems

In most cases each poet or topic includes the following:

  • An introduction to the poet/topic
  • A featured poem, appropriate to the seminar's theme
  • Some literary criticism of the featured poem
  • Other relevant information or texts
  • A selection of other poems appropriate to the poet/topic [any poem marked with +Notes will have more details]

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 1914­ - November 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
I find
The war that was called Great invades the mind:
(ll. 1­3)

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.
(ll. 41­46)


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 (see 'References and Notes'). 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 creating an electronic archive we are offering the interested user a chance to explore further their research interests.


Dr. Stuart Lee, 1996, revised 2021

War Poetry as Historical Fact?

I have spent a lot of time fulminating against any attempt to understand 1st World War experience through the celebrated poets. If you were to glance back at the Introduction to a book of mine [The 1916 Battle of the Somme: A Reappraisal] will see that we are probably divided by a chasm which would make the Grand Canyon look like a South African donga.

Peter Liddle, in a letter to Stuart Lee, dated 21/1/95.

In the poems of Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg, and others, we see the voice of the individual: at times cynical, at times sympathetic. Yet running through all the poems (Brooke being the exception) is a feeling of futility and outrage at the suffering caused by the War or the War itself. The question that needs to be asked is how representative are the emotions expressed by Owen and Sassoon of those felt by the majority of the soldiers fighting on the Western Front?

As early as 1930, Jerrould Douglas criticised the swelling number of literary works (novels, poems, memoirs, etc.) as being miseading as they left the reader with an impression that the War was inherently wrong, and the slaughter on the battlefields was avoidable. More recently, Peter Liddle in his study of the Battle of the Somme (1992), whilst recognising the power and literary merit of the poems themselves, states that they did not portray the 'conformity and continuity' (p. 11) of the average soldier. For Liddle the poems are certainly crafted pieces of work, but at the same time they are 'contrived' (p. 13), having been created by men of 'unusually developed sensibility' (p.13) — a skill, one assumes, Liddle would not expect to find in the average soldier.

In an interesting example, Liddle relates an interview with eight survivors from the War, all who had lost limbs in the conflict. Throughout his conversation with the veterans he detected no resentment or grievance on the part of the men against their commanding officers whose orders and battle tactics had caused their injuries:

'The seemingly cruel but necessary stimuli of sport, girlfriends, dancing, employment, self-awareness or esteem, were all introduced in the interview, and yet not in a single case, other than a long-waged conflict over the percentage disability of a pension award, was a response given along the lines which might have been anticipated.' (p. 10)

Liddle compares this with Sassoon's 'Does It Matter?' and sees a striking difference between the feelings expressed by the poet and those by the injured men, the purported subjects of the verses. Liddle concludes that the poetry of the 'Soldier Poets', and more importantly subsequent criticisms which elevate them to be representative of the majority of soldiers, to be 'so wide of the mark' that they missed the board (p. 13).

To reply to this would take too long, but in this seminar environment readers may wish to consider the following in the light of Liddle's arguments:

  1. If, as Liddle states, the 'Soldier Poets' possessed 'unusually developed sensibility', were they not simply expressing the feelings of their men (who they clearly had a close affinity with), who in turn were unable to speak out?
  2. Is it possible that the average soldier did wish to criticise the conduct of the War but felt unable to, either through 'undeveloped sensibility', or due to the powerful bonds of loyalty, patriotism, reluctance to let the side down, and even subservience which were carried over from the nineteenth- century?
  3. Where would one place the mutinies of the French armies in 1917 and the minor insurrections in the British Army? Do these fit more with the stance of Sassoon, or with Liddle's 'conformity and continuity'? On a more passive note (but equally critical), where should one place such 'trench papers' as The Wipers Times with its open cynicism of the conduct of the War, attitudes on the Home Front, and High Command in general?

Dr. Stuart Lee, 1997

References & Notes

  • The Oxford Book of War Poetry, ed. Jon Stallworthy (Oxford University Press, 1984)
  • The Price of Pity, Martin Stephen (Leo Cooper, 1996)
  • Regeneration, Pat Barker (Penguin Books, 1992)
  • Yeat's comments on WWI Poetry
    • I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war; they are in all anthologies, but I have substituted Herbert Read's 'End of a War' written long after. The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross; their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy — for all skill is joyful — but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his 'Empedocles on Etna' from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced. When man has withdrawn into quicksilver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind; it is no longer possible to write 'The Persians', 'Agincourt', 'Chevy Chase': some blunderer has driven his car on to the wrong side of the road — that is all.
    • If war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell, or as we forget the worst moments of more painful disease.
      • The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892–1935', ed. W.B.Yeats (OUP, 1936) Introduction pp. xxxiv–xxxv sect XV