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Speaking truth to power: poetry of the First World War [extract]

The well-worn argument that poets underwent a journey from idealism to bitterness as the War progressed is supported by [poet and veteran David] Jones, who remembered a “change” around the start of the Battle of the Somme (July 1916) as the War “hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair.” Many poets experienced this fall, out of a world where gallantry and decency might still be possible and into an inferno of technological slaughter. Yet the complexity of individual cases reveals just as many exceptions. Elizabeth Vandiver has noted that the majority of soldiers, as well as civilians, “continued to write in unironic terms about duty, glory, and honour throughout the war and afterwards.” Neither Georgianism nor the Somme cured every soldier of grandiose sentiment. The poet Arthur Graeme West expressed his bewilderment at the mismatch between the sight and stench of the dead, “hung in the rusting wire,” and the ornate idiom with which even those “young cheerful men” who had “been to France” continued to describe their experiences. Gilbert Frankau’s “The Other Side” made the point even more bluntly by attacking “warbooks, war-verse, all the eye-wash stuff | That seems to please the idiots at home.” “Something’s the matter,” Frankau’s speaker tells one of these naïve versifiers: “either you can’t see, | Or else you see, and cannot write.”

The soldier–poets who were capable of seeing and writing are often credited with having been “anti-war,” and their works are routinely recruited for propaganda by campaigners opposed to later conflicts. In accounts of the War and the art that it inspired, futility has defeated glory as the appropriate response, and Wilfred Owen has become the antidote to Rupert Brooke (who, it is often argued, would have come round to the right way of thinking if he had lived long enough). This risks damaging the achievements of the soldier–poets, because it neglects the extent to which their writings struggle with contradictory reactions to the War. Owen’s description of himself as “a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience” captures the internal divisions of the pacifist who fights, or the officer who (like Owen) acknowledges both the horrors of the War and the undeniable exhilaration and “exultation” that battle occasionally inspires. Even in his most anthologized poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen does not subscribe to an anti-war manifesto. Like Frankau and West, he writes what can be more accurately labelled as anti-pro-war poetry, reminding civilians that the “high zest” with which they convey their martial enthusiasms is based on ignorance of the terrible realities: “dulce et decorum” it is certainly not , to die in a gas attack with blood “gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs.” Most soldier–poets—like most soldiers—believed the War to be necessary, but wanted the costs acknowledged and the truths told.

Image credit: “Americans wearing gas masks during World War I” by William E. Moore. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

How to tell truths to those in whose name they fought continued to be a vexed question. Having already disapproved of Sassoon’s Declaration against the War, Graves advised Owen: “For God’s sake cheer up and write more optimistically—The war’s not ended yet but a poet should have a spirit above wars.” But on one issue, at least, the surviving veterans could agree: their experiences had set them apart from non-combatants. As Richard Aldington reported, “there are two kinds of men, those who have been to the front and those who haven’t.” Whatever truths the soldier–poets brought back from the battle zone, they laid claim to a knowledge beyond the reach of civilians. A literate army drawn from all social classes was at last empowered to speak for itself with a fluency of which no previous army had been capable. Fortified with his new authority, the soldier–poet profoundly disrupted long debates about the nature and efficacy of poetry itself. Plato wanted to banish poets from his ideal republic because they were liars, lacking knowledge and deceiving with artful language. The figure of the soldier–poet reunited art and ethics, and undertook new obligations by speaking the truth to and about power. When Owen insisted, “Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry,” he artfully rebuked the artful language that Plato condemningly ascribed to poets. “The true poet,” Owen went on to explain, “must be truthful,” not least because the official language of the state and its media had become untrustworthy.

Featured image credit: “Wire” by Dimitris Vetsikas. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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