It is a remarkable fact that the First World War produced a distinctive brand of poetry, and poets, and the Second nothing comparable. As the decades pass, the difference becomes more bold and striking. It is now possible to speak of the Age of War Poetry, meaning the writers of the trenches, and the peculiar mixture they served up, of heroism and anti-heroism, sweetness and bitterness, patriotism and nihilism, and for everyone to know exactly what is meant. No other five-year period in our history has burned such a deep and powerful scar into our literature.
Max Egremont is well qualified to deal with this phenomenon. He has written extensively about the period, and produced an excellent life of Siegfried Sassoon, whom many would rate the finest of these war poets, and all would place around the top half-dozen. His book is a comfortable cross between a descriptive survey and an anthology. Each of the five years of the war has its own section, with accompanying poems, and there is an “Aftermath” with its own group of works written after the conflict was over. There are thus seven poems from 1914, 18 from 1915, 15 from 1916, 19 from 1917, 14 from 1918 and 22 from the Aftermath. That makes a total of 95.
Dauntingly few of these poets survived the conflict, and one of the best of them, Wilfred Owen, 11 of whose poems are printed here, was killed almost within hours of the Armistice. One or two others, such as Robert Graves, turned their back upon war poetry. But the rest seem to have been proud of their work, and with reason. No other four years in our entire literary history has produced such a crop of superb lyrics. Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”, Julian Grenfell’s “Into Battle”, Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang” are among the best short poems in our language.
I would rate Brooke the best of the war poets, and “The Soldier” the finest of his productions. This is probably what most people would have said in 1918, and marks the point at which the wheel comes full circle. His reputation dominated the war years and remained high some time after. Brooke died from an insect bite on the way to the Dardanelles, and his end, like Byron’s, was somehow rendered more poignant by his failure to find the scene of battle, and perish heroically. Brooke died on April 23, 1915, in time for Dean Inge of St Paul’s to preach an Easter Sermon, in which he read “The Soldier” to an immense and hushed congregation. This was interrupted by a man standing up and protesting against the war, an incident which gave the occasion a heightened mood of drama and helped, as it were, to canonise the poet. Brooke had been buried, on Skyros, the night he died. An obituary appeared in The Times, which applauded his “incomparable war sonnets”, his courage, and the nobility of his sacrifice. It was signed by Winston Churchill but actually written, according to Egremont, by his assistant Edward Marsh. Keynes is reported to have wept, as did many others. To D.H. Lawrence the death epitomised the madness of the war, which he deplored. Robert Nichols wrote an elegy. Within a month of Brookes’s death, his battalion had lost 11 of its 15 officers, and of the five men who had piled stones on his grave at Skyros, only two were alive when the war ended. Brooke died at the height of his powers. He had concentrated all his life on creating a poetic instrument. As he put it, “There are only three things in the world. One is to read poetry, another is to write poetry, and the best of all is to live poetry.” The instrument was complete at the time of his death. As Marsh wrote, “It fell from his hands at the moment when he had brought it to perfection.”
If Brooke’s reputation, which declined between the wars, is now fast rising again, it is not the only one. Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas are now ranked among our major poets, and Sassoon is read and revered by the young. Egremont’s volume will do a service to all of them, as well as to lesser-known poets like Isaac Rosenberg from the East End, and Charles Sorley who, like Brooke, wrote superbly well of England.
The truth is, England was still a poetic place in those days — it gave the poets a standard around which to gather, and on which they could affix these emotions. It was still Shakespeare’s England, recognisably. Max Egremont’s fine and evocative book is a reminder of what we have lost, besides the lives of our warrior poets.