Category: First World War poets

Ivor Gurney – First World War poems

poet-gurneyBorn in Gloucestershire, Ivor Gurney was educated at the Royal College of Music and was already writing poetry and composing music before the war. He volunteered to fight, but was sent home wounded after a gas attack, after which he developed a mental illness. Later, in 1922, he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, and was given the ‘shock treatment’ of that medical era – an experience he found extremely frightening. He continued to write both poetry and music. He died in 1937 of tuberculosis.  

 
Image © Gloucestershire Archives,
Gloucestershire County Council


To His Love

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswold
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn river
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers –
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

Ivor Gurney
January, 1917

Pain

Pain, pain continual, pain unending;
Hard even to the roughest, but to those
Hungry for beauty . . . . Not the wisest knows,
Nor the most pitiful-hearted, what the wending
Of one hour’s way meant. Grey monotony lending
Weight to the grey skies, grey mud where goes 
An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows
Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending.
Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone,
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir,
Dying in shell-holes both, slain by the mud.
Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun. –
Till pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her,
The amazed heart cries angrily out on God.

Ivor Gurney
February, 1917

(Respectful note to estate / publishers, please contact me if there are any copyright / permission issues)

Edward Thomas – First World War poems

Edward Thomas
Edward Thomas was thirty-seven years old when he enlisted, after much deliberation. Always beset by financial worries, Thomas considered going to America at the invitation of his friend and fellow poet Robert Frost, but in the end he took a job as a cleric at the War Office. Often irritable, Thomas suffered from severe moods of depression, and it is arguable that he saw in the possibility of death some hope for a kind of release from this.

In January 1917 Edward Thomas said goodbye to his wife Helen, to whom he was devoted, and sailed for France. He died in the Battle of Arras on 9th April, the shock-wave from a German shell that just missed him nevertheless stopping his heart.

Edward Thomas was a fine poet and I urge you to check out all of his poems prior to the war. Here are three from the war itself.


In Memoriam (Easter 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas

Rain

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Edward Thomas
January, 1916

The Cherry Trees

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

Edward Thomas
May 1916

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Wilfred Owen – First World War poems

Wildred OwenWilfred Owen did not belong to the literary society in which Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon moved so easily. Before the war he was working long hours for little money teaching English at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Then in August 1914 he got a job as a private tutor  to an affluent French family in the Pyrenees, where he finally began to have time to develop the poems he had been writing since his teens. As with many young men of his generation with naturally pacifist sympathies, slowly Owen became persuaded that it was his duty to fight, and in 1915 he enlisted with the Artists’ Rifles.

 

In 1917 Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock, repatriated and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital. It was here that he met Siegfried Sassoon who briefly became his mentor, encouraging Owen to pare down his Romantic tendencies and to write in a more direct style. Introductions from Sassoon opened up London literary society to Owen and his first poems were published nationally. However, like Sassoon, Owen began to feel that he should return to France to be with his men. He returned to the front in August 1918, was awarded the Military Cross for brave action on the Beaurevoir- Fousomme line, but was killed by machine gun fire on the 4th November.

Here is one of Owen’s most famous poems, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, and  ‘Futility’.

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Wilfred Owen

September – October, 1917

 

Futility

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

Wilfred Owen
May, 1918

Siegfried Sassoon – First World War poems

Siegfried Sassoon
One of the best known poets of the First World War, Siegfried Sassoon was one of the first to enlist on the outbreak of war. Awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for bringing back a wounded man under enemy fire, and later recommended for the Victoria Cross, Sassoon proved himself to be a brave officer much loved by his men, earning him – according to Robert Graves – the nickname ‘Mad Jack.’ From about 1916 his poems took on a fierce satirical tone, winning him the respect of the literary establishment and only just escaping the censors.

In 1917 he published ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’ writing “I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.” Instead of being court-marshalled as he had hoped, and thereby drawing public attention, the authorities sent him to Craiglockhart Hospital as suffering from shell-shock, where famously he met fellow war poet Wilfred Owen. Sassoon later returned to the war to fight alongside his men.

After the war, until his death in 1967,  Sassoon had a distinguished literary career, though it is his extraordinary achievement as war poet for which history will continue to honour him.

As with the other First World War poets in these pages, I have chosen perhaps lesser well known poems to showcase here. Here is Sassoon’s ‘Great Men’ and  – one of my favourite of all the First World War poems – ‘Everyone Sang.’


Great Men

The great ones of the earth
Approve, with smiles and bland salutes, the rage
And monstrous tyranny they have brought to birth.
The great ones of the earth
Are much concerned about the wars they wage,
And quite aware of what those wars are worth.

You Marshals, gilt and red,
You Ministers and Princes, and Great Men,
Why can’t you keep your mouthings for the dead?
Go round the simple cemeteries; and then
Talk of our noble sacrifice and losses
To the wooden crosses.

Siegfried Sassoon
August, 1918

 

Everyone Sang

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on – on -and out
Of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away. . .  O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will
Never be done.

Siegfried Sassoon
April, 1919

(Respectful note to estate / publishers, please contact me if there are any copyright / permission issues)

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Eva Dobell – First World War poems

PluckEva Dobell, herself the niece of  the Victorian poet Sydney Dobell, was a British poet, editor and nurse. During the First World War she served in the Voluntary Aid Detachment and wrote poems about the wounded soldiers she and her colleagues tended. She is perhaps best known now for poems such as ‘Pluck’ and ‘Night Duty’.


Pluck

Crippled for life at seventeen,
His great eyes seems to question why:
With both legs smashed it might have been
Better in that grim trench to die
Than drag maimed years out helplessly.

A child – so wasted and so white,
He told a lie to get his way,
To march, a man with men, and fight
While other boys are still at play.
A gallant lie your heart will say.

So broke with pain, he shrinks in dread
To see the ‘dresser’ drawing near;
And winds the clothes about his head
That none may see his heart-sick fear.
His shaking, strangled sobs you hear.

But when the dreaded moment’s there
He’ll face us all, a soldier yet,
Watch his bared wounds with unmoved air,
(Though tell-tale lashes still are wet),
And smoke his Woodbine cigarette.

Eva Dobell 

(Respectful note to estate / publishers, please contact me if there are any copyright / permission issues)

Charles Sorley – First World War poems

Charles Sorley
Charles Sorley was studying in Germany a year before war broke out. He had grown to like German people and German culture. When war was declared Sorely found himself arrested in Trier, and he spent several hours in prison before being released. He returned to England and joined the army. He remained against the war and often criticised himself for fighting and having submitted to public opinion. When he was killed in October 1915, shot in the head by a sniper during the Battle of Loos, the following poem was found amongst his belongings. He was twenty years old.

 

When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his forevermore.

Charles Sorley
September or October 1915

 

 

Rupert Brooke – First World War poems

Rupert_Brooke
Rupert Brooke was the first and perhaps most famous of the First World War poets. Already a new voice on the Georgian poetry scene, he had just returned from a year in the United States, Canada and the South Sea Islands (having been commissioned to write some travel articles for the Westminster Gazette) when war broke out. In October 1914 he took part in the attempt to relieve Antwerp – his only direct experience of  warfare. It was on his return, while training at Blandford, that he wrote his series of five sonnets, ‘1914′, for which he would be most remembered.

In 1915 Brooke found himself sailing with his men towards Gallipoli, though he never made it to those beaches. By then he had contracted blood poisoning; he died on the 23rd April, St George’s Day, and was buried on the Greek Island of Skyros. When news of his death reached home he was praised as an representative of England’s glorious youth, with Winson Churchill amongst those writing obituaries. Earlier that month, on Easter Sunday, one of his sonnets had been read out in Saint Paul’s Cathedral, and now with his early death Rupert Brooke passed into legend.

The ‘1914’ poems are so well known, that I include here a different poem, Brooke’s last, written on his way to the war in which so many of his friends would lose their lives.


Soon to Die

I strayed about the deck, an hour, tonight
Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table,
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,
Or coming out into the darkness.
Still No one could see me.

I would have thought of them –
Heedless, within a week of battle – in pity,
Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness
And link’d beauty of bodies, and pity that
This gay machine of splendour ‘ld soon be broken,
Thought little of, pashed, scattered . . .

Only, always,
I could but see them – against the lamplight – pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave’s faint light,
That broke to phosphorus out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts – soon to die
To other ghosts – this one, or that, or I.

Rupert Brooke
April, 1915

Thomas Hardy – First World War poems

Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy seems to have been against war in general, writing now famous poems such as ‘Drummer Hodge’ during the Boer War and Channel Firing during the lead up to the First World War.

Yet in 1914, at the request of the British Government, Hardy (by then 74 years old) began writing patriotic verse in order to support the work of the propaganda bureau.

 

In these poems, such as ‘Men Who March Away’, he seems convinced of the need to fight Germany and that the cause is just. Hardy believed in the idea of British sportsmanship and ‘fair play’ in war, and was against consciousness objectors.

Writing after the war, however, in poems such as ‘We Are Getting to the End’  (one of Hardy’s last poems), his feelings about war seem more ambiguous.


Men who march away
(Song of the Soldiers)

What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
To hazards whence no tears can win us;
What of the faith and fire within us
Men who march away?

Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye
Who watch us stepping by,
With doubt and dolorous sigh?
Can much pondering so hoodwink you!
Is it a purblind prank, O think you,
Friend with the musing eye?

Nay. We see well what we are doing,
Though some may not see –
Dalliers as they be –
England’s need are we;
Her distress would leave us rueing:
Nay. We well see what we are doing,
Though some may not see!

In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just,
And that braggarts must
Surely bite the dust,
Press we to the field ungrieving,
In our heart of hearts believing
Victory crowns the just.

Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away
Ere the barn-cocks say
Night is growing gray,
Leaving all that here can win us;
Hence the faith and fire within us
Men who march away.

Thomas Hardy, 5 September 1914
Published in the Times Literary Supplement on 9th September 1914, one month after the outbreak of war

 

We Are Getting to the End

We are getting to the end of visioning 
The impossible within this universe, 
Such as that better whiles may follow worse, 
And that our race may mend by reasoning. 

We know that even as larks in cages sing 
Unthoughtful of deliverance from the curse 
That holds them lifelong in a latticed hearse, 
We ply spasmodically our pleasuring. 

And that when nations set them to lay waste 
Their neighbours’ heritage by foot and horse, 
And hack their pleasant plains in festering seams, 
They may again, – not warily, or from taste, 
But tickled mad by some demonic force. – 
Yes. We are getting to the end of dreams!

Thomas Hardy
Written 1925 – 1928

 

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