Poetry and Poets

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Wilfred Owen described himself as a ‘pacifist with a seared conscience’. He enlisted in the British Army in 1915 and first arrived in France in January 1917. He spent the next few months serving at Serre and St. Quentin but was sent back to Britain for treatment of shell shock in April 1917. Under the guidance and encouragement of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred wrote with a burning honesty about the horrific reality of the war. He hated it and in his poetry he explored and described the true horrors and trauma of war and the experiences of the common soldier.

‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a war poem in which he describes a gas attack.
He returned to France in August 1918 and took part in the breaking of the Hindenburg Line in October of the same year, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. He was killed on 4th August 1918 whilst leading his men across the Sambre-Oise Canal. The telegram to his mother saying Wilfred was dead arrived as the church bells were r ringing out to celebrate the Armstice. 

Dulce et Decorum Est - Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!---An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fre or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,---
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
Te old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918)

Isaac Rosenberg was the son of Jewish Russian immigrants and was a keen and talented painter. In 1914 he was sent to South Africa to stay with his sister for health reasons. Isaac was thought a better painter than a poet in his day, but was hopelessly chaotic. Returning from South Africa, he ruined a large number of paintings by stacking them whilst still wet touching each other, and then dropped some over the side when his ship docked at Southampton. Isaac returned to England in March 1915 and enlisted in the British Army. He found army life very hard; he was passed from one unit to another and was victimised because of his faith and artistic temperament. He wrote many of his poems whilst fighting in the trenches on the Western Front and is known for his great use of imagination. In March 1918 he was killed whilst on patrol during the German Army’s spring offensive. His body was never found.

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

© national portrait gallery

© national portrait gallery

Siegfried Sassoon arrived in France with the British Army in May 1915 where he gained the name ‘Mad Jack’ for his bravery on the batlefeld. Influenced and encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell, Siegfried decided to make a stand against the war by writing a letter to a British newspaper in 1917. This act by a serving officer could have been met with severe punishment, and even the death sentence. However his friend and fellow war poet, Robert Graves, convinced the authorities that Siegfried was suffering from shell shock, and the Army itself did not wish to create a martyr to the pacifist cause. Siegfried was subsequently sent to Craiglockhart war hospital in Edinburgh where he helped fellow patients with their writing, including Wilfred Owen. He returned to fight in the war where he was posted to Palestine and then to France, before returning to Britain for the remainder of the war after being wounded in the trenches. He wrote poetry throughout the First World War and published a number of volumes after the Armistice.