WWI: A Catalyst of the Modern Poetic Movement
By 1914, the Victorian era was history for the youth, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and the arts were beginning to reflect the rapidly changing times. Women’s rights, worker’s rights, and child labor laws were spurring change in the government as well as the population. The countryside, however, was still tranquil and slow to change in comparison to London. A poetic revolution was occurring. There was a push for a freer verse and less obscurity. The poets and artists of the time wanted clear, concise works that were direct (Greenblatt, 2377). Early modernists such as Joseph Conrad (The Heart of Darkness) and Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion) were paving the way for the future of Modernism.
However, the progression of the Modern movement took a sudden leap forward with the onset of World War I. Unlike the United States, World War I was fought practically in the backyards of the English—too close to home, one could say. After Germany declared war on France and Belgium on August 3, 1914, Britain followed with her own declaration of war against Germany the following day. According to Martin Gilbert’s history of WWI, the majority of the men who fought on foreign soil in that war were from the lower and middle classes and before the war ended, Britain had lost almost an entire generation of men (35, 70). The modernity of the machines and weapons used in this war were unlike any that had ever been seen before and acted as a catalyst in the Modern poetic movement.
According to the Longman Anthology biography of Rupert Brooke, one of the first of Britain’s “war poets,” he served on a ship outside of Belgium during the war and died of blood poisoning before ever witnessing battle (Damrosch 2183-84). The biography also mentions that before the war, Brooke was quite a patriot, which is why he enlisted soon after Britain declared war (2183). “The Soldier,” Brooke’s famous war patriot poem was the last one he wrote before his death in 1915. Brooke and his poem are “immortalized as the symbol(s) of English pride” (Damrosch 2184).
Though Brooke never saw combat, his (and most likely every English soldier’s) longing for and pride in England are evident in “The Soldier.” For example, the first stanza, “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. There shall be/In that rich earth a richer dust concealed” (1-4), exemplifies the speaker’s English pride. Wherever the soldier shall go, England is with him because he is “A body of England’s” (7). Even in death, “A pulse in the Eternal mind, no less/Gives somewhere back the thoughts by English given” (10-11). Brooke deals directly with the issue at hand: a soldier of English pride who will forever remain English and consecrate his burial mound as English soil. Clearly, the Modern movement is well underway.
Though Brooke’s poem spoke of English pride, Wilfred Owen’s experience in the war contrasted greatly with the idea of dying nobly for one’s country. The Longman Anthology biography of Owen states that he was deciding whether or not he wished to continue his studies with the clergy, but decided instead to enlist with Britain’s Artists’ Rifles in 1915 (Damrosch 2188). Owen was blown into the air while sleeping in a foxhole in 1914 and spent fourteen months in Craiglockhart War Hospital for treatment of shell shock. Brooke returned to combat, and was killed in action one week before Armistice Day.
In contrast to Brooke’s Poem, “The Soldier,” Owen argues that there is no sweet patriotic death in his poem, “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” In this poem, Owen describes the horrors of the war, specifically the mustard gas. In describing the physical condition of the soldiers as they pushed forward he writes, “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/Or tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind” (5-8). Suddenly, a soldier yells, “Gas! GAS! Quick boys!” (9). The speaker is able to fit his mask on, but one soldier was not as lucky. Owen’s describes the scene as “Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a sea, I saw him drowning” (13-14). After he leaves the war behind, the speaker says “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,/He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” (15-16). In summation the speaker says to his audience, “My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est/Pro patria mori” (25-28). Those final lines reflect the attitudes of the past generation of Romantics who glorified and mystified the subjects. The realism and unmetered verse adds an authoritative voice to the poems—one of the goals of the early Modernists. In the fall of 1917, Owen’s wrote “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” in which he writes, “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” (1-4). Here, Owen’s relates in a direct manner the events taking place, and the sad fact that these men are sent to die in much the same way that cows are sent to slaughter houses.
Like Owen, Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry was vastly different from Brookes’ gentle patriotic poetry. Sassoon’s biography in the Longman Anthology states that he was born to a wealthy Jewish family and served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in France and was awarded a Military Cross for aiding a wounded soldier (2186). Like Owen, he was also treated for shell shock and returned to the battlefield. Though he survived the war, he became a recluse and lived the remainder of his life “in seclusion in the country” (2186) where he continued to write poetry and memoirs.
Sassoon’s 1917 poem, “The Rear Guard,” though not written with the same poetic technique as Owen, is another fine example of the affect that the war had on the Modern movement. The poem, written in the third person omniscient, is about a soldier who finds his way down a tunnel as he pushes toward the front lines “step by step” (1). In the dark he stumbles over a soldier’s corpse whose “livid face” (15) is “Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore/Agony dying hard ten days before;/And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound” (16-18). When the soldier reaches the end of the tunnel, “He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,/Unloading hell behind him step by step” (24-25). There is a sense of urgency to keep moving forward, lest the soldier become one of the “Rear Guard.” The rhythm of this poem is unlike that of the Romantics and embeds the realistic urgency felt by the soldier. Again, facing the terrors such as the ones witnessed in the first World War, there is no other way to describe the events without being direct and changing losing the strict verse styles of the earlier styles of poetry.
These poets and many English citizens witnessed for the first time a modern world in all of its wretched capabilities. When facing such surreal reality, it is not possible to talk around the event of massive destruction and horrendous deaths. Colossal machines, rapid gunfire, and chemical warfare were, up to the First World War, the things of science fiction and fantasy. The sudden use of such technology at the onset of the Modern Movement was the catalyst that drove these writers to add verisimilitude to their writing, thus setting a standard for Modern poetry.
Damrosch, David, ed. The Longman Anthology of British Literature.Vol 2. 2nd ed. New York: Addison-Wesely, 2003. Print.
Gilbert, Martin. The First World War: A Complete History. New York: Henry Holt, 1994. Print.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. E-book.
Brooke, Rupert. “The Soldier.” Greenblatt 2019.
Owen, Wilfred. “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” Greenblatt 2035.
—. “Dulce Et Decorum Est.” Greenblatt 2037.
Sassoon, Siegfried. “The Rear Guard.” Greenblatt 2024.