The Magazine

Action into Words

The Great War and modern poetry.

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By EDWARD SHORT
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In 1755, in the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson declared that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors.” Barely 160 years later, when England entered the First World War, the very notion of glory began to take a beating from which it has never recovered. Wilfred Owen was perhaps its most savage critic:  

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,

The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est 

Pro patria mori.

In the trenches, Owen fought alongside the Manchester Regiment, with whom he saw ghastly action. As Tim Kendall, the superb editor of this anthology, points out, “In March [1917], Owen fell in the dark into a ruined cellar, suffering severe concussion; the following month, several days after experiencing the ‘extraordinary exultation’ of going over the top, he was blown into the air by a shell and landed amid the exploded remains of a fellow officer whose corpse had been disinterred by the blast.”

In such horrifying circumstances, it is only natural that Owen should have turned against la gloire de la guerre. And yet, by recording so meticulously and so faithfully the ingloriousness of war, Owen actually bore out Johnson’s contention; for without Owen’s poetry, and that of the other poets collected here, we should never know the true human cost of the war. In this respect, we owe these admirable poets a special debt: They mobilized their ancient art to show how this most unmerciful of wars was an assault not only on life and limb, but on the very sacredness of humanity. Their theme was the betrayal of man’s true glory. 

Now that we have lived to see these assaults ramify in our culture, we can recognize in the trenches rehearsals of the dehumanization that defines so much of our own society. Yet the poets of the First World War counterattacked this dehumanization by celebrating the human, often with heartbreaking tenderness. May Wedderburn Cannan, an Englishwoman who spent the war in a canteen in Rouen, exemplifies this in her lovely lyric “After the War.”

After the War perhaps I’ll sit again

Out on the terrace where I sat with you,

And see the changeless sky and hills beat blue

And live an afternoon of summer through.

 

I shall remember then, and sad at heart

For the lost day of happiness we knew,

Wish only that some other man were you

And spoke my name as once you used to do.  

That this counteroffensive was conducted in poetic forms that had celebrated the human for centuries made it all the more arresting. About Ivor Gurney’s sonnet “Pain,” for example, the ghosts of Sidney and Shakespeare hover as a kind of ironic chorus, though the import of the poem could not be more laceratingly modern.

Pain, pain continual; pain unending;

Hard even to the roughest, but to those

Hungry for beauty .  .  . Not the wisest knows,

Nor 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.