The 100th anniversary of the start of World War I is just months away. April 25 is Anzac Day, remembering the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought in World War I. The first Anzac Day commemoration was held in 1916, when Australia and New Zealand were still part of the British Empire, to honor those who had fought and lost their lives during the landing at Gallipoli. Today, Anzac Day is a day of remembrance for all those who fought and died for Australia and New Zealand. In honor of those who made the ultimate sacrifice and National Poetry Month, here are ten poets of the First World War, the so-called “war to end all wars.”
Wilfred Owen possibly the greatest and most tragic poet of World War I, died just one week before the Armistice was declared. Stripped of the sentimentality and blind patriotism of war poems of the past, Owen’s poems were unlike any written before about war. His “Dulce et Decorum est” is so famous an anti-war poem, it nearly eclipses the original Latin poem by Horace “Dulce et Decorum est pro Patria Mori” from which the title is borrowed. His friendship with poet Siegfried Sassoon helped inspire his later works, and also inspired the play “Not About Heroes” by Stephen MacDonald.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote powerful and often brutally honest poems about his experience of the war. “How to Die” bristles with irony and barely suppressed rage. “Base Details” displays Sassoon’s biting wit. Sent for treatment of neurasthenia to the Craiglockhart military hospital, Sassoon wrote poems for the hospital’s magazine “The HYDRA,” and met Wilfred Owen, the magazine’s editor for six issues, and also a patient.
Edward Thomas, was a writer, literary critic and essayist for years before his friendship with Robert Frost led him to take up writing poetry just three years before he was killed at Arras in 1917. The last years of his life inspired the 2013 novel “A Conscious Englishman” by Margaret Keeping.
Isaac Rosenberg artist and poet, studied at the famous Slade School in London. He wrote moving and powerful trench poems like “Returning, We Hear the Larks” and “A Worm Fed on the Heart of Corinth.” “Break of Day in the Trenches” features the brilliant and surprisingly witty description of a rat leaping across the poet’s hand in the trench.
John O’Donnell was an Irish Australian poet who fought at Gallipoli and then later at the Battle of the Somme. In 1918, he was invalided home where his only collection of war poems, “Songs of an Anzac” was completed and published.
Robert Graves survived the war and lived to the ripe old age of 90. More famous today for his autobiography of his wartime experience, “Goodbye to All That,” and his Roman historical novel “I, Claudius,” Graves wrote war poems that pull no punches, befitting the former boxer turned writer.
Rupert Brooke died on April 23, 1915 on the way to Gallipoli. In his short life, he wrote some beautiful lyrical poetry. In death, he became a symbol of the Lost Generation. His most famous poems, “The Dead” and “The Soldier” took on a new level of profundity, and his legend still inspires writers today. Jill Dawson’s 2009 biographical novel “The Great Lover” features Rupert Brooke in the years leading up to the war that would make him a household name.
Vera Brittain served as a nurse in the war that claimed the lives of so many of her loved ones. Written in August 1916, the poem “Perhaps” skillfully expresses the feelings of loss and ambivalence about coping with grief after her fiancé was killed by a German sniper’s bullet. Her memoir “Testament of Youth” about her life during the war was published in 1933.
Ivor Gurney, poet and musician/composer, struggled with mental illness throughout his life, even attempting suicide in 1918. His wartime experience led him to write emotionally-charged poems with strong musicality and rhythm as only a musician could. The war haunted his life and work until his death from tuberculosis at age 47.
John McCrae, the Canadian poet and surgeon, wrote the famous “In Flanders Fields” in 1915 after a friend and former student was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres. The poem gave the world the iconic image of the poppies that have since become synonymous with remembrance of the war dead. McCrae succumbed to pneumonia in January of 1918. His collected poems were published posthumously that same year.
The poems and collected works of the poets mentioned above are available online and at your local library.
For more information on the British poets, the Oxford University First World War Poetry Digital Archive is an amazing resource for educators, students, researchers and war poet enthusiasts. The website features biographies of the poets, photographs and digital images of manuscript pages, as well as an online store for purchasing books, with a percentage of the proceeds helping to maintain the site.
The Edinburgh Napier University War Poets Collection website features more information and helpful links. The University’s Craiglockhart Campus was once the military hospital that treated Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, among many others.
For those of us in New York City, the Poetry in Motion Springfest for National Poetry Month takes place this weekend at Grand Central Station's Vanderbilt Hall. The free poetry festival features poetry readings by Award-winning poets, poetry writing workshops and art installations.