Three questions about the World War I poets interest me. Am I right to think that no war in European or American history left a comparable legacy of verse written by actual soldiers in gaps in combat, and if so, why is WWI the exception? If I’m wrong, do parochialism and xenophobia explain why we don’t seem to hear or read about the others?
I’ve never taken the time to solve those puzzles. Or to investigate what facts support the old obsession of an Anglo-Scottish friend — the idea that no recent war decimated a single country’s prime breeding stock to the shocking extent that the Great War did the ranks of Britain’s most intelligent, talented and educated men of that generation. If I hadn’t lost touch with this friend, a historian, I would ask him why he was so sure that there weren’t symmetrical losses in Germany.
I agree with hazlitt, who says on this blog,
Doomed Youth and Break of Day are amongst some of the best poetry to come out of WW1;besides these the works of Eliot and Pound seem trivial as poetry,despite their great interest as records of human suffering and the stupidity of life.
And here’s why I think he’s right . . . I discovered some of the famous WWI poems all by myself in classrooms long ago. When all but homicidally bored by unimaginative teachers bludgeoning the staggeringly obvious, line by line, or offering interpretations that struck me – insufferably arrogant child, yes – as wide of the mark, I would sneakily turn to pages not on the syllabus and as different as possible from the poem on the butcher’s block that day.
Even knowing little about the circumstances in which they were composed, and nothing about the lives of the poets, I was entranced and moved by the raw power of the poetry. And the effect has endured, in most cases. In Flanders Fields elicits the same shiver now as it did from the ten year-old playing mental hooky.
. . . On a quick visit to the Guardian site a few minutes ago, I noticed that pinkroom appears to share my curiosity about the uniqueness of the WWI soldier-scribes. I see that deadgod is trying to offer WW II’s novels as scrip, but my own questions are specifically about poetry.
Could class have had something to do with the WWI poets’ seeming uniqueness? The fact that WWI could have been the last major war in which the sons of the elite were actually on battlefields in large numbers?
Though I’m sure that an innate gift for poetic expression is evenly distributed across the population, I’d also guess that whereas an ex-public schoolboy or grammar school star would have been relatively unembarrassed about trying his hand at verse – and might even have had a talent for versifying recognised in classrooms – most soldiers from the working classes would have had little or no education in poetry. Certainly, they’d have had no praise or encouragement for their early efforts, and would have been seen by family and friends as giving themselves airs – if unwise enough to talk about what they were trying to do.
. . . Or, does WWI’s poetry trail have something to do with battles fought on a timetable, with skimishes restricted to set hours — limited the way office work is today? (That’s only an impression of mine about WWI, and I could easily be mistaken.) Did it have something to do with soldiers’ long nights in cold sodden muddy trenches in which they mostly had to find ways of amusing themselves?