When the First World War broke out thousands of men volunteered for military service. The reaction to the war passed through different stages:
-The patriotic enthusiasm that led many to enlist (e.g. Rupert Brooke)
-The realization that the war rhetoric was a lie. The anger came (main theme of Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry)
-The poetry gives voice to compassion: a sort of elegy for the young soldiers, who has to be loved and admired (e.g. Wilfred Owen)
There was a group of poets who actually took part in the war, who managed to represent modern warfare in a realistic and unconventional way, and to awaken the conscience of the readers to the horrors of war. They are known as the “War Poets”. They are considered modern poets, because their subject matter couldn’t be conveyed through the 19th-century poetic conventions. That forced them to find new modes of expression.
• Rupert Broke
Took part in the war and actually saw some little combat. In fact he contracted blood-poisoning and died in 1915. In 1914 he wrote 5 poems, in which he advance the idea that war is the way we have to show our country how much we love it and how much honoured we are to fight for it. In war the only thing that can suffer is the body, but at the end death is a reward.
• Herbert Read
“The Happy Warrior”: A poem of violent impact. The title itself sound bitterly ironic. It’s a tragic parody of the idea of perfect “warrior”, who fight with pride and dies for his country as a hero. The soldier here described is everything but a glorious hero: the war has annulled all human dignity in him, so he’s described with animal-like attributes (“jaws”, “bloody saliva”). Furthermore, he’s not even able to control himself anymore, because he stabs his enemy again and again in a ferocious and physical battle (“well-killed Boche”). Also the enemy is deprived of his dignity and annulled with the generic word “Boche”.
• Siegfried Sassoon
“Glory of Women”: How the people at home live the war, the “reported war” under the impact of propaganda. The first part (1-8) is addressed to woman in general (“you”). This mother or wives idealize their men and see them as romantic heroes, who will be honoured and glorified after death. There are a lot of words linked to celebration (“decorations”, “chivalry”, “ardours”, “laurelled memories”), but then we can find a paradox in line 5, which is unobtrusive and ironic: “you make us shells”. There are two possible interpretation: 1) You at home are knitting things for us. 2)While doing this, considering us as heroes, you make us empty.
From line 9 to end the tone changes. Now there are described the horror of war. The men are not so heroic: they’re in panic and trampling. They retire ingloriously, leaving behind the corpses of their companions. Now there is the contrast between the German mother dreams and the reality of the warfare. Every mother shares the same hopes, but meanwhile, their sons lie dead in the mud. The heroes are just corpses. In every case, every mother is involved in the same tragedy that transcends all barriers of nationality.
• Wilfred Owen
Fought and died (1918) in the War. His poems describes painfully and in an accurate way the death in war.
“Dulce et Decorum Est”: It’s based on Owen’s experience in the trenches and it’s an attempt to communicate the “pity” of the war. There is no glory in dying for our country. This is just an old lie, made up by Horatio centuries ago. Every stanza has a different setting:
2)A gas attack. Everybody tries to put on his mask on. But someone fails, and his painful death is described in details: he seems to be drowning in a green see, created by the colour of the gas (clorine). He screams, moves in confused movements, as a man in fire. The poet sees everything
3)Nightmares. The poet lives this scene again and again in his dreams. The sees the soldier claiming for help, but he can do nothing to save him. He dies, again.
4)Now the poet talks to the reader. He talks to all the people who thing that die in war for the country is honourable, and tell this stories to their children. If this kind of people had lived what he leaved (the dreams, the sight of the dead body put on wagon, his white eyes, his hanging face, the one of a devil who is sick of sin, or the consequences of the gas on the body), they wouldn’t believe to this lie anymore.