Poets and the war

Posted by Helen Monday, October 12, 2015 ,

By which I obviously mean the First World War since neither before or since has our perception of a war been so influenced by literary output, particularly of outstanding poetry. Since most British poets and writers seem to have served on the Western Front, the literature has contributed to the country's obsession with that part of the war, important but not the only one. Even the lavish centenary celebrations last year have not changed that attitude much.

Furthermore, because of the high calibre of the literary output we do think of the First World War as being unparalleled in horror. I have no desire to go into a discussion about the technological developments that had made the war different from many others though the truth is that it was not till the Second World War that more people had died because of enemy action than because of diseases. As Paul Delany points out in his biography of Rupert Brooke, Fatal Glamour,
in the Gallipoli campaign, bloody as it was, two-thirds of he two hundred thousand Allied casualties were caused by disease rather than enemy action.
One of those was Rupert Brooke who died of septicemia, caused by a mosquito bite and exacerbated by general weakness and low immunity.

It always seemed to me rather touching that the wonderful memorial to the Camel Corps on the Embankment, commemorates all the dead, whether in battle, of wounds or disease.

Fatal Glamour is an interesting biography and deals with Brooke as he was, warts or feet of clay and all, much of which was hidden for many years by the people who published his poetry, letters and a few biographies. The image of the golden boy (and he really was extraordinarily good looking), the poet (he certainly was talented as several of the best poems show), the warrior (that is more dubious but not for lack of trying) being struck down as he went to war for his country and for Western civilization had to prevail.

There is no question, there were many faults in Brooke and his personality had many problems and episodes of instability. Would he have overcome them, had he survived the war or would he have descended into manic depression, which is one possible explanation for his break-down in 1912 and his behaviour afterwards? None can tell. No more can we tell whether his talent would have developed into something truly magnificent or whether he would have become another second-rate poet like the other Georgian poets? Would his literary talent have stayed with the war like Sassoon's did or moved forward like Graves's did? We can but speculate and, sensibly, Paul Delaney does very little of it. There is so little to go on.

He does make a very interesting point about the role of Brooke and the other poets and writers, people who came from a class that had not, traditionally, sent its sons to war and who, therefore, reacted with greater horror to what they faced.
Rupert's death would have counted for much less if he had been a conscript. As a volunteer, it mattered little that he had died of illness just before his fellow officers were mowed down by the Turks. He had chosen to face death for his country; his country had not chosen for him. And he had volunteered as a poet, who in his war sonnets had expressed the volunteer's creed of self-sacrifice. Nor did all war poetry need to be of that kind: the poets of disillusion - Sassoon, Graves, Owen - had been volunteers, too.

The 1914 - 15 generation of volunteers had a unique moral authority, sandwiched between the professionals of the British Expeditionary Force and the conscripts of 1916 - 18. No other belligerent country had met its wartime needs for soldiers in the British way; not coincidentally, none of those countries produced a comparable generation of poets. Whatever the excesses of Rupert's war poems, he still had his place in that lyrical flowering, without precedent before or since.
Numbers of volunteers went down as the news from the Western front and Gallipoli came in and by 1916 those who maintained that the war could not be fought or won without conscription were politically victorious. The idea that had been proclaimed as un-British for decades became acceptable and by 1939 taken for granted.


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