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The War Poets

The term War Poet was came into existence after World War I when a number of English speaking poets served and written about their experiences. Some of the early works were idealistic and patriotic but as the war ravaged on their tone darkened and their depictions became increasingly realistic and horrifying. War poets continued to be active throughout other conflicts but never in the numbers that were seen in the The Great War. Some have suggested that the reason for this was that the pace of war changed in World War II. Technology marched on and gone were the long hours of waiting for something to happen in the trenches, but a number of great poets did emerge. Little has been made of the poets of subsequent conflicts with novels taking the spotlight, but listed below are some of the greatest poets to come out of the first and second world wars.

WWI War Poets
Rupert Brooke
Young English poet known for his idealistic war sonnets, especially The Soldier. The idealistic nature could possibly be because he never experienced combat first hand. He studied at Kings College, Cambridge, where he became a member of the Cambridge Apostles, helped found the Marlowe Society, and eventually made friends among the Bloomsbury Group. His poetic skills were eventually brought to the attention of Winston Churchill and he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and sailed with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force on in February of 1915 but developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite while on his way to the battle of Gallipoli, dying on April 23, 1915

Isaac Rosenberg – $300
While many poets began writing about the war as a patriotic sacrifice, Rosenberg was critical from the onset, writing On Receiving News of the War. Only enlisting because he was unable to find work in 1915, he was assigned to the 12th Suffolk Folk Regiment before being transferred to the 11th Battalion, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment. He died finishing a night patrol on April 1, 1918. Rosenberg’s poem Break of Day in the Trenches has been described by historian Paul Fussell as “the greatest poem of the war.”

Wilfred Owen
Regarded by many as the leading poet of the First World War, Owen’s shocking descriptions of the horrors of trench and gas warfare matched those of his friend Siegfried Sassoon and stood in stark contrast to the patriotic styles of earlier poets like Rupert Brooke. Owen was killed just a week before the war’s end and as such many of his best known works were published posthumously, including Dulce Et Decorum Est, Insensibility, Anthem for Doomed Youth, Futility and Strange Meeting.

Charles Sorley
Sorley was educated at Marlborough College where his favourite pursuit was cross-country running, which was an evident theme in many of his pre-war poems. His time in the military was short, volunteering for service early after the war’s outbreak. He was sent to the Western Front in May 1915 and shot by a sniper at the Battle of Loos on October 13th of the same year. His only published work was published posthumously in January of 1916 becoming an immediate success. Robert Graves described Sorley as “one of the three poets of importance killed during the war.”

Siegfried Sassoon
Sassoon is best known for his satirical anti-war poetry. While he like many others was wooed into service via patriotism, the romantic ideals of his early poems quickly faded as the horrors of war bore down upon him. This change was also partly triggered by his eventual friendship with Robert Graves whose vividly realistic works affected Sassoon, details such as mangled limbs, suicide, and filth all became trademarks of his work. In 1917, he refused to return to duty after a period of leave, sending a letter titled A Soldier’s Declaration to his commanding officer. The authorities were considering a court-martial but eventually, with the persuasion from Robert Graves, decided that he was simply unfit for service and treated him for shell shock. While receiving treatment, he met Wilfred Owen and encouraged the young poet. Eventually both men returned to active duty and Sassoon was wounded by friendly fire. After the war Sassoon engaged in a number of jobs including literary editor of the Daily Herald performing as a lecturer in the USA, and eventually trying his hand at novels including his Memoirs of an Infantry Officer.

John McCrae
McCrae was a veteran of the Second Boer War and at the onset of WWI was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery being sent to the Second Battle of Ypres where his friend and former student Alexis Helmer was killed inspiring McCrae’s most famous poem, In Flanders Fields. In January 1918, McCrae caught pneumonia and died while commanding the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne.

Robert Graves
Graves enlisted early on in the war and earned the reputation of a war poet early on and was one of the first to write realistic poems about his experiences on the front line. He published his first work, Over the Brazier, in 1916. At the Battle of the Somme, Graves was wounded so badly that he was expected to die however he gradually recovered and spent the rest of the war in England. After the war Graves took some teaching positions before eventually taking up residence in Majorca, Spain, where he founded Seizin Press, the literary journal Epilogue.

Robert Nichols
He was educated at Winchester College and Trinity College, Oxford. He served in the Royal Artillery as an officer in 1914, in the fighting at Loos and the Somme. He was then invalided out with shell shock. After the war he taught at the University of Tokyo and worked as a playwright creating the Broadway hit Wings over Europe

WWII War Poets
Alun Lewis
A Welsh poet who joined the war effort in 1940 despite being a pacifist. The following year he was sent to war in India and eventually to Burma where he died in an accident on active service fighting the campaign against the Japanese. Lewis wrote much of his best work in his time as a soldier including The Last Inspection, Raiders Dawn, and Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets.

Keith Douglas
Growing up poor in Kent, Douglas attended a number of schools before he won a scholarship to Merton College where he was tutored by poet Edmund Blunden and had his work reviewed by T.S. Eliot. After England’s declaration of war Douglas enlisted and after a period of waiting and training he was sent to the Middle East in 1941 for a series of posts before taking part in the Eighth Army’s victorious sweep though North Africa which he recounted in Alamein to Zem Zem. After Africa he took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and died on 9 June 1944.

Karl Shapiro
War poet who wrote extensively while serving in the Pacific Theatre including Pulitzer Prize-winning V-Letter and Other Poems which he wrote while stationed in New Guinea. After the war he continued writing and was the American Poet Laureate in 1946-47, and continued to publish late into life.

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