'This book is not about heroes – this is about war'
John Boland on the poets who captured the horrors
When compiling the 1936 'Oxford Book of Modern Verse', WB Yeats contentiously refused to include anything by Wilfred Owen – loftily declaring in his introduction that his "distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the Great War" was due to the fact that "passive suffering is not a theme for poetry".
From a man who was never required to fight in any war, this stance was galling for many readers of the time, though the anthology itself is now regarded as so perversely idiosyncratic that no one takes it seriously anymore as a representation of modern poetry.
Of course, Yeats's antipathy to the poets of 1914-18 had a lot to do with their refusal to view war in heroic terms and their determination not to cast themselves as the kind of heroes Yeats himself had made of Pearse and his 15 comrades in 'Easter 1916' – all of them, in his view, "changed utterly" by the "terrible beauty" that was thereby born.
And Wilfred Owen's statement of intent for his own poems would certainly have gone against the Yeatsian grain. "This book is not about heroes," Owen wrote soon before he was killed in action at the age of 25 in November 1918. "Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion or power, except war.
"Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity." And he added that "all a poet can do today is warn" and that this was "why the true poets must be truthful".
A huge majority of readers, if not Yeats, took that declaration to heart and for the past century the views of most English-speaking people about World War I have been formed from the literature written either during it or in its aftermath by those who had participated.
Principally, this has meant the poetry of Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and Edward Thomas, the fictionalised autobiographies of Sassoon, the memoirs of Robert Graves ('Goodbye to All That') and Edmund Blunden ('Undertones of War'), and such novels as Erich Maria Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front'.
There were Irish literary witnesses, too, most notably the Slane-born Francis Ledwidge, who, though a supporter of Sinn Fein, enlisted in 1914 because he considered Germany to be "an enemy of civilisation". He was killed by a shell at Ypres in July 1917 and the poems he wrote on the Western Front didn't directly concern the conflict.
Edward Thomas was another who opted mainly for indirection, and there's no more poignant war poem than the four-line 'In Memoriam (Easter 1915)':
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
But it's to Brooke, Sassoon and Owen that most people return when they seek to imagine those dreadful years. "Never such innocence again," Philip Larkin wrote in his poem 'MCMXIV', though the innocence remains in the callow patriotic romanticism of Brooke, entreating his readers to regard the corner of whatever "foreign field" in which he might be killed as "forever England" (in the event, the 27-year-old died less romantically on a French hospital ship in the Aegean in April 1915, the cause of death being a mosquito bite).
Finally, though, it's the poetry of Sassoon and Owen, especially that of Owen, which has proved to be the most enduring. Sassoon's verse, much of it caustically angry, is strikingly direct, as in 'The General':
"Good morning, good morning!", the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the Line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card", grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
He can be poignant, too, as in the much-anthologised 'The Dug-Out' and the lovely 'Everyone Sang', but his verse seldom attains the stature of Owen's finest, which are as good as any poetry written in the English language. There's the marvellous sonnet 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' (its title suggested by Sassoon). There's the tender 'Futility' ("Move him into the sun/Gently its touch awoke him once"). There's the hallucinatory 'Strange Meeting' with "the enemy you killed, my friend". And there's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' with its savage exposure of "the old lie" about "some desperate glory".
And then there's 'The Send-Off' in which the poet envisages the coming home to England of those soldiers who somehow manage to survive the slaughter:
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild train-loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells,
Up half-known roads.
In this centenary year, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Education Secretary Michael Gove have been spinning 1914-18 as a necessary war, which, for the sake of civilised humankind, Britain had no option but to enter, and Gove especially has been intent on giving it heroic status, which has meant attempting to downplay the impact of the poets. But it was they who did the fighting and their poetry doesn't lie.
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
Irish Independent Supplement