Poets of World War I: Nature vs. Reality

Transporting the Wounded in Houthulst Forest (Verwundetentransport im Houthulster Wald) Artist: Otto Dix

The Great War of 1914 offered a rich basis for the expansion of reactionary literature and, more specifically, poetry. Narratives surrounding WWI were particularly uplifting in 1914, when England offered an idealistic view of what soldiers endured in war through the use of propaganda. Many young men (younger than the age of 18) enlisted in the war, not knowing the full breadth of what they were fighting for. Patriotism rang through the first generation to enter WWI, and many of them died before the war progressed further. Industrialization drastically affected battlefields, and shifted the approach soldiers took when fighting the enemy. Germany had machine guns at the start of the First World War, whereas England still relied on horseback and bayonets. Soldiers quickly learned that the method of fighting would not subdue Germany, and England had to reverse her war strategy. Soldiers in the trenches suffered from disease and severe illness, oftentimes from the rain and lack of hygiene. There was no sign of glory when the soldiers remained in trenches for lengths of time, and it was a wildly dehumanizing experience. Oftentimes, family members back home had contempt for the war because their young sons were put to their deaths. The shift in mindset was critical to keeping up the morale of the war, and the number of soldiers who wrote poems and narratives were plentiful. Soldiers who wrote at the start of the war versus toward the end had contrasting perspectives about what, exactly, they were fighting for.

Rupert Brooke

Rupert Brooke used nature to invoke patriotism in his poem, The Soldier. He passed away early on in World War I, and this fact certainly dictated the pro-war tone in his writing. The glorification of war and death is evident in his work, and the merging of natural imagery with the reality of the industrialization of war. Brooke speaks of death as a possibility, not as a definitive fate: “If I should die…” Brooke creates a persona that does not speak of specific images of war, but he focuses on the generalization of space: “There’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England.” War is a very specific and complex endeavor, but Brooke’s language makes the thought of war seem like a dream-like image and a hazy, lovely place. He makes his own death tangible by linking a “foreign field” back to his homeland, England. The image of blood spilling is joined with another vision of English blood seeping into foreign earth: “In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;/A dust whom England bore…” Brooke displays a tint of the “dust to dust, ashes to ashes” rhetoric here in his description that the soil is made richer from his dying on it. His second stanza is over-ridden by natural imagery, the semantic field of: “flowers”, “roam”, “body”, “air”, “rivers”, and “suns of home” solidifies the romantic notion of death caused by war. The first line of his third stanza represents the shedding away of the grotesque-ness that death and war bring: “And think, this heart, all evil shed away”. The pulsing of the English heart beats strong against the darkness of war, and Brooke ends his poem with: “In hearts at peace, under and English heaven.” Heaven becomes a localized object that each English patriot brings onto the battlefield with them, an ethereal image that Brooke injects into both himself and every English solder in the war. Brooke died early on in the war from dysentery and never made it to Gallipoli, so his generational thoughts were never affected by the atrocities which occurred later on.

Siegfried Sassoon

Unlike Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon was sent home in 1917 after a bullet ripped through his body, literally rupturing the very flesh of his English patriotism. He emerged from the war a more hardened and defiant individual, and he was completely disillusioned with the propaganda and the rose-colored glasses that every soldier was handed before stepping foot on a battlefield. His anger is apparent in the tone of his poetry, and he embeds horrific, grotesque imagery. In his poem, The Rear-Guard, Sassoon makes no attempt to ease the reader into the poem itself, but tosses the reader into the action. Sassoon uses the pronoun “he”, directly contrasting Brooke’s use of “I”, and this change in pronoun offers a distanced perspective. Sassoon deliberately chooses the specific location of a trench, and does not sweep over a foreign landscape as Brooke did. His first line, “Groping along the tunnel, step by step” suggests immediacy and a painful, slow, methodological process. Sassoon ends his first stanza with, “And he, exploring fifty feet below/The rosy gloom of battle overhead.” This rose color is physically separate from where the persona is in the poem, as if the rose-colored glasses were ripped off the face of the soldier and thrown up into the air to be disintegrated into this haze. The romantic thoughts that were once part of his mind are no longer reachable, and become distant. As the persona traverses the tunnel, he stumbles on a dead body: “Savage, he kicked the unanswering heap,/And flashed his beam across the livid face/Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore/Agony dying hard ten days before”. Sassoon does not describe any kind of reaction from the persona, only the image of death in its raw, faceless, reality. The last lines of the poem contrast the natural image of the air surrounding the soldier persona, and the figurative image of his state of mind: “He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,/Unloading hell behind him step by step.” Hell is not capitalized here, thus communicating to the reader that Sassoon does not mean hell in the religious sense of the word. Hell, to the solider in the trench, is a state of mind and lies embedded in the memory of war.

Side-by-side, Brooke and Sassoon offer two sides of the spectrum in terms of the morale of English soldiers and what truly went on in the war. War is most definitely a psychological endeavor, but the damage is not evident in Brooke’s poem. Sassoon clashes with the patriotic thought and offers a raw rendering of his own experiences. As a 21st century reader, one would be inclined to say that the truth is more important; but tethered with the progression of WWI, is it not better to have a dream to live for? Sassoon speaks of loss as a distanced, dehumanizing experience, whereas Brooke personalizes and tethers loss to home. What matters more: remembering the spilled blood, or remembering the reasons it was spilled? It would have been difficult to establish any semblance of a positive outlook or outcome without the artists and dreamers that emerged from the trenches.



Works Cited

Beresford, George Charles. Siegfried Sassoon. Digital image. Wikipedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siegfried_Sassoon#/media/File:Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)&gt;.

Brooke, Rupert. “The Soldier.” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Vol. F. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 2018. Print.

Dix, Otto. Verwundetentransport Im Houthulster Wald. Digital image. The Guardian. Courtesy The Trustees of the British Museum DACS 2014, 14 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2014/may/14/art-apocalypse-otto-dix-first-world-war-der-krieg-in-pictures&gt;.

Rupert Brooke. Digital image. King’s College Cambridge. N.p., 20 Apr. 2015. Web. 13 May 2017. <http://www.kings.cam.ac.uk/news/2015/brooke-centenary&gt;.

Sassoon, Siegfried. “The Rear-Guard.” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Vol. F. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 2024. Print.