Tracing Shell-shock from 1915-1939

War Poets

Front cover of hospital magazine The Hydra: November 1917, Craiglockhart War Hospital

British propaganda represented the First World War as a mere skirmish which the British Empire would win by Christmas. Instead, over a million men died in battle over four years and three months, a war which progressed at a crawl, deep in muddy trenches and sprawls of barbed wire which laced No-Man’s Land. As Mark Wollaeger explains in Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative from 1900 to 1945, the mechanical reproduction of mass-produced propaganda through and the literary movement of Modernism were both means of managing information overflow and were a part of a shared environment of meaning (xiii).  News coverage sanitized the particulars of warfare, as did brightly colored army recruiting posters, but the long lists of the dead told a different story. In the trenches, the war poets responded: while these writers would be grouped together, the tenor of their work differed greatly.

The War Poets

Rupert Brooke’s sonnet The Soldier represents a traditional view of the male body at war. Contemporary of the Bloomsbury group, poet Rupert Brooke died of sepsis before the war was over and never saw warfare, but his sonnet The Soldier was read aloud in Saint Paul’s Cathedral on Easter Sunday, 1915, fanning public support for the war. Brooke does not break from the formalized meter of a sonnet, in order to present the patriotic memorialization of fallen soldiers on the field of war. “The Soldier”begins, “If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England.” (Brooke 1-3). Brooke’s pride in his English national identity overshadows his death: his metaphor of a foreign field becoming England distances both his own death and the war itself. The vision Brooke creates is abstracted from the reality of trench warfare, where trenches collapsed and consumed the bodies of the wounded and the dead alike. Brooke’s memorialization of the fallen soldier, then, is less a project of memory, and instead serves as an erasure of memory. Other war poets were less rosy in their depictions of death and dying on the battlefield. In contrast to Brooke’s memorialization of dying for his country, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg (among other war poets) depict the effects of war on the human body and psyche in unflinching detail. Their styles differ, reflecting their various educational backgrounds and poetic styles. Their themes reflect widespread disillusionment with their place on the Western front.

Drawing upon rhythmically experimental lyricism, metaphoric devices and other poetic techniques to present a high amount of stylised realization to his poetry, Wilfred Owen’s work presented visceral images of war and the body torn on the battlefield. Owen’s poem “Strange Meeting” tells the story of a soldier who falls into what seems to be a long trench, where he meets a soldier from the opposite side. “I am the enemy you killed, my friend” the soldier tells him. Made alike in death, the other soldier recognizes him: “I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned / Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed” (40-42). Unlike Brooke, who presents the body as an abstract, national relic, Owen writes of the physical body in detail, made alike and united in death with the other dead of the trench. Instead of glorifying the dead who die fighting for England, Owen juxtaposes patriotic ideals with the reality of war in “Dulce Ed Decorum Est,” drawing his title from Horace’s Odes, a shortened version of the phrase dulce et decorum est pro patria moria, Latin for “sweet and fitting it is to die for your fatherland.” Far from upright soldiers proud to die for England, Owen writes of a troop who “marched asleep. Many had lost their boots” (5). Unable to don his helmet in time, one of their number is gassed: he chokes on his own blood as the chlorine gas destroys his lungs, which Owen’s speaker describes in horrific detail: “the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” (21-22). Owen ends the poem in a moment of morbid irony by reflecting on the uselessness of dying in war to further the glory of one’s country, in a meditation which contrasts this heady ideal with the reality of the First World War. Through visceral depictions of the human impact of the First World War, paired with empathetic portraits of soldiers, Owen’s war poems display the philosophical weight of the First War, visited upon the bodies of those on the front lines.

Siegfried Sassoon’s prewar poetry commanded little critical attention; his war poetry demonstrates visceral depictions of the dead and the dying within the trenches. Wounded near the end of 1915, Siegfried Sassoon spent time convalescing: in June 1917 he penned his polemic letter against the war, entitled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, for which Sassoon nearly faced court-martial. In April 1917, Sassoon’s company with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers supported a French assault on the supposedly secure German defenses, known as the Hindenburg Line.

His 1917 poem “The Rear-Guard (Hindenburg Line, April, 1917)” is based upon this attack. In this poem, a soldier, lost in the maze of the trenches, demands directions of a man he finds curled in the mud. Enraged, the soldier kicks the man, only to discover “the livid face” of the curled corpse who formed the rear-guard, whose “fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound” (15-18). While this poem shares similar themes with Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” Sassoon’s stanzas are short and irregular, made up of terse lines, while Owen’s poem is comprised of iambic pentameter. Sassoon depicts a single moment of horror: his speaker shouts into the livid face of a corpse, and sees his own death reflected upon the soldier’s body.

Owen’s poem portrays two speakers meeting in “some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped / Through granites which titanic wars had groined” (2-3). This granite tunnel is the aftermath of titanic wars, an image which reflects afterlife as the product of cataclysmic destruction. As a metaphor, this granite tunnel may not seem visceral at first, but the “strange meeting” occurs twice, once on the battlefield, as the first speaker bayonets the other, and twice after death, where the two soldiers recognize each other. While Owen’s work still depicts the body as damaged by war, Owen’s “Strange Meeting” reflects the environment of trench warfare and the anonymity of death therein, while Sassoon depicts the body of the soldier as already dead and thus separated from his speaker in “The Rear Guard.” Sassoon’s style is dryly direct, with regular rhymes, lines snapping with bitter conciseness. While Sassoon’s images of soldiers on the battlefield are often stereotypic, lacking depth, Owen delves deep into his depictions of soldiers on the battlefield to create sympathetic portraits, even as he writes of their precarious positions in the trenches. Less experimental than satirical, Sassoon avoids sentimentality in his portrayal of the war, while depicting images of the destroyed body on the battlefield, both living and dead, reflected in short, satiric lines. In short, Sassoon might be better remembered as an anti-war poet.

In his writing, Isaac Rosenberg drew on both realistic depictions of war and Romantic ideals of innocence. As a private on the front lines of the Western Front, Rosenberg was injured before he was reassigned to a works battalion. This experience is reflected in his poem “Dead Man’s Dump,” which is written from the point of view of a soldier going out on a limber, or carriage, to set up barbed wire in No-Man’s Land. As the man drives the carriage, “The wheels lurched over sprawled dead / But pained them not, though their bones crunched,” providing a graphic depiction of the dead who still seem to suffer in No-Man’s Land, despite their deceased condition (7-8).

To make matters worse, the dying are among the dead in No-Man’s Land, slipping from stretchers, or already almost dead, mingling with the corpses ground beneath the wheels of the limber: “We heard his weak scream / We heard his very last sound, / And our wheels grazed his dead face” (84-86). The limber must lay out the barbed wire to protect the men who are still living, so the wheels continue their grisly procession. How long, Rosenberg seems to ask, until the living soldiers join the corpses in No-Man’s Land?

Rosenberg’s earlier poetry betrays his Romantic influences. In “Break of Day in the Trenches,”  Rosenberg describes a “queer sardonic rat” leaping over his hand as he pulls “the parapet’s poppy / to stick behind my ear” (4-6). Despite the threat of disease and harm which most rats posed in the trenches, this rat is deserting the trench for German lines, a deserter who is not punished. Rosenberg addresses the rat directly as he ponders how the young men in the trench are less likely to survive the war than the rat, who may come and go as he pleases. In this poem, Rosenberg’s poppy remains behind his ear, white with dust from the ground above the trench.

While this gesture might seem hopeful,  Rosenberg links his poppy with those “poppies whose roots are in man’s veins” – poppies nourished by blood, which continue to drop, even as the men drop (23). Rosenberg’s image of a poppy tucked behind his ear links the young “athletes” on the battlefield with their eventual deaths, an elegiac metaphor for the toll of war. Rosenberg’s poetry shows the influences of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, striving to express vast ideas in short phrases. In his war poetry, Rosenberg breaks prosodic lines throughout his body of work, just as he displays the broken body on the battlefield. Unlike Sassoon and Owen, Rosenberg still remains aloof from the images of death which he portrays: while he may tuck a poppy behind his ear, it is white with dust of the ground above, not the mud of the trench, which proved a grave for many.

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