World War 1 Poetry

April is National Poetry Month, so we’re taking a look at some of the poetry we’ve seen in Chronicling America – the Library of Congress’s online newspaper database. One specific historical event in the early 20th century spawned a variety of poetry: World War One. Several different strains of poetry came out of the war and helped to tell the story of people in the trenches as well as those on the home front.

The early poetry of World War One was marked by a strain of romanticism and a tendency to view the war through a majestic or heroic lens. This can be seen in the famous poem “In Flander’s Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, as well as in the variety of poems written in response to it. These poems sought to assure the reader that the war dead would not be forgotten, their sacrifice would not be in vain, and that the torch would be passed on should a soldier falter.

“In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, and “In Flanders Fields: An Answer” by C.B. Galbreath. Deming Graphic, 5/17/1918

Poetry written on the home front played a key role in national propaganda as well. The English poet Jessie Pope was a key figure in producing nationalistic poetry that urged men to enlist, and scorned those who did not. Local poetry, as shown by the poem from the Cordova Daily Times, broadly repeated this theme and took a patriotic and nationalistic stance.

“The Call” by Jessie Pope

Who’s for the trench—
Are you, my laddie?
Who’ll follow French—
Will you, my laddie?
Who’s fretting to begin,
Who’s going out to win?
And who wants to save his skin—
Do you, my laddie?

Who’s for the khaki suit—
Are you, my laddie?
Who longs to charge and shoot—
Do you, my laddie?
Who’s keen on getting fit,
Who means to show his grit,
And who’d rather wait a bit—
Would you, my laddie?

Who’ll earn the Empire’s thanks—
Will you, my laddie?
Who’ll swell the victor’s ranks—
Will you, my laddie?
When that procession comes,
Banners and rolling drums—
Who’ll stand and bite his thumbs—
Will you, my laddie?

“Are You Ready?” by Harriet Joseph Burr. Cordova Daily Times, 3/15/1916

Much of the poetry from the front lines took a far less romantic view of the war. The poem “The Song of the Mud” by Mary Borden, an American front-line nurse, starts out tongue-in-cheek talking about mud as a fashion statement. As the poem progresses, though, it begins to discuss the mud as a watery grave that sucks people down, without leaving a trace they were ever there. It’s a haunting description of the battlefield, that clearly bears traces of Borden’s time on the front lines.

“The Song of the Mud” by Mary Borden. New York Tribune, 8/26/1917

The English poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon both wrote poetry in the trenches that speaks to their experience and what they saw in France. The titles of their works alone, from Siegfried’s “Death’s Brotherhood” to Owen’s “The Anthem for Doomed Youth,” speak to the horrors they witnessed.

Owen’s most famous work, “Dulce et Decorum est,” was a scathing critique of and direct response to the patriotic and jingoistic poems written on the home front during World War One. Describing the horrors of a gas attack, Owen grimly writes that if those back at home had witnessed the same things he had, they would not write of the war in the romantic way that they did. The poem originally featured a dedication to the aforementioned Jessie Pope, but it was removed before publication.

“Death’s Brotherhood” by Siegfried Sassoon. New-York Tribune, 1/27/1918
“The Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen. Evening Capital and Maryland Gazette, 9/20/1921

“Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Written by Christopher Russell

Sources used:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s