Poetry of the First World War
An Anthology
Tim Kendall

    Who knows it won't be a picnic --- not much ---
    Yet eagerly shoulders a gun?
    Who would much rather come back with a crutch
    Than lie low and be out of the fun?
    Come along, lads ---
    But you'll come on all right ---
    For there's only one course to pursue,
    Your country is up to her neck in a fight,
    And she's looking and calling for you.
                                                      --- Jessie Pope
This volume is dedicated to helping us find the best poetry that came out of the "War To End All Wars." There are thirty authors here, with a final chapter dedicated to the great poet Anon in "Music-Hall and Trench Songs."

The selection is limited because there was no end of doggerel of the this-is-a-great-war variety ... like Jessie Pope's "Who's for the Game?" Fortunately little of that is reprinted here. Because the poems that speak to us a hundred years after the fact are the ones that show the slow change from 1914 to 1918 as the writers (and the public) finally figured out that the beast there across the channel was no party. Much less a game.

Kendall's anthology proves to us once again that the best of them all was and continues to be Wilfred Owen. We will always curse the gods (and the sniper ... and the war) that took him away from us in the very last days of November 1918.

It is from this edition with its exemplary notes that we learn that the poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" --- possibly Owen's finest --- was dedicated to Jessie Pope. She, the editor notes, "wrote patriotic verse in aid of the war efforts." Owen, after taking inventory of the price of the war of the trenches could address her as "My friend" --- they did know each other --- and write,

    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.

    "It's sweet if not decorous to die for one's country" is a line from Horace. It may have worked for Quintus Horatius Flaccus at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC, but did not make that much sense in the mud of the early 20th Century. Those who figured it out sooner rather than later include Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, and a few here who are new to us, such as Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Sorley.

    A short time before he died in 1915, Sorley composed a fragment now entitled "the mouthless dead."

      Give them not praise ... For deaf, how should they know
      It's not curses heaped on each gashed head?
      Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
      Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
      Say only this, "They are dead."

    And Isaac Rosenberg's verse reminds us of John Donne's "The Flea:" "Then we all sprung up and stript / To hunt the vermin brood / Soon like a devils' pantomime / The place was raging ... See gargantuan hooked fingers / Dug in supreme flesh / To smutch the supreme littleness."

    §   §   §

    WWI was only supposed to last a couple of months. The English and the Germans had been assured by their political leaders that they would be out of it by Christmas. But Christmas came, and went; and another came and went; and another ... and another ... and they were still bogged down in the slush, the mud, the leafless gas-poisoned trees, a slough-like muck of Ypres, and Loos, and the Somme. By that time only a ninny could write that all the youngsters should eagerly "shoulder a gun."

    The editor has included several poems by Edward Thomas, but his gentle pastoral airs could not reflect the violence at Vimy Ridge: he died there after only two months service. Thomas Hardy is represented by ten poems, but he was bitterly anti-war, and wrote, when it was all over, After two thousand years of mass / We've got as far as poison-gas.

    Wilfrid Gibson was too sickly to be allowed to volunteer, so his war poems were drawn from what he read in the newspapers. Still, they carry a certain power,

      We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
      Because the shells were screeching overhead,
      I'll bet a rasher to a loaf of bread
      That Hull United would beat Halifax
      When Jimmy Stainthorp played full-back instead
      Of Billy Bradford. Ginger raised his head
      And cursed, and took the bet; and dropt back dead.
      We ate our breakfast lying on our backs,
      Because the shells were screeching overhead.

    One of the most affecting of the forgotten poets was Edgell Rickword. His brief "Advice to a Girl from the War," "Weep for me half a day,
    then dry your eyes.
    Think! is a mess of clay
    worth a girl's sighs?

      Sigh three days if you can
                for my waste blood
      Think then, you love a man
                whose face is mud

      whose flesh and hair thrill not
                to any touch.
      Dear! best things soonest rot!
                Dream not of such!

    And in his poem "Trench Poets," he wants to read poems to his "chum / Who grew darker day by day:"

      I tried the Elegies one day,
      but he, because he heard me say:
      "What needst thou have more covering than a man?"
      grinned nastily, so then I knew
      The worms had got his brains at last.

    "The Music-Hall and Trench Songs" are even more cynical, and it's surprising how many we could remember --- at least in the original songs that were born in the music-halls. The Mademoiselle from Armenteers got transformed into "The officers get all the steak / And all we get is a belly ache." A jaunty The Old Barbed Wire reveals, "If you want to find the old battalion, / I know where they are, / They're hanging on the old barbed wire. / I've seen 'em, I've seen 'em." And that oldest of oldies, "Drunk Last Night and Drunk the Night Before," becomes

      Gassed last night and gassed the night before,
      Going to get gassed tonight if we never get gassed anymore.
      When we're gassed we're sick as we can be.
      For Phosgene and Mustard Gas is much too much for me.
      They're killing us, they're killing us
      One respirator for the four of us.
      Thank your lucky stars there is no more of us
      So one of us can take it all alone.
    I started off this review with some doggerel, and confess that at one time in my life, some sixty years ago, I was very much enamored of doggerel. I can even, to this day, recall the exact lines of a much-beloved poet from a half-century ago:

      A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
      The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
      Back at the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
      And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

      When out of the night, which was fifty below, and into the din and the glare,
      There stumbled a miner fresh from the creeks, dog dirty, and loaded for bear.
      He looked like a man with a foot in the grave, and scarcely the strength of a louse,
      Yet he tilted a poke of dust on the bar, and he called for drinks on the house.
      There was none could place the stranger's face, though we searched ourselves for a clue;
      But we drank his health, and the last to drink was Dangerous Dan McGrew.

    It was that rascal from the land of the Midnight Sun, Robert Service. Turns out that Service lived in Paris in 1914 and with the advent of the war, joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. His rhythmic style lends itself to appropriate irony here as he recounts a night in the trenches. They had just brought in a German, who, the doctor tells them, "hasn't a chance:"

      It isn't the anguish that goes with him, it's the anguish he leaves behind
      For his going opens a tragic door that gives on a world of pain,
      And the death he dies, those who live and love, will die again and again.
--- R. Saturday

§   §   §

The Flea
John Donne
Mark but this flea, and mark in this,
How little that which thou deny'st me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea, our two bloods mingled be;
Thou knowest that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead.
Yet this enjoys before it woo,
And pampered, swells with one blood made of two,
And this, alas, is more than we would do.

Oh stay, three lives in one flea spare,
Where we almost, yea, more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage bed, and marriage temple is;
Though parents grudge, and you, we are met
And cloistered in these living walls of jet.
Though use make you apt to kill me,
Let not to that self murder added be,
And sacrilege, three sins in killing three.

Cruel and sudden, hast thou since
Purpled thy nail in blood of innocence?
Wherein could this flea guilty be
Except in that drop which it sucked from thee?
Yet thou triumph'st, and sayest that thou
Find'st not thyself, nor me, the weaker now.
'Tis true, then learn how false fears be;
Just so much honor, when thou yieldst to me,
Will waste, as this flea's death took life from thee.

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