Poetry reveals the devastating trajectory of war.
On the centennial anniversary of the start of World War I, historian Egremont (Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, 2011, etc.) considers the intersecting lives and work of 11 British poets who were soldiers and esteemed contributors to the burgeoning genre of war poetry. Many of the author’s subjects are likely to be familiar to readers, including Rupert Brooke, Charles Sorley, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves; others, such as Edmund Blunden and Julian Grenfell, are lesser known today. During the war, Egremont writes, “the poets began to be lionized,” invited to give readings in elite salons and sought by publishers. Six chapters focus on each year of war and its aftermath, offering an adroit biographical and historical overview, followed by a selection of poems that chronicle the writers’ spirits, as they changed “from enthusiasm to pitiful weariness,” from hope to disillusion. “Cast away regret and rue,” Charles Sorley wrote in 1914. “Think what you are marching to.” By January 1915, his letter to a friend revealed a deepening sense of dismay: “We don’t seem to be winning, do we? It looks like an affair of years.” A few months later, he began a poem with lines that could have served as his epitaph: “Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat: / Only an empty pail….” In October, aged 20, he was killed by a sniper. Owen, held in high regard by Sassoon, was killed, age 25, in 1918; Brooke, Thomas and Grenfell were already dead. Those who survived—e.g., Sassoon and Graves—“couldn’t leave the war, even if…they wanted to move on.”
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” Owen asked in his “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” For Egremont, the poems serve as “holy glimmers” of lives lost and as powerful protests against the hell of war.