In conversation: David Bromwich on the great poetry of World War I

In recognition of the centennial of the beginning of World War I, YaleNews recently met with David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English, to talk about some of the most noted poets of that period and to examine some of their most powerful works. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What can be learned about the history of WWI from the poetry that was written about it?

The futility as well as the carnage from the battles in the trenches was something new. Many people saw no end to the war and thought it could last 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. These perceptions are registered in poems by Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, and Siegfried Sassoon, and the picture of war that emerges from the totality of these writers’ works. In the poems of the First World War, you can hear the change from the beginning of the war, to the enlistment, to the send off, to the love of country and fear of death, and finally to something disenchanted.

During the Great War, for the first time, a substantial number of poets and writers volunteered to become soldiers. How were these writers’ work changed by their experiences as soldiers?

War, and the jarring change that came over people from the introduction of their lives to war, did make some writers turn to poetry. Or, as in the case of Owen, it made them into poets who had a voice like no one else’s. Before the war, Owen was writing lovely, delicate, lyric poems of a conventional sort. He was a late romantic poet and not tremendously differentiated from a lot of others.

Edward Thomas is another example, a professional and experienced writer, mainly known as the author of books of natural observation like “The Heart of England,” as well as books of literary criticism. He became friends with Robert Frost, who was living in England in 1913-1914; Frost encouraged Thomas to write much the way he had been writing, but to put it into verse. Frost thought the rhythm and the resonance of Thomas’ prose was so fine and distinctive that it would go into poetry without much change. It was about and for Thomas, in fact, that Frost wrote his own poem “The Road Not Taken” as a kind of a mischievous, teasing criticism, because he felt that Thomas was always ambivalent. People take the romantic meaning of the poem without the fun that Frost intended.

Thomas enlisted, as a patriotic measure, in his late-thirties. In a poem that he wrote then, he doesn’t claim hatred of the Germans or any sort of ideological loyalty. The first line of the poem says “This is no petty case of right or wrong.” Thomas wrote that he would fight for England just because the English land itself, the hills and fields he knew so well, made him feel who he was, and in this struggle it was impossible to think of not fighting.

Such a tempered and not at all hot-blooded keenness for battle is pretty characteristic of the poets we remember now. There is a new dryness and realism about the facts of life and death in battle that comes into thinking about war in the poems of the First World War that stays ever after. It becomes something we recognize in the narrative voice over documentary films, in histories of later wars, and it becomes a voice we recognize in prose in writers like Hemingway.

Were there any female poets in World War I?

One of the most famous protests against the war is a poem by Owen titled “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which is taken from the Latin “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori”: it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. That was the theme of a poem written by a patriot of “the home front,” a poet named Jessie Pope, whom Owen was replying to. When I first came across Owen’s poem, I found it hard to understand the reference to someone called “you” in the poem; the turn to “you” comes up suddenly toward the end. And I learned that he was addressing a female poet whose work was quite popular then.

Over the course of the Great War, how were the poets’ changing attitudes about the war reflected in their work?

The war was fought only 70 miles from England, and the big bombardments could be heard in England. We, in America, live on this enormous island and have never fought a war at home except the Civil War. I think we have a hard time even beginning to understand that. The poets’ work reflects the hugeness of the war, the futility of it, and the fact that it was fought in an unknown way with unknown means that became familiar only to the men who were fighting in the trenches.

In Owen’s preface to his war poems — which is now famous in its own right — you can hear another quite strange and new emphasis of the poems of the First World War. You learn that the idea of individual heroism is almost gone. Suddenly, distinguishing yourself in battle by bayonetting the enemy is not considered to be heroic. These soldiers knew better.

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.
Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.
Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity.
Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next.
All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.

In Thomas’ poem “Roads,” the last line of the poem says to me that life has an end, and war is one of the ways it ends, and roads are just one of the things that take us to war or away from war. It’s a rather stoical, resigned way of talking about it, and yet the mood is of a certain lift. Thomas is not sad to the think about the dead but they are also not pictured as hallowed or glorious.

I love roads:
The goddesses that dwell
Far along invisible
Are my favourite gods.
Roads go on
While we forget, and are
Forgotten like a star
That shoots and is gone.
On this earth ’tis sure
We men have not made
Anything that doth fade
So soon, so long endure: …
Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
And their brief multitude.

One of the most anthologized, and most famous single poems of the First World War is Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth.” It’s about the send-off to war, and in it Owen is playing off an older poem, a great anthology poem by William Collins known by its first line “How sleep the brave.” This poem can be read against that earlier one almost line for line. It’s a sonnet about prayers being said for the brave, but in a different way, not for patriotic distinction but for pity. It’s a poem about pity.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
           Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
           Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
          Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
          The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
          Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
          The pallor of girl’s brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

This poem has a cinematic quality to it. The verbal effects are interesting. Owen is trying to make you feel the disorienting and shocking sound of the machine gun, and the permanent disturbance that these sounds must leave in the minds of the soldiers in the trenches.

Owen is the author of a few poems that have utterly realistic, in-verse descriptions of attacks or sieges being suffered. One of them is from “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which I mentioned earlier. Here is an excerpt:

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering 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 …

That is one of his mates dying of the poison gas, and the green color of the gas as it floats and sinks on them. It is a horrible description of something horrible and one of the first such realistic descriptions of that blight of the First World War. There are other poets who wrote about this as realistically and who imagine the predicament, the fate, and the suffering of the enemy.

There is a remarkable moment in one of Sassoon’s poems — this one a little less famous than the others — called “A Night Attack.” It’s about going after the bloody “Bosche” as they called the Germans. And right in the middle of the poem is this memory and this image:

Then I remembered someone that I’d seen
Dead in a squalid, miserable ditch,
Heedless of toiling feet that trod him down.
He was a Prussian with a decent face,
Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare say.
No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace,
And cursed our souls because we’d killed his friends.
One night he yawned along a half-dug trench
Midnight; and then the British guns began
With heavy shrapnel bursting low, and “hows”
Whistling to cut the wire with blinding din.
         He didn’t move; the digging still went on;
Men stooped and shoveled; someone gave a grunt,
And moaned and died with agony in the sludge.
Then the long hiss of shells lifted and stopped.
He stared into the gloom; a rocket curved,
And rifles rattled angrily on the left
Down by the wood, and there was noise of bombs.
          Then the damned English loomed in scrambling haste
Out of the dark, and struggled through the wire,
And there were shouts and curses; someone screamed
And men began to blunder down the trench
Without their rifles. It was time to go:
He grabbed his coat; stood up, gulping some bread;
Then clutched his head and fell.
                                 I found him there.
In the gray morning when the place was held.
His face was in the mud; one arm flung out
As when he crumpled up; his sturdy legs
Were bent beneath his trunk; heels to the sky.

There is also a famous end-of-the-war poem by Sassoon entitled “Everyone Sang.” It’s a great poem. It bypasses having to be a good poem, because it’s so pure. When news of the end of the war came, soldiers on both sides began to cry out in joy. It was their first unwarlike awareness of each other. And it lasted a long time, after those four-plus years of thinking that the war could last forever.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on—on—and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away … O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Read more stories in this series.