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The End of War Poetry

Among literary forms, war poetry is unusual for having enjoyed a universally acknowledged and tightly defined golden age.

· 9 min read
The End of War Poetry
British World War 1 soldiers in a front Line trench. 1915-18. Canva

I have been “helping” my son revise for his GCSE English of late—he might take issue with that description but that was my intention—and one of his modules is on Poetry of War and Conflict. Like most symptoms of modernity—cashless automated registers, irreparable wing mirror “units,” and the sight of politicians struggling to define words like “woman” and “party”—his reading list occasioned in me a gloomy sense of decline. And though the subject matter can’t have been chosen with the events in Ukraine in mind, watching those events unfold—or rather, writhe and coil and knot—I found myself doubtful that any poetry of significance will be added from that theatre, for future students of this module to contemplate in tranquillity.

Among literary forms, war poetry is unusual for having enjoyed a universally acknowledged and tightly defined golden age. Epochal catastrophe though it was, the First World War at least gave us some of the most cherished and painfully beautiful verse in our history. Poetry bubbled from the trenches in France as abundantly as methane, oaths, and blisters. As is often the way with sequels, however, the Second World War generated fewer moments of transfixing clarity than the First (or The Great War, as it was known until the producers realised they had a franchise on their hands). It has been on the slide ever since.

I might be wrong. Eastern Europe has a great tradition of processing large scale tragedy and insanity in the kind of sharp verse treasured by the likes of Ted Hughes, Christopher Hitchens, and Clive James. But outside of a few tongue-in-cheek tricksters performing a capella rap, and the odd versifying influencer like Rupi Kaur, few poets “cut through” now. The creative response to modern warfare is much more likely to reach us in the form of video games, TikTok, and disputed footage later found to have been lifted from another conflict on a different continent entirely.

But it’s not just the medium. Central to earlier war poetry was the tension between the terror, devastation, and death on one hand, and the opportunity for virtues like loyalty and honour on the other. And this, it seems, is no longer possible, or at least convincing. Nor even is there a sense of such a tradition to critique, or from which to break free. Looking through the collection chosen for my son’s study, the first thing that struck me was that, of the dozen-or-so poems about war under review, not a single one was for it.

That might sound facetious. After all, War, we are all now agreed, is Hell. But none of them seemed willing to acknowledge—as, say, Sebastian Junger does in his essays on War, or as his earlier namesake Ernst Jünger does in Storm of Steel—the compensations of the warrior. The sharpened taste of life, the bonds of brotherhood, the sense of being essential and of sharing the ultimate trust are all real and not easily found outside of armed conflict.

The “old Lie,” from which Wilfred Owen’s most famous poem Dulce et Decorum Est takes its title, comes from the Roman poet Horace. No bitter irony was intended, though, as Horace beseeched Romans to embrace the cleansing fire of a noble death. The English 19th-century classics scholar John Conington translated it as follows:

Methinks I see from rampired town
Some battling tyrant's matron wife,
Some maiden, look in terror down,—
“Ah, my dear lord, untrain'd in war!
O tempt not the infuriate mood
Of that fell lion I see! from far
He plunges through a tide of blood!”
What joy, for fatherland to die!
Death's darts e'en flying feet o'ertake,
Nor spare a recreant chivalry,
A back that cowers, or loins that quake.

Privately, I still find the idea of young men gladly ploughing themselves back into the earth of their homeland unbearably moving. But after Owen, recreating such an ecstatic embrace of death in the service of a greater cause became as impossible as nailing Christ back onto the cross, or rather, nailing that cross back onto the wall.

Take Henry Newbolt’s Vitaï Lampada—corny, sure, but a poem I cannot even read in my head without choking up. This was once core curriculum, precisely because it sings the moral foundations that are laid down by a decent school. In times of great confusion, it reminded us, you do not rise to the challenge, you lean hard on the granite of your education. The reserves of courage, the heroic and the stoic, the martial virtues—these were once considered more important than a fistful of GCSEs. But, as C.S. Lewis warned in “Men Without Chests,” they are now occasions for embarrassed sniggering. Boys now are being prepared for a different set of challenges.

These too were the hollow appeals to honour that Owen so coldly and furiously set out to denounce. So decisively did he accomplish his goal that repeating the attempt would be like exhuming a cadaver just to heave bricks at it. Newbolt was lucky enough to die a year or so before the declaration of war in 1939. That year saw the death of the forlorn hope that the Great War really had been the War to end all wars. As it turned out, Versailles had been the Peace to end all peace.

Adorno famously said that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be barbaric. But many would agree with Philip Larkin in MCMXIV that the mortal blow had already been struck, and that Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) had already provided us with the definitive response to mechanised slaughter—a Frankenstein’s monster, stitched together from older forms and stumbling blindly across the craters and windblown newsprint and twisted wire where Champagne vineyards had once stood. “I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage,” reads Eliot’s epigram, concerning the much-reduced but unable-to-die creature of myth. “And when the boys said to her: ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered: ‘I want to die.’” Is that the condition of war poetry now?

Perhaps what’s been lost was part of a clean-out that was long overdue. John Carey identified the tendency of the “officer class” to regard their charges as a different animal altogether. Owen described his battalion in an early letter as “expressionless lumps.” Was poetry an affectation of that class, the public’s indulgence of which became just another casualty of that terrible war? In Regeneration, Pat Barker’s surgeon casually remarks that the mental health of officers is considered more fragile than that of enlisted men because, without a decent education, the latter are not considered likely to have an inner life capable of fracturing in the first place. Goodbye, as Robert Graves rightly said, to all that.

But any prejudice concerning privilege should be tempered by the fact that a junior officer’s prospects of survival were considerably worse than those of his men. According to one account, as little as six weeks. That might explain the poetry. Such a violently diminished life expectancy must have focused the mind wonderfully. World War Two was—on that score at least—considerably more democratic and egalitarian.

Uniquely among prolonged conflicts of any size, WWII produced more civilian than military deaths. The Great War resulted in about 10 million of each. The encore, on the other hand, claimed the lives of about 30 million civilians and 20 million combatants. A familiar and perhaps appropriate ratio for the greatest game of bluff in history—a full house, Eights over Jacks. Who said that all games of hazard aspire to the condition of war, and all gamblers to the condition of the warrior? Newbolt? Nietzsche? No, it was Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. Fiction is a safer place to explore such sentiments now, where they can be disavowed if necessary.

Certainly, the democratisation of death and suffering—the searchlights and sirens over the home turf—robbed WWII of a sense of place, of its Aristotelian Unities, of the feeling that it was something happening over there, in the realm of myth and heroics. And yes, in the realm of poetry, too, even if the best of it was intended to disabuse us of the illusions of the other two. World War One really did have a series of theatres. It even had a stage door. They say that the officers could take weekend leave, return to London, dine at Claridge’s, step out into Brook Street on a fine August night to smoke a cigar, and hear the grumbling of guns from France. I am not sure anything the Cabaret Voltaire were devising in Zurich at the time could outdo that for an absurd juxtaposition.

By 1939, the culture had shifted for officers and men alike. The practice of soldiers carrying a slim volume of Browning or Keats, and of aspiring to emulate whoever was in their pockets, had passed. In 1914, the available persona of the poet was still vital—or seems so now, in sepia vignette. He was the sensitive man quietly scratching a wet match against sandpaper and putting it to a candle, careful not to wake the slumbering cattle. Ignoring the grotesque shadows that leapt in the dug-out, he would unfold his notebook, its neat ruled lines like trenches in which the words would hunker, later pressed against his breast as a Talisman once returned to his pocket. Working slowly through his exhaustion and his tobacco ration, setting down his impressions in bottled ink, striving with purpose to resolve the lunacy and the oceans of spilt blood just a few dark yards away.

All this somehow made sense in the stinking, sodden, diseased romance of the trench. Less so, perhaps, to the paratroopers, drifting down like dandelion seeds into an abattoir of artillery fire over Europe 30 years later. Still less as Shock and Awe rained down on Baghdad, livestreamed into my hotel TV in 2003. For whatever reason, a long and, yes, honourable tradition of martial verse, from Homer’s Iliad through to Kipling’s barrack room ballads, ended in 1914–18. Amid horrified disillusion, a terrible awakening had occurred. The unbearable bathos of Wilfred Owen’s death, almost as the guns fell silent, is one of those facts that needs no embellishment or rhetorical flourish to bring tears to the eyes of men whose fathers were not yet born in November 1918. Poetry, Pro Patria Mori.

But something new did emerge from the Second World War—a poetry that I cherish as much as anything from the First. Oblivious to Horace, it feels more contemporary and urgent than Owen’s patricidal rage, and speaks to our present condition with alarming clarity. Scrutinising the school-approved selection with a paternal scowl, I was reminded of this piece by its unaccountable omission. The Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed is unlike anything else I know, and certainly unlike any other war poetry. It seems to survive the specifics of Reed’s predicament, and look forward to our own schizoid, conflicted world. It begins like this:

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.

Reed’s poem should surely be on any school curriculum, if only because the scenario is so familiar to every schoolboy in history. It combines a briefing session—a lesson—on the maintenance, cleaning, and preparation of an infantryman’s rifle with the poet’s wandering attention to the busy activity outside the window, and to the garden preparing to renew itself.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.

Here, war is not terror or valour, but the boredom and soullessness of a PowerPoint presentation, or indeed a GCSE poetry class focused only on enjambment, alliteration, and form. Reed is illuminating the danger of modern man’s schizophrenia—the poise he must maintain on the narrow beam between insanity and disaster.

This was a theme brilliantly explored by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary. The Left Brain, that stern linear rationalist, insists on the particular, the divided, and the named, while the Right Brain gazes at the whole of the moon. Modern war is just an extension of modern life—the opportunity for personal valour, individual heroism, mettle tested and faith sustained, all replaced by process, alienation, and manic “naming”:

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For today we have naming of parts.

Very likely, on reflection, the GCSE board are way ahead of me on this. Very likely they have registered that, for all that Horace and Kipling and their ilk will no longer find a youth hungry for glory, poetry of another kind can still connect. Vivid, memorable language does still emerge from conflict, albeit not always in traditional forms. And if War, as Clausewitz drily observed, is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means, it is only right that, as that admixture evolves to include cyber, drones, and hypersonic missiles, poetry should evolve, too. But sometimes I do miss the Old Lie.

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