War Poets Remembered

While cleaning out my bookcase (a mammoth task as you can imagine) I came across an old book of poetry by Rupert Brooke which had been given to me by my mother when I was eight years old. For a moment I was lost in time remembering that book – old and tattered even then – and how it had affected my love of poetry; that curious lilt and flow of language that has fascinated me all my life.

And I remembered how I loved that book, how I would trace the words with my eyes, hungering for understanding, awestruck at the way words could be brought together and knitted to create all kinds of meaning and message, how language could frighten, shock, make my blood run cold. Make me laugh.

This drug continued on into my teens – and I fell upon the darker side of poetry, that which was so eloquently reflected in the war poetry that came out of that most tragic of all wars, the First World War. It was my first brush with protest, with denigration of authority and the stupidity of violence. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke. Their haunting words have stayed with me forever.

Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)

The Sentry (excerpts)

The sentry’s body; then, his rifle, handles

Of old Boche bombs, and mud in ruck on ruck.

We dredged him up, for killed, until he whined

‘O sir, my eyes – I’m blind – I’m blind, I’m blind!’

Coaxing, I held a flame against his lids

And said if he could see the least blurred light

He was not blind; in time he’d get all right.

I try not to remember these things now.

Let dread hark back for one word only: how

Half listening to that sentry’s moans and jumps,

And the wild chattering of his broken teeth,

Renewed most horribly whenever crumps

Pummelled through the roof and slogged the air beneath –

Through the dense din, I say, we heard him shout

‘I see your lights!’ But ours had long died out.

Siegfried Sassoon 1886 – 1967)

Counter-Attack (excerpt)

Mute in the clamour of shells he watched them burst

Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell,

While posturing giants dissolved in drifts of smoke.

He crouched and flinched, dizzy with galloping fear,

Sick for escape, – loathing the strangled horror

And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.

Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915) 

The Soldier (excerpt)

If I should die, think only this of me,

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England. There shall be

In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,

A body of England’s, breathing English air,

Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

I think it was this last poem, the sad glory of a patriot’s words, that stirred me the most. And while Owen’s and Sassoon’s poetry held me in horrified thrall, it was the beautiful, flowing words of Rupert Brooke that made me a writer. Perhaps it is the mixture of romance and madness that inspires writers? I only know that if you read these works, feel their emotive power, you will appreciate their dedication to the right word, balance, tone, weight, and rhythm of language.

These words inspired me at a very early age. What was the earliest influence that motivated you to write?

 

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