Facts about the war poets and their poetry, as well as other links between poetry and war
1. The link between poppies and war remembrance dates from the Napoleonic wars, when a writer noted that they flourished over soldiers’ graves. As The History Press website notes: ‘there are several anonymous documents written during the Napoleonic wars which noted that following battle, poppies became abundant on battlefields where soldiers had fallen. These same sources drew the first documented comparison between the blood-red colour of the poppies and the blood spilt during conflict.’ The association would be popularised during the First World War, especially by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields‘ in 1915.
2. The famous line ‘lest we forget’, often used about remembering those who died in the war, is taken from a Rudyard Kipling poem. Kipling’s ‘Recessional‘ was written for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and each of the poem’s stanzas, with the exception of the final one, ends with the line, ‘Lest we forget – lest we forget!’ The poem offers itself as a sort of prayer for the British Empire, which at the time was under threat. Kipling’s speaker prays that the British Empire be allowed to survive and thrive, promising to remember the sacrifice made by Christ and honour his memory. The phrase ‘lest we forget’, then, was originally composed to honour the memory of Jesus Christ, rather than those who had given their lives in war.
3. Rupert Brooke died just weeks after his poem ‘The Soldier’ became popular. Rupert Brooke’s poem ‘The Soldier’, a patriotic sonnet, was read aloud during the Easter Sunday service at St. Paul’s in London in 1915. By this time, thousands of men had already been killed in action and Brooke’s poem struck the perfect patriotic chord for the time. Unfortunately, Brooke himself had but a few weeks to live, and would be dead within a month (from an infected mosquito bite), dying on St George’s Day 1915 aboard a French ship moored off the coast of the Greek island of Skyros.
4. Perhaps the most famous poet of the First World War, Wilfred Owen is now the second most commonly studied poet in British schools. After William Shakespeare, Owen (1893-1918) is the most popular poet on the UK school syllabus, with his stark and gritty portrayal of life in the trenches (and what he called ‘the pity of War’) serving what he called a ‘warning’ to future generations about the futility of war. (Indeed, one of his most famous poems is called simply ‘Futility’.) Another link between Shakespeare and Owen is that the Bard was one reason why Owen enlisted in the first place: in October 1915 Owen joined the army because, he said, he wanted ‘to save the language of Keats and Shakespeare.’ He would be killed in action on 4 November 1918, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice that ended the War, during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal. As church bells were ringing out all over the country to celebrate the coming of peace, the telegram arrived at his mother’s house with news of her son’s death.
5. The actor Christopher Lee, who died in 2015 aged 93, was born on 27 May 1922, the same day as WWII poet Sidney Keyes. Keyes died in 1943. Christopher Lee was a prolific and versatile actor, the only actor to play both Sherlock Holmes and his brother Mycroft on film. He also took on such iconic roles as the Creature from Frankenstein, and Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He was born on the same day as one of the leading English poets of the Second World War, Sidney Keyes, who was killed in action in 1943, just four weeks before what would have been his 21st birthday. It is sobering to think that the actor who lived to play not only Dracula in the Hammer film of 1958 but also Saruman in The Lord of the Rings over forty years later was born on the same day as an English poet who died in WWII.
Image: Wilfred Owen (author unknown: image taken from 1920 edition of Poems of Wilfred Owen), Wikimedia Commons.