10 classic war poems from Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and others – selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
There are many great war poems out there and there have been a great number of popular war poets. Putting together a universal list of the best war poems raises all sorts of questions, but since such a list will always be a matter of personal taste balanced with more objective matters such as ‘influence’ and ‘popularity with anthologists’, we hope you’ll forgive the presumptuous title ‘best war poems’. In the list that follows, we’ve endeavoured to offer a mix of the canonical and the under-appreciated (‘Dreamers’ is not as famous in Sassoon’s oeuvre as ‘Everyone Sang’, but we think it’s a fine poem that deserves to be read by more people). We’ve also tried to include poems which we’ve found particularly interesting. To make it easier to select just ten great war poems, we’ve limited ourselves to the First World War (though several were written many decades later), but this is not to deny that there have been many stirring and successful poems written about other conflicts. As ever, we’d love to hear your suggestions for the best war poems which you’d recommend. If you want to read the poems listed below, we’ve provided a link (on the poem’s title) which will take you through to it.
Laurence Binyon, ‘For the Fallen‘. We have offered some more information about this short piece, which is at once very famous and very obscure, in our short analysis of Binyon’s poem. Some of its lines are very familiar from war memorial services, but the poem as a whole should be better known.
Charles Sorley, ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead‘. This is not the title Sorley gave to this poem, which he left untitled at his death, aged just 20, in 1915. The Scottish poet Charles Hamilton Sorley is not well-known among WWI poets, but this poem is one of the many reasons he should be better known, in our opinion. Click on the link above to take you to a previous post of ours, in which we quote this great underrated war poem, and for more information about Sorley.
John McCrae, ‘In Flanders Fields‘. Although the association between fields of poppies and commemorating the war dead predates the First World War, it was certainly popularised by WWI and in particular by this John McCrae poem. McCrae was inspired to write it after he conducted the burial service for an artillery officer, Alexis Helmer, who had been killed in the conflict. In the chaplain’s absence, McCrae, as the company doctor, presided over the burial of the young man.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘. One of the most famous of all war poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ (the title is a quotation from the Roman poet Horace, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori or ‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’) was written in response to the jingoistic pro-war verses being written by people like Jessie Pope. Indeed, Pope is the ‘friend’ whom Owen addresses directly in the closing lines of the poem. We’ve selected some of Wilfred Owen’s best poems here.
Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Dreamers‘. Along with Owen, Sassoon was among the most celebrated of WWI poets and one of the sharpest documenters of what Owen called ‘the pity of War’. Sassoon even played an important role in helping to inspire and encourage the taut style of Owen’s poetry. This sonnet is not his best-known, but it’s a moving depiction of the longing the ordinary soldier felt for home, his loved ones, and the normal life he’d left behind. (See WWI blogger Grace Freeman’s pick of ten of the finest Sassoon poems here.)
Rupert Brooke, ‘The Soldier‘. Brooke is another famous poet of WWI, although he died relatively early on in the conflict and wrote very different kind of war poetry from Owen and Sassoon. As we’ve revealed elsewhere, he did not live to enjoy much of his fame, but this poem – patriotic and stirring as it is – played a vital role in the early days of the War in helping to bring England together in uncertain times. See also our pick of Rupert Brooke’s best poems.
Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Break of Day in the Trenches‘. Along with Sorley and Owen, Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) was considered by Robert Graves to be one of the three poets of importance whom we lost during the First World War. ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is perhaps Rosenberg’s most famous poem, and showcases his taut, no-nonsense style which he shares with Owen (and Sorley, to a degree). Rats, poppies, the ‘torn fields of France’: like Owen, Rosenberg puts us among the action, painting a stark, realistic scene of warfare and the daily lives of the soldiers.
Majorie Pickthall, ‘Marching Men‘. Pickthall (1883-1922) was Canadian, although she was born in London. She was regarded by some as the greatest Canadian poet of her generation, and this short poem is a moving religious take on the sacrifice being made by thousands of men every week.
Clifford Dyment, ‘The Son‘. Dyment (1914-1971), one of the literary alumni of Loughborough Grammar School, was born in the year that WWI broke out, and wrote this sonnet about his father, who died during the conflict. The poem was inspired by the discovery of his father’s letters home to Clifford’s mother, including the last letter he ever wrote to her about his request for leave being rejected. The idea of his luck being ‘at the bottom of the sea’, used to such effect in this fine poem, was taken from his father’s letter.
Philip Larkin, ‘MCMXIV‘. This heads our list of Larkin’s best poems, since it’s a stunning and moving portrayal of how WWI changed the world – not through focusing on mustard gas and machine-gun fire (Larkin, born in 1922, was obviously too young to serve in WWI and was excused service in WWII on medical grounds), but on the changes wrought upon the daily lives of families and communities.
If this list has whetted your appetite for more poetry of the First World War, some of the finest war poems from that conflict are collected in The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (Penguin Classics). You can continue exploring the world of war poetry with our pick of Edward Thomas’s best poems, some of which were written while he was fighting in the First World War.
Alternatively, switch war for love with this pick of the best very short love poems in English.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image (top): Portrait of British soldier poet Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915), in 1914/15, author unknown; Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Rupert Brooke in 1915, from the 1920 edition of his Poems, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.