10 classic war poems 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 poetry 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‘.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them…
Binyon wrote ‘For the Fallen’ in northern Cornwall in September 1914, just one month after the outbreak of the First World War. Binyon wasn’t himself a soldier – he was already in his mid-forties when fighting broke out – but ‘For the Fallen’ is without doubt one of the most famous poems of the First World War. 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 official remembrance poem as a whole should be better known. Listen to the great Sir John Gielgud reading Binyon’s war poem here. Click on the link above to read the poem in full.
Charles Sorley, ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead‘.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so…
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. In this poem, Sorley tells those mourning soldiers who have died not to praise the dead men or cry for them, if the faces of dead soldiers appear to them in dreams. The dead men cannot hear or see them. Sorley’s poem is stark and uncompromising: his reason for telling us not to bother praising or weeping for the fallen soldiers is because these ghosts are mere shadows of the men they were, and our tears or words now mean nothing to them. The poem appears to reject the Christian hope in the afterlife that is behind many earlier poems that talk about death and mourning. Once the dead are gone, that’s it: there is no hope of a reunion or reaching across the void. Click on the link above to take you to a previous post of ours, in which we quote this great underrated war poem in full, and for more information about Sorley.
John McCrae, ‘In Flanders Fields‘.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
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, who died of pneumonia while on active service in January 1918, was inspired to write this poem in 1915 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, and penned these memorable lines that would help to cement the link between poppies and the fallen of WWI in the popular memory. Click on the link above to read the poem in full.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin…
In October 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from Craiglockhart Hospital: ‘Here is a gas poem, done yesterday……..the famous Latin tag (from Horace, Odes) means of course it is sweet and meet to die for one’s country. Sweet! and decorous!’ Although he drafted the poem that October, the surviving drafts of ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ show that Owen revised and revisited it on several occasions thereafter, before his death the following November – just one week before the Armistice. (Tragically, the telegram informing Owen’s mother that her son had been killed in action the week before arrived the day of the Armistice, while everyone else was celebrating the end of the war.) 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. However, the poem is also a harrowing and vivid account of a poison gas attack, with a number of details which immediately stick in the memory, and haunt our dreams as they haunted Owen’s, showing how naive and damaging outlooks like Jessie Pope’s really were. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ is a fine example of Owen’s superb craftsmanship as a poet: young he may have been, and valuable as his poetry is as a window onto the horrors of the First World War, in the last analysis the reason we value his response to the horrific events he witnessed is that he put them across in such emotive but controlled language, using imagery at once true and effective. As he put it in the draft preface he wrote for his poems: ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.’ We’ve selected some of Wilfred Owen’s best poems here. Listen to the actor Christopher Eccleston read Owen’s poem here. The manuscript of the poem is also fascinating.
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. Indeed, the poem was read aloud in St Paul’s Cathedral in Easter 1915, shortly before Brooke’s death. See also our pick of Rupert Brooke’s best poems. Listen to Sophie Okonedo reading Brooke’s poem here. Click on the link above to read Brooke’s poem in full.
Isaac Rosenberg, ‘Break of Day in the Trenches‘.
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear…
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. Like Owen and McCrae, Rosenberg died in 1918 before the Armistice, and his reputation as a great war poet was posthumous. His style is far more taut and reserved – more down-to-earth and matter-of-fact, even – than Owen and Sassoon. The emphasis is less on the pity of war than an almost documentary-like attention to detail, showing us what life in the trenches was like for the average combatant. (Compare another WWI poem, T. E. Hulme’s poem about the trenches of St. Eloi, which is similarly restrained and unsentimental.) ‘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‘.
Under the level winter sky
I saw a thousand Christs go by.
They sang an idle song and free
As they went up to Calvary…
Although the most famous war poets in the English language were male, this doesn’t mean women didn’t write about the First World War – and many turned to poetry as a way of expressing their experiences of witnessing war from the sidelines (although it’s worth remembering that many, such as the volunteer nurses among others, weren’t on the sidelines but down among the fighting). 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: ‘With souls unpurged and steadfast breath / They supped the sacrament of death. / And for each one, far off, apart, / Seven swords have rent a woman’s heart.’ The poem deserves to be better known outside of Canada than it is, as it is an interesting example of a ‘war poem’ written during the First World War, but by a female civilian rather than a male combatant.
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 while Dyment was still very young. Poignantly, 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 – an example of a poetic image taken from a private letter being used in a poem.
Philip Larkin, ‘MCMXIV‘. ‘MCMXIV’ is the year 1914 in Roman numerals. As the literary critic Christopher Ricks has observed, Larkin’s decision to title his poem ‘MCMXIV’ rather than ‘1914’ or ‘Nineteen Fourteen’ means we cannot be sure how to pronounce the poem’s title aloud: calling it ‘1914’ is accurate, of course, but fails to transmit the Latin stylising of the date. Conversely, reciting the individual letters (or numerals) that make up the title makes little sense. This is a title we need to read, on the page: like the ‘Latin names around the base’ in another of Larkin’s poems, ‘An Arundel Tomb’, ‘MCMXIV’ suggests the lapidary inscriptions on tombs – or, indeed, on war memorials. This poem 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 born after the end of WWI and was excused service in WWII on medical grounds), but on the changes wrought upon the daily lives of families and communities. The roll-call of everyday Edwardian details, which Larkin believes have vanished in the wake of the First World War, builds across one long sentence (yes, the poem is just one sentence long) to its moving conclusion.
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.