The Best Poems of the 1940s

If the 1930s was the decade of W. H. Auden and his circle of poets, the 1940s was dominated by poets of the Second World War – whether British or American men serving in the war, or modernists like T. S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, and H. D. exploring the civilian’s view. Below we introduce ten of the best 1940s poems which sum up the decade marked by war and its aftermath.

Edith Sitwell, ‘Still Falls the Rain’. The first of two ‘falling rain’ poems to feature on this pick of 1940s poems, this one was written during the 1940 Blitz as London was facing regular aerial attack from German bombs. Sitwell, the most famous and accomplished poet of the Sitwell siblings (her brothers Osbert and Sacheverell were also poets), fuses the falling rain with bigger, abstract themes including war and religion.

Keith Douglas, ‘Vergissmeinnicht’.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt …

Keith Douglas (1920-44) described his poetry as ‘extrospective’, a neat coinage designed to dovetail with the more usual introspection of much English poetry. Douglas, who was killed during the invasion of Normandy on 9 June 1944, aged just 24, is now regarded as one of the greatest British poets of the Second World War, and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ is one of his most celebrated poems. ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ is spoken by a British soldier who, upon returning with his fellow soldiers to a scene of battle three weeks after the conflict, finds a dead German soldier rotting in the sun. By the dead soldier is a picture of the soldier’s sweetheart, Steffi, who has autographed the picture with her name and the German message ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, ‘forget me not’.

Alun Lewis, ‘All Day It Has Rained’.

All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found

No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain …

Wilfred Owen is the most famous and celebrated English poet of the First World War. But much of the best English poetry of the Second World War didn’t take its cue from Owen. Instead, poets like Alun Lewis, and Keith Douglas in his best poetry like the poem above, followed Isaac Rosenberg with his colloquial, understated, matter-of-fact and almost offhand style of describing war. Lewis uses the trope of the persistent falling rain to describe the mood of a soldier serving in the Second World War.

Sidney Keyes, ‘War Poet’. Along with Douglas and Lewis, the best-known English poet of the Second World War was Sidney Keyes (1922-43). Keyes, oddly enough, was born the same day as the actor Christopher Lee, though it’s fair to say that Lee lived a lot longer than Keyes, who was killed in 1943 while fighting in Tunisia, just four weeks before his 21st birthday. Of all Keyes’s war poems, ‘War Poet’ is perhaps the most famous – a short lyric of just a dozen lines of powerful polemic.

John Gillespie Magee, ‘High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)’. Like Douglas, Lewis, and Keyes, Magee also fought and died in the Second World War; but unlike those three, he was half-American, born in China, and served in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Magee (1922-41) wrote ‘High Flight’, a sonnet, about the exhilarating experience of flying through the air in a fighter-plane, putting out his hand to ‘touch the face of God’. Magee was killed in an accidental mid-air collision over England in 1941.

D. R. Geraint Jones, ‘Let Me Not See Old Age’. There were two Welsh poets named David Jones: the one who wrote the remarkable long work In Parenthesis about his experiences in the First World War, and David Rhys Geraint Jones, the poet of the Second World War who gave us this memorable lyric. Jones was another young poet to lose his life in the war, although this poem sees him embracing the idea of dying young. ‘Let Me Not See Old Age’ (sometimes known by the alternative title ‘A Wish’) was written in spring 1944, not long before Jones’s untimely death in action in Normandy in June 1944. Jones was just 22 years old.

T. S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’. ‘Little Gidding’ is the last of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, but it is also his last significant poem. What’s more, there is a sense in this poem of Eliot seeking to join the threads of his work together, to ‘set a crown upon a lifetime’s effort’, as he puts it in ‘Little Gidding’ itself. Written in 1942, the poem takes its name from the Cambridgeshire village where an Anglican settlement was established during the seventeenth century, although Eliot also takes us to wartime London as he patrols the city as an ARP warden.

H. D., ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’. When the American-born poet H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) and her then-husband Richard Aldington walked into a bomb-damaged house during the First World War, Aldington found an abandoned volume of Robert Browning’s poetry and kicked it across the room. What use was poetry in the face of such destruction? But poetry tends to endure in wartime: T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets would largely be written during the next world war, while H. D.’s own poetry would have a curious and poignant afterlife: sections of her 1944 poem ‘The Walls Do Not Fall’ (from her long poem Trilogy) were inscribed by an anonymous graffitist among the ruins of the World Trade Center after 9/11.

Paul Celan, ‘Death Fugue’. The Romanian poet Paul Celan (1920-70) wrote ‘Todesfuge’ (‘Death Fugue’) in around 1945, and it was published in 1948. Since then, it has become one of the most famous and widely anthologised poems about the Holocaust, endeavouring to capture the horrors of the concentration camps through raw, powerful imagery and language. However, Celan was not a prisoner in one of the death camps himself; he composed this poem from eyewitness testimonies he heard and read.

Ezra Pound, The Pisan Cantos. Pound began work on his vast poetic work The Cantos in 1915, and the first three Cantos were published in Poetry magazine in 1917. Over the ensuing decades, Pound would rewrite the beginning to the poem, and The Cantos would follow various threads. The most celebrated of these are the Pisan Cantos, which Pound began following his arrest in Italy in May 1945, and his detainment in the American Disciplinary Training Center just north of Pisa. For a short while, Pound slept on the ground in the open air, before being transferred to an open-air cage. He was denied access to his reading, but he continued to write – he appears to have drafted the first Pisan Cantos on toilet paper. The Pisan Cantos are frustrating, baffling, lyrical, anti-poetic, and deeply poetic, as Pound expresses his anger at America and Britain (he celebrates the landslide victory which booted Churchill out of Number Ten following the Labour victory), and explores his memories of the last few decades. They were published in 1948. Follow the link above to read one of the Pisan Cantos, Canto LXXXI.

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