In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reads the work of a forgotten war poet
The poetry of Wilfred Owen is the most widely-studied writing about the First World War, written by a man who experienced the fighting first-hand. Poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound – who, unlike Owen, were part of modernism as well as being modern – didn’t experience the horrors of the trenches themselves, although they both wrote about the war afterwards. Eliot’s The Waste Land is full of war imagery, while Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley contains one of the most brilliantly angry and impassioned diatribes about the war’s sheer waste of life to be found anywhere in modern literature.
Owen is loosely associated with the Georgians, a group of poets writing in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of war, whose most famous member was probably Rupert Brooke, another soldier-poet who lost his life in the war. It’s easy to divide ‘war poets’ up into Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic war poem
‘Strange Meeting’ is one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems. After ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ it is one of his most popular and widely studied and analysed. Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen the definitive English poet of the First World War. As Owen himself put it, the poetry is in the pity.
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. Read the rest of this entry
A commentary on a short WWII poem
The poem ‘War Poet’ was written by Sidney Keyes (1922-43), one of the most famous English poets of the Second World War, in March 1942 and published the following year, the year of his untimely death. Curiously, the day Keyes was born, 27 May 1922, was the exact same day that the actor Christopher Lee entered the world. Lee outlived Keyes by over 70 years, and it’s odd to think of the two men as exact contemporaries. Keyes was commissioned into the Queen’s Own West Kent Regiment and sent to Tunisia in March 1943, where he was killed, one month 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. Here is the poem, followed by a brief analysis of its language and imagery.
I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed.
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me: Read the rest of this entry