Monday, June 30, 2014

Mired in the Mud ... Thoughts About Poetry and Fiction and War

Friday was a gorgeous day on the Rideau. The sun was shining, a breeze was blowing off the river, Hubbie was golfing and I should have been ensconced in my chair on the deck with my cup of tea and a good book.

Instead I was glued to my computer, absorbed by my research, totally immersed, one might even say mired, in the stories and the poetry of the First World War.

That's because June 28 was the 100th anniversary of the events that triggered World War I. And since I love the poetry and the fiction that depicts this era, I wanted to write a blog post about the anniversary and some of my favourite writers and their works about WWI.

Like Rupert Brooke, in the picture below. Brooke died in 1915. His poem "The Soldier" is his most famous work, and the lines "If I should die, think only this of me/ That there's some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England" became, in a way, his epitaph. They're lovely words, patriotic, inspiring. But though Brooke was lauded as a war hero, he died aboard ship on his way to battle, not in it. Of blood poisoning from an insect bite. He is buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. 

In the early years of the war he was IT... the soldier poet, described by some as the "golden haired God of poetry." According to, all of England mourned his death.

I have a card I bought in London years ago that has a famous quote from Brooke's poem  "Old Vicarage, Grantchester," written before the war: "Stands the church clock at ten to three/ And is there honey still for tea?" I love those lines. Brooke is said to have captured in his work the mood of a pre-war world: peaceful, idealistic, confident in the old ways and the old values of heroism and honour. 

That's Brooke above on the far right. Gorgeous, eh? Virginia Woolfe certainly thought so; that's her sitting beside him. It's like this shot captures the world that was soon to be gone. That old romantic, idealistic one. 

As WWI progressed, Brooke's poetry...written by someone who was able to see death in battle as valiant and romantic because he had never actually been in battle, had never even seen the trenches... began to look "foolish and naive." Poor Rupert, forever captured on the page as the guy who got it wrong. Not his fault, really. If he had made it to Gallipoli (where he was headed when he died) and survived the battle, most assuredly he would have changed his tune. 

Siegfried Sassoon sang an entirely different tune from Rupert Brooke. Sassoon did see the trenches, in France. He was exceedingly brave in battle, becoming known as "Mad Jack" due to his apparent lack of fear under fire. Sassoon did not, however, remain  unscathed. He was invalided out of battle three times, once for dysentery, once when shot by a sniper, and a final time when he was shot in the head. Still he miraculously survived. 

But each time Sassoon returned to England he was more and more disenchanted, and angry about the war. In 1917 he wrote his famous "Declaration Against the War" which vilifies the powers that continued to "prolong the sufferings of the troops" in a war he believed to be "evil and unjust." He accused the political powers at home of "callous complacency," "deception" and as having "not sufficient imagination to realize" the agonies that the soldiers endured. It's these callous, complacent leaders who are described in his poem "Base Details." He describes the "Majors at the Base" as "Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel" all the while sending "glum heroes up the line to death." You can read all about Sassoon and his poetry here.

Sassoon's anger and public denunciation of the war was, to say the least, embarrassing for the military. What to do about a decorated war hero who says such, well, unheroic things? 

So, Sassoon was committed for a time to the Craiglockhart War Hospital,  and treated for "neurasthenia," a controversial condition that involved a "collapse of the nervous system" (according to Wikipedia.) A symptom of which must have been the publishing of  inconvenient truths? 

Now here is the best part of this story. 

While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon befriended a young poet soldier named Wilfred Owen, pictured below, who was recovering from shell shock. Through their friendship and Sassoon's mentoring of Owen as a writer, Owen would go on to become the best known poet of his era. 

It's Owen who truly captures in his poetry the darkness, the foulness of the soldier's existence in battle. His poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est," which means "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country", decries the hypocrisy of that sentiment, and those who used the "old lie" of honour and glory to deceive "children ardent for some desperate glory." Owen's imagery is vivid as he describes the soldiers who "marched asleep/... blood shod.../drunk with fatigue." And his tone is bitter, as he recalls a man choking and dying after a gas attack: "the white eyes writhing in his face/...the blood/...gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, /Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues." Phew. That's pretty powerful stuff.

But my favourite poem by Wilfred Owen has to be "Anthem for Doomed Youth." Its opening line "What passing bells for those who die as cattle" is, like "Dulce Et Decorum Est," both bitter and vivid. But seriously, if you want to really experience this poem, listen to Sean Bean read it...

Oh my. That's beautiful. 

And what's even more powerful, ironic, and sad ... is that, for a brief time at Craiglockhart, Owen wrote feverishly about his experiences in war and then, when he was deemed fit for duty, he went back to the front. And died on November 4, 1918, seven days before the war ended.

You can read Owen's biography and his work on this wonderful website.

If poetry is not your thing there are some wonderful novels about WW I. My favourites include the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker.  I love the story about the friendship between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the older poet's mentoring of the younger. Much of Barker's first novel, Regeneration, deals with the two poets and their time at Craiglockhart. It's an amazing, beautifully written book.... really... you should read it. And then read the other two in the trilogy.  

I also love Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. This book moves back and forth between the life of a soldier before and during the war, and his granddaughter many years later. It's a book about love, passion, sorrow, longing and a desire to understand the past... alongside the mud and horror of trench warfare. 


Or.... if you like mystery novels, especially well written, clever, erudite mystery novels and you want to read about World War I, try this novel by Reginald Hill. Hill is perhaps my favourite mystery writer. His books are smart and funny and engrossing. This one in particular, I love. Because there's not only the present day mystery, but also a secondary plot where Peter Pascoe unravels the mystery of his grandfather's death during World War I.  

I'm not sure why I'm so enamored of the poetry and fiction written during and about World War I. Part of it is that I love the stories of these men and women who died or were forever changed by their experiences in the mud and the hell that was the First World War. Part of it is the sheer beauty and power of the language used by good writers to describe something almost indescribable, something that those of us who have not experienced it can never really understand. And part of it is that I think it's important that we try to understand. 

I mean one hundred years on....what's really changed? 

So that's it. Three days later... the sun is still shining... and I've said my piece... about war. That sounds more clever than it looks.

I know this post is much more serious than what I usually write. Sorry....but a girl can't be shallow all of the time. Just... some of the time:)

Do you have any favourite books about the war? 


  1. How interesting!

    1. Thanks Sophia. And thanks for stopping by.

  2. That was very interesting, Susan, what a great roundup of some of the great literature and important people of the War.

    1. Thanks. There are so many great works about WWI....important for us to read some of it, I think.

  3. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain and Goodbye to All That by Rupert Graves.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations. I've ordered the Rupert Graves from the library.


All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.