Three lives hath one life—
Iron, honey, gold.
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The gold, the honey gone—
Left is the hard and cold.
—Isaac Rosenberg, from ‘August 1914’
When the start of World War One is discussed in history class, it is typically portrayed as having happened in the manner of a regrettable and complicated automobile accident. An assassination of a semi-obscure middle-European aristocrat by a genuinely obscure extremist, a complicated web of alliances, militarist movements, and untalented politicians, and naïveté about the nature of the coming conflict: no one to blame here, really, except insofar as everyone was to blame.
This was not how the situation appeared to the British in August 1914. To them, the coming war was fought over a principle. Blame belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Prussian militarists with whom he governed. He was to be blamed because his government had violated the principle that treaties between nation-states ought to be honored.
Cynically using the conflict between Austria and Serbia as a pretext, the Kaiser set in motion long-planned-for military campaigns designed to establish German hegemony over France and Russia. The British might have been able to take all this and remain neutral. But German military planners believed that to defeat France and Russia required France to be defeated first. To defeat France first required that the German army go through Belgium. Belgium was neutral, a neutrality guaranteed through a treaty signed by Britain and Germany.
On August 4, when the British Ambassador to Germany stressed that Belgian neutrality was an issue over which the British were unlikely to back down, the German Chancellor did not respond well:
His Excellency at once began a harangue, which lasted for about twenty minutes. He said that the step taken by His Majesty's Government was terrible to a degree; just for a word—"neutrality," a word which in war time had so often been disregarded—just for a scrap of paper Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation who desired nothing better than to be friends with her.
The notion that the British elite enthusiastically sent its children to war without any appreciation of the potential costs is also something oversold in the conventional account. Not the Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, nor the Prime Minister H.H. Asquith knew that the true cost of the war would be, effectively, a generation. But both men were liberals in more or less the sense of our current usage. Both men were unhappy with what appeared to them as the necessity of the war.
Yet they saw the situation in terms of justice and injustice, and wished to stand up for the former. Late on August 4, as the situation became clear, Grey remarked, "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
The willingness to fight over a "scrap of paper" initially extended through most of British society, and even into the literary intelligentsia that then, as now, generally considered itself to be cosmopolitan and thus above petty questions of nation-states. Max Egremont, the biographer of Siegfried Sassoon and now the author of a timely book about the British war poets, Some Desperate Glory, describes how this willingness extended even to those men of letters who had expressed a preference for spiritual, bold Germany over bland, materialistic Britain. Even they could begin to see that the combination of mystic conservatism, militarism, and profound national insecurity that constituted Prussian Kultur was something the world would be better off without.
Egremont focuses his book on those poets who fought. Some of the men whose work he includes and discusses, like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves, will be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the war poets or even just twentieth century literature in general. Others are more obscure, not necessarily because of the lower quality of their work, but because of the shifting fashions of poetic taste and, in particular, distaste for poets who seemed a little too enthusiastic about the fighting.
Consider Julian Grenfell. In Egremont’s description, he comes off as a near-parody of the handsome, entitled, physical, and cruel aristocrat of antiwar critique, a Balliol man and regular officer who, having shot some Germans near Ypres in the Autumn of 1914, included the following notations in his game book: "November 16th: 1 Pomeranian … November 17th: 2 Pomeranians." This is preceded in the book by his notation of having shot "105 partridges" while on leave in October.
Despite this somewhat studied insouciance, Grenfell was as prone to frustration with the way things were going militarily as any of the darker, later poets. His ‘Prayer for Those on the Staff’ is savage:
Please keep the extra A.D.C.
From horrid scenes and sights of blood …
See that his eggs are newly laid,
Not tinged—as some of them—with green;
And let no nasty draughts invade
The windows of his limousine.
The less satirical ‘Into Battle’ is more consistent with the later mythology of the man ("The thundering line of battle stands, / And in the air Death moans and sings") and was printed beside his death notice in the Times. He died in May 1915 of wounds sustained in a shell blast. He was 27.
Grenfell’s natural partner in style and social status was the handsome and vaguely Byronic Rupert Brooke, another aristocratic poet whose legacy has suffered from the perception that his patriotism trumped his obligation to artistic honesty. Brooke authored some of the most popular lines of the war in his sentimental ‘The Soldier’:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed
These verses met wide acceptance but mixed approval among Brooke’s former fans in the elite. Many of them believed that his pre-war writings showed greater sensitivity and nuance. Perhaps they did: His poem ‘Tiare Tahiti,’ a love note to the object of a brief—but apparently tender—dalliance he enjoyed while traveling before the war in the South Seas, balances sentimentality with a condescending libertinism.
As Egremont points out, the war moved Brooke’s style away from Andrew Marvell and towards Lord Tennyson. Who knows where it would have moved later—or even later in the war. There is a little corner of the island of Skyros that is forever Rupert Brooke. He died aboard ship, en route to Gallipoli, of a sudden illness in April 1915. He was also 27.
The commonly accepted turning point in the British mood toward the war is July 1, 1916: the first day of the Somme, in which the allies exchanged a half-million casualties for a few miles of nightmarishly devastated territory. The idea put forward by Field Marshal Haig was to walk into the German lines, neither running nor coordinating with artillery, and overwhelm the machine gun fire with good old-fashioned fighting spirit. That fighting spirit, and the reputation of the British officer corps, never fully recovered.
The turn in British sentiment was not the product of a single day. Edward Thomas, a friend of Robert Frost’s and still on the home front in 1916, captured the darkening mood as early as 1915 in poems that evoke Frost, dealing in forests and birdsong and strangers. But the war is lurking in these poems, even though Thomas had not yet seen it. He would be killed by artillery in 1917, at the age of 39.
Also writing dark work in advance of his initiation into combat was Isaac Rosenberg. He was in many ways the odd man out: a short, unattractive son of Russian Jews who grew up in ethnic London and enlisted, in part, for the pay. By all accounts a genuinely terrible soldier, Rosenberg wrote poetry that, among these writers, comes the closest to the modernism of Eliot and Pound, without severing the link between sound and sense:
But a subtler brain beats iron
To shoe the hoofs of death,
(Who paws dynamic air now).
Blind fingers loose an iron cloud
To rain immortal darkness
On strong eyes.
Having joined the fight in France, his tone ranged from the nightmarish (‘Dead Men’s Dump’) to the grandiose (‘Soldier: Twentieth Century’) to the vaguely pastoral (‘Returning, We Hear the Larks’). The perversion of traditional lyric forms was a regular trick: Rosenberg’s finest poem, 1916’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches,’ was a taste of war poetry to come. It takes the form of a dawn hymn and turns it into an ode to a rat:
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
Rosenberg can be gruesome but not exactly bitter, probably because he thought war would be dreadful from the very start. The same does not apply to Siegfried Sassoon, another aristocrat, who underwent the most famous political and stylistic conversion of any of the war poets.
Sassoon’s formal, euphonious lyrics began the war as balanced affairs, neither patriotic nor bleak, but simultaneously lovely and pompous:
Horror of wounds and anger at the foe,
And loss of things desired; all these must pass.
We are the happy legion, for we know
Time’s but a golden wind that shakes the grass.
By 1916 he was writing poems like ‘The Death Bed’ that vividly imagined the experience of dying, but still with a sentimental polish. By 1917, he would treat the same subject in ‘Counter-attack’ but in a tone of grim, ugly spiritlessness:
‘O Christ, they’re coming at us!’ Bullets spat,
And he remembered his rifle…rapid fire…
And started blazing wildly…then a bang
Crumpled and spun him sideways, knocked him out
To grunt and wriggle: none heeded him; he choked
And fought the flapping veils of smothering gloom,
Lost in a blurred confusion of yells and groans….
Down, and down, and down he sank and drowned,
Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed.
The golden wind, apparently, could no longer be detected shaking the grass.
Sassoon had been changed by extended exposure to combat in the trenches. He experienced more misery than any infantryman ought reasonably be expected to suffer. In 1916, furious at the Germans for killing his friends, he began patrolling the no man’s land alone at night, exhibiting a talent for killing and fatalism. His men admired him. He earned the Military Cross for his participation in a raid that year, then fought at the Somme. After time in a hospital in England for an illness, he was back fighting. Ordered to lead what Egremont describes as a "suicidal attack," and having rallied his men "in dark, hellish, corpse-filled trenches," he was shot by a sniper.
He was sent back to Britain to recover. Already famous as a poet, he attracted the attention of pacifists, and soon issued a public statement against the war. Curiously, the statement condemned the politics behind the war while absolving its "military conduct," which seems to have had the situation more or less backwards. Egremont describes how Sassoon was persuaded by Robert Graves to accept a diagnosis of shell shock to avoid legal consequences for his actions.
Sent to a hospital in Scotland to receive mental treatment, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a young infantry officer suffering from his own spiritual wounds sustained at Arras, and dealing with a suspicion that he was a coward. After the war, Sassoon would wonder why he had treated the younger, Welsh Owen as condescendingly as he had, and how he could have thought the work of such a spectacular talent merely "promising."
Sassoon and Owen collaborated in the hospital. Evidence of Sassoon’s lyricism can be detected in Owen’s work. Owen felt he could endure the danger and physical hardship of the Western front, but the "Ugliness," as he put it to his mother, was more than he could take. Owen is the poet laureate of ugliness. His immense technical skill, fully developed by his mid-twenties, allowed him to elevate the ugliness to art:
What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?
—Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, —
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
The clever conceit, the intentionally disorienting swings between euphony and cacophony, the echo of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (in which leafless branches are described as "bare, ruined choirs"), the deft handling of the sonnet form: There is technical mastery here. In ‘Strange Meeting,’ Owen narrates a terrifying encounter in hell between a soldier and a man he had killed the day before, who had parried his blow only, as in a waking nightmare, to find his hands "loath and cold" and incapable of fending off the bayonet.
Owen rhymes "cold" with "killed"—a consonant, not a vowel rhyme—a trick he sustains through virtually the entire 44-line poem. The effect is so subtle that most college literature students don’t recognize at first that the poem is composed of rhyming couplets. Owen likely felt that the sing-songy effect of full rhymes would be in tension with his grim subject matter, and so subtly altered his style to match his substance. Like all great artists, he makes complicated tasks look easy.
There was also range. Beyond sonnets and traditional forms, Owen could pull off a monologue in metered natural speech reminiscent of Robert Browning (‘A Terre’) and had ambitious plans for poems after the war. Sassoon bitterly regretted Owens’ death at the age of 25, seven days before the end of the war in 1918—a year that also claimed Isaac Rosenberg, 27—believing that the two of them could have worked to build an anti-modernist movement in poetry to oppose what he saw as the dead end of Eliot and Pound’s avant-garde.
What their poetry did help build was a new artistic norm for the portrayal of war: a nihilistic vision characterized by ironic reversals, meaningless suffering, and plain horror. This was not necessarily their intent so much as that of later artists and critics, who sought to use the war poets to replace the old cliché of war’s necessary heroism with a new cliché of war’s necessary meaninglessness.
Egremont reclaims the war poets from the camp of pacifists and the anti-war left, but without enlisting them into the ranks of hawks. The record he assembles shows that, like most warriors, they were neither. (Even Sassoon came to have doubts about his wartime protest later in life.) These men wanted to tell the truth about what they saw, and what they saw—industrial warfare—was new and horrible.
They also fought to the end, or to their own ends. Sassoon was shot again in 1918, this time in the head. He survived but returned to Britain for good. Owen earned a Military Cross for destroying a machine gun nest that year, ending doubts about his courage. Before being killed while leading an assault across the Sambre-Oise canal, his last letter home read, "It is a great life … Of this I am certain, you could not be visited by a band of friends so fine as surround me here."
Yeats, the old fascist, disliked Owen’s bleak portrayal of combat and thought his poetry was best forgotten. He wrote that, "There is every excuse for him, but none for those who like him." Yeats was wrong. It is not Owen and the war poets who need excuses, but those who have misused them.