Up the Line to Death, The Terrible Rain, The Oxford Book of War Poetry
although poetic treatments of armed conflict have been written at almost every stage in the history of English literature, the term is taken to denote work produced in response to the First and Second World Wars. Furthermore, ‘war poetry’ most typically arises from active experience of battle and other aspects of military life, and does not, therefore, include a poem like Binyon's ‘For the Fallen’, despite its firmness of relation to warfare. The most distinguished poetry of the First World War, written by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg, and Edmund Blunden, is also noted for its emphatic realism; this characteristic, most obvious in the gruesome physical details of slaughter in, for example, Owen's ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’, constituted a conscious repudiation of the idealistic poetry of the war exemplified by the verse of Rupert Brooke, which had been feverishly acclaimed in 1915. Charles Hamilton Sorley was among the first to react in opposition to Brooke's famous sonnets. After the futile carnage on the Somme in 1916 Sassoon produced many poems whose documentary qualities were intended to disabuse the public of the attitudes he believed were prolonging the war; although the work was not enthusiastically received in Britain, it had widespread influence on his fellow poets. These developments forced a breach with the sedate conventions of Georgian poetry, the prevailing poetic mode of the time, with which many of the war poets had been associated. The investment of emotion and imagination in celebrations of the English countryside in the work of the Georgians was continuous with the patriotic sentiment of the poetry written in the early years of the war; the aggressive realism and hostility towards the institutions of nationalism in the wartime and post-war writings of Sassoon, Graves, and others contributed significantly to the major changes in the literary climate between 1910 and 1930.
Brian Gardner's Up the Line to Death (1964), featuring work by seventy-two poets, is the best of numerous anthologies of the poetry of the First World War; The Terrible Rain (1966), in which 119 poets of the Second World War are represented, is also edited by Gardner, who states in his introduction: ‘The First War produced the greater poetry: but there is a great deal more good poetry of the Second War.’ No radical changes of poetic orientation were precipitated by the conflict of 1939–45; the fact that the poets brought few patriotic illusions to their experiences as soldiers was part of their inheritance from their predecessors in the Great War. Rather than having to evolve new idioms to replace a stock of defunct conventions, they had a range of possibilities at their disposal as a result of the impact of Modernism and the ethos of experimentation that had permeated the 1930s. Keith Douglas wrote a number of the most striking poems of active service, the extreme lucidity and concentration of his style constituting an idiosyncratic technical advance. The reputations of Alun Lewis, Hamish Henderson, John Pudney, and Sidney Keyes are also largely based upon the poetry they produced during the war. Certain works by Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Louis MacNeice, and others are immediately classifiable as war poems for the force with which they register the atmospheres and emotions of the air-raids. Many of the finest poets of both world wars died on active service, often, as was the case with Owen, Rosenberg, Douglas, and Lewis, shortly after their talents had begun to mature; what they might have gone on to achieve remains the saddest imponderable in English literature. See also The Oxford Book of War Poetry (1984), edited by Jon Stallworthy.