Studium anglistiky na KAA UPOL

(16) Poetry and the World Wars.

(E. Thomas, R. Brooke, W. Owen, I. Rosenberg, S. Sassoon, D. Gascoyne, D. Thomas, and A. Lewis).


T h e  T w e n t i e t h  C e n t u r y

[see "Background for Topics 12-27..."]

E d w a r d  T h o m a s  ( 1 8 7 8 – 1 9 1 7 )

L i f e :

- a gifted lit. critic, esp. good in reviewing poetry

- the 1st to salute the new stars incl. W(illiam) H(enry) Davies (1871 – 1940, a Welsh poet and the ‘Super-Tramp’), Robert Frost (1874 – 1963), and Ezra Pound (1885 – 1972)

- T.: poetry = the highest form of lit. x but: no serious attempt to write poems himself until the autumn 1914

- started writing poetry under the stress of deciding whether or not to enlist, on encouragement by R. Frost

- enlisted for the attraction of the soldier salary to enhance his meagre income from selling his books and review copies, and for his feelings of patriotism

- killed in the Western Front by the blast of a shell

W o r k :

- ed. of 16 anthologies and oth. ed., author of 30 prose books on nature, and of some poetry

< Richard Jefferies (1848 – 1888, an E journalist and countryside fiction writer)

- his love of southern En. and its seasons, celebrated in his prose, distilled to a purer form in his poetry

- his awareness of the richness and beauty of the natural world intensified by a sense of impending loss and the certainty of death

- perceptive to the violence done by a distant conflict to the natural order of things: an acute observer of the suffering occasioned by war at home and on the battlefield, and of death as the ultimate destroyer of the already violent co-operation of man and nature

- history implicit in his humanised landscape, the ingrained past can be read in nature: his landscapes haunted by the ghosts of past occupants and users (both animals and human), and expressive the evidence of exploitation, work, and decay

- plain diction, style, and rhythm characteristic of both his prose and poetry

“Rain”: curiously indebted to his earlier prose writings

“Adlestrop”: evokes a disappearing En. through which the poet passes merely as a traveller

“A Tale”: ambiguously contrasts the growing blue periwinkles x broken blue china plates amid the ruins of a cottage


- ‘let[s] down…into the earth’ the clay pipe of a soldier and that of the narrator

= as if their clay were that of human bodies joined in a common burial

“As the Team’s Head-Brass”:

- develops a sporadic conversation conc. the war btw a ploughman and his team at work x the narrator

- interrupted each time the ploughman returns to his work, and the war, somewhere over a horizon = suggests more drastic breakings

“Lights Out”:

- transl. the military command into a journey through a dark wood ‘where all must lose / Their way’

- the unnatural silence of the wood = a sense of loss of direction and the violated self


R u p e r t  B r o o k e  ( 1 8 8 7 – 1 9 1 5 )

L i f e :

- travelled extensively: Eur., U.S., Canada, and the South Seas

- enlisted (winter 1914) and began producing his ‘war sonnets’

- died of blood poisoning on a troopship in the Mediterranean, buried on a Gr. Island

- strikingly handsome, athletic, intelligent, and witty

=> his death symbolic of the death of a whole young generation of brilliant and beautiful patriotic Englishmen

W o r k :

< the Elizabethans, J. Donne, and R. Browning

- author of essays and poetry

(a) pre-war poetry:

- jesting, often colloquially nostalgic

> “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”, a cleverly urbane poem

(b) war poetry:

- youthfully enthusiastic

=> achieved an immediate pop. impact

Poems (1911): criticized by reviewers for their blunt diction

1914 and Other Poems (1915, posthum.): criticized for not responding to the horrors of war x but: died too soon to could have done so

“The Soldier”: praised posthum. by W. Churchill as an example for soldiers



W i l f r e d  O w e n  ( 1 8 9 3 – 1 9 1 8 )

L i f e :

- an assistant to a country vicar

- a firm believer in Christian teaching x but: as distinct from church practice, criticised the role of the church in society

- broke with the vicar, became a teacher of E in Fr.

- could not decide whether or not to enlist as a poet and a Christian x but: enlisted

- wounded, invalidated out of the front, met Sigfried Sassoon in the hospital:

(a) encouraged to write poetry by his fiercely realistic war poems and his guidance

(b) ed. the magazine Hydra

- achieved success both as a soldier (the Military Cross) and as a poet

- killed in action a week before the war ended

W o r k :

(a) early poetry:

< J. Keats

> “Song of Songs”, publ. in the Hydra

- wrote poems of compassion to the sufferings of the poor

(b) mature war poetry:

< suffered nightmares symptomatic of shell shock, the experience erupted into his dreams and then into the poems haunted with obsessive images:

(a) blinded eyes: “Dulce et Decorum Est” (from Horace’s ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ = ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland’)

(b) the mouth of hell: “Miners” and “Strange Meeting”

- mastered alliteration, onomatopoeia, assonance, and half-rhyme

- pioneered the ‘para-rhyme’ = rhyming of 2 words with identical / similar consonants x but: differing stressed vowels (hall / hell), the 2nd usually lower in pitch to produce effects of dissonance, failure, and unfulfilment reinforcing his themes

- the poems ed. by S. Sassoon and publ. posthum. (1920)

(c) late war poetry:

- wrote eloquent elegies on the tragedy of young men killed in battle

- combined a disciplined sensuality x a passionate intelligence

“Dulce et Decorum Est”:

- reverses the romantic assumptions about patriotic sacrifice

- contrast the ghastliness of death by mustard gas x the defunct Horatian dignity damned as an ‘old lie’

“Strange Meeting”:

- describes an escape from battle into ‘some profound dull tunnel’ and a meeting of enemies

- a mystic post-mortal reconciliation of the 2 slaughtered soldiers

- unfinished, often conveniently interpreted as a knowing epitaph

“The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”: looks back to biblical precedent x but: the clever, disturbing, and clinching final couplet turns the story of Abraham and Isaac on its head

“Anthem For Doomed Youth” and “The Next War’: experiments with inherited form of the sonnet

“Futility”: expresses bitterness and anger at the sheer waste of human life



I s a a c  R o s e n b e r g  ( 1 8 9 0 – 1 9 1 8 )

L i f e :

- b. in a humble Anglo-Jewish family

- apprenticed as an engraver x but: aspired to be a painter, supported by 3 Jewish women to study art

- circulated copies of his poems in London lit. circles, gained some reputation x but: no material success in either poetry or painting

- enlisted, killed in action in the last y. of the war

W o r k :

(a) early poetry:

- drew on Jewish history and mythology, experimented

(b) mature war poetry:

< served in the ranks because of his working-class background

- vividness: the fierce apprehension of the physical reality of war, the vivid sense of involvement, the exclamatory directness of language

- stark and often contrary energy: a detached and curious fascination with the nature of war, with the ravaged men and landscapes, and the imagery around him in the desolation of the trenches

- originality: broke new ground in imagery, rhythms, and the handling of dramatic effects

- association of dissociated elements: the ‘queer, sardonic rat’, or the dropping poppies ‘whose roots are in men’s veins’ in his “Break of Day in the Trenches”

=> a proto-Modernist fragmentation

Night and Day (1912), Youth (1915), and Moses, A Play (1916): early pamphlets of poetry publ. at his own expense

“Returning, We Hear Larks”: death = as natural and as dangerously deceptive as larks singing behind the battlefield

Also wrote following poems of distinction:

“Break of Day in the Trenches”, “Louse Hunting”, and “Dead Man’s Dump”


S i e g f r i e d  S a s s o o n  ( 1 8 8 6 – 1 9 6 7 )

L i f e :

- b. in a rich Jewish family

- enlisted, fought with a conspicuous courage (Military Cross), wounded, and invalidated

- then took a different view of the war [see his “A Soldier’s Declaration”]

- returned to the Western Front, wounded, and invalidated home

- then converted to Rom. Cath.

W o r k :

(a) mature war poetry:

- short and blunt lyrics

- masterly use of direct speech, shock tactics, and bitter irony

- the chasm btw those making decisions x those suffering the consequences

=> attacks the old men of the army, church, and government responsible for the miseries and murders of the young

(b) late poetry:

- conversion to Rom. Cath.

- mainly devotional poetry

“A Soldier’s Declaration” (1917):

- a public statement sent to his commanding officer

- ‘an act of wilful defiance of military authority’ because of the war ‘being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it’, being no more ‘a war of defence and liberation’ x but ‘a war of aggression and conquest’

Satirical Poems (1926):

- later poetry

- still attacks the society x but: in a milder, changed style

“The Redeemer”:

- intermixes relig. and secular contexts

- a soldier carries wood = Christ-like while the light of a flare lasts x surrenders his aura after the light fades x but: retains his suffering humanity

“Repression of the Experience”:

- describes the seeming unnaturalness of life on leave from the front

- nervously gestures twd a breakdown of the mind and of the very structure of the poem

“Base Details”: attacks the generals

“The Glory of Women”: accuses the uncomprehending non-combatants

“A Working Party”: in an elegiac way memorialises an unmemorable soldier ‘accidentally’ killed


(c) also wrote:

Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), and Sherston’s Progress (1936):

- an autobiog. trilogy written from a fictionalised POV

- contrasts an experience of the world of lit. London and that of the country gentleman x the brutally different world of the trenches


D a v i d  G a s c o y n e  ( 1 9 1 6 – 2 0 0 1 )

L i f e :

- joined the Communist Party (1936), participated in the propaganda radio broadcasts x but: soon disillusioned, left the party

- lived in Paris shortly before and then on and off after the WW II, befriended Salvador Dalí

- suffered a mental breakdown and returned to live in En., wrote little from that point on

W o r k :

= associated with the Surrealists

S u r r e a l i s t  W r i t i n g :

A Short Survey of Surrealism (1935): one of the most determined Br. apologists for the surreal experiment

Man’s Life is This Meat (1936) and Hölderlin’s Madness (1938):

= often obsessively odd coll. of poems

- coll. his own early surrealist work and his transl. of Fr. surrealists

> establ. his reputation as one of the small group of E surrealists

“Figure in a Landscape’:

- enacts a kind of ritual awakening

> nods to the iterations of Eliot

“The Seventh Dream is the Dream of Isis”:

- intermixes the extraordinary, the challenging, and the unapologetically silly

- dispenses with capital letters and with punctuation (apart from 2 almost arbitrary full stops)

W a r  P o e t r y :

- ‘deviates’ into a certain kind of logical sense

Poems 1937-1942 (1943):

= an illustr. coll. of poems from the period of his pre-WW II stay in Paris

- shifts twd a more explicitly relig. sensibility => estranged from the Paris surrealists

A Vagrant and Other Poems (1950) and Night Thoughts (1956):

= coll. of his later poems

- shifts completely away from surrealism twd a more metaphysical and relig. poetry

“Farewell Chorus”:

- signed ‘New Year 1940’ = greets the sphinx of ‘the Forties’ with assertion that ‘each lonely consciousness’ mirrors ‘War’s world…without end’

“Walking at Whitsun”:

- wonders at the ‘anguish’ making the E landscape seem ‘Inhuman’ and ‘unreal’

- concl.: veers twd the uneasy thoughts of helmets, ruins, and ‘invading steel’


D y l a n  T h o m a s  ( 1 9 1 4 – 5 3 )

L i f e :

- b. in Wales

- a nwsp reporter and a poet discovered through a poetry contest in nwsp

- a brilliant talker and brilliant reader of his own and oth.’ poems

- the role of the wild bohemian poet: died suddenly of ‘an insult to the brain’ precipitated by alcohol

W o r k :

< the school of J. Donne > emotionalism, lyric intensity, and the metaphysical speculation (the title of his Deaths and Entrances derived from J. Donne]

Early poetry:

- introd. a new kind of strength and romantic picturesqueness after the deliberately mute tones of T. S. Eliot

- early critics consid. him the founder of a neo-Romantic movement x but: did not turn out to be so

War poetry:

- detaches himself from private reminiscence

- addresses the idea of Death touching the Resurrection: his explicitly and even noisily Christian coll. Deaths and Entrances

Eighteen Poems (1934):

= an early vol.

- extravagant and pulsating rhetorical style: violent imagery, suggestive obscurity

The Map of Love (1939), Deaths and Entrances (1946), and Collected Poems (1953):

< the Bible, the Welsh folklore and preaching, and Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939, an Austrian and ‘the father of psychoanalysis’)

- a closely woven imagery suggest the unity of all life

- the continuing process of life and death locks men and women in a round of identities: love leads to new growth and so in turn to death again and to life again

=> seeks for a poetic ritual to celebrate this unity

“Poem in October”:

- presents reminiscence and autobiog. emotion

- re-enacts the freedoms of childhood before summers turns to autumn and the sun to showers

- makes a compelling use of simple natural images and a lyrical feeling

“In Memory of Ann Jones” (= his aunt):

- yearns for a future universal release from death

- specifically Welsh in terms of local reference

“Twenty-four Years Remind the Tears of My Eyes”:

- interweaves the turbulent pulses of nature and the stillness of death

- typifies the confident loose-limbed swing of much of his verse

“Fern Hill”:

- celebrates his youth = the age of innocence with the knowledge of death kept at a distance

Explicitly war poetry:

“Deaths and Entrances”:

- links incendiary bombs and fire-storms x an impending Armageddon

- in an apocalyptic manner

“Ceremony After a Fire Raid” and “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”:

- both grieves x refuses to grieve, comforts himself with the unity of humankind and nature, past and present, and life and death

- the former transl. destruction into reconstitution

- the latter ecstatically reflects on the promised Resurrection

“Do not go gentle”:

= the most celebrated late poem

- a personal protesting anxiety and a ‘rage against the dying of the light’ intrudes itself btw death and ecstasy

Also wrote:

- prose: observes his subject with equal vividness, and combines violence and tenderness in expression equally as in his poetry

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (1940): his autobiog.

Under Milk Wood (1945): a radio play


A l u n  L e w i s  ( 1 9 1 5 – 4 4 )

L i f e :

- b. in a mining village in Wales

- won a scholarship for uni education

- a convinced pacifist x but: entered the army shortly after the outbreak of WW II

- killed accidentally ‘by a pistol shot’ in Burma (Ind.) during the WW II campaign against the Japanese

W o r k :

- rarely a specifically Welsh poet-at-war despite his Welsh orig.: except for his “Destruction” and “A Welsh Night”

- the most assertively civilian of all the distinctive soldier writers of WW II

- sympathetic with the impoverished coal miners because of his own humble orig.

Raiders’ Dawn (1942):

= his 1st vol.

- incl. mostly poems about the army life in En. training camps

- pays tribute to E. Thomas and to the E landscapes most associated with him

“All Day It Has Rained…”:

- agonises about the tedium of life in an encampment in rain and wind

- a man passionately loves his home and wife x but: becomes dumb and indifferent in the confines of the camp

Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets (1945, posthum.):

= his 2nd vol., in 3 parts

- the title: from the description of a war-horse in the Book of Job

- incl. mostly poems written after his leaving En. for military duty in the East:

(1) his tense waiting En.

(2) his voyage to the East

(3) his uncomfortable coming to terms with the alien contours, harsh light, and dry wastes of the Ind. landscape


= a leave-taking poem

- recalls the last few hours he spent with his wife before leaving for Ind. (never saw her again)

“Indian Day” and “Observation Post: Forward Area”:

- at his best

- suggest his reluctant, deracinated, restlessness


Abrams, Meyer Howard, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Barnard, Robert. Stručné dějiny anglické literatury. Praha: Brána, 1997.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. New York: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Other Sources

Práger, Libor. Semináře: Britská literatura 2. ZS 2004/05.



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