Essay

“No Case of Petty Right or Wrong”

A new Manual Cinema video brings World War I poetry to life.
By The Editors
Paper illustration of two soldiers putting on gas masks in WWI.

This November 11th is the centenary of the Armistice, which marked the end of World War I. To commemorate the anniversary, the Poetry Foundation has partnered with Manual Cinema on a video that brings three World War I poems to life: John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” Edward Thomas’s “The Owl,” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” These poems share different experiences of World War I from a soldier’s perspective.

World War I brought rapid changes to both the style and subject of poetry. Prior to the war, poets expressed a classical patriotism in verse, extolling the glories of war and honorable death. They used ornate, high-flown language and traditional poetic forms. Earlier war ballads such as Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) were extremely well-known, and many people could recite such poems by heart. But modern warfare was becoming increasingly brutal and horrific with the advent of new technology. In World War I alone, tanks, machine guns, airplane bombers, aircraft carriers, submarines, naval mines, flamethrowers, and poison gas were introduced, with devastating consequences. For many poets, the old form of war poetry—the verbal embellishments and archaisms of late Victorian poetry—no longer described their lives and the world around them.

Early World War I poems still invoked this idealistic patriotism, almost as a rallying cry. At worst, some read as jingoistic propaganda. Perhaps the most famous example is McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (1915), which quickly inspired people in the UK, the US, and Canada to join the cause. The British and Canadian governments used the poem in advertisements to sell war bonds and to encourage recruitment. Another popular poem, Georgian poet Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “The Soldier,” celebrates dying in war, in which the speaker’s burial site makes “some corner of a foreign field ... for ever England.” (Brooke died of an infection on a warship in 1918 and was buried on a Greek island.)

Such poetic idealism would not survive four years in the trenches. The patriotic anthems and calls to arms largely yielded to documentary war reportage and, finally, to poems of protest. As the conflict dragged on, poets—many of whom served as soldiers or medics—broke with old forms of expression to convey the modern horrors they saw. Even poets more comfortable writing about nature, such as Thomas, found ways to address the brutal realism of war. Reading “The Owl,” in which the solitary, nocturnal bird is “speaking for all who lay under the stars, / Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice,” we can imagine that war poets such as Thomas began to see their task as speaking for the millions of soldiers without a voice. Though many poems retained rhyme and meter, poets often employed new conversational vernacular, biting irony, raw emotion, and grisly descriptions to translate their experiences into a poetry of disturbing immediacy.

Though these changes weren’t immediate or universal, the more idealistic and patriotic poems that failed to capture the new reality dissipated. By the time of the Armistice in 1918, Siegfried Sassoon, Thomas Hardy, and Ivor Gurney were publishing poems denouncing the outdated views of military glory and valor in favor of telling the bitter truth about life (and death) in the trenches. Owen wrote that “all a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful.” Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is one of the most famous poems to directly refute “the old lie” that “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Poetry changed drastically in the aftermath of World War I and gave birth to Modernism, a movement that forever altered the arc of the art form in English.

You’ll see these shifts in perspective, language, and experience reflected in the poems depicted in the video below. To learn more, please explore our collections The Poetry of World War I and World War I Poets.

Originally Published: November 6th, 2018