Icons / October 2017

British War Poets: By the Pen and the Sword

With the October issue of The Rake celebrating British military heroes now on the stands, we raise a sombre toast to the literary heroes produced by the horrors of World War I.

Gathered by the side of a muddy track, British soldiers look on as a fellow comrade takes pen to paper in a brief moment of calm.

“The truly creative mind,” Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning American novelist Pearl S. Buck once wrote, “is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.” If we take ‘sensitivity’ here to mean emotional responsiveness to external stimuli, what happens when a vast cross-section of personality types are plunged into conditions that are intensely traumatic?

Perhaps the best answer we have comes in the form of the terror-soaked stanzas of the English war poets. World War I is a conflict more inextricably linked to gritty literary endeavour than any other, and it’s tempting to put this down to the realism and naturalism movement that portrayed a grainier, more visceral treatment of such horrors, that were de rigueur late in the previous century. The creative journey of one of the most publicly outspoken war poets, though, suggests otherwise.

When War broke out, Siegfried Sassoon was spending some idle years playing cricket and golf, foxhunting, writing poetry and coming to terms with his then-illegal homosexuality. Seduced by the patriotic fervour gripping British society in 1914, he enlisted first as a trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, then with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Sassoon’s relocation to the Western Front saw him exposed to the horrors of trench warfare – a far cry from the Victorian yarns featuring dashing heroes in gleaming uniforms with which he’d grown up in a Kent backwater. His penchant for literary romanticism held out for a while: reviewing the poetry his friend Robert Graves was preparing for publication, Sassoon – an ardent admirer of the flowery syntax and imagery of the romantic poets, along with the king-and-country positivism of Rupert Brooke’s sonnets – found Graves’s work indulgently, unpalatably gritty.

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