War Poetry

When the First World War began, it was Tennyson’s register of language that people, soldiers and the government turned to.

Although the term ‘war poetry’ comes to be used principally after the First World War, which saw an increase in poetry written about combat, the poetry of the First World War was actually part of a longer tradition of poetry about war, a tradition that it reacted against. In war poetry before the First World War, particularly British war poetry, it was rarer for the poet to be involved in combat, rather, these poems operated as comments upon these wars, and were used as ways of translating that experience to the public.

Tennyson’s war poetry is charged with the kind of language that became common in pamphlets and propaganda about the First World War, enormously popular poems, when the First World War began, it was Tennyson’s register of language that people, soldiers and the government turned to.

‘Is it peace or war? better, war! loud war by land and by sea,
War with a thousand battles, and shaking a hundred thrones.’ – ‘Maud: A Monodrama


‘When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
   All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
   Noble six hundred!’ – ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade
 

The patriotic outcries of Tennyson poems from ‘Maud’ to ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ are almost indistinguishable from the poetry written at the outbreak of, or early in, World War One, such as Sir Henry Newbolt’s 1914 poem ‘The Vigil’, published just days after the outbreak of the war.

‘England: where the sacred flame
Burns before the inmost shrine,
Where the lips that love thy name
Consecrate their hopes and thine,
Where the banners of thy dead
Weave their shadows overhead,
Watch beside thine arms to-night,
Pray that God defend the Right.’ – ‘The Vigil

In another of Tennyson’s poems about war ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’ he echoes the famous lines of John Donne.

‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.’ – John Donne

 All is over and done:    
Render thanks to the Giver,        
England, for thy son.              
Let the bell be toll’d.      
Render thanks to the Giver,        
And render him to the mould.   
Under the cross of gold 
That shines over city and river,          
There he shall rest for ever         
Among the wise and the bold.   
Let the bell be toll’d:      
And a reverent people behold  
The towering car, the sable steeds:                 
Bright let it be with its blazon’d deeds,  
Dark in its funeral fold. 
Let the bell be toll’d:      
And a deeper knell in the heart be knoll’d;           
And the sound of the sorrowing anthem roll’d            
Thro’ the dome of the golden cross;        
And the volleying cannon thunder his loss;           
He knew their voices of old.’ – ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington

 The tolling of the funeral bell becomes an image that recurs again and again throughout war poetry and writing, and through it can be traced not only developments but also influence. Through Donne, Tennyson reaches out to Hemingway’s novel about the Spanish Civil War ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. Whose colloquial, practical linguistic approach otherwise refuses to participate in the poetic tradition which its epigraph references.

 “There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span.” – ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls

Perhaps the most famous of the World War One poets, Wilfred Owen in his ‘Anthem to Doomed Youth’ takes hold of this poetic image and turns it on its head. For him, ‘the bells’ are absent, found only in the rattle of the guns. No bell tolls for them because in the trenches they are not men, part of their ‘island’, but rather ‘cattle’ sent to the slaughter.

‘What passing-bells for these 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.’ – ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth

 These words are then echoed and re-echoed through how we think about war today, and the headlines about the centenary of the First World War recall a poetic tradition upon which war poets both drew, and from which they departed, ‘Bells will ring out: world to mark end of first world war, 100 years on’, well as the bells ring out, so does this war poetry, echoing both into the future and into the past.

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