At the outbreak of the First World War, the English nation as a whole was in high spirits: the men rushed to sign up and fight for 'Old England'; their wives and girlfriends cheered them onthe nation marched into the war with enthusiastic patriotism. The Georgian poets, who had been producing a large quantity of poetry that would now be considered worthless, eyed a chance to increase their popularity (and sales), catch the spirit of the nation and evoke patriotism (which could sometimes border on nationalism). They felt that you should be willing to die for your country: they wrote poetry that actually glorified the idea of war. It was exactly what the majority of the public in Britain wanted to read, and volumes of patriotic poetry were sold by the thousands. For the government, of course, this kind of poetry was beneficial; it served its purpose as propaganda material. After two years of this patriotic propaganda, howevertwo years of endless battles, of hardship and hunger, cold and brutalitythe attitudes of some poets (those who actually had to look war in the face) suffered a major change. David Perkins says of these poets that they wrote "under the shock and moral outrage of immediate experience as soldiers, and their purpose was to show the blundering slaughter for what it was and to stop it" (142). It may be interesting to compare the different attitudes presented in the works of the three most famous protesting War PoetsWilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Isaac Rosenbergas well as to contrast their poetry with the work of one of the most popular Georgian poets, Rupert Brooke.
In 1914, at the beginning of the Great War, Rupert Brooke was already a well-established poet, whose poetry the English people knew and loved, while Sassoon, Owen and Rosenberg had not acquired any fame yet. In December of that year he published five sonnets, which constituted his first response to the war. The national mood of that hour was unquestionably captured in these five sonnets, which obviously were written by a civilian in uniform. The most famous of these, "The Soldier", shows what D.J. Enright called the "simple-minded romanticism" of Brooke (163), and Charles Sorley called his "obsession with his own sacrifice,"(263) but one thing is clear to anyone who reads it: Brooke had never been in the trenches. This is a poem filled with patriotism, the idea of dying for your country is glorified; he obviously sentimentalizes war:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; (1-4)
Did he really believe that the earth where the dead soldier lies would become "England", and that his dust is "richer" than the surrounding country? Whatever we have to say about it, the English people at the time loved it: the dean of Saint Pauls quoted it, remarking that "the enthusiasm of a pure and elevated patriotism never had found a nobler expression"; priests would read it out loud during their sermon to encourage young men to enlist and be ready to die a glorious death for their beloved Englandeven Winston Churchill eulogized Brooke as "joyous, fearless, and ruled by high, undoubting purpose" (Press 1983, 420). We must keep in mind that this poetry was written in the early days of the war; people had not yet learned the horrors of warfare: Brooke just didn't know better. We may wonder, as H.L. Elvin does in his "Eagles and Trumpets for the Middle Classes," whether in 1917 Brooke would have written as Sassoon did, because by then most of the poets, except the stay-at-home ones, had become disillusioned (163). But Brooke did not live long enough to become disillusionedhe died in 1915, on his way to the war. He did not experience the physical violence and moral shock of the trenches which made other poets produce poetry that Perkins describes as "more direct, forceful and actual" than...
Cited: Harding, et al., eds. Vol. 1. 1932-33.
Harding, et al., eds. Vol. 3. 1934-1935.
Hunter, Jim, ed. Modern Poets Two. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
Press, John. A Map of Modern English Verse. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969.
New York: Charles Scribner 's Sons, 1983.
Sorley, Charles. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 1919, 263. As quoted in John Press '
A Map of Modern Verse, 142.
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