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Investigation into the literary culture of the trenches – from Paul Fussell’s through Shakespeare, Milton and the Romantics to Hardy and Housman.
In India, as in many other countries, First World War poetry spoke with a British accent.The poetry of the First World War is often regarded as peculiarly ‘English’, but many of the soldier-poets had a conflicted relation to ‘Englishness’: Sorley was Anglo-Scottish, Rosenberg and Sassoon (on his father’s side) were Jewish, Ledwidge was Irish, while Owen, Jones and Thomas could trace their recent family history to Wales.Moreover, war poetry was produced across Europe, by poets as diverse as Giuseppe Ungaretti, Georg Trakl, Guillaume Apollinaire and Anna Akhmatova, and further afield from countries such as Australia and New Zealand, Canada, India, the West Indies and Turkey.In some papers found in his kit after his death in the Battle of Loos on 13 October 1915, the twenty-year-old Charles Hamilton Sorley had scribbled in pencil what would become one of the most celebrated sonnets of the First World War: When you see millions of the mouthless dead Across your dreams in pale battalions go, Say not soft things as other men have said, That you’ll remember. Mixing cultural memory with linguistic desire, First World War poetry has ranged far beyond the covers of the book. For, deaf, how should they know It is not curses heaped on each gashed head? And spook-like, First World War poetry knows no habitation or rest.Similarly, combatant, non-combatant and women’s poetry operated within a larger poetic field and shared common ground.For many scholars, the very term ‘war poetry’ is problematic: indeed, a ‘war poem’ contains much besides the war.For the scope of First World War poetry is much wider than that of the trench lyric.There is a substantial and distinguished body of war poetry by male civilian poets, including Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling and D H Lawrence, as well as by women-poets such as Charlotte Mew, Mary Borden, Vera Brittain, Rose Macaulay and Margaret Postgate Cole.Other important soldier-poets include Edmund Blunden, Ivor Gurney, Robert Graves, Edward Thomas, David Jones, Francis Ledgwidge, and Isaac Rosenberg, and of course the golden-haired young man whose ‘begloried’ war sonnets they all opposed and yet one who haunts their work: Rupert Brooke.More than any other genre – fiction, memoir or film – it is the poetry of the trenches, as represented by a small group of ‘anti-war’ soldier-poets, that has come to dominate First World War memory.