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Great Poems of the First World War


John Simkin
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I thought it might be a good idea to post our favourite poems of the First World War. Here is my first choice. It is by Isaac Rosenberg. It was written three days before he was killed.

Isaac Rosenberg, The Immortals (1918)

I killed them, but they would not die.

Yea! all the day and all the night

For them I could not rest or sleep,

Nor guard from them nor hide in flight.

Then in my agony I turned

And made my hands red in their gore.

In vain - for faster than I slew

They rose more cruel than before.

I killed and killed with slaughter mad;

I killed till all my strength was gone.

And still they rose to torture me,

For Devils only die in fun.

I used to think the Devil hid

In women’s smiles and wine’s carouse.

I called him Satan, Balzebub.

But now I call him, dirty louse.

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Siegfried Sassoon, Suicide in the Trenches (1917)

I knew a simple soldier boy

Who grinned at life in empty joy,

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,

And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,

With crumps and lice and lack of rum,

He put a bullet through his brain.

No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you'll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.

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Siegfried Sassoon, Aftermath (1920)

HAVE you forgotten yet?...

For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,

Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:

And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow

Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,

Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.

But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...

Have you forgotten yet?...

Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--

The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?

Do you remember the rats; and the stench

Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench--

And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?

Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-grey

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

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William Noel Hodgson, Before Action (1916)

By all the glories of the day

And the cool evening's benison,

By the last sunset touch that lay

Upon the hills when day was done,

By beauty lavishly outpoured

And blessings carelessly received,

By all the days that I have lived

Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man's hopes and fears,

And all the wonders poets sing,

The laughter of unclouded years,

And every sad and lovely thing;

By the romantic ages stored

With high endeavour that was his

By all his mad catastrophes

Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill

Saw with uncomprehending eyes

A hundred of They sunsets spill

Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,

Ere the sun swings his noonday sword

Must say good-bye to all of this;--

By all delights that I shall miss,

Help me to die, O Lord.

You can read my comments on another post why I find this particular poem so powerful.

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Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum est (1917)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in.

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

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Charles Sorley, To Germany (1914)

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,

And no man claimed the conquest of your land.

But gropers both through fields of thought confined

We stumble and we do not understand.

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other's dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again

With new-won eyes each other's truer form

And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm

We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,

When it is peace. But until peace, the storm

The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

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Humbert Wolfe, Requiem: The Soldier (1916)

Down some cold field in a world outspoken

the young men are walking together, slim and tall,

and though they laugh to one another, silence is not broken;

there is no sound however clear they call.

They are speaking together of what they loved in vain here,

but the air is too thin to carry the things they say.

They were young and golden, but they came on pain here,

and their youth is age now, their gold is grey.

Yet their hearts are not changed, and they cry to one another,

'What have they done with the lives we laid aside?

Are they young with our youth, gold with our gold, my brother?

Do they smile in the face of death, because we died?'

Down some cold field in a world uncharted

the young seek each other with questioning eyes.

They question each other, the young, the golden hearted,

of the world that they were robbed of in their quiet paradise.

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Two from Germany:

Ernst Toller, Spring 1915 (March, 1915)

In spring I go to war

To sing or to die.

What do I care for my own troubles?

Today I shatter them, laughing in pieces.

Oh, Brothers, know that young spring came

In a whirlwind.

Quickly throw off tired grief

And follow her in a host.

I have never felt so strongly

How much I love you, Oh, Germany,

As the magic of spring surrounds you

Amidst the bustle of war.

Ernst Toller, Corpses in the Wood (1916)

A dung heap of rotting corpses:

Glazed eyes, bloodshot,

Brains split, guts spewed out

The air poisoned by the stink of corpses

A single awful cry of madness.

Oh, women in France,

Women of Germany

Regard your menfolk!

They fumble with torn hands

For the swollen bodies of their enemies,

Gestures, stiff in death, become the touch of brotherhood,

Yes, they embrace each other,

Oh, horrible embrace!

I see and see and am struck dumb

Am I a beast, a murderous dog?

Men violated

Murdered.

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWtoller.htm

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Wilfred Owen

Anthem for Doomed Youth

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 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.

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of the boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbies.

The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

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Giuseppe Ungaretti

VIGIL

A whole night long

crouched close

to one of our men

butchered

with his clenched

mouth

grinning at the full moon

with the congestion

of his hands

thrust right

into my silence

I've written

letters filled with love

I have never been

so

coupled to life

------------------

SAN MARTINO DEL CARSO

Of these houses

nothing

but fragments of memory

Of all who

would talk with me not

one remains

But in my heart

no one's cross is missing

My heart is

the most tormented country of all

------------------

I AM A CREATURE

Like this stone of

San Michele

as cold

as hard

as thoroughly dried

as refractory

as deprived of spirit

Like this stone

is my weeping that can't

be seen

Living

discounts death

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Rudyard Kipling

Common Form (1918)

If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Rudyard Kipling, the Empire's poet, lost his only son John in WWI and never got over it. This is clearly reflected in these short two lines. It is also reflected in this 1924 work:

A Dead Statesman (1924)

I could not dig; I dared not rob:

Therefore I lied to please the mob.

Now all my lies are proved untrue

And I must face the men I slew.

What tale shall serve me here among

Mine angry and defrauded young?

Edited by ChrisGunn
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None better than....

In Flanders Fields

By John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved, and were loved, and now we lie

      In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

      In Flanders fields.

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Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away ---

It is the same old Druid Time as ever.

Only a live thing leaps my hand -

A queer sardonic rat---

As I pull the parapet's poppy

To stick behind my ear .

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew

Your cosmopolitan sympathies.

Now you have touched this English hand

You will do the same to a German-

Soon,no doubt , if it be your pleasure

To cross the sleeping green between.

It seems you inwardly grin as you pass

Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes

Less chanced than you for life,

Bonds to the whims of murder,

Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,

Tte torn fields of France.

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

What quaver-what heart aghast?

Poppies whose roots are in a man's veins

Drop, and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe,

Just a little white with the dust.

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Ivor Gurney: To His Love

He's gone, and all our plans

Are useless indeed.

We'll walk no more on Cotswold

Where the sheep feed

Quietly and take no heed

His body that was so quick

Is not as you

Knew it, on Severn river

Under the blue

Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now...

But still he died

Nobly, so cover him over

With violets of pride

Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!

And with thick-set

Masses of memoried flowers -

Hide that red wet

Thing that somehow I must forget.

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An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

-- William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

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