Share this article

print logo

The Poets of the First World War and the world they never made

Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew

By Max Egremont

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

337 pages, $28.00

By William L. Morris


A hundred years ago the decline of the West began in earnest. As it is today, English was spoken everywhere civilization had made inroads.

Then it was due to the British Empire. Now it’s the Internet’s fault.

Max Egremont, a graduate of Oxford, is both the editor of the poets’ work that he writes about here and the author of essays about them. All 11 fought in the war. Several of them died there. Their poems are organized in six sections chronologically: five of the years the war dragged on and one containing works by those who survived.

These poems represent the last time poetry meant something to an entire nation. That can’t be said for the poets who picked up the gauntlet afterward – T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, et al. Looking directly at the apocalypse was too great a task for them. They favored experimentation and abstraction and gradually lost their audience with a few exceptions like Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost.

Egremont has spent his entire life studying the Great War. He wrote a biography of Siegfried Sassoon and thinks of these men as if they were his personal friends. His essays give the news about them without much editorializing. Fortunately it’s the sort of poetry that doesn’t need much explication. That’s both its great strength and its undoing.

“Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?” is appropriate because these poems were later criticized for being too journalistic. Robert Graves, one of the war poets who survived, later disowned his war poems for that reason. That’s a bum rap because journalism was in what many consider its golden age.

Egremont quotes Sassoon as saying what a pity it was that Wilfred Owen died and not him. Owen would have been better able to take on the modernists.

The best way to enjoy these poems is to read the essay at the beginning of the book and the one at the end, then read as many of the poems as you can in one sitting. That way you can witness firsthand the growing disillusionment with the war. They are written in traditional forms and simple language. The clarity of these poems was used against them, a sad example of literally shooting the messenger. The only thing wearying about them is their subject.

Two poets stand out. Both of them died in battle. Edward Thomas captured the mood of the times without writing about war. Owen stared directly in its face and wrote bitter, heartbreaking near rhymes.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.

There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;

And God will grow no talons at his heels,

Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

– Wilfred Owen, “Arms and the Boy”

Both poets are terrifying. No wonder the ones who came later avoided emulating them.

When you are acquainted with the several different voices of these poets the information in the remaining essays will make more sense of the poems written by these young men who were tricked into thinking they could end war when what they were ending was a way of life.

William L. Morris was a co-creator of the News poetry pages and now lives and writes in Florida.