Essay On Reaction To World War I Poetry
Type of paper: Essay
Topic: War, Veterans, World War 1, World, Literature, Soldier, Men, Poetry
The dehumanizing effects wrought by World War I caused profound psychological and physical trauma, which resulted in observed aberrant behaviors associated with effeminacy such as uncontrollable crying, paranoia, and neurasthenia. Literary critic and scholar Paul Fussell had famously declared that “dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it” (Fussell 3). World War I created mass devastation on an unprecedented scale in Europe, which created a void and power vacuum that spanned the entire globe. Although soldiers had initially felt a sense of excitement and optimism about the war as it loomed and seemed imminent, the young soldiers who fought in it faced widespread loss and death that reified epochal gender anxieties rather than restoring their virility. Poetry from World War I illustrates the experiences of soldiers in the trenches, an experience that they had hitherto not faced because of how rapidly warfare had developed due to global imperialism and the arms race that nineteenth century imperialism spawned. World War I poetry gives readers an idea of who wrote the document and the ideas that they sought to convey. According to poems penned by Rupert Brook, World War I presented an opportunity for men in western societies to “prove” themselves as virile and tough men. Indeed, these poems convey the elation that young soldiers initially felt about the war as they were excited to be able to physically prove their manhood vis-à-vis bellicosity and showcasing their courage/bravery in battle. Although fighting in a global war fundamentally epitomized a manly and physically demanding activity, the actual lived experiences and conditions men faced in the trenches was emasculating. The majority of the poetry that proliferated during the war were written by ordinary men, as only a few are known to have been penned by Oxford-educated men World War I poetry unequivocally conveyed the everyday experiences men faced during World War I, as several authors reconstructed a world that was dark, grim, and defined by death and destruction. Nonetheless, various soldier proffered their personal interpretations of the war that provide a nuanced understanding of World War I.
The imminent global war, according to various poems penned by Rupert Brook, presented an enticing opportunity for young men to publically prove their masculinity and demonstrate their virility. When horrific battles were not taking place, there still remained a continual battle of suffering due to the fact that the environment was quite harsh. Donald Fraser meticulously recounts the vagaries of the harsh terrain soldiers faced during the war. Private Fraser’s Journal describes the trench experiences he encountered on the battlefield during the war. The primary goal of trench warfare was to collapse the trenches before the enemy went over the top to vanquish them. It was not about eliminating the weapons of the enemy, as aiming to collapse enemy trenches emerged as a crucial strategy. Trenches were unequivocally claustrophobic and confined spaces in which dead bodies were strew everywhere in the perpetually wet and cold atmosphere of the trenches. Soldiers were unable to sleep very well, and the cumulative effects of sleep deprivation in this wet, cold, muddy and dangerous space cultivated a feeling in the soldiers that they were always subject to attack. During their “leisure” periods when the soldiers weren’t being attacked, Fraser describes how soldiers would shore up the trenches in order to protect their small communities. Indeed, trenches were like small communities despite the battles of attrition that were taking place around them as well as the resentment and distancing that took place between the officer class and the frontline unit.
Indeed, it was quite difficult for soldiers to maintain a sense of reality since they were stuck in the same place in the trenches for days and sometimes weeks. Wilfred Owen penned an anthem for the so-called “doomed youth” who participated in World War I. He describes the loss on the battlefields as well as the loss on the Home Front suffered by hundreds and thousands of people. The “Lost Generation” germinated during this war, as the young men who served their respective countries would miss out on living their lives to the fullest due to the tragedy and loss experienced during a war that was truly global in nature. Charles Hamilton Sorley, a twenty year old soldier who was killed in the Battle of Loos in 1915, wrote one of the most celebrated poems written during World War I. It describes in disturbing fashion the bleakness he had faced during this war by deploying somber and desolate imagery while also alluding to mythical Greek and Roman figures. Indeed, this poem retained a liminality because it described the author’s personal tragedy through poetics and testified to the broken body situated within the wartime rhetoric of glory and honor.
After World War I drew to a close, Siegfried Sassoon, an anti-war poet who was disenchanted and disillusioned by his experiences during the Great War, moved to Oxford, England. There, he unapologetically exercised and conveyed his sense of heightened individuality both by donning clothing that contained vivid hues. Sassoon “went about exploiting” his public “reputation as an anti-war poet,” which was anthologized in Pat Barker’s renowned trilogy about Sassoon’s experiences during the war and the trauma that manifested as a result. Sassoon abhorred seeing sartorial patterns that mimicked the dreary colors of military garb, which were poignant reminders of the horrors and monotony of his wartime experiences because he was forced to wear the uniform while idly waiting in the trenches (130). Indeed, clothing itself in the aftermath of the war operated as a site of autonomy and personal pleasure for soldiers disgruntled and disillusioned by the Great War.
Soldier-poets and non-soldier poets alike etched an image of the soldier in World war I as both resilient and broken/damaged, which forms a formative part of the European and American cultural consciousness. Owen, Sassoon, and other significant soldier-poets including Graves, Edward Thomas, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, and Francis Ledgwidge penned war sonnets that lament how the war had damaged the physical body of the soldier due to the nature of trench warfare. They all articulate anti-war sentiments that have shaped and reshaped the public memory of World War I in the western world and continue to dictate in the present day feelings and emotions surrounding such bellicosity.
Although soldier-poets dominate the majority of the corpus of literature on World War I poetry, there is also a group of civilian poets such as Edgar Guest and Rudyard Kipling who proffered narratives about how the war complicated the identity of the soldiers in complex ways. Edgar Guest wrote poetry from the perspective of a man who had not joined the military to fight but rather worked as a journalist for the Detroit Free Press. His “The Things That Make a Soldier Great” became syndicated in publications as effective propaganda in the United States despite the fact that he remained a civilian journalist during the Great War.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975. Print.
Sassoon, Siegfried. Siegfried’s Journey 1916-1920. London: Faber and Faber, 1945. Print.