Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and the Poetry of War


In The Owl, written in February 1915, three months before he enlisted, Edward Thomas characteristically sets himself on the open road: walking at night feeling hungry, cold and tired. When he enters an inn, though, the exterior world is ‘quite barred out’ except for ‘An owl’s cry, a most melancholy cry // Shaken out long and clear upon the hill’ – and shaken out too across a stanza break, a formal prolongation dramatising the owl’s effect on the poet. In fact the cry is also shaken out across English literary history, since it is explicitly distinguished from the owl’s ‘merry note’ in Shakespeare’s song. For this owl carries an echoing message ‘telling me plain what I escaped / And others could not, that night, as in I went’:

And salted was my food, and my repose,
Salted and sobered, too, by the bird’s voice
Speaking for all who lay under the stars,
Soldiers and poor, unable to rejoice.1

‘Salted’: seasoned, but also rendered poignant or piquant. The bird’s voice, the only voice we hear in this poem of human shelter and sustenance, transforms the poet’s circumstances by its insistent reminder of all who lack such things, ‘soldiers and poor’.

Where the owl is insistent, however, this poet is not. The Owl is merely shadowed by the symbolic properties of its eponymous bird; but this voice is a wise one too, offering exemplary but disconsoling counsel, and doing so by ‘speaking for’ others. And, by taking their part, by speaking in their stead, the owl obviates the need for the poet to do likewise more directly. The owl is the means by which Edward Thomas both gives weight to, and avoids being weighed down by, the expectation that poets in wartime should speak for others, should take on representative status; and, avoiding that, Thomas manages also to avoid the pitfalls which might accompany such commitments:self-approval, presumption, the too easily earned satisfactions of indignation. Indeed, his co-ordination – ‘soldiers and poor’ – by omitting the definite article (not ‘the poor’) may insinuate that ‘poor’ is an adjective defining ‘soldiers’ rather than a separate category, and this may carry a political insinuation too: that soldiers might also be the poor, that poverty might have made them soldiers, even that war might be the continuation of state policy by other means. The poem’s own ‘most melancholy cry’, in February 1915, is therefore an unemphatic but politically charged underminingof its final rhyme. This poet’s voice is unable to rejoice in the imperial wartime mode of Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ but is also wary of the authority of representative status about to be implied and occasionally made explicit in the poems of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

Just over two years after writing The Owl Edward Thomas, not after all escaping what others could not, was killed; and in the intervening period he in fact spent very little time in the trenches. Many of the over 140 poems he wrote then are war poems, therefore, in a rather different sense from those of the combatant poets. Such poems as Words, Roads and Rain– monosyllabic titles which seem almost off-handedly unassertive but also hugely inclusive – are work in which the war is internalised not only as a context for consciousness and sensibility but as the very ground of these things. In Words the English language must be ‘worn new’, an oxymoron in which ‘worn’ is both ‘dressed in’ and ‘worked at’: so the poem celebrates the virtue of linguistic renovation, implicitly challenging the language of a political journalism worn very old indeed – worn out – in jingoistic cliche´. And Rain transforms its exterior weather into an interior state of being which seems inseparable from the state of being at war, when a wrenching beatitude – ‘Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon’ – introduces lines in which the unnamed war plunges thought into a form of trance. Here the language is worn new when something is worn out, in lines which waver irresolvably between prayer, personal melancholia, and universal lamentation, and do so in a limpidly fluent and self-possessed syntax at ironic odds with the desolation being given its consummate expression:

But here I pray that none whom I once loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.


It is impossible not to take stock of Thomas’s poems in an essay on the poetry of the First World War, but combatant poetry nevertheless seems a special case, since the poets’ responses to this unasked-for material involved them in such exceptional challenges, both aesthetic and ethical. To be an officer in charge of troops – of the ‘men’, sometimes referred to in poems as ‘boys’ – was to be made directly responsible for the suffering and death of the young, this being the inevitable consequence of orders necessarily given and faithfully obeyed. For Owen and for Siegfried Sassoon this appears to have been supportable eventually only to the extent that the anxiety, guilt or self-reproach consequent upon it was the spur to the writing of poems engaging with it. Both felt acutely their poetic responsibility, and plight, as witnesses. Owen defines this in a letter of 1917 in which he tells his mother that he has become ‘a poet’s poet’ – he has earned the approval of Sassoon and Harold Munro – but that his poems must capture the ‘look’ of men at the Front, ‘like a dead rabbit’s’: ‘It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.’The element of self-approval in this is bleached out when the thought becomes a promissory poem, The Calls:

For leaning out last midnight on my sill,
I heard the sighs of men that have no skill
To speak of their distress, no nor the will!
A voice I know. And this time I will go.3

And Sassoon in Sick Leave expresses the guilt of withdrawal from the field by imagining ‘the noiseless dead’ approaching his sickbed to reproach him: “When are you going out to them again? / Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”The poem adds a self-recriminatory frisson to the trope of the revenant common in wartime poems (and made exceptional in Thomas’s Roads, where ‘the dead / Returning lightly dance’); and, by stopping at thirteen lines, it calls up the ghost of the sonnet, that most typical of wartime poetic forms, to suggest unfinished business, as if the business of the poem might be completed only by a return to the business of battle.

Owen’s Spring Offensive, however, complicates the call. It recreates the lull before battle and then the attack itself before the final line of the penultimate stanza turns to the aftermath: ‘Some say God caught them even before they fell’. This poem does not explicitly deny that, although the nonspecificity suggests scepticism; but the final stanza asks what the survivors ‘say’: ‘Why speak not they of comrades that went under?’ The question contains bafflement, regret and even irritation, but also anxiety. This very poem, by speaking at all, is presuming to speak for those who either cannot, or who decide not to, speak for themselves. The question savingly queries the whole undertaking of Owen’s work, implicitly recognising that the officer in charge, the man who has given the orders for this ‘offensive’, is very dubiously positioned as a spokesman for those who stay silent subsequently. The war becomes his subject while he is literally making others subject to him. The poem appears to query its own right to ‘speak for’, perhaps even to acknowledge that it also might seem ‘offensive’; and this stress in the very undertaking is one of the several complications that enrich Owen’s finest work. His poetry is the scene of his anguished examination of what it is to be a lieutenant, a lieu-tenant: one who holds, or stands in, the place of others. The place he holds on the battlefield is that of the commanding officer; the place he holds in the poem can only be very self-questioningly that of the private soldier.

But there are other ramifying complications in Owen’s wartime poems too. An untitled, two-sentence poem brilliantly and disturbingly clarifies at least one of them:

I saw his round mouth’s crimson deepen as it fell,
Like a sun, in his last deep hour;
Watched the magnificent recession of farewell,
Clouding, half gleam, half glower,
And a last splendour burn the heavens of his cheek.
And in his eyes
The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak,
In different skies.

This poem does what many of Owen’s war poems do: it re-configures almost allotropically a topos everywhere in his work – a homoerotic fantasising about the faces and bodies of young men. Such continuities are apparent in Jon Stallworthy’s edition which reveals how, even in the annus mirabilis – 1917–18 – in which he wrote most of his war poetry, he was still revising earlier work and drafting callow poems of unalloyed homoerotic fantasy, poems such as Page Eglantine and The Rime of the Youthful Mariner; and they are written large in Dominic Hibberd’s biography.In I Saw His Round Mouth’s Crimson these tropes are both complicated and distressed. The feeling with which the ‘mouth’s crimson’ is gazed at is certainly erotic: the repetition of ‘deepen’ and ‘deep’ is a kind of pulsation, and the conjuration of that flush on the soldier’s dying cheek carries into strangely perturbed register the flushes of arousal which Owen would have noticed in Keats. But the poem is charged with other sympathetic recognitions too which elaborate sexual feeling into a quasi-religious ‘recession’ of mourning.

Indeed, the recessional hymn of the Anglican liturgy is recalled by the word ‘recession’, and a kind of displaced Anglicanism is never far from the tenderness of Owen’s regard, as though his poem Maundy Thursday, probably drafted in 1915 and revised in late 1917 or early 1918, were a kind of paradigm or template for the war poems: when the crucifix is held out to the congregation for veneration, the poem’s speaker kisses not the cross itself but ‘the warm live hand that held the thing’, the ‘brown’ hand of ‘a server-lad’. I saw his round mouth’s crimson is also a poem of transferred or displaced veneration, deepening eroticism into mourning, while also disturbingly, but bravely, acknowledging the presence of erotic feeling in the context of gazing on a dying body.

Maundy Thursday risks blasphemy; I saw his round mouth’s crimson also braves risk by striving for honest record, accurate emotion, and an unflinching attempt to make language newly commensurate with horrific event. Refusing to sanitise response, it intricates suffering and reaction, victimisation and voyeurism, in a knot of intricate complexity; welling out of Owen’s psycho-sexual subjectivity, it also meets the extreme demand of its historical moment. James Fenton has said of Owen’s juvenilia that ‘the realm of Eros was what he felt to be his great subject’.6 In I saw his round mouth’s crimson and other war poems, Owen produces work in which what he felt to be his great subject, ‘the realm of Eros’, is forced into devastating confrontation with a subject he did not want at all, the realm of Thanatos; but this turns what he felt to be his great subject into his truly great subject, and the subject of great poems. The combination of the erotic and the representative is what makes poems such as Strange Meeting, Greater Love, Asleep and Disabled so emotionally complicated: poems in which a quality of yearning undermines any elegiac principle of assuagement.

I saw his round mouth’s crimson may also, however, briefly flicker with another element apparent in Owen’s war poems when it gazes into those withdrawing eyes and sees there ‘The cold stars lighting, very old and bleak / In different skies’. Peter Howarth discovers the word ‘indifferent’ here, reading it as Owen’s awareness of the soldier’s unresponsiveness to his own interest; but it could also leave the man’s eyes glazing over with what this poet takes to be the civilian reaction to such deaths: indifference.Owen’s poems are designed to shock readers out of indifference by confronting them with actuality; and some, much more obviously than I saw his round mouth’s crimson, prominently include an element of the homiletic: notably ‘Apologia pro Poemate Meo’ (‘These men are worth / Your tears. You are not worth their merriment’), ‘Insensibility’, and ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. This is one of the implications of the preface which he drafted in May 1918 for a volume he hoped to publish the following year:

This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about glory or honour or any might, majesty, dominion or power nor about anything except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity . . . Yet these elegies are in no sense consolatory to this generation. They may be to the next . . . All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poet must be truthful.8

The capitalisations speak volumes: the usual motives for and prizes of war, those held in the mouths of politicians and journalists – glory, honourand so on – pale into lower case, and what stands upright is what the soldier must face, almost in the form of an apotheosised abstraction – ‘War’ – and what the poet has to offer – ‘Poetry’. There is a politics in this, as there is in Edward Thomas’s reticences; there is a revisionary aesthetics; and there is a strong sense of the poem as an act of cautionary witness. In fact, the contents list for this volume itemises not only the title of each poem but also its ‘motive’; and one of the ways in which Owen was not Keatsian – as opposed to all the ways in which he was, in his youth – is his agitated certainty that poetry should have a palpable design upon us.9 From this poet infinitely concerned, as his letters constantly show, with poetry, it’s a self-revising gesture of the profoundest kind to declare that the poetry lies somewhere other than in the poetry; it’s almost as though Owen can permit himself poetry, under these circumstances and out of this material, only when it has become something other than itself.

In an outstanding book on Owen, Douglas Kerr has shown how, in order to write these poems, he deliberately schooled himself in elegy, especially pastoral elegy; but he schools himself as a subversive.10 Where the traditional English elegy is consolatory, assuaging grief in Christianised pastoral (‘Some say God caught them even before they fell’), the truthful elegy of this war is ‘in no sense consolatory’. Merging the erotic with the homiletic to create a poetry of scrupulously less deceived witness, a poetry against itself, Owen resists consolation with a more deeply distressed melancholy. Jahan Ramazani, reading Owen in tandem with Freud, makes less of the erotic than I do here, more of the poems’ impulsion towards masochism, and nothing of the homiletic, but he also regards Owen as exemplifying the ‘paradox’ of modern elegies: that ‘the best are frequently the most anti-elegiac’.11 Futility is exemplary in this way, and is also a poem in which subverted elegy and homiletic intention modify and differently focus desire. The exact intensity with which it manages this makes it, in my view, Owen’s greatest poem:

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds –
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

This poem is revisionist of traditional elegy in several senses. It’s a sonnet, and so a form conjuring a tradition of English lyric. But its abbreviated lines, its refusal of pentameter, make the form anxious, curtailed, selfresistant; and Owen’s characteristic pararhymes (sun / sown; once / France; and so on), that influential modern invention, add to the edge and unease, the irresolution of emotion: pararhyme, Douglas Kerr memorably says, is ‘a broken promise to return’ – whereas traditional elegies keep their promises, and return is what they promise.12 Some of the locations and properties characteristic of pastoral elegy – the half-sown fields, the personified rising sun, the waking from death into some form of new life – are warped in the direction of dissent and disconsolation; and, employing a standard rhetorical trope inherited from classical literature (‘Was it for this?’), Owen asks one of the largest of his rhetorical questions, collapsing any elegiac solace into the ultimate insecurity of a question which is actually more than rhetorical: since, by the time Futility was written (May 1918), many, both on and off the battlefield, were asking whether there was point in continuing.

Futility also brings to a point of pained self-revision the trope of the homoerotic gaze. The poem’s opening instruction – ‘Move him into the sun’ – sounds like the initiation of a pastoral ritual; but it could equally be that of an officer to his men, telling them what to do with a corpse: and so Owen represents himself as both officer and poet, caught between actuality and art. But the instruction at the opening of the second stanza – ‘Think how it wakes the seeds’ – seems much more deeply interiorised, an instruction from the self to the self; and this is a self situated once more in the role of artful voyeur – that haunting phrase coined in a poem by a later admirer of Owen’s defining his own relationship to another war and its dead.13 Those ‘limbs’ and ‘sides’, particularised in a succession of achingly poignant epithets, might well, in another kind of poem, have been the spur to further erotic reverie. (We might even remember, with a kind of discrepant appropriateness, the camp jocularity with which Owen, in the trenches, writes punningly to Sassoon that he wants ‘no more exposed flanks of any kind for a long time.’)14 Here, however, the eroticism is also curtailed: the licence of kissing the warm live hand in Maundy Thursday has become the anguish of watching the warmth disappear forever from limbs now, just, ‘still warm’; and what might elsewhere stir this onlooker erotically is in the process of becoming ‘too hard to stir’, except to stir this poet to the desperation and bitterness of his concluding questions. These raise Owen’s exhaustion with the pieties of orthodox Christianity into a realm of almost apocalyptic weariness; a weariness which is quite a different thing, however, from resignation. Futility offers, in its stabbingly eloquent economy, the spectacle of a poet in whom, under the most extreme responsiveness of obligation, everything is organised into sympathetic coherence and brought to its highest pitch of concentrated utterance. It is the exemplary combatant poem of war.


‘Pity’ is a significant word in Siegfried Sassoon’s poems, and Owen was undoubtedly aided in the formulation of his preface, and altogether confirmed in his competence as a poet and in the tractability of the war as a subject for poetry, by his relationship with Sassoon, whom he met when both were inmates of Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, Owen as a consequence of ‘neurasthenia’ following front-line experience, and Sassoon as an alternative to standing trial for a ‘declaration’ against the running of the war which he made in July 1917. Not a pacifist’s declaration, but, its title proclaimed, ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’, it registered Sassoon’s belief that the war had become ‘a war of aggression and conquest’; it made a stand against ‘political errors and insincerities’; and it blamed ‘the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize’.15 This indictment was extremely brave of Sassoon, who was a quite extraordinarily impressive human being; and the fact that he also published satirical poems about the war provided Owen with a model for the way personal, non-pacifist bravery could be combined with poetic truth-telling.

Sassoon’s poems take something from Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance and comprise anecdote, reportage, invective and imitated demotic speech, and Owen learnt a great deal from work such as Base Details, The General and They. In the last of these a ‘Bishop’ – and Sassoon had the bishop of London in mind – celebrates in the first stanza the fact that the returning boys ‘will not be the same’, after heroic transformation in battle. The second stanza, both counterpart and contradiction, then offers the boys’ version of being ‘none of us the same’: one is legless, one blind, one lung-damaged and one syphilitic. The poem then concludes with the characteristic satirical epigram: ‘And the Bishop said: ‘‘The ways of God are strange!’’’ Sassoon’s poems typically work by such reversals of expectation, and such explosions of cliche´, and they are capable of corruscatingly corrosive ironies and invective. If they seem now sometimes a little pat in their reversals, they are historically highly significant and should not be underestimated: but to witness Owen assimilating and transforming the manner in poems such as ‘The Chances’ is to witness poetic genius in the process of self-discovery. What begins as satire in that poem becomes less self-confident, more humanly wounded, more emotionally wrecked; and the sudden concluding phrase of reversal (‘Jim’s mad’) has a perennial, rather than a propagandistic, desolation: satire mutates into tragedy.

In fact, whereas Owen’s early letters after meeting Sassoon are effusions of hero worship (Hibberd believes that Owen was in love with him), he is, by December 1917, telling his cousin Leslie Gunston that ‘Poetry with him is become a mere vehicle of propaganda’: and this harsh dismissal seems a defining moment in Owen’s astonishingly speedy acquisition of a sense of his own competence.16 In The Chances everything in Owen is absorptively alert and keyed to advantage; and similar effects of mastery and self-mastery are apparent in other poems too where, as Dominic Hibberd and others have shown, his early slavish indebtedness to Keats is pushed up against such things as the French Decadents, the English Georgians (especially Harold Monro) and Baudelaire. In fact, you could almost claim of Owen what Ezra Pound famously claimed of T. S. Eliot: that ‘he modernized himself on his own’. And, given that he was in fact absorbing some of the same French influences as Eliot, it’s tantalising to think that the fractures between Modernism and the ‘native English tradition’ may have looked very different had Owen survived the war; or, indeed, that Owen may have found a way different from Eliot’s of bringing French decadence and symbolism into post-war English poetry. As it was, his accommodations, adaptations and technical inventions themselves proved deeply influential on the poets of the 1930s, a generation also necessarily sensitised to, and seeking ways to articulate, political and historical crisis (and, in some cases, homosexual orientation). And Owen continues to echo and reverberate in more contemporary poetries too. Ted Hughes’s work returns insistently to the First World War, and writing in 1964 he suggests the continued relevance of Owen to an England in which that war is ‘still unfinished’.17 And for Seamus Heaney, Owen’s poetry of witness has ‘haunted the back of the literary mind as a kind of challenge’: one met by Heaney himself in some of his work.


Owen modernised himself on his own. Certainly until he met Sassoon he had no one to help him. Isaac Rosenberg, from a more poverty-stricken background than Owen – in the East End of London – nevertheless managed, by a form of short-lived patronage, to gain an acquaintance with pre-war avant-garde movements in the arts, and his poetry was supported, in a rather half-hearted way, by Ezra Pound, and by Harriet Monroe, who published him in her influential magazine Poetry (Chicago). Rosenberg’s forms have, as a consequence, affiliations with both free verse and Imagism. Employing Biblical and Jewish materials, and ambitiously attempting a kind of post-Blakean religio-prophetic poetry, he also had a much larger range of pre-war subject matter than Owen. For these reasons, among others, his war poetry appears less shocked into variant utterance, less alternatively galvanised, than Owen’s, although the war does newly animate and sharpen what can seem a certain vatic vapidity in the earlier work. He also experiments with the same phrases and lines in different poems; and one letter poignantly promises further drafting in tranquillity: ‘I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.’19

So it is a shock to learn from Vivien Noakes’s superb edition that Rosenberg, a private soldier, actually wrote most of his war poems in the trenches – unlike Owen, who wrote his on leave, including the extended sick leave of his spell in Craiglockhart. Rosenberg enlisted in October 1915 and was killed on 1 April 1918; and during twenty-one months in France he had only ten days’ leave. ‘It is unusual,’ Noakes says drily, ‘for a manuscript not to be folded, torn and dirty.’20As a consequence, the editorial lot is more than usually unhappy, and many of Rosenberg’s given texts must be regarded as provisional. Although this is one of the reasons why his reputation has never settled in the way Owen’s has, reading him is sometimes to feel that an element of folded, torn and dirty provisionality inheres in his very aesthetic, which seems to honour, more than most, the improvisatory. We might even think that he meant something of the kind when he wrote in a letter to Gordon Bottomley (who edited his first posthumous volume in 1922) that his ideal was one of ‘Simple poetry – that is where an interesting complexity of thought is kept in tone and right value to the dominating idea so that it is understandable and still ungraspable.’21 This seems to anticipate Wallace Stevens’s much more famous contention that ‘the poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully’ and to harmonise with T. S. Eliot’s conception of the destabilising difficulties inevitably inherent in a genuinely modern poetry. Like these, it has a quality of almost truculently confrontational self-assurance; and it indicates that Rosenberg was modernised, perhaps with a little help, from a very early stage. It’s remote indeed from Owen’s guarded but still sometimes almost skinless affectivity.

As a consequence, Rosenberg’s poems characteristically move by ellipsis and elision, by the melting or dripping of image into image, by abruptions of rhythm and cadence, by unsettling and not always easily ‘graspable’ syntactical transitions. His forms can jarringly convey, almost mimetically, the actualities of trench warfare, as in ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, in which army ‘limbers’ (carts or gun-carriages) ‘lurched over sprawled dead’. This poem itself lurches and jostles in its attempt to convey this exceptional gruesomeness in a fury of alliterative and assonantal linguistic wreckage (‘The plunging limbers over the shattered track / Racketed with their rusty freight’), in biblical and other religious half-echo and allusion, in anguished questioning, and in sudden astonishing, quasi-metaphysical conceit, as in the likening of a bullet to a bee: ‘When the swift iron burning bee / Drained the wild honey of their youth’; which is a motivating of the inanimate as luxuriously appalled as Owen’s homoerotic anthropomorphosing in ‘Arms and the Boy’: ‘these blind, blunt bullet-leads / Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads’.

In contrast to such poems of driven physical representation, there are in Rosenberg much cooler poems of ironic mutedness. The greatest of these, and one of the greatest of the war, is ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, a poem of eerily disquieting calm. Here simple poetry, poetry in a very pure distillation, is being written, and it is a poetry in which complexity of thought, and tone and right value are lucidly self-validating means and effects. D. W. Harding says that suffering in Rosenberg is treated in such a way that ‘no secondary distress [arises] from the sense that these things ought not to be. He was given up to realizing fully what was’; and this appears to be at least partly right about this poem.22 Given that exactly such secondary distress impels all of Owen’s war poems and that it is actually primary distress in Sassoon, this quality makes ‘Break of Day’ very much the poem of a private soldier, a poem that speaks for itself and not on behalf of others, perhaps even a kind of answer to Owen’s anguished question, ‘Why speak not they of comrades that went under?’

The poem imagines its speaker picking a poppy from the trench parapet to stick behind his ear, when a rat from No Man’s Land ‘leaps [his] hand’. The rat is anthropomorphically figured as ‘sardonic’ and ‘droll’, and the speaker himself drolly rebukes the rat’s treacherous ‘cosmopolitan sympathies’ (it crosses the lines, but the phrase is also glossed by Rosenberg’s Jewishness). So – almost unimaginable thing if Rosenberg had not managed it – drollery and wit are brought to the poetry of the trenches. Complexities of thought then combine with drollery, when the dead are said to be ‘less chanced than you for life’ and ‘bonds to the whims of murder’. So the poem plots a politics into its drollery too: soldiers in the trenches are worth less than rats; their deaths are ‘murder’, and not some other thing – ‘sacrifice’, for instance; and are governed by ‘whim’ and not by ‘glory or honour’, or even policy. So Harding is not quite right about this poem: although it makes no parade of its ‘secondary distress’, it certainly knows that these things ought not to be.

The poem moves to conclusion with two of Rosenberg’s characteristically vast rhetorical questions – asked of the rat, and so crossing drollery with desperation, and then astonishingly inflecting anguish with recovery in a way almost jaunty in its self-presentation:

What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurl’d through still heavens?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping,
But mine in my ear is safe –
Just a little white with the dust.

This nonchalance, a desperate composure, proffers an extraordinary image: that of the trench soldier as dandy; where, previously, the cosmopolitan rat is almost a kind of Baudelairean flaneur, out strolling in the early morning for – the speaker says – ‘your pleasure’. Yet the out-of-tune, dissonant fall of ‘aghast’ against ‘dust’ insinuates the fate of this stylish respite, and unnervingly orients the figure of the dandy – usually, of course, comic – towards tragedy. Managing such a style and such a tone at such a time and in such a place, Rosenberg is validating the authority of the aesthetic: ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ learns a style from a despair by not permitting a despair to cramp, or to dictate, a style. Doing so, he also manifests a very high form of courage.

The example has been taken in: by Keith Douglas in Desert Flowers, his combatant poem of the Eastern Front in the Second World War, with its anxiously tributary line, ‘Rosenberg, I only repeat what you were saying’; and by Michael Longley, another poet whose imagination is frequently caught up in the First World War, and whose poetry is complexly responsive to the war in Northern Ireland: Bog Cotton revises the line as a tribute to Douglas, and ‘No Man’s Land’ reads itself into the experience of a Jewish grandmother with a deferential inclination: ‘I tilt her head towards you, Isaac Rosenberg’.


Rosenberg and Owen died in the war; Ivor Gurney survived. But his mode of survival – in mental institutions for most of his life, and constantly revisiting the war in his poems of the 1920s, preoccupied by what he calls, with characteristically perspicacious awkwardness, ‘the whole craft and business of bad occasion’ – offers one emblem for the way the war cannot be extirpated from psychological or cultural memory. This makes P. J. Kavanagh’s devoted act of recovery of Gurney in his 1982 edition a major moment in the history of the poetry of the war, giving us in their required contexts at least two of its outstanding poems.23 To His Love, written during the war, collapses a Virgilian pastoral eclogue of companionship into an urgent yearning to forget what can never be forgotten, and does so in the most jolting of enjambements:

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers –
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

And The Silent One, written several years after the war, expresses one of the worst horrors of trench warfare: having to see your friends die on the wire of No Man’s Land beyond the reach of succour. The dead man commemorated in the specificity of his language and accent may stand here as an emblem for what the poets of that war managed in their own languages and accents, wearing them new; and also, since Gurney pointedly remarks the folly of military faithfulness, for the infinite waste of all the war’s silent, and silenced, ones:

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two –
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes – and ended.


Source: The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century English Poetry Edited By Neil Corcoran Cambridge University Press 2007


1 Quotations from Thomas are taken from The Collected Poems and War Diary, 1917, ed. R. George Thomas (London: Faber and Faber, 2004).

2 Wilfred Owen, Selected Letters, ed. John Bell (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 306.

3 Quotations from Owen are taken from Jon Stallworthy (ed.), Wilfred Owen: The Complete Poems and Fragments (London: Chatto and Windus; and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).

4 Quotations from Sassoon are taken from Siegfried Sassoon, The War Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1983).

5 Dominic Hibberd, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2002).

6 James Fenton, The Strength of Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 31, 32.

7 Peter Howarth, British Poetry in the Age of Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 196.

8 Quoted in Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, p. 317.

9 Ibid.

10 Douglas Kerr, Wilfred Owen’s Voices (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 277–95.

11 Jahan Ramazani, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), p. 69.

12 Kerr, Wilfred Owen’s Voices, p. 295.

13 Seamus Heaney, ‘Punishment’, in North (London: Faber and Faber, 1975).

14 Owen, Selected Letters, p. 353.

15 Siegfried Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston (1937; London: Faber and Faber, 1972), p. 496.

16 Owen, Selected Letters, p. 305. 17 Ted Hughes, Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, ed. William Scammell (London:

Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 43.

18 Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue (London: Faber and Faber,

1988), p. xiii.

19 Quoted in Vivien Noakes (ed.), The Poems and Plays of Isaac Rosenberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. xlvi.

20 Ibid., p. xx.

21 Ibid., p. xlv.

22 D. W. Harding, Experience into Words (1963; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 97.

23 Collected Poems of Ivor Gurney, ed. P. J. Kavanagh (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 1982).

Further reading

  • Das, Santanu, Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature, Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Graham, Desmond, The Truth of War: Owen, Blunden and Rosenberg,Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984
  • Hibberd, Dominic, Wilfred Owen: A New Biography, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2002
  • Howarth, Peter, British Poetry in the Age of Modernism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005
  • Kendall, Tim, Modern English War Poetry, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006 Kerr, Douglas, Wilfred Owen’s Voices, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993
  • Ramazani, Jahan, Poetry of Mourning: The Modern Elegy from Hardy to Heaney, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994
  • Silkin, Jon, Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972



Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Modernism, Poetry

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