The angry nightingale: poet Sarojini Naidu. Photo: Bridgeman Images
Poetry has become the centre of a propaganda battle over the meaning of the First World War, with different sides favouring those poets whose political sympathies reflect their own. Prime Minister David Cameron recently chose to intone Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” for a charity album recording. Brooke’s vision of “some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England” espouses the “British values” of honour, loyalty and patriotism of which most Conservatives approve (indeed, Michael Gove wants to see them promoted in schools). Yet, of course, much British war poetry was anti-nationalist in tone. Siegfried Sassoon’s “A Night Attack”, for instance, describes a dead German soldier as “Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare to say./No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace”. Similarly, Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” parodies the British high command by addressing a rodent running through no-man’s-land:
Droll rat, they would shoot you
if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies
(And God knows what antipathies).
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German— . . .
Despite the “cosmopolitan sympathies” of the poets, memorial events in the UK today are dominated by British writers. The same is true of discussion in our national media, as well as much of the verse published in anthologies. Oxford University Press’s Poetry of the First World War features only two poets who were not born in the British Isles (Kipling and Mary Borden), and its online repository, the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, features none. Such a limited range does a great disservice to the war poets: our media, publishers and politicians have reinforced a nationalistic agenda that runs counter to the poets’ message. Although we are unfamiliar with it, much of the war poetry from France, Germany, Russia and elsewhere is of equal quality to (and, in some cases, even better than) that produced by British writers.
The most prominent European war poet was Guillaume Apollinaire, a naturalised Frenchman of Polish descent who died of influenza at the end of the war. His collection Calligrammes stands as a landmark achievement in the development of literary modernism. The book’s title refers to Apollinaire’s visual poetry, which attempted to achieve with words what Picasso and others had been doing in fine art. His poem “Du coton dans les oreilles” (“Cotton in Your Ears”) begins by re-creating the explosion of artillery shells typographically, the words tumbling upwards on the page.
Apollinaire felt that the war represented a new era, one that would require an original language. As he writes in “Victoire”: “. . . the old languages are so close to death/It’s really from habit and cowardice/That we still use them for poetry”. His visual style was an attempt at a new language, and one could argue that this experimentation has had a more lasting literary influence than the conventional, ornate poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Laurence Binyon or Robert Graves.
It is not surprising that avant-garde work doesn’t often feature in public commemorations. Yet Apollinaire also wrote more accessible poems, filled with emotion and longing. In “Dans l’abri-caverne” (“In the Dugout”), he addresses his lover Madeleine Pagès: “Most days I console myself for loneliness and all kinds of horrors/By imagining your beauty”. Thwarted sexual desire does not feature very highly in British war poetry, but for him it was one of the main torments of life in the trenches. His frustration reaches its height in “Fusée” (“Flare”), in which he writes that even “the wide rump” of his horse reminds him of Madeleine.
Though his descriptions of the war’s modernity could seem celebratory, Apollinaire did not shy away from the more horrifying aspects of the conflict. In “Merveille de la guerre” (“Wonder of War”), he marvels “that so much fire was needed to roast human flesh” and evokes the front-line soldiers’ hunger as he recalls the “taste” left in the air, “which by God is not unpleasant”.
Critics suggest that European war poetry is unpopular because writers in Germany and France got caught up in the patriotic fervour of 1914. This is only partly true: Continental poets portrayed a range of feelings towards the conflict. Another naturalised Frenchman, Blaise Cendrars, supported the fighting but also wrote “La guerre au Luxembourg” (1916), a poem about children in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Cendrars, who lost his right arm on the Western Front, describes children playing soldiers in a way that implies his lasting trauma:
Then they raise the dead
Everyone wants to be dead
Or at least wounded RED
Cut off the arm cut off the head WHITE
They give everything
Red Cross BLUE
Lyrical iconoclast: a pencil sketch of Apollinaire by Picasso captures a kindred rebel modernist
One writer whose politics undoubtedly damaged his reputation was Stefan George, a mystic whose writings were taken up by the Nazis. Although undoubtedly racist he was no Nazi, moving to Switzerland in 1933 when they came to power, and his poetry even inspired Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler. Despite George’s
nationalist reputation, in “Der Krieg”, written in 1917, he denounced the patriotic spirit that had led to the war:
Here whining women, old and
Are more at fault than bayonets and guns
Of adversaries, for our sons’ and
Dismembered bodies, for their
Later in the poem, a German patriot tries to stir up xenophobic sentiment by asking: “Have you no eye for sacrifice unmeasured,/For strength of unity?” To which the poet gives the pithy response: “These also flourish/Across the border”.
Another important German anti-war poet was Alfred Lichtenstein, who died on the Somme in 1914 (perhaps the first of the war poets to be killed). His satirical dramatic monologue “A Lieutenant General Sings” is written from the perspective of a German division commander who wishes “that there were an endless war/With bloody, howling winds” because, as he puts it, “Ordinary life/Has no charm for me”. Lichtenstein encapsulates a feeling of soldiers on both sides: that it was their bloodthirsty leaders who were the real enemy.
We often see the First World War as an Anglo-Saxon affair but many thousands of non-white combatants also took part. They included recruits from India, who went to Europe and the Middle East to fight for the British empire. Some, such as Sir Nizamat Jung Bahadur, wrote patriotic poems in support. In “To England” (1914), he addresses the motherland:
Thine equal justice, mercy, grace
Have made a distant alien race
A part of thee!
Although Jung’s poetry isn’t terribly good, it does remind us that this was a colonial conflict. Sarojini Naidu, on the other hand, was a poet of exceptional quality. Known as “the Nightingale of India”, Naidu was a politician as well as a poet: a lifelong fighter for independence who became the first female state governor in her country. Her best-known poem is “The Gift of India” (1915), which describes the dead:
Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave,
They are strewn like blossoms mown
down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of
Flanders and France . . .
The anger is clear: India has given her best sons to fight for Britain and received nothing in return. It would not have surprised Naidu to learn that the Indian contribution to the war effort remains overlooked today.
Poets continued to write about the war long after 1918. A fine example is Sterling Brown. Not a soldier himself, Brown wrote “Sam Smiley” (1932) about an African American who signs up to defend democracy but returns from France to find the United States still a racially segregated nation.
The whites had taught him how to rip
A Nordic belly with a thrust
Of bayonet, had taught him how
To transmute Nordic flesh to dust.
And a surprising fact had made
Belated impress on his mind:
The shrapnel bursts and poison gas
Were inexplicably color blind.
On the Western Front, Smiley has learned that democracy is only skin-deep, and that all people are equal before grenades and guns. The poem captures the spirit of rebellion that led to African-American uprisings in St Louis and elsewhere after the war.
Many others deserve recognition, and can be found in anthologies such as We Are the Dead: Poems and Paintings from the Great War (published by Red Horse Press, 2012) and The Lost Voices of World War I (Bloomsbury, 1988).
To avoid the next four years becoming a jingoistic battle of the poets, we should seek out literature from beyond our shores. We might go even further, designating August (when Britain entered the war) as a month in which we read only poetry from outside the UK. We could flood social media with this work as a counter-point to the government’s use of British writers. Doing so would pay deep respect to the “cosmopolitan sympathies” of Rosenberg, Sassoon and many of their fellow anti-war poets.