World War 1: A Poetic Excursion

“Only the dead have seen the end of the war”


-Minor*, Prepared and presented by Hrishabh Sehrawat

What happens when an era, say Edwardian, comes face to face with war and its brutalities? Or when the universal truth of love and honour, the fundamentals, whose fruits poets and phillosophers have been reaping, is shaken to the core? Or when poetry, the sweet necter of life, emerges from the carcass of the dead soldiers ?

In short what happens when poetry takes on war and brutalities? Does it evovle? If so then into what?

The Great War, The war, The World War One, War to End all Wars, but sadly it does not end…… it is only the beginning. Let us look at some poetry pre World War One, pre 1914.

A society torn apart by war yet worshipping it all the same. A society that welcomes armies and asks them to fight till death all the while running out of burial grounds. Such was the society that greeted war as an stabilising and enriching event. Such was the society that swayed with poets like John McCrae.

“The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him “

-G.K Chesterton

In Flanders Fields by Lt. -Colonel John McCrae sends out the heartfelt message to sign up for war efforts and take it forward from where the dead have left it. Thus the cycle of war shall not end even if humanity ends.

From death to life, shall a war live.

Such a “heartfelt” message.

Read the poem In Flanders Fields.

In Flanders Fields was the poem that made poppies the official symbol of war martyrdom.

Poems like To Lucasta, Going to the Wars were also looked up and revered.

I could not love thee so much

Lov’d I not Honour more”

War is just another “kind” mistress that gobbles up a healthy and strong relationship. An apt analogy.

“Till death do us apart”

But how long can the eyes ignore the blood stained fields, the empty households? Pain, and hurt, and rats, and trenches, and years’ worth of agony? And whose eyes shall it be that welcomes the tears of change?

Poets. Poets, atlast, saw the war changing, its definition evolving. When trenches emerged from the dark pits of Tartarus, when human life was just a mere number, when knockouts seemed more merciful than a long-drawn battle, that’s when they finally saw their fellow brothers dying, their wounds becoming a shadow of who they once were, that’s when reality sunk in.

Now poets started to accept the grim realities, the inferior characteristic, the pointlessness of the war. They started writing against those whose bloodthirst lead to all of this; against the blind fools who believed “it will be over by Christmas”; against those who glorified it.

English poet Siegfried Sassoon wrote of corpses “face downward, in the sucking mud, wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled” in his 1918 poem, “Counter-Attack.” It was a counter attack indeed.

The poem “God! How I hate you, you young cheerful men” by Arthur Graeme West in 1918 shook the author every single time he read it.

The poetry alas evolved and so did those who read it in newspapers or heard it on radios and so did the definition of war. It became for the people, of the people and by the people.

War is nothing but an effort to prove a collective point, the end of which is misery and solitude, the end of which is pointless. There is no money so endless or land so big or power so blinding to be fought for, to die for. There is no war that will end all wars. War begets War. And that is the truth.

*Minor is a form of internal that takes place in the poetry club meetings where a presenter, randomly chosen, chooses a a topic of his/her interest and presents to the rest of the club members in and around 15 mins. Major is another very similar form of internal different only in duration which may extend to 25 mins. Poetry is not just about writing poems and reciting them it’s much more than that. It’s about deciphering the past, observing the present and unlocking the future. The concept of Major and Minor aims just that, an all round view.

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