Poetry - The War Poets

Dulce et decorum est

For Remembrance Day, Susan Omand tackles a subject that has always proved difficult for her, the War Poets...

At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, World War 1 was officially declared to be over. The Great War. The War to end all Wars. A War of mud, blood and futile sacrifice presented hauntingly and evocatively in verse by those who were actually there. The young men, some of whom were no more than boys, who fought in the trenches. Died there. These were the War Poets.

Now, I have an admission. Much as I utterly adore poetry of all subjects and styles, I have always had a serious problem when it came to the War Poets. In fact it's a whole genre of poetry that I have actively avoided over the years. Why? O-Grade English exams is why. It was part of our set curriculum back in the day to study the War Poets and study them we did. Every single flipping word was over-analysed, every spark of imagery postulated upon and every work picked to pieces stanza by stanza as we were told what it all meant, what the poet was trying to convey and, worst of all, what our own opinions of these poems should be. So, naturally, I haven't been near them since. And it was only really when I started organising the articles for our Poeme'en weekend last month that I realised I may have let school colour my view of a great swathe of poetry and maybe I should, if you pardon the insensitive pun, bite the bullet, make the effort and revisit one of those poetic names that brought a shiver to my own spine.

The main war poet we studied at school was Wilfred Owen, who fought and died in the trenches at the age of 25, and the most famous of his works is Dulce et Decorum Est (click on the title to read it in full or listen to it read by Christopher Eccleston in the video below) so that is my starting place.

I will not go down the scholastic route though of analysing each line or trying to work out what the poet meant. All I have done, and all you should do, is read it and think about what it gives to me personally. For me there is a rollercoaster of emotion, from resignation and defeat in the cold mud of the trenches, to adrenaline and panic as the gas hits and the horror of watching a comrade die as you live on. But the over-riding feeling for me is bitterness, both physical and mental. Physical in the choking acrid smell and bitter taste of the gas, the bile forming in the throat as it invades the lungs and stings the eyes. Mental in the hate for war that comes across in his words, a bitterness against the jingoistic propaganda that encourages those at home to enlist and attain glory without mentioning the pain and suffering. And the irony of the title, from a Latin phrase that glorifies the act of fighting and dying for one’s country, which literally means “It is sweet and fitting” which contrasts with the bitterness even more for me.

The thing that didn’t come across in school lessons though was that this poem, and many of the other war poems, were not written years after the event, by fops at desks trying to imagine what the rigours of war were like. These were words written by ordinary men in the trenches, documenting the extraordinary times they were living through and dying in. This was real. The gas was real. The mud was real. The pain and suffering was very, very real. These days they would have written about it online, photographed it and spread the word world-wide in a matter of minutes. In 1918, they did what they could to try and get across their feelings on the war they were conscripted to fight in. They wrote poetry.

Maybe age has a lot to do with it. At fifteen most of us did not yet have the life experience necessary to fully appreciate the horror of war, or even death of any sort. And that is a good thing. It didn’t actually mean anything to us then, we couldn’t engage with the words. But now, thirty plus years on, when death has visited those we love, and we realise how real the pain, the suffering, the horror of war actually is, now we can relate. In many ways we’re the lucky ones, having the benefit of hindsight and experience to hang these poems upon.