Wilfred Owen 100 years on: what is war poetry good for?
A hundred years since Armistice Day and the death of Wilfred Owen, our most celebrated war poet, it seems an appropriate moment for a reassessment of Owen’s ‘poetry of pity’ against the even longer tradition of patriotic poetry which appeared in newspapers daily during the early months of the First World War. Pat Barker, author of the ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, featuring fictional versions of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, claims the Somme had an impact on British attitudes towards war of the same magnitude as Pearl Harbor on the American consciousness, destroying youthful idealism and discrediting what Owen famously called ‘the old Lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’.
War poetry has been written throughout history, from The Iliad to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ and ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. However, it came into particular prominence with the First World War, when powerful voices began to speak directly from the battlefield. The cynicism and disillusionment of the war poets published towards the end of the war provided a scourging counterpoint to the patriotic and propagandist poetry that had been published earlier. Even though Owen had only five poems published before his death in November 1918, newspapers had a massive and engaged audience and public opinion was changing.
Good poetry can outlast the time of its creation and take on a historical function, even if this was not originally intended or foreseen. In time, war poetry can become a prism through which our response to past wars is mediated, and frequently both the poetry and the conflicts are reinterpreted to suit contemporary thinking. On the other hand, historian Sean Lang has argued that we need to know more about the First World War than the impressions left by GCSE study of the same few war poems many of us read at school or on the Tube during commemorations.
It is often said that truth is the first casualty of war. Can war poems represent truth, and if so of what kind? Do they lead to insights into the past, or do they distort our understanding of what actually occurred? Who more accurately represents the views of British people in the Great War, Wilfred Owen or the patriotic poet Jessie Pope, who Owen intended to ridicule by writing ‘Dulce et decorum est’? Did war poetry gain in power and value because it could be written by the lower classes and ordinary people, without fear of condescension or censorship? Can war poems have universal validity, or are they inevitably reflections of attitudes, values and concerns of the specific conflicts which created them? Has past war poetry made any difference to our attitudes now? And what of today? Who are today’s war poets, and what are they saying?