About War Poetry
by George Herbert Clarke (1917)
Because man is both militant and pacific, he has expressed in literature, as indeed in the other forms of art, his pacific and militant moods. Nor are these moods, of necessity, incompatible. War may become the price of peace, and peace may so decay as inevitably to bring about war. Of the dully unresponsive pacificist and the jingo patriot, quick to anger, the latter no doubt is the more dangerous to the cause of true freedom, yet both are “undesirable citizens.” He who believes that peace is illusory and spurious, unless it be based upon justice and liberty, will be proud to battle, if battle he must, for the sake of those foundations.
For the most part, the poetry of war, undertaken in this spirit, has touched and exalted such special qualities as patriotism, courage, self- sacrifice, enterprise, and endurance. Where it has tended to glorify war in itself, it is chiefly because war has released those qualities, so to speak, in stirring and spectacular ways; and where it has chosen to round upon war and to upbraid it, it is because war has slain ardent and lovable youths and has brought misery and despair to women and old people. But the war poet has left the mere arguments to others. For himself, he has seen and felt. Envisaging war from various angles, now romantically, now realistically, now as the celebrating chronicler, now as the contemplative interpreter, but always in a spirit of catholic curiosity, he has sung, the fall of Troy, the Roman adventures, the mediaeval battles and crusades, the fields of Agincourt and Waterloo, and the more modern revolutions. Since Homer, he has spoken with martial eloquence through, the voices of Drayton, Spenser, Marlowe, Webster, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Scott, Burns, Campbell, Tennyson, Browning, the New England group, and Walt Whitman,—to mention only a few of the British and American names,—and he speaks sincerely and powerfully to-day in the writings of Kipling. Hardy, Masefield, Binyon, Newbolt, Watson, Rupert Brooke, and the two young soldiers—the one English, the other American—who have lately lost their lives while on active service: Captain Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed at Hulluch, October 18, 1915; and Alan Seeger, who fell, mortally wounded, during the charge on Belloy-en-Santerre, July 4, 1916.
There can be little doubt that these several minds and spirits, stirred by the passion and energy of war, and reacting sensitively both to its cruelties and to its pities, have experienced the kinship of quickened insight and finer unselfishness in the face of wide-ranging death. They have silently compared, perhaps, the normal materialistic conventions in business, politics, education, and religion, with the relief from those conventions that nearly all soldiers and many civilians experience in time of war; for although war has its too gross and ugly side, it has not dared to learn that inflexibility of custom and conduct that deadens the spirit into a tame submission. This strange rebound and exaltation would seem to be due less to the physical realities of war—which must in many ways cramp and constrain the individual—than to the relative spiritual freedom engendered by the needs of war, if they are to be successfully met. The man of war has an altogether unusual opportunity to realize himself, to cleanse and heal himself through the mastering of his physical fears; through the facing of his moral doubts; through the reëxamination of whatever thoughts he may have possessed, theretofore, about life and death and the universe; and through the quietly unselfish devotion he owes to the welfare of his fellows and to the cause of his native land.
Into the stuff of his thought and utterance, whether he be on active service or not, the poet-interpreter of war weaves these intentions, and coöperates with his fellows in building up a little higher and better, from time to time, that edifice of truth for whose completion can be spared no human experience, no human hope.
As already suggested, English and American literatures have both received genuine accessions, even thus early, arising out of the present great conflict, and we may be sure that other equally notable contributions will be made. The present Anthology contains a number of representative poems produced by English-speaking men and women. The editorial policy has been humanly hospitable, rather than academically critical, especially in the case of some of the verses written by soldiers at the Front, which, however slight in certain instances their technical merit may be, are yet psychologically interesting as sincere transcripts of personal experience, and will, it is thought, for that very reason, peculiarly attract and interest the reader. It goes without saying that there are several poems in this group which conspicuously succeed also as works of art. For the rest, the attempt has been made, within such limitations as have been experienced, to present pretty freely the best of what has been found available in contemporary British and American war verse. It must speak for itself, and the reader will find that in not a few instances it does so with sensitive sympathy and with living power; sometimes, too, with that quietly intimate companionableness which we find in Gray’s Elegy, and which John Masefield, while lecturing in America in 1916, so often indicated as a prime quality in English poetry. But if this quality appears in Chaucer and the pre-Romantics and Wordsworth, it appears also in Longfellow and Lowell, in Emerson and Lanier, and in William Vaughn Moody; for American poetry is, after all, as English poetry,—”with a difference,”—sprung from the same sources, and coursing along similar channels.
The new fellowship of the two great Anglo-Saxon nations which a book of this character may, to a degree, illustrate, is filled with such high promise for both of them, and for all civilization, that it is perhaps hardly too much to say, with Ambassador Walter H. Page, in his address at the Pilgrims’ Dinner in London, April 12, 1917: “We shall get out of this association an indissoluble companionship, and we shall henceforth have indissoluble mutual duties for mankind. I doubt if there could be another international event comparable in large value and in long consequences to this closer association.” Mr. Balfour struck the same note when, during his mission to the United States, he expressed himself in these words: “That this great people should throw themselves whole- heartedly into this mighty struggle, prepared for all efforts and sacrifices that may be required to win success for this most righteous cause, is an event at once so happy and so momentous that only the historian of the future will be able, as I believe, to measure its true proportions.”
The words of these eminent men ratify in the field of international politics the hopeful anticipation which Tennyson expressed in his poem, Hands all Round, as it appeared in the London Examiner, February 7, 1852:—
“Gigantic daughter of the West,
We drink to thee across the flood,
We know thee most, we love thee best,
For art thou not of British blood?
Should war’s mad blast again be blown,
Permit not thou the tyrant powers
To fight thy mother here alone,
But let thy broadsides roar with ours.
Hands all round!
God the tyrant’s cause confound!
To our great kinsmen of the West, my friends,
And the great name of England, round and round.
“O rise, our strong Atlantic sons,
When war against our freedom springs!
O speak to Europe through your guns!
They can be understood by kings.
You must not mix our Queen with those
That wish to keep their people fools;
Our freedom’s foemen are her foes,
She comprehends the race she rules.
Hands all round!
God the tyrant’s cause confound!
To our dear kinsmen of the West, my friends,
And the great cause of Freedom, round and round.”
They ratify also the spirit of those poems in the present volume which seek to interpret to Britons and Americans their deepening friendship. “Poets,” said Shelley, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” and he meant by legislation the guidance and determination of the verdicts of the human soul.
G. H. C.
Richard Edwards has a BFA in Creative Writing and Journalism from Bowling Green State University and an M.S. in Education from the University of Akron. Managing editor of Drunk Duck, poetry editor for Prairie Margins, reporter for Miscellany, Akron Journal, Lorain Journal…check our About Us page for more. Also here is info on our On Classic Articles