British Poetry from World War I

April 29, 2012 7:00 AM

Kim Jung Un’s speech singing the praises of militarism reminded us how real wars—rather than martial excitement—tend to generate second thoughts. We were recently reading some British poetry from World War I. Honestly, it was a mixed bag from an aesthetic point of view. But a line from Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" about "children ardent for some desperate glory" had some obvious applicability to the Dear Respected Kim Jong Un.  We were reminded that for every chestnut like John McRae’s “In Flanders Fields”--which uses death to stir patriotism and new recruits—there were an equal number of more somber reflections on war from those who actually experienced it. I am sure Kim Jong Un would see the following as bourgeois sentimentalism; so be it. He might want to read them more than once.

Charles Hamilton Sorley, “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead”

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

Across your dreams in pale battalions go,

Say not soft things as other men have said,

That you'll remember. For you need not so.

Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know

It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?

Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.

Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.

Say only this, "They are dead." Then add thereto,

"Yet many a better one has died before."

Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you

Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,

It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.

Great death has made all his for evermore.


Ivor Gurney, “To His Love”

He's gone, and all our plans

Are useless indeed.

We'll walk no more on Cotswolds

Where the sheep feed

Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick

Is not as you

Knew it, on Severn River

Under the blue

Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…

But still he died

Nobly, so cover him over

With violets of pride

Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!

And with thick-set

Masses of memoried flowers-

Hide that red wet

Thing I must somehow forget.


Wilfred Owen, "Dulce et Decorum Est"*

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

*The title is from Horace:

“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:

mors et fugacem persequitur virum

nec parcit inbellis iuventae

poplitibus timidove tergo.”

"How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country:

Death pursues the man who flees,

spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs

Of battle-shy youths."

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