Wwi poetry three phases What is poetry?

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Three phases

What is poetry?

  • 'Poetry', Wordsworth reminds us, 'is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings', and there can be no area of human experience that has generated a wider range of powerful feelings than war: hope and fear; exhilaration and humiliation; hatred – not only for the enemy, but also for generals, politicians, and war-profiteers; love – for fellow soldiers, for women and children left behind, for country (often) and cause (occasionally).

  • - John Stallworthy, Introduction to The Oxford Book of War Poetry

The poetry of WWI

  • The war was a terrible and unique experience in the history of mankind; its poetry had likewise to be unique and terrible.

  • The 'war poets' went into the army with patriotic assurance, fought in misery, danger and muddle, and expressed their horror and protest in poetry.

  • The poetry can be seen to fall into three phases.

  • The poetry written at the beginning of the war – 'The Illusion' – is characterised by an unreal conception of war, by lyrical, hopeful, patriotic verse glorifying fighting and welcoming death.

  • The second phase – 'The Reality' – results from the experience of war, especially after the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The changed views were reflected in new techniques: more concrete imagery and freer verse forms.

  • The third phase is 'The Aftermath', where those poets who survived look back and reflect on the cost.


It is possible to appreciate the depth of the poetry of the Great War by examining the work of three poets (all officers): Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
  • Rupert Brooke epitomises the idealistic pro-war poetry of the early years.

  • Siegfried Sassoon represents the satiric anti-war poetry of the post-1916 period.

  • Wilfred Owen, the most complete of all the poets of WWI, would be a great poet in any company and in any era; his poetry is - as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare - 'not for an age, but for all time'.

The illusion

  • Before WWI, war poetry was seldom written by those who had actually been to battle, and was usually heavily laden with romantic allusions to the glory of the struggles, the value of the sacrifices, and couched in traditional, flowery, abstract language.

  • E.g. Charge of the Light Brigade, by Tennyson.

  • Certain topics were acceptable- love, beauty, heroes, nature, patriotism, glorious death, courage- but not brutality or ugliness of war or death. To write poetry about blood gurgling from a man’s throat or a wagon wheel crunching over a dead man’s face was unthinkable before 1916.

Romantic words

  • Friend=comrade

  • Danger=peril

  • Attack=assail

  • Die=perish

  • Soldier=warrior

  • Warfare=strife

  • Legs and arms=limbs

  • Blood of young men=wine


  • Read ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon. Highlight or underline the vocabulary that suggests battle and war are good, and any other diction that is reassuring and affirmative.

Recap quiz

  • What attitudes would you expect to find in poems written before the war occurred? Why?

  • What are some romantic words used in war poetry?

  • Give two examples of poems that reinforce this illusion?

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