The English Poets of the First World War – John Lehmann

In November, my thoughts turn to Remembrance Day & I often decide to read about WWI & WWII. This year, I’ve begun with the poets of WWI. I first read Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon & Rupert Brooke as a teenager & I’m still moved by their work & their lives. Since then, I’ve read many anthologies, biographies & critical books about the period & the writers.

John Lehmann’s book, English Poets of the First World War, was published in 1981. I rescued this copy from a library book sale & I’ve been reading it over the last couple of days as well as dipping into some of the other books you can see in the photo below. Lehmann concentrates on 15 major poets & looks at the work they wrote during the war, rather than the poetry & prose they wrote long afterwards, if, indeed, they survived. The poetry of the war fell into two distinct phases.

From the beginning of the war in 1914 until the Battle of the Somme in 1916, it was still possible for patriotic young men to write poetry glorifying war & revelling in the opportunity to be a part of this great adventure. Rupert Brooke’s 1914 Sonnets & Julian Grenfell’s Into Battle are the most famous examples. Brooke & Grenfell both died in 1915 so there’s no way of knowing how their work would have changed as the optimism of the first part of the war was replaced by the despair of trench warfare that seemed neverending. Another poet who was killed in 1915 at the age of 20 was Charles Hamilton Sorley (the photo above is from the suffolkregiment.org website). I’ve always loved this poem. The image of the dead being oblivious to our pity & grief is intensely moving & comforting as well. Their pain is past.

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.

Sassoon & Owen are the most famous of the war poets. Their meeting at the hospital at Craiglockhart has been written about many times, both as fact & fiction. That meeting led to Owen’s miraculous last year when he wrote the poems that made his name after his death just a week before the Armistice. Sassoon survived the war & continued writing poetry but his War Poems remained his most famous & best-loved work. He also wrote three volumes of fictionalised autobiography, collected by Faber as The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston. His poem, Does It Matter?, exemplifies the bitter, almost brutal poetry of the last years of the war. The feeling of hopelessness & pity of the speaker contrasts with the bitter undertone accusing those safe at home of not valuing the sacrifice made by the men at the Front.

Does it matter? – losing your legs?…
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? – losing your sight?…
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter? – those dreams from the pit?…
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Wilfred Owen could also write with bitterness of the horrors of war but I find the quiet, elegiac tone of Anthem for Doomed Youth so moving. The final image of the families left at home for long years without the men who will never come home, quietly grieving in that long period of mourning after the war is filled with melancholy.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
– Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,-
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.


Isaac Rosenberg was killed in April 1918 (The photo below is from iwm.org.uk). His poem, Break of Day in the Trenches, is a meditation in a moment of peace before the madness of battle. It reminds me of John Donne & the metaphysical poets in the humour in which he sticks a poppy behind his ear & addresses a rat that has strayed into his trench from No Man’s Land.

The darkness crumbles away –
It is the same old druid Time as ever.
Only a live thing leaps my hand –
A queer sardonic rat –
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German –
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

John Lehmann’s book is an excellent introduction to the WWI poets but it might be hard to get hold of. Jon Silkin’s Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (1979) has an extensive Introduction & there should be lots of second hand copies around. There’s an updated Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (2006) edited by Matthew George Walter which is in print but I haven’t seen it. Penguin Classics always have good notes & introductions so I’m sure this would be a good choice. I’ll continue my Remembrance reading throughout the month.

7 thoughts on “The English Poets of the First World War – John Lehmann

  1. Lovely post! I tend to try and read some War literature at some point during November, but I am not sure that I have any lined up this year. Might have to have a look at the TBR pile and see what I can come up with.

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  2. The horrors and waste of the First World War, and the poetry that was written during it, have always affected me greatly. The older Penguin book of First World War Poetry is a favourite of mine. I love your choice of poems here and, looking at your favourite authors, I think we have many tastes in common. I've added you to my 'Fellow bookworms' blog roll and will be following you. 🙂

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  3. I was reading your post and wandered off to read some of Wilfred Owen's heartbreaking work. His poetry is so damned hopeless and sad and filled with outrage. Hard to read. So much death, so many young men lost. Do they even study WWI in schools these days?

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  4. Oh, what a wonderful post. Those men could really express what they saw and felt and knew. When I was a young girl in college, John Lehmann came and gave a talk on his work with the Hogarth Press and Virginia Woolf. The mystery author Deborah Crombie has a book that focuses on Rupert Brooke called Dreaming of the Bones, which you might like.

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  5. Thank you Nan. I've read all of Deborah Crombie's books & Dreaming of the Bones was the first one I read because of the Brook connection. Have you read Lehmann's memoir A Boy at the Hogarth Press? I have it on the tbr shelves, must get to it one day…

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  6. I have always looked at Hamilton Sorley's poem quoted here more as a rant against the futility of the deaths of those millions of men. It seems loaded with irony to me, so I have to say that I can't share the comfort that it brings – quite the reverse. I applauded you for including it though, as this young man and his astonishing poetry are often over-looked for the better known.

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