Poetry of the Great War


by José Goris, M.A.

World War I: Cultural Background

World War I (1914-1918) was fought in Europe between France, the UK and its Empire, Russia, and the US on the one side - known together as "the Allies" - and Germany Austria-Hungary and Turkey on the other. The war started as a result of the murder in Sarajevo of the Arzduke Franz Ferdinand, a member of the Austrian royal family. When the war started, it was not expected to continue for very long and British politicians used the phrase "it will all be over by Christmas". It continued for four years and at least 10 million were killed. World War l was fought in many different areas, but for the British people the strongest image is of the "Western Front" in Belgium and Northern France, where the armies of each side lived in trenches, with an area called "no-man's land" in between. Many of the famous battles on the Western front ended without either side gaining much land, and the names of these battles especially the Somme, Passchendaele, and Ypres, have come to represent the fact that millions of young men were killed for no very good reason. For people from Australia and New Zealand, the battle of Gallipoli is remembered with great sadness. The war is also remembered for the use of chemical weapons such as chlorine gas and mustard gas. After World War l many countries signed an agreement that chemical weapons would not be used in future wars.

In the UK people remember the dead of World Wars I and II on Remembrance Day, which is held on 11 November, the day of the Armistice - the agreement to stop fighting - at the end of World War l in 1918. There is a special ceremony at the Cenotaph in London, and people wear a red paper poppy to show their respect for those killed in the wars. In the US there are no special ceremonies, but 11 November is a holiday called Veteran's Day, when people remember the soldiers killed in fighting all the wars the US has been involved in. For British people the poppy represents the soldiers who died in the two World Wars, especially in the first, because these flowers grew in the fields of France where many soldiers were killed in battle. People buy red poppies made of paper and wear them on their coats on Remembrance Day, which is often called Poppy Day, to show respect.

The Theme of War

When talking to people about "war" they all have their own ideas, stories and memories. Older people are, naturally, reminded of World War II, which made an enormous impact on their lives. Many Dutch people over sixty still hate Germans. Many of them lost relatives or friends, and many men were killed on the battlefield, sent to Germany or to prison camps. But "talking about war" always involves personal experiences rather than merely political topics.

When talking about wars, sympathy for the victims is immediately linked to the survivors and to those left behind. Most of the war victims of World War I were young men; for every victim on the battlefield there were several devastated people at home, which is as real as the battles themselves. The lives of their parents, wives or girlfriends were affected severely, as is reflected by the poetry that was written in response. The poems written during and shortly after World War I highlight a variety of themes. Some describe the horrors of the battlefield, some express patriotic feelings or heroism, others the pity of the waste of lives.

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Famous Poets and their works

The first poem reflects images of the war that most people are familiar with. The poem, 'In Flanders Fields', is probably the single best-known and popular war poem. It was first published in England's "Punch" magazine in December 1915. Within months this poem came to symbolize the sacrifices of all that were fighting in World War I.

John McCrae - In Flanders Fields

'In Flanders Fields' was written by a Canadian, John McCrae, a doctor and teacher, who served in both the South African War and World War I. He was transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. He died of pneumonia while on active duty in 1918. His volume of poetry, In Flanders Fields and other poems, was published in 1919. The poem continues to be a part of Remembrance Day ceremonies in Canada and other countries.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


The poem highlights several contrasts: the crosses on the fields, symbolizing human sacrifice, and the larks singing bravely in the sky; their singing versus the "guns below"; the men that are now dead and lie buried in fields when a short while ago they were alive and loved. It is somehow very difficult for the human soul to unite the beauty of nature, singing birds, love and beautiful colours, and the squalor of mechanical violence and destruction into one consistent picture. We tend to associate spring, singing larks and golden sunshine with beauty. But reality can be different and not all poets use poetic language to describe it. John MacCrae uses simple language, very direct, very realistic. He calls on those at home to acknowledge that their fight has not been in vain, they must hold the torch high. "Take up our quarrel with the foe". The fight does not end here, it cannot be left at that.

A widespread "Readers' Response" of the people was: write a poem as a response. We can measure the popularity of the poem by the number of readers sufficiently touched by it to write poetry responding to it. We can also think about the kinds of emotions the poem evokes: so many lives had simply been wasted. This must have been very difficult to accept for those who were left behind. Some of these poems are patriotic and actually say, perhaps in an attempt to express solidarity: Your sacrifice was not in vain. Young men had gone to battle and lost their lives fighting for their country. They were idealistic and the State made use of that: "Your Country Needs You", was the slogan on war propaganda posters.

Several of the poems touch on themes much more personal, dealing with the loss of love and the men who will never realize their gifts, talents and potential. The following poem is an example of the poems written as a response to 'In Flanders Fields'. It is written by a woman called Edith Nesbit.

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Edith Nesbit - The Fields of Flanders

Last year the fields were all glad and gay
With silver daisies and silver may;
There were kingcups gold by the river's edge
And primrose stars under every hedge.

This year the fields are trampled and brown,
The hedges are broken and beaten down,
And where the primroses used to grow
Are little black crosses set in a row.


And the flower of hopes, and the flowers of dreams,
The noble, fruitful, beautiful schemes,
The tree of life with its fruit and bud,
Are trampled down in the mud and the blood.

The changing seasons will bring again
The magic of Spring to our wood and plain;
Though the Spring be so green as never was seen
The crosses will still be black in the green.


The God of battles shall judge the foe
Who trampled our country and laid her low......
God ! hold our hands on the reckoning day,
Lest all we owe them we should repay.


In this poem, Nesbit elaborates on the themes described in the original. As in 'In Flanders Fields' there are several contrasts: between the beauty of nature and the squalor of the battlefield; the budding tree of life and the wasted lives in the mud; green future springs and crosses that will remain black. But Edith does not mention the guns or the dead in so many words. Unlike John she hasn't been on the battlefield. She uses more romantic words to describe the loss of love and future with a beloved, who had his life before him, a promising future perhaps, in which they could have had children; "the flower of hopes, the flowers of dreams", "the tree of life with its fruit and bud".

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Alice Meynell - Summer in England, 1914

Alice Meynell, née Thompson, (1847-1922) British poet and essayist, born in Barnes, London. She became a Roman Catholic in 1868, which determined the devotional character of much of her poetry. 'Preludes' (1875), her first collection of verse, was much admired by the author and editor Wilfrid Meynell (1852-1948), whom she married in 1877. By 1900 she enjoyed widespread critical and popular esteem, largely founded on the impression of lyrical piety generated by her work. Her later verse is more rigorous in tone and sometimes makes use of precisely observed detail. Certain of her poems display impressive imaginative power.

In her poem Summer in England, 1914 the main theme is the ironic contrast between the special beauty of that summer with its fair promise of harvest and the heaped slaughter, "one wet corruption":

Alice Meynell

On London fell a clearer light;
Caressing pencils of the sun
Defined the distances, the white
Houses transfigured one by one,

The "long, unlovely street" impearled.
O what a sky has walked the world!
Most happy year! And out of town
The hay was prosperous, and the wheat;
The silken harvest climbed the down:
Moon after moon was heavenly-sweet,

Stroking the bread within the sheaves,
Looking 'twixt apples and their leaves.
And while this rose made round her cup,
The armies died convulsed. And when

This chaste young silver sun went up
Softly, a thousand shattered men,
One wet corruption, heaped the plain,
After a league long throb of pain.

Flower following tender flower; and birds,
And berries; and benignant skies
Made thrive the serried flocks and herds. -
Yonder are men shot through the eyes.

Love, hide thy face
From man's unpardonable race.
Who said "No man hath greater love than this,
To die to serve his friend"?

So these have loved us all unto the end.
Chide thou no more, O thou unsacrificed!
The soldier dying dies upon a kiss,
The very kiss of Christ

The contrast between the beauty of spring and the squalor of the war is a theme in many poems, as we saw in the previous examples. Meynell uses more details and also more poetic language when describing this particular summer: the light that fell on London, the white houses lined out by the sun. She uses images of the sun, the sky and the moon as having human qualities: of the sky as having "walked the world"; of the moon in "stroking the bread within the sheaves" and "looking 'twixt the apples". But suddenly, while all this loveliness is going on in England, "the armies died convulsed". Our attention shifts to a completely different reality. The "chaste young silver sun that softly went up", made even more beautiful because of the alliteration, is in horrible contrast with the thousand shattered men. The contrast becomes even more horrible when their remains are described as "one wet corruption" heaping the plain, and at the same time deeply pitiful because the reader is reminded of the pain these men suffered: "A league long throb of pain".

Another theme in Meynell's poem is: It is a virtue to die for your fellowmen. Man's race appears unpardonable and perhaps do not deserve love for what they are doing- shooting each other through the eyes - "Love, hide thy face from man's unpardonable race" but the author has no doubt of the nobility of the sacrifice. "So these have loved us all unto the end. Chide thou no more, O thou unsacrificed!" The author is a religious person. The soldiers have a great love for their fellowmen: "No man hath greater love than this, To die to serve a friend". The sacrifice is rewarded by Christ: "The soldier dying dies upon a kiss, The very kiss of Christ." To a religious person this must have given some comfort; the recollection of someone dying in some sort of peace and harmony, rather than dying in a corrupted heap "after a league long throb of pain".

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Wilfred Owen - Dulce et decorum est

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was born in Shropshire, studied at London University, taught school and tutored privately in France, and enlisted in the army in 1915. He was commissioned in 1916, wounded early the next year, convalesced in Scotland and in England, returned to combat in 1918, and was killed in action exactly one week before Armistice. He was a talented young man with a gift for poetry; like Brooke and several others he belongs to the Lost Generation of World War I; talented young men who, had they lived, probably would have become great writers.

Owen's poetry reveals an ironic distrust of all the traditional ideologies, which have kept soldiers fighting. The theme is "it is honourable to die for your country", but intended as irony. The description of the battlefield has very realistic details of the battlefield. It is about a gas attack, gas being the World War I weapon, which raised moral problems. " The long throb of pain" of Alice Meynell's poem is visualized here: "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" "The blood gargling from the froth corrupted lungs". There is no comforting image of Christ's kiss in Owen's poem: he has been in the trenches himself and experienced all the horrors. He knows that there is nothing glorious in dying in the trenches, and that to pretend otherwise is a lie. This lie is made worse because it is told to "children": what indeed does a twenty-year-old boy know about life? Before Owen died he wrote in the preface of his volume:

"This book is not about heroes. Above all, I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of it. The poetry is in the Pity......All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful."

Wilfred Owen

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 flound'ring 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 themes of many of Owen's poems are the horror, futility and pity of the war. His poetry is also remarkable for its imagery, metrical and musical effects. He also came up with some technical developments such as the off rhymes of 'Strange Meeting', which would influence even the British poetry of the thirties. The next poem shows the use of images and also has an unusual type of rhyme.

Wilfred Owen - Arms and the Boy

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.

Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-leads
Which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads,
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.

For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

Blade- blood; flash - flesh; leads - lads have alliteration and off - rhyme: a jarring effect.
Teeth - death; apple-supple; heels - curls only have end rhyme.
In all instances the words have the same stress pattern, so that the rhythm remains intact. Owen also makes frequent use of alliteration to create a musical effect: bayonet blades; blind blunt bullet-leads; malice like a madman's flash; famishing for flesh .

In the first stanza the poet gives us the image of a small boy who does not quite know what he is in for; let him feel for himself how sharp this knife is, because it is no use explaining. The guns are called "bullet-leads", as if to explain to a child what kind of tool this is. It also refers to the title: Arms and the Boy; explain to the boy what arms are for. The gun looks so nice and the boy himself cannot help wanting it, the toy itself exerts the willpower: "which long to nuzzle in the hearts of lads." It gives the picture of the soldier being urged to go to war by some external force.

In the last stanza there is a change of mood. The image is that of God who made the world to be good, not to have wars. The human figure is too beautiful to harm or to be harmed by violence: his teeth are for cheerfully eating an apple, the image of a happy person, not for biting someone's throat. If God had wanted them to be murderous, he would have given claws or talons or antlers.

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Siegfried Sassoon - To Victory

Siegfried Sassoon Sassoon (1886- 1967) was born in Brenchley, Kent and educated at Clare College, Cambridge. He was on active service in Flanders throughout much of World War I and is generally recognized as the first poet to record the horrors and privations of life in the trenches. Sassoon was a romantic poet. The first volume of his war poetry appeared in 1917, the year in which he threw away his Military Cross and published an open letter, denouncing the administration of the war. Gradually an element of anti-war polemic becomes emphatic in his poems. He was a friend of Owen's, who was inspired by him. The theme is a longing for the beauty and peace of nature.

Return to greet me, colours that were my joy,
Not in the woeful crimson of men slain,
But shining as a garden; come with the streaming
Banners of dawn and sundown after rain.

I want to fill my gaze with blue and silver,
Radiance through living roses, spires of green,
Rising in young-limbed copse and lovely wood,
Where the hueless wind passes and cries unseen.

I am not sad; only I long for lustre, -
Tired of the greys and browns and leafless ash.
I would have hours that move like a glitter of dancers,
Far from the angry guns that boom and flash.

Return, musical, gay with blossom and fleetness,
Days when my sight shall be clear and my heart rejoice;
Come from the sea with breadth of approaching brightness,
When the blithe wind laughs on the hills with uplifted voice.

The effect of the poem is in the colours and images of nature: "Colours that were my joy". The poet is sick and tired of the awful colours of dead bodies, "the woeful crimson of men slain", and the lifeless remains of war machinery, "the greys and browns and leafless ash". Just like the romantic poets of the past, Sassoon believes in the healing forces of nature: he wants to fill his gaze with the beauty of flowers, copses, woods and feel the wind on his skin. He wants to hear nature's melody and see the brightness of a clear day, which will make his heart rejoice. This notion of the restorative force of nature was first developed by Wordsworth in the early 19th century. His theory was known at the time as the Wordsworth Doctrine: exposure to nature must bring healing power to a man.

His contemporary and friend Coleridge held a different opinion, though. He had made an experiment on this only to end up more dejected: he had been standing out of doors on a beautiful evening when he himself was in a state of depression, but found out that the beauties of the scene did not help him at all. He describes this in his poem 'Dejection, an Ode': "I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!" It is grasped rationally, but to no emotional effect. The achievement of such an effect, he argues, demands an answering power in the observer: a joy that will respond to the beauty. Merely passive exposure to nature in itself does not bring about any healing. There has to be an active interaction of man's own forces with nature's.

As to the soldiers returning from the War: will they have felt a joy within, responding to the great wonder of nature? They had suffered from the "wonders" of their times, the war machinery; they were "Tired of the greys and browns and leafless ash", wanted to be "Far from the angry guns that boom and flash". The title of the poem, 'Victory', has no political, patriotic or heroic connotation. Victory is the war being over and the freedom to enjoy nature again:"Return, days when my sight shall be clear and my heart rejoice"; "When the blithe wind laughs on the hills with uplifted voice": this will take time.

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Rupert Brooke - The Soldier

Rupert Brooke Like Owen, Brooke (1887-1915) is one of the Great War Poets in England, who was killed as a result of World War I. He was born in Rugby and educated at King's College, Cambridge. He was a lyrical poet in the style of John Keats and wrote idealistic poetry of the war. The theme of his poem 'The Soldier' is patriotism; it is a romantic poem, singing England's praises. It is a Petrarchan sonnet; rhyme scheme abab cdcd efg efg. Every schoolboy in England once had to learn this poem, and everyone in England knows, or used to know, the first line: "If I should die, think only this of me." The soldier in the poem is not so much interested in heroically defending his country; his patriotic feelings lie in leaving his ashes to dedicate a corner of the battlefield to English memory.

To his friends it was clear how true and fine a poet Brooke was, but critics after the war departed from an intellectual climate which was antipathetic to the very idea of a romantic young poet acclaiming the virtues of war, and from the middle twenties it was impossible for many years to find Rupert Brooke valued with any justice by most of those who took literature seriously.

Indeed, not many people will find his patriotic sentiments constructive to a nation's wellbeing in war times. However, Rupert was a passionate person; all his earlier poetry flamed with youth and sweetness. He loved so intensely and felt such "infinite hungers" that the real again and again fell short of his idealisation. His poetry gives an impression of an almost overflowing release into a finer world; we could interpret 'The Soldier' in this way.

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven

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Thomas Hardy - The man he killed

"Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

"I shot him dead because -
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

"He thought he'd list, perhaps,
Off-hand like - just as I -
Was out of work - had sold his traps -
No other reason why.

"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown."

Thomas Hardy (1840 - 1928), British novelist and poet was born in Dorset. He began writing verse at the age of 17. He studied Latin and French and read the Greek Testament. He wrote a number of novels, the scene of which is Wessex, the old name for Dorset and he often uses the old dialect, e.g. the word "nipperkin" in line 4. This is a small glass of alcoholic drink; the word is related to Dutch "nippen". In 1898 he turned to poetry. He was one of the older poets and stayed at home in the war, but he was moved to write of it. Hardy's vision of life is that fate plays an important part in men's lives, and there is no escape. Man is subjected to his implacable destiny. Fortunately, this gloomy fatalism is relieved by the genial humour of the simple people he writes about. The poem is from his bundle 'Time's Laughingstocks' (1909).

The theme of the poem is universal for all wars: the dilemma of people feeling sympathy on a personal basis for their political enemies. The language is simple, the soldier in the poem is a simple man: he has not realized the possibility of finding himself faced with this predictable problem. As he is telling the story of his encounter with this supposed "enemy" to an imaginary friend, he becomes aware of a curious discrepancy between his own feelings and reality: if only he had met this man that is doomed to be his enemy somewhere else, in different times, they would probably have become friends. But just because there is a war going on, this very same person has to be killed. It is obvious that the men in the poem are no true-blue soldiers or heroic warriors; they happened to join the army because they were out of a job and could think of nothing better to do. Now they are subjected to their insentient fate: one of them is going to shoot the other.

In August 1914 there were many poets, old and young, to write of the coming of war, and in the following years to tell at home and in the trenches of its progress, of the strain and the carnage, the nobleness and the futility. We have seen poetry written by young men in the fighting services and on the battlefields: John McCrae, Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon. Also by the older poets and women who stayed at home - Alice Meynell and Thomas Hardy, who had already made name long before World War I. In 1915 Thomas Hardy wrote the next poem, part of his bundle "Moments of Vision', which thrusts war's annals firmly into the background.

Thomas Hardy - In Time of The Breaking of Nations
Thomas Hardy

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

The poem paints a picture of everyday life in the country, far away from the battlefields not only physically, but also mentally. The eternal peasant working in the fields with his horse, "harrowing clods", raking clay lumps. Both man and animal are in their daily rut; nothing disturbs them: they are half asleep as they proceed. The heaps of corn grass on the field are not on fire,- no passionate outbursts- but are just smouldering and will continue doing so, regardless of the outcome of war: "this will go onward the same though Dynasties pass". The ideology and proceedings of war are very far away. This also goes for the "maid and her wight", the girl and her lover, who are all ears for each other and their own history outweighs that of war. Everyday life with its simple familiarities is the most precious thing we have and deserves our attention and energy.

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Ezra Pound - The Return

Ezra Pound (1885-1972) was one of the greatest innovators and renewers of poetry in our century. He was also one of several American writers who settled in Europe. From 1908 to 1920 he lived in London, then in Paris till 1924 and in Italy afterwards. In London he met other modernist writers, among them two of the most famous, his fellow American, T.S. Eliot, whom he greatly influenced, and James Joyce. He was a secretary to Yeats, whom he had met in America in 1903 and a leading figure in the so-called Imagists movement. He went back to the great writers of the past, not only in ancient Greece and Rome but also in the Chinese and other cultures. He did not do so in a romanticizing way - Pound was an anti-romantic - but to show the continuity of man's thought and culture. He wanted a no-nonsense, undecorative poetry of the intelligence. Celebrated among his works are the 'Cantos', written over a long period of years. Pound's influence was enormous and it was a tragedy that the anti-American propaganda he did for the Italians during the war should have caused him to be arrested. He spent many later years (1946 -'58) in an institution for the insane in America.

Ezra Pound

See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
Wavering !

See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half- awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the "Wing'd with Awe,"

Gods of the wingèd shoe !
With them the silver hounds,
sniffing the trace of air !

The poem is taken from his work 'Personae'. As to form it is completely different from previous poetry; it has no rhyme scheme, pentameter or fixed metronome. The language is different, too. It does not give any realistic details about the horrors of the battlefield such as Owen's, nor invoke romantic images of nature such as Sassoon's. Its strength does not lie in playing upon idealistic patriotism as does Brooke. As to contents it is full of images that appeal to our senses and emotions simultaneously.

The reader is dragged into his or her own imagination. 'Personae' was published in 1909, but the poem could perfectly well be interpreted to fit World War I. Pound just barges in: "See, they return!" and the reader is alerted. "They" must be the soldiers, returning from the war. Are they feeling victorious, beaten? "Ah, see the tentative movements, and the slow feet". They can't be very elated after this useless battle. But still, aren't they heroes; after all they did fight a war? "The trouble in the pace and the uncertain wavering".... ...they look like shattered, incompetent wretches, nothing heroic about them.

They do not even reflect their own personal bravery of having stared into the face of death, of having held their own: they return "with fear, as half awakened" and do not even have the will left to support each other: "one by one". They are so pitiable that we cannot begin to remember that once these men felt sure of their victory: "Wing'd with Awe"; the snow has to remind us by turning back and addressing us: do not be mistaken, these are the same men that considered themselves "inviolable".

The last lines reflect Pound's interest in different cultures and mythology. "Gods of the winged shoe! " the optimistic soldiers in their military boots, setting off to the battlefields as if flying on air. But the hounds, like blood hounds - the forces that did not grant them victory - were going after them; they had sniffed the military elation and were intent on plunging their teeth into it. The soldiers were lost even before they started. The Great War produced only victims.

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Read more: Sonnets of World War I


Introducing English Literature - The Twentieth Century; James Brockway
The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Literature in English
Longman's Dictionary of the English Language and Culture

World Wide Web:

The Lost Poets of the Great War
The New Bartleby Library