War Poetry

War is a common topic for poets in the 20th century, with many poems written about World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945). World War I inspired soldiers to write poems from its very start. Three million war poems were claimed to have been written in Germany in the first six months of the war alone although it is difficult to verify these numbers. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier and one of the most famous poets of World War I. In 1916, Owen was commissioned in The Manchester Regiment. Initially he was optimistic about the war but later his attitude completely changed following two accidents during the hostilities. After the accidents he was sent for treatment to a war hospital in Edinburgh where he met fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Under the influence of Sassoon, Owen's stance on war changed from optimism to strong resentment.

Owen's best known poems are Dulce et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth. Dulce et Decorum Est was written in 1917 and published posthumously in 1920. The poem tells about a group of friends in World War I marching away from shell explosions behind them as gas shells start falling on them. They put on their gas masks but one of the men was too late and dies. Then the narrator has to put the man's body in the back of a van. The title of the poem is taken from Roman poet Horace's words Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. In English these words mean ‘It is sweet and proper to die for your country.' The words were often cited by supporters of the war. The poem depicts the horror of the war and strongly condemns it. Anthem for Doomed Youth was written between September and October 1917. The poem mourns the needless deaths of young soldiers in the war. The very start of the poem ‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?' shows the author's bitter feeling of resentment toward the war. Other powerful poems dedicated to World War I include The Happy Warrior by Herbert Read (1893-1968), Back by Wilfred Gibson (1878-1962) and Before Action by W.N.Hodgson (1893-1916).

Alun Lewis (1915-1944) was one of the outstanding English war poets of World War II. Although he was a pacifist, he joined the army in 1940 and died in Burma in the course of the campaign against the Japanese. His first collection of poems Raiders Dawn and Other Poems was published in 1942. Lewis's second book of poems, Ha! Ha! Among the Trumpets, was published in August 1945, after his death. Keith Douglas (1920-1944) was an English poet famous for his poetry of World War II. Right after the declaration of the war he wanted to join the army but it was only in 1940 when he started his training. Douglas was initially posted to North Africa but returned to England in December 1943. He participated in the D-Day invasion in Normandy in 1944, where he was killed by enemy fire. Douglas was buried in the war cemetery in Tilly-sur-Seulles. Apart from his poetry, considered some of the finest of World War II, Douglas wrote the war memoir Alamein to Zem Zem, which is ranked as one of the best war memoirs. Karl Shapiro (1913-2000) was an American poet who wrote poetry in the Pacific Ocean Theater while he served there during World War II. Shapiro's collection V-Letter and Other Poems received the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.

The Vietnam War (1954-1975) provoked a wave of anti-war poetry. In 1970, Earl E. Martin published his book of poems about the Vietnam War, entitled A Poet Goes to War. Michael Casey (b.1947) served as a military police officer in Vietnam. His debut collection, Obscenities, tells about his work in Vietnam and was awarded the 1972 Yale Younger Poets Award. Another well-known Vietnam War poet is Bruce Weigl (b.1949). The poems in his three collections are inspired by his service in Vietnam with the United States Army and other tours of duty. Other well-known Vietnam War poets are W.D.Ehrhart (b.1948) and Yusef Komunyakaa (b.1947), who both spent time in military service in Vietnam.

War Poetry: Selected full-text books and articles

FREE! War Verse By Frank Foxcroft T. Y. Crowell, 1918
War Stories and Poems By Rudyard Kipling; Andrew Rutherford Oxford University Press, 1999
In the Day of Battle: Poems of the Great War By Carrie Ellen Holman William Briggs, 1916
FREE! A Book of Verse of the Great War By W. Reginald Wheeler Yale University Press, 1917
Selected Criticism: Prose, Poetry By Louise Bogan Noonday Press, 1955
Librarian’s tip: "War Poetry" begins on p. 216
Contemporary English Literature By Mark Longaker; Edwin C. Bolles Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1953
Librarian’s tip: "Verse of Two World Wars" begins on p. 221
Poetry and the Modern World: A Study of Poetry in England between 1900 and 1939 By David Daiches University of Chicago Press, 1940
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IV "War Poetry -- The Imagists"
Vietnam and the Southern Imagination By Owen W. Gilman Jr University Press of Mississippi, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "The Southern Poet's Vietnam"
Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War By Don Ringnalda University Press of Mississippi, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Seven "Poems: 'Whittled from Bone'"
Carrying the Darkness: The Poetry of the Vietnam War By W. D. Ehrhart Texas Tech University Press, 1989
'Weep Wretched Man' - Civil War in Poetry By Baker, Kenneth History Today, Vol. 47, No. 11, November 1997
"I Sing of Arms and the Man." (the Ghosts of War) By Appleman, Philip The Humanist, Vol. 61, No. 6, November-December 2001
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