Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and The Great War

As most of you know, this year marks the centenary of World War I. Although the war did not officially begin until the end of July 1914, its precipitating event — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo — took place on June 28, 1914. To mark the centenary, this June, and for the rest of the summer, I’ll be writing from time to time about the literature of the Great War, since it’s a special interest of mine.

This month, weekly poetry posts will feature poetry of the First World War, and so you’ll notice that the Poetry Concierge will take a brief hiatus, appearing sometimes on Fridays before picking back up in July.

photo (84)Today I’d like to point out two of the war’s most famous poems, Rupert Brooke’s “The Solider” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” I am neither the first nor the last to place the two poems side-by-side, but it’s an instructive experience, I think.

Both Brooke and Owen were British soldiers, and both were writing poetry before the war began. Both died during the war. Brooke died in 1915 of an infection following a mosquito bite, before experiencing the horrors of trench warfare. Owen, on the other hand, experienced the full terrors of life and death in the trenches. He was killed on November 4, 1918, and his mother learned of death on Armistice Day, just one week later.

Brooke was a writer of pleasant, light verse; had he lived, it seems unlikely that his work would have surpassed the popularity of his short sonnet sequence 1914, in which “The Soldier” appears. Like John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” the poem approaches death with sadness, but concludes that death is noble in the service of patriotism. Here are “The Solider”‘s famous opening lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:
      That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.


“Think only this” — not “think about why I died, and others like me.” Such sentiments, of course — though they capture the  pre-war atmosphere with gracious diction and memorable phrasing — are obliterated by poems like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est“. Here are its opening lines:

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.

The juxtaposition of the verse’s formal components with its brutal content is just one part of Owen’s brilliance. The poem describes a gas attack; the speaker is haunted by the vision of the man who couldn’t get his mask on in time. Initially, the speaker is distanced from the dying man thanks to his own gas mask: “Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” Then, an incredibly well-placed stanza break, and a switch from the past to to the present tense to bring the sense of immediacy, already created by the detailed language, home: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” Drowning without water.

The poem deserves to be read in its entirety, but if you’re squeezed for time, here are its blazing final lines, addressed to the audience — Brooke’s audience — that hasn’t seen war firsthand:

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.

For those of you who cut Latin class from time to time: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, drawn from one of Horace’s odes, means “How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.”