World War One Poetry

British Pre-War Patriotism

Alfred Lord Tennyson "The Charge of the Light Brigade"

Alfred Lord Tennyson was the poet laureate of England, the epitome of the establishment poet. He wrote "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in 1854 after reading in the newspaper of a misconceived cavalry attack on a Russian position during the Crimean War.  This poem was written to memorialize a suicidal charge by light cavalry over open terrain by British forces in the Battle of Balaclava (Ukraine). 247 men of the 637 in the charge were killed or wounded. 

  • How did these brave soldiers achieve immortality in Tennyson's eye?
  • How would the attack have been seen after the First World War?

Now look at Sir Henry Newboldt's poem "Clifton Chapel"

  • How are the great conservative ideals of God, Country and Honor expressed?
  • Nationalism: Whose interests does patriotism serve?
  • Heroism: What is the true definition of heroism? Can it only be found in battle?
  • Manhood: How are father and son joined as one?
  • Honor: What ideals cannot be compromised or betrayed? 
  • Class: Can these ideals be understood by all social classes?

And this poem by Newboldt is positively terrifying in retrospect: "Vitai Lampada"

  • What does Newboldt suggest is the ultimate value of rugby?
  • Is he right? How important was the team player to ultimate victory in WWI? Were the heroic characteristics of the fine rugby player essential in trench warfare?

Rudyard Kipling  "Danny Deever" (notes); "Tommy"; "Recessional"; "Shillin’ a Day"; "Gunga Din"

Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a child of the British Empire at the time of its greatest power and extent. ("The sun never set on the British Empire!") He believed that the citizens of Western Europe had a responsibility to use force if necessary to teach the undeveloped peoples of the world how to be civilized. Like Edmund Burke, he was a true conservative who believed that the grand traditions of European civilization needed protection from the forces of ignorance and barbarism. When the Great War broke out, Kipling wrote poems exhorting young men to join up and fight against the Huns ('lesser breeds without law').

  • Read these 'soldier's ballads' out loud, and imagine the best place for them to be performed. Make up a tune to sing them, and get everyone to join in on the chorus.
  • From what class did the enlisted men come? 
  • How can you tell that 'Recessional' is an officer's poem?
  • As rough and tumble, brutal and profane as the soldier's life might be, what is Kipling's judgment of it?
  • Kipling was later accused of being a reactionary rabble-rouser whose poems were calculated to send young men off to be killed. How would he respond? What is the price of freedom that each generation must be ready to pay?

The Grand Illusion: Review

  • What factors contributed to the overwhelming initial popularity of the war?
  • Why did so many young men enthusiastically enlist to fight?
  • How are these attitudes reflected in the poems we have read?

Turning the Corner: Thomas Hardy's Poetry 

For homework write a paragraph about one of the poems by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928). 

Describe Hardy's purpose and how he achieved it?

Think first about the political and economic reasons why World War One was fought. 

  • Which countries had emerged as the most powerful in the world during the industrial revolution? 
  • To grow, an industrial/capitalist economy must acquire cheap raw materials and new markets for their finished goods. What military strategies did the great powers devise in their competition for raw materials and markets?
  • How well-armed were the European powers before the war broke out? 
  • Did the generals have any concept of what this war would be like? 
  • What was the Schlieffen Plan?
  • Who would bear the burden for fighting the war itself?
  • From which social class would the infantry come? 
  • From which social class would the officers come? 
  • How did the ruling powers manipulate the public into supporting the build up?
  • What did Thomas Hardy sense in the zeitgeist that so disturbed him?

"The Darkling Thrush"

  • Describe the woods that Hardy observed on the eve of the new century.
  • How does he describe the thrush whose song seems so incongruous in this setting?
  • What is the symbolic resonance of this scene? What does the thrush represent?

"Drummer Hodge"

  • In what part of the British Empire was this soldier killed? Why were the British in South Africa?
  • What was done with Hodge's body after he was killed?
  • What region of England was he from? What social class?
  • Did Hodge have any idea why he was fighting in South Africa?
  • What is Hardy's political point? How does he use irony to achieve it?

"The Man He Killed"

  • Who is the speaker in this poem? What social class does he come from? How can you tell from his diction? To whom is he speaking?
  • What idea is slowly dawning on this veteran as he sits in this pub?
  • What is Hardy's political point? How has he used a 'dramatic poem' to achieve it?

"Channel Firing" (1914)

  • Who has been awakened by the firing of the great battleship's guns in the middle of the English Channel?
  • Where is the poem set? How can we tell?
  • What do the dead believe has happened? What does God tell them?
  • As the dead lay back down to await Judgment Day, they talk about whether mankind has learned anything in its short history on the planet. What does Parson Thirdly think?
  • What is Hardy's purpose in this poem? How does he use this grotesque dramatic situation to achieve it?