The Great War Produced Some Great Poetry
Do you remember that stirring poem about poppies, taught to millions of Americans in elementary school? Years later, the second stanza still rings in my ear: “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.”
“In Flanders Fields,” by Canadian soldier John McCrae, has survived time’s pull. A hundred years after the raging guns ceased and the ashes of war swept over millions of tombstones, the words still haunt. But the poem’s background makes it even more harrowing. McCrae died in 1918, another casualty of the senseless, horrific acts of mankind.
World War I — the Great War — has been over for a century. Most of its stories don’t recall the triumph of good over evil, as in World War II, nor do they give off the chivalrous tone that framed 19th-century conflicts. There was no Hitler to defeat, and little distinction between black and white, right and wrong. The world witnessed the sickening consequences of modern warfare.
There was no precedent for such horror. The men who fought in the Great War couldn’t anticipate the destruction they would both cause and endure; never before had life been wiped out in such magnitude and across such a vast stage. There were an estimated 18 million deaths and 41 million casualties from 1914–18.
Soldiers naturally sought ways to cope with the trauma. Some, like McCrae, leaned on poetry. Their words form a final testimony modern readers ought to heed. The poems pierce our modern veil, reminding us of what has changed in the past century, as well as of eternal truths.
A young nurse named Vera Brittain penned one such poem, “Perhaps,” upon the death of her fiancé. The last stanza: “But though kind Time may many joys renew / There is one greatest joy I shall not know / Again, because my heart for loss of You / Was broken, long ago.” The war accentuates a feeling of loss that nonetheless is familiar to readers in any era.
Many of the most famous poets were killed in the war they memorialized. Rupert Brooke, who wrote of a “corner of a foreign field that is forever England,” died in Greece in 1915. Charles Hamilton Sorley’s poem “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” was discovered the same year alongside his…