November is a time to remember those who have lost their lives in service to their country and every year in November, at ceremonies across the country, we hear recitations of In Flanders Fields by Canadian John McCrae. Poetry, especially during the Great War, has been a way of expressing sadness and feelings for lost friends, loved ones and colleagues.
John McCrae penned some of the most familiar and powerful lines of war poetry that we Canadians know. However, McCrae was not the only citizen or soldier to find expression in poetry during and after the Great War. Other Canadians such as Marjorie Pickthall, Frederick George Scott and Robert Service also penned poems that evoke strong feelings in us today. Besides Canadian poets, other powerful poetry was written by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg and Philip Larkin.
I do not have the skill and words to describe the horrors of war that the men and women of our armed forces faced during two catastrophic world wars. Instead, I have chosen a selection of poems for you to read.
Dolce et Decorum Est
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.
By Marjorie Pickthall
Under the level winter sky
I saw a thousand Christs go by.
They sang an idle song and free
As they went up to calvary.
Careless of eye and coarse of lip,
They marched in holiest fellowship.
That heaven might heal the world, they gave
Their earth-born dreams to deck the grave.
With souls unpurged and steadfast breath
They supped the sacrament of death.
And for each one, far off, apart,
Seven swords have rent a woman’s heart.
Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
And have we done with War at last?
Well, we’ve been lucky devils both,
And there’s no need of pledge or oath
To bind our lovely friendship fast,
By firmer stuff
Close bound enough.
By wire and wood and stake we’re bound,
By Fricourt and by Festubert,
By whipping rain, by the sun’s glare,
By all the misery and loud sound,
By a Spring day,
By Picard clay.
Show me the two so closely bound
As we, by the red bond of blood,
By friendship, blossoming from mud,
By Death: we faced him, and we found
Beauty in Death,
In dead men breath.
To find more poems by any of these poets, please consider the following books:
The War Poets, Robert Giddings
Selected Poems, Wilfred Owen
Selected Poems, Robert Graves
After Every War: Twentieth Century Women Poets, Eavan Boland
Anthem for Doomed Youth: Twelve Soldier Poets of the First World War, Jon Stallworthy
Poets of World War II, Harvey Shapiro