There was no unified literary movement during the Great War that included poets from all over Europe, North America, and such colonies or dominions whose forces participated in the conflict. Even in England, the verse published during the war is too voluminous and multifarious to be regarded as unified by anything other than subject matter.
That said, the phrase "Poets of the First World War" typically refers to a smaller group of English writers whose work shares commonalities of theme and technique. Chief among these are Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, Edmund Blunden, and Robert Graves. Standing somewhat apart, and often linked with the others if only by contrast, is Rupert Brooke. These poets knew and encouraged each other, and their grouping as a single unit is defensible in literary historical terms.
The Diversity of Poetry During the War
Vincent Trott describes the tremendous amounts of verse generated by the outbreak of war:
Poetry proliferated on an unprecedented scale during the First World War. In Germany, around a hundred poems were published in newspapers across the country every day during the first month of the conflict. According to one estimate, soldiers from across the combatant nations wrote 1.5 million poems in August 1914 alone. Vast quantities of verse were published subsequently: Catherine Reilly's bibliography of English war poetry lists more than two thousand writers. (p. 19)
Trott, Vincent. “The Poetic Marketplace.” A History of World War One Poetry, edited by Jane Potter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2023. pp. 19–34. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781009120098.002. Accessed at cambridge.org, 24 Oct 2022.
Specifically with regard to English poetic productions, George Walter comments:
Within weeks of the German invasion of Belgium, The Times was being inundated by "as many as a hundred metrical essays in a single day", whilst the Daily Mail could report in June 1915 that more poetry had "found its way into print in the last eleven months than in the eleven preceding years". (p. 7)
Walter, George. "Introduction". The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, ed. George Walter. London: Penguin, 2006. pp. 7–40.
As one might expect, these poems ran the gamut in their attitude toward the war. Brooke's "War Sonnets", published in January 1915, celebrate war as a heroic and honorable endeavor:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love! (ll. 1–8)
Brooke, Rupert. War Sonnets I: Peace. 1915. Retrieved from poetryfoundation.org, 24 October 2023.
Walter points out that this sense of war as a noble endeavor was shared by many soldier poets right until the end of the war. Given that tens of thousands of poems were published during this period, it should not be surprising that many of them held on to patriotic values. Yet, as Walter argues, discussions of English World War I poetry tend to ignore poems that celebrate those ideals. Instead, those discussions adhere to a standard narrative: that war poetry initially expressed the sort of positive attitudes shown in Brooke's poem, but that as the war dragged on, these attitudes were replaced by disillusionment brought about by direct experience of trench warfare. This latter attitude is said to be typified by Owen's poems, such as "Dulce et Decorum Est", where he describes the agony of a gassed soldier to dismiss as an "old lie" the sentiment that death in service of one's country is heroic:
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. (ll. 17–28)
Owen, Wilfred. "Dulce et Decorum Est". 1920. Retrieved from poetryfoundation.org, 24 October 2023.
Four anthologies of poetry from World War I were published in the years 1964–1068, marking the fiftieth anniversary of the war. Walter argues that the anthology editors promulgated the simplified narrative whereby over the course of the war poets, and poetry, went from enthusiasm to disillusionment to pacifism—from Brooke to Owen to Sassoon, as it were. This reductive view persists to this day. Walter laments "the restricted and restrictive nature of what might be called the canon of First World War poetry" (p. 24):
Put simply, modern anthologies tend to only favour those poems which stress the horrors of the war, which are compassionate about the suffering of those who endured it and, preferably, translate that compassion into anger towards war and those who perpetuate it. The reason why such a limited range of poems should be preferred isn’t hard to find—aside from reflecting the image of the war which emerged in the 'sixties, such a limited body of work fits all the more easily into the Owenesque narrative of war experience which materialized at the same time—but it’s had the damaging effect of marginalizing a vast body of other poems and created a highly distorted but enduring image of what the poetry of the First World War is actually like. (p. 25)
Walter's point is well-taken. He argues persuasively that Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, and other poets we take as exemplifying the poetry of the Great War were not particularly well-known or well-regarded by most readers prior to the 1960s, whereas Brooke continued to be popular for several decades following the war. One can agree with Walter that seeing Owen et al. as representative of all World War I poetry distorts literary history. That said, it does not follow that Owen and the poets associated with him cannot be considered as constituting their own poetic movement, one inextricably linked to their combat experiences.
The Unity of the Sassoon - Owen School
Walter complains that First World War poetry is assumed to refer only to works in the manner of Owen. But one can argue for the existence of a cohesive group of First World War poets while recognizing that many other active poets did not fit in with that group. To take an analogy, "Poets of the Thirties" usually refers to W H Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Louis MacNeice. But T S Eliot and W B Yeats continued to write during that decade, and John Betjeman and William Empson also produced some of their best-known poems in the 1930s. The usual equation of "Poets of the Thirties" with the Auden Group does not mean that no other poets existed during that decade. It means simply that these poets saw themselves as participating in a joint endeavor of sorts, and that their work consciously responds to the material and social conditions prevalent at the time.
The same could be argued for those who are thought of as typifying World War I poetry: Owen, Sassoon, etc. The relationship of their poems to wartime conditions, particularly to first-hand experience of trench warfare, is obvious. Their personal friendships and fellowship also deserve mention. A thicket of connections links all the poets mentioned in the introductory paragraph. The oldest of the lot, Brooke and Sassoon, had met in June 1914 (shortly before the war's outbreak) at the London rooms of Edward Marsh. Marsh was the editor of five highly successful anthologies entitled Georgian Poetry; both Sassoon and Brooke had had their poems included. Additionally, they shared with Marsh the fact of being homosexual or at least bisexual. As a connoisseur of painting, Marsh was also a patron of Rosenberg's.
During the war, Owen and Sassoon were both treated at Craiglockhart, a military hospital in Edinburgh. While there they formed a close friendship, likely becoming lovers. Graves visited Sassoon at Craiglockhart, where the latter introduced him to Owen. Graves subsequently invited Owen to his wedding. The three were known to read and comment on one another's poems. Sassoon was also a friend of Blunden's, who in turn was a friend of Gurney's and prepared his poems for publication.
This nexus of friendships, sexual connections, and artistic patronage is evidence that these poets saw themselves as participating in a joint endeavor. This cohesion is reflected in the poetry of these writers as well. While each has his own voice, their poems are recognizably similar. The easy patriotism and elegiac formality of Brooke is replaced by a sardonic, even bitter, tone. Details are rendered precisely and vividly, almost in the manner of the Imagists. This makes for a distinctive poetic idiom. There is no mistaking Rosenberg's poppies, for example, with those of John McCrae. McCrae writes:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. (ll. 1–5)
McCrae, John. "In Flanders Fields". 1915. Retrieved from poetryfoundation.org, 24 October 2023.
Rosenberg's poppies, and his poetry, are far less manicured. No skylarks here, just an earthbound rat:
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear. (ll. 3–6)
Rosenberg's poem concludes:
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust. (ll. 23–26)
Rosenberg, Isaac. "Break of Day in the Trenches". 1916. Retrieved from poetryfoundation.org, 24 October 2023.
The poppy the narrator has secured his poppy behind his ear is covered with dust, as in a grave. The blood of a wounded soldier too is imagined as a poppy, dropping as the soldier drops. The precision of imagery, the ironic tone, and the realism of the scene contrast sharply with the idealization of soldier's deaths in McCrae's poem.
There is a straight line between Rosenberg's wryness here and Owen's bitterness in "Dulce et Decorum Est". And like Rosenberg, Owen too is realistic and precise, foregrounding the horror of watching a gassed soldier die rather than presenting death in an idealized way. The work of Sassoon and the other poets in the group display a similar tone, precision, and anti-idealism, explaining why these poets of World War I are usually considered a group in the same way that the poets of the thirties are.
Given the tonal, formal, and thematic similarities of poets such as Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg, and others; the contrast between their poems and those of, say, McCrae or Brooke along all three axes; and their network of personal connections, there is no argument against seeing them as a unified movement. Yes, equating all of World War I poetry with this rather small group of writers is a mistake. But there is a reason they are seen as a single group: because they are one. They are as distinct from their contemporaries as the Metaphysicals were from the Cavalier poets.