The well-known poem by Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, was an attack on the pro-war propagandists of his day (who were so successful that young men queued around the block to fight on behalf of ‘plucky little Belgium’, certain that the war would ‘be over by Christmas’). Owen’s graphic account of a gas attack was meant to give the lie to the widely known Latin motto, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (It is sweet and right to die for your country.)
Owen was one of several poets, including Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas, whose war poems have become well known and widely read. But when asked to suggest poets who took part in the Second World War, many find it difficult to name a single example.
The following are offered as a starting point to redress this imbalance.
John Gillespie Magee Jnr wrote one of the most quoted and recited poems to come from WWII, ‘High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)’.
Magee was born in Shanghai. His English mother had met his father there, a rich American who had renounced his wealth to become an Episcopal priest. He was educated at Rugby School where he won the poetry prize for a sonnet commemorating the burial of another Rugby poet, Rupert Brooke. In 1939, Magee visited the USA and was unable to return to finish his final year because of the outbreak of war. Instead, and despite gaining a scholarship to Yale, he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. By 1941 he was a qualified Spitfire pilot, and it was while he was training on Spitfires that he wrote ‘High Flight’. This poem so perfectly captures the ecstasy of flight that it has become the official poem of a number of air forces around the world.
High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)
Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of; wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sun-lit silence. Hovering there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air;
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
Less than six months later he was killed in a mid-air collision over Lincolnshire. He was nineteen.
Like Magee, Mervyn Peake was born in China, the son of missionaries. He is probably best known for his glorious gothic ‘Gormenghast’ trilogy, which follows the life of Titus Groan, last of the dynasty ruling the sprawling Castle Gormenghast. But he was also the author of more than 200 poems and a celebrated portrait painter and illustrator. He trained as an artist and exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere, and when war broke out he applied to become a war artist. His request was refused and he was conscripted into the army. Some of the frustration he must have experienced at not being able to put his talents to best use can be felt in his poem ‘Fort Darland’, in which the pressures of basic training are revealed:
The limbs my mother bore me know the wrench
That shapes them to the square machine of war.
My feet smash gravel and my hands abhor
The butt-plate of the rifle that I clench.
Peake suffered a breakdown in 1942 and was invalided out of the army. He was later commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to produce a painting of glassblowers making cathode ray tubes for radar, which also lead to a poem, ’The Glassblowers,’ considered one of his finest.
In ‘The Rhyme of the Flying Bomb’, a self- illustrated epic in 133 verses, Peake’s painter’s eye and poet’s ear combine to produce a stark and harrowing evocation of the aftermath of a bombing raid.
For example, these verses from near the beginning vividly depict destruction of a house in an air raid:
But a singular song it was, for the house
As it rattled its ribs and danced,
Had a chorus of doors that slammed their jaws
And a chorus of chairs that pranced.
And the thud of the double-bass was shot
With the wail of the floating strings,
And the murderous note of the ice-bright glass
Set sail with the clink of wings –
Set sail from the bursted window-frame
To stick in the wall like spears,
Or to slice off the heads of the birthday flowers
Or to nest on a chest of drawers.
Shortly after the war’s end, Peake was commissioned by a magazine group to travel to France and Germany, and was among the first civilians to enter Belsen concentration camp. It was still populated by inmates too ill to be moved. Some measure of the degree to which Peake was affected by his experience is clear in his poem, ‘ The Consumptive. Belsen 1945’ . It begins:
If seeing her an hour before her last
Weak cough into all blackness I could yet
Be held by chalk-white walls, and by the great
Ash coloured bed,
And the pillows hardly creased
By the tapping of her little cough-jerked head –
If such can be a painter’s ecstasy,
(Her limbs like pipes, her head a china skull)
Then where is mercy?
Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica to Scottish and Russian parents but moved to the United States to study when he was 17. He was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, well known to viewers of ‘A Band of Brothers’, Stephen Spielberg’s epic account of ‘Easy Company’ and their deep friendship forged in combat all over Europe from D-Day to the fall of Hitler. During the invasion of Normandy, the 101st Airborne were ordered to take the town of Carentan. They encountered fierce resistance, and lost many men to sniper fire. Simpson wrote ‘Carentan, O Carentan’ in the aftermath of an ambush. It begins with an evocation of a country lane in peacetime, then progressively darkens in tone:
There is a whistling in the leaves
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground
Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant’s silent
That taught me how to do it.
It finishes with a verse of spare simplicity and power:
Carentan, O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.
He later won a Pulitzer prize for his collection ‘At the End of the Open Road’.
Brave deeds are not the sole preserve of men, and the exploits of women agents sent into enemy occupied territory by the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) deserve special mention. Many will have heard of Violette Szabo. In the film, ‘Carve her Name with Pride’, Violette (played by Virginia McKenna) is asked to memorise a poem to be used as a key when encrypting messages to be transmitted from France. Her cryptographer was the poet Leo Marks, and the poem, ‘The Life that I have’, had been written by Marks in memory of his girlfriend. It was common practice to use poems as a basis for encryption, because they were easier to learn by heart. But Marks knew that well-known poems were easy for German cryptanalysts to ‘crack’, and preferred to use his own creations, known only to him and his agents. Given that the life expectancy of wireless operators in the field was about six weeks, anything that made things more difficult for the enemy was surely to be welcomed.
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
The love that I have
Of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.
A sleep I shall have
A rest I shall have
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years
In the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.
Keith Douglas was born in Kent in 1920 and had the sort of childhood few would envy. His mother became seriously ill when he was very young and his father, a retired decorated soldier had to leave the family home in 1928 when his farm business collapsed. Despite considerable poverty, Douglas won several scholarships, including an Open Exhibition to Merton College Oxford, where his talent for poetry was noted, and his work included in an anthology ‘Eight Oxford Poets’.
He served in North Africa in the second Battle of El Alamein against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. His powerful poem ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ recognises a common humanity shared by for-the-moment enemies. In it, the body of a fallen foe is described:
Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht
in a copybook gothic script.
The poem ends:
For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.
Vergissmeinnicht is the German for ‘forget-me-not’.
Douglas later took part in the D-Day Normandy landings and was killed near Bayeaux only three days later.
It is something of a mystery why, nearly eight decades after the start of the war against Hitler, so little attention is paid today to the poems and poets of that conflict compared to those of the Great War.
In 1985, on the 67th anniversary of the Armistice, a slate memorial naming sixteen poets of the Great War was unveiled in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Among the ninety poets commemorated in the Abbey, three were writing at the time of the Hitler war: W.H. Auden, in 1939 already resident in the United States, wrote ‘1st September 1939’ in the first few days of the war, and nothing directly concerning it after; John Masefield, Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967, wrote almost nothing relating to the war, and John Betjeman, though he tried to enlist, spent most of the hostilities in Ireland working for the Ministry of Information. None of them can properly be considered a war poet. Of the poets who did fight, who suffered injury or died, and who wrote about the horrors, at home and abroad, of the world’s first truly global war, not one is remembered.
Is it simply the quality of their poetry that promotes Owen, Sassoon and Brooke above their later counterparts? Or could the disparity in recognition have something to do with changes in public engagement with poetry? Print was almost the sole source of information and comment in 1914-18, but by the start of the 1939-45 war, film and radio enabled a more direct access to the theatre of war. Or did stylistic changes in the world of poetry itself perhaps distance the art from a more general readership?
Whatever the reasons, war poets of Keith Douglas’ generation still await proper recognition for their talent and sacrifice.
A shorter version of this article appeared in ‘The Southwell Folio’ Issue 24.