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The best books on Poetry of the First World War

recommended by Guy Cuthbertson

Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson

Wilfred Owen
by Guy Cuthbertson


Poetry written during the First World War has remained prominent in the public consciousness for more than a century; writers like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves are still commonly studied in British schools and universities. Here, Guy Cuthbertson—literary scholar and author of an acclaimed biography of Owen—selects five books to give an overview of the poetry produced during the Great War.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

Wilfred Owen by Guy Cuthbertson

Wilfred Owen
by Guy Cuthbertson

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The horrors of the First World War inspired a great deal of poetry, and poetry that remains, I think, in the public consciousness. Were the poets of the Great War unusually prolific, in comparison to other conflicts?

Well it’s hard to compare, isn’t it? There wasn’t really a conflict like that before. Afterward, obviously, there was the Second World War, and plenty of people were saying at that time, ‘Where are the great poets of this war?’

The First World War was unique at the time, in the sense that you had a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise have been in the army joining up, who may well have been literary types—poets and so forth. It wasn’t simply a war conducted by career soldiers. And to look at the wider social context, people were more educated than they were in earlier wars, more likely to be literate, more bookish. So that’s one reason why you would get people writing poetry.

And then there are the practicalities of war, which is that there was a lot of sitting around in the First World War. It was not always a dynamic conflict. There was some time to think and write. And it was such a shocking disruption, it gave people unique subject matter.

We should also think about the publishing industry, the press. This was an era when newspapers carried poetry and poetry reviews every day. Which is very different to today.

Right. I wish we still had poetry in the newspapers.

Today, if you’re a poet, you’re not going to be published in a newspaper at all, really. So there was a whole industry of poetry publishing. And we need to think, too, about the construction of university and school curriculums.  War poety became a school topic —at least in the UK—and to the point that a lot of people got bored of war poetry, because they had to do it at school, and probably several times. Everybody had to read Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, a few other names. There’s only so much mud and barbed wire that you want to be reading about as a teenager.

And there are a whole range of different factors. You can then think about later wars, like Vietnam, which put war poetry back onto the curriculum. Then they were looking for someone who was, if not anti-war, then at least sceptical about war. Certain poets from the First World War suit that purpose, because in the First World War there were a lot of reasons to complain and to criticise the conflict. Other wars, such as the Second World War, were less easy to argue about, as there was more of a moral dimension to defeating fascism.

“War poets were not just those in the trenches”

I wonder how it will change. We’re now maybe entering an era when war poetry might not be so prominent as that generation dies out. There is a sense that the war poets were part of the act of memorialisation, a literary form of the war memorial and the Remembrance Day service—it’s not just the words on the page, there’s a whole social context to understanding their popularity.

Other art forms have played a role. Film keeps revisiting the First World War, and it likes depicting poets and the relationship between art and war. Benjamin Britten did a lot for Wilfred Owen with his War Requiem, which came out in the early 1960s. So there have been a range of cultural and social forces.

Absolutely. You’ve taken a sort of polyphonic approach in your book recommendations. Earlier suggested you wanted to look at the expanded canon, moving beyond Siegfried Sassoon and his ilk, although we will look at two poets in particular—Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas. The first book you’ve chosen is an anthology from Oxford World Classics called Poetry of the First World War. Could you talk us through your reasoning for selecting this book in particular?

It’s quite a recent anthology, but it’s probably become the definitive First World War anthology, produced by Tim Kendall—who is a leading war academic and also a poet himself. It’s not thoroughly diverse, which is why I’ve included the other two anthologies as well. He’s tended towards the ‘best,’ if you can put it in those terms; he uses an aesthetic principle rather than looking for range. All the big names are in there, but he has possibly expanded our idea of what a ‘war poet’ is.

That’s a big question—war poets were not just those in the trenches. So, for instance, he begins the collection with Thomas Hardy poems—Hardy was an old man by the time of the First World War. He was in his seventies. He’s commenting on the war from England. And there are other figures, like Kipling and Yeats. There are some female voices. It’s not just men in uniform, the combatants. There are some women who were working as nurses or in civil servant jobs, or those on the home front. All are writing about the war from different perspectives.

One poet that Tim Kendall is really keen on is Charlotte Mew, she has two poems about 1915, and one called ‘The Cenotaph’.  An aspect of the anthology is poetry written after the war, as an act of commemoration or memorialisation, not just written during the conflict itself. That’s when female voices become quite prominent.

May Wedderburn Cannan is in there, a really interesting female poet who writes from the perspective of women working in offices—she wrote one about the Armistice seen from an office in Paris:

The news came through over the telephone:

All the terms had been signed: the War was won:


It was quite quiet in the big empty room

Among the typewriters and little piles

Of index cards: one said, ‘We’d better just

Finish the day’s reports and do the files.’

So there’s this interesting social dimension, the women hearing about the end of the war as they work in what would have been men’s jobs before the war. She has a conversational voice, not the pomposity you might associate with war poets—an accessible style that seems more at home in the 21st century. That’s a poet who probably would not have been known at all until very recently.

He also includes all the famous names, basically every war poem you might have done at school. And he also includes, at the end, ‘Music-Hall and Trench Songs’—so exploring the boundaries where poetry ends and song begins, the relationship between poetry and popular music. As I was saying, these things tend to feed into each other anyway, and he’s included various songs the soldiers would have known like ‘Pack-up your troubles in your old kit-bag’ and ‘Good-bye-ee.’

So this anthology gives you all the major war poets, but also a range of different voices.

I like the idea of seeing the events of the war from so many different perspectives. Poetry as historical documentation. The second book you’ve selected is another anthology, From the Line: Scottish War Poetry 1914-1945. It features 56 Scottish poets and 138 poems.

We get anthologies now that bring in all sorts of voices and expand our idea of Britain. Often our cliched idea of war poetry is poetry by men from the south of England, public school educated, often an Oxbridge background—they fit into our accepted idea of what a war poet is like in terms of education and how they speak and write.

You get a different sense of things with this Scottish anthology, not least because it has Gaelic poetry in it, in translation. One of the Gaelic poets, Murchadh Moireach—

Murdo Murray, in the Anglicised version of his name. He was from Lewis.

–has a little poem called ‘The Value of Freedom’:

Stop a little, slender bullet

There’s an answer from the bullet—it’s a conversation with the bullet that will kill somebody. So we expand this idea of British war poetry, or what war poetry might be.

There’s a character called J.B. Salmond in this collection. His poems are about after the war; one about revisiting the western front—‘Pilgrimage: Being the thoughts of an ex-soldier at Ypres, 8/8/28’ and another called ‘The Unveiling’ about the war memorial at St Andrews in Scotland.

There were quite a few poets in here I had not heard of, so it was a nice change from the other anthology, which has the big names in it.

The third book, another anthology, is The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. It’s introduced by George Walter.

This is a bit older than the other two books, published in 2006. It takes a thematic approach, which makes it quite hard to navigate—it’s arranged by topic, not by poet or by chronology. But it does give some really interesting combinations and juxtapositions, where two poets might be writing on the same topic next to each other, in some cases even with the same title. There’s a ‘Bombardment’ by D.H. Lawrence and a ‘Bombardment’ by Richard Aldington, for instance.

May Wedderburn Cannan is in there again, and another female poet called Rose Macauley who has a poem called ‘Picnic, July 1917,’ about a picnic in Surrey where they could hear the guns on the Western Front—you could hear the fighting in the south of England if the wind was blowing in the right direction. There are stories about guns being heard at 10 Downing Street. So it’s a theme that comes up: the beauty of summer on the home front versus what’s going on just a short distance away.

Oh guns of France, oh guns of France,

Be still, you crash in vain….

Heavily up the south wind throb

Dull dreams of pain…..

It might not be the greatest piece of poetry, perhaps, but as a topic and an idea—that sense of contrast between home and the war—it is an interesting one.

Absolutely. Now, you’ve chosen to focus on two individual poets. Let’s look at The War Poems of Wilfred Owen first. As the author of an acclaimed biography of Owen, you’re in a great position to offer us an overview of Owen’s work and significance.

He became the quintessential war poet, certainly in a British context. Not during his lifetime. But in England, Owen is a poet that everyone will have encountered in some way.

He was born in 1893, and famously—this is part of the legend of Owen—he died just a week before the end of the war, on the 4th of November, 1918. His parents got the telegram telling them that he had died on the 11th of November as the bells were ringing to celebrate the end of the war.

Owen’s poetry sometimes gets described as ‘anti-war’. I don’t think I’d go that far. It’s important to note that he was not a conscientious objector, he was in uniform. He won a Military Cross. So he was actually quite a successful soldier, later on in his service. But he is a poet who highlights the horror of the war for many people, and is sceptical of ideas of heroism, service, duty, and all those other concepts brought to the fore by the government, church, and the right-wing press in terms of encouraging people to join up.

It combines realism—an almost journalistic, unblinking focus on the realities—with very poetic language, which partly came from the strong influence of the Romantics, particularly Keats, who was the poet he was almost in love with.

Saying that, there’s also interest from some people into Owen’s sexuality. This has been quite a controversial topic, but it gives the poetry another dimension if we see him as a gay poet. There is not a lot of evidence of him having sexual relationships, but certainly he is interested in men, especially young men suffering; he takes quite a corporeal interest in their bodies and in the idea of strong, young men being killed. There are some poems that I think are quite clearly gay poems, and put in context are probably about male sex workers. It’s just another dimension to Owen’s work.

Owen’s poetry got picked up during the 1920s and 1930s. But it was really after the second war when Owen became the poet. In the 1960s, with Benjamin Britten and the Vietnam War, that’s when he started turning up on school curricula… He has an interesting identity as he can be used by both right and left, pro-war and anti-war, establishment and anti-establishment. He’s a radical voice, a disaffected youth longing for a better world, and also a successful soldier, a good officer who cares for his men and dies in battle fighting for his country. So some of his success has been because of this capacity to appeal to all sorts of different people.

Right. The poetry of the First World War is often somewhat ambivalent on the subject of war itself, and so he makes a good tragic hero to hang that idea on.

He’s often misrepresented and misread as well, of course. In some ways you can refashion him to suit your particular worldview.

An important thing about Owen is that although he’s seen as the poet of the trenches, actually most of his poetry was written in England or Scotland, not in France. He’s writing after he’s been fighting, or before he will be fighting. The most important phase in his life, really, was when he was at Craiglockhart Hospital, just outside Edinburgh. That’s where he met Siegfried Sassoon and J.B. Salmond—who was in the Scottish anthology. Salmond, was a graduate of St Andrews and a journalist. They produced a magazine at the hospital together.

Owen talks about Craiglockhart as his “free and easy Oxford,” because he didn’t get to go to university—a great regret of his—but he ended up at this hospital, where he had a lot of leisure time and was surrounded by educated officers who spent a lot of time talking about books. The he went into Edinburgh and hung out with all the Bohemian artists of the time. Then to Scarborough, Ripon after that, and that’s when all the war poems really got written. It was not a man in a trench, scribbling while shells were flying all around.

Some of the poems are about the home front, and consciously so. Others are about the war, but written from memory, in a state of comfort. Edward Thomas is also a war poet at the home front.

Yes, shall we talk about Thomas? You’ve selected his Annotated Collected Poems.

Thomas is someone who might not always be thought of as a war poet. Many of his poems are not directly about the war; although he did die in the First World War, the poems were written before he went to France. He was only in France a short while before he was killed.

Thomas has become almost an antidote to Wilfred Owen-type poetry. For those who get fed up with trench poetry or Western Front poetry. Thomas’s poems are much more conversational, simple. They’re about the war years, rather than war itself. There are a few that are quite consciously war poems, but even then he is looking at the war from a different perspective.

There’s a famous little war poem by Edward Thomas called ‘In Memoriam’, which is about the fact that there’s nobody to pick flowers anymore, because the soldiers are off at the front:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood

This Eastertide call into mind the men,

Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again.

So although it’s a war poem, it’s a different type of war poem. It’s the First World War as seen from Hampshire. It’s the reverse of the classic Scottish idea of the ‘flowers of the forest’, often referred to in war poetry—the men of Scotland all mowed down in battle, the flowers of the forest are cut down in that song. Here, it’s the reversal, the flowers remaining is itself evidence of wartime.

Thomas was older. He was born in 1878, so he was 39 when he died, and had three children. That makes it unusual; the usual idea of the war poet is young, unmarried, possibly gay. Owen wasn’t married, didn’t have kids. Sassoon married later in life, although he was gay, of course, as well. Ivor Gurney, Rupert Brooke, weren’t married. Whereas Thomas’ oldest son was old enough to be in uniform.

Thomas’s family life comes in quite a lot. There are poems written for his children or his wife—who would survive him by 50 years. So there’s a real sense of family, although he was someone who chose to join up. He was a great countryside writer before the war; Robert Macfarlane is a big Edward Thomas fan, and you can see him as a kind of proto-Robert Macfarlane!

There’s a connection between Owen and Thomas, as they both joined the Artists Rifles. Thomas, being an older man, got a cushy job as a tutor for orienteering and map reading. He was teaching in a camp where Wilfred Owen was, and was probably in a classroom with him although they may never have had a proper conversation. Owen did buy a book of prose by Thomas on Keats, as both Thomas and Owen were very interested in Romantic poetry, which fed into war writing all over the place.

You asked at the start: why particularly this war? Well, the nearest comparison would be a hundred years previously, in the revolutionary and Napoleonic era. Then Wordsworth, Coleridge were engaging with that conflict, often from the point of view of home, so you can see that continuity again with Thomas.

Thomas has his own particular poetic voice. One that has become very popular in recent decades. Partly too because of his great friendship with Robert Frost, America’s favourite poet. They were great friends, and neither were necessarily interested in the war if there were other things to talk about. Thomas’s walking poem ‘The Sun Used to Shine’ is about walking with Frost in 1914 in England:

We turned from men or poetry


To rumours of the war remote

Only till both stood disinclined

So some of the attraction is the way war is kept at arm’s length.

You mentioned earlier that poetry from the First World War might be slipping from curriculums as time moves on. Why do you think we should continue to read these great war poets today?

Well, the best is applicable to all sorts of conflicts. That’s often what we find—Wilfred Owen continues to be quoted and read—he was used during the Gulf War, during Iraq, Afghanistan, and so forth. And Edward Thomas seems a very 21st-century poet because of his ecological dimension, he’s very alert to the changes in the natural world.

There’s the poem ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’—a kind of war poem, in England, talking to a man with a team of horses farming in Essex, talking about the change in the countryside. Thomas is sitting on a fallen tree, and they can’t move it because the farmer’s friend has died in the war. It’s an elm—the tree of the dead, the wood of coffins. And there’s ‘In Memoriam’, that four-line poem, and how the First World War is seen through the environment. There are many poems, which are about man and the natural world, which might be read as war poems, or might be read as ecological poems.

Then, as I said, with Owen, for some people he has a voice in terms of his sexuality. That applies to Sassoon, and others like Scott Moncrieff—the translator of Proust and significant gay writer in his own right, and a war poet in uniform.

So there are different ways in which these war poets can be refashioned or revisited to see their significance in the present moment. But it will change, as we are less concerned about whether that particular war was just or right. People might be less concerned about remembering the dead, perhaps because that might now be their great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents’ generation. So there is a greater distance. But there are poets who speak to 21st-century concerns as well, I think.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

March 11, 2023

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Guy Cuthbertson

Guy Cuthbertson

Guy Cuthbertson is a professor of British literature and culture, and the author of Wilfred Owen (2014) and Peace at Last (2018) for Yale University Press. He has also edited two volumes of Edward Thomas's prose and is currently working on a third.

Guy Cuthbertson

Guy Cuthbertson

Guy Cuthbertson is a professor of British literature and culture, and the author of Wilfred Owen (2014) and Peace at Last (2018) for Yale University Press. He has also edited two volumes of Edward Thomas's prose and is currently working on a third.