I came first to the war poets when I studied English Literature at university in London. We read them all: Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Brooke. I think it’s fair to say that in my early twenties I didn’t ‘get them’, not really. Wilfred Owen [below] composed his war poems between January 1917 when he was first sent to the Western Front, and November 1918 when he was killed. Only four of his poems were published during his lifetime. He is agreed to be the finest of the English poets writing about the First World War.Instead of his most famous poems, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, I have chosen ‘Winter Song’. Written in October 1917, it immediately conjures up for me a Paul Nash painting [below] called ‘We are Making a New World’, painted in 1918 and on display in London at the Imperial War Museum. ‘Winter Song’
The browns, the olives, and the yellows died,
And were swept up to heaven; where they glowed
Each dawn and set of sun till Christmastide,
And when the land lay pale for them, pale-snowed,
Fell back, and down the snow-drifts flamed and flowed.
From off your face, into the winds of winter,
The sun-brown and the summer-gold are blowing;
But they shall gleam again with spiritual glinter,
When paler beauty on your brows falls snowing,
And through those snows my looks shall be soft-going.
A quick search on Amazon revealed that a new copy of my edition of The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen would cost me £110, a used one £0.01.
For an interesting review by the BBC of the role poetry plays in our view of the First World War, click here.
To read The Poetry Foundation’s biography of Owen, click here.
‘The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen’ [Chatto & Windus]