War poetry is poetry about war either written by a person who participates in a war and writes about his experiences; or by a non-combatant. One of the oldest extant works of Western literature, Iliad, is a war poem. It is set during the Trojan War, one of the most important events in Greek mythology. The most famous 19th century war poem is Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, which is inspired by an event in the Crimean War. Famous novelist Thomas Hardy also wrote a number of significant war poems including The Man He Killed. The term war poet is sometimes applied especially to those who served during World War I. English soldier Wilfred Owen is perhaps the most famous war poet in that sense. Many of his poems; including Dulce et Decorum est, Disabled and Anthem for Doomed Youth; are among the best known antiwar poems ever written. Here are the 10 most famous war poems of all time.
He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark, And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey, Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn, Voices of play and pleasure after day, Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him. * * * * * About this time Town used to swing so gay When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees, And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,— In the old times, before he threw away his knees. Now he will never feel again how slim Girls' waists are, or how warm their subtle hands, All of them touch him like some queer disease. * * * * * There was an artist silly for his face, For it was younger than his youth, last year. Now, he is old; his back will never brace; He's lost his colour very far from here, Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry, And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race And leap of purple spurted from his thigh. * * * * * One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg, After the matches carried shoulder-high. It was after football, when he'd drunk a peg, He thought he'd better join. He wonders why. Someone had said he'd look a god in kilts. That's why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg, Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts, He asked to join. He didn't have to beg; Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years. Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt, And Austria's, did not move him. And no fears Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes; And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears; Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits. And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers. * * * * * Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal. Only a solemn man who brought him fruits Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul. * * * * * Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes, And do what things the rules consider wise, And take whatever pity they may dole. Tonight he noticed how the women's eyes Passed from him to the strong men that were whole. How cold and late it is! Why don't they come And put him into bed? Why don't they come?
Wilfred Owen served as a British soldier during World War I and was killed one week before the war ended. Owen transferred what he felt about the war into poetry and most of his poems were published posthumously. Wilfred Owen is regarded by many as the greatest poet of the First World War and several of his poems are among the most famous war poems ever written. Disabled is one of his best known works. It expresses the thoughts and recollections of a teen-aged soldier in World War I who has lost his limbs in battle and is now confined to a wheelchair. The soldier contrasts his present situation with his joyful youth. He also laments how women no longer look at him but at “the strong men who were whole”.
#9 The Shield of Achilles
|Poet:||W. H. Auden|
She looked over his shoulder For vines and olive trees, Marble well-governed cities And ships upon untamed seas, But there on the shining metal His hands had put instead An artificial wilderness And a sky like lead. A plain without a feature, bare and brown, No blade of grass, no sign of neighborhood, Nothing to eat and nowhere to sit down, Yet, congregated on its blankness, stood An unintelligible multitude, A million eyes, a million boots in line, Without expression, waiting for a sign. Out of the air a voice without a face Proved by statistics that some cause was just In tones as dry and level as the place: No one was cheered and nothing was discussed; Column by column in a cloud of dust They marched away enduring a belief Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief. Read Full Poem Here
The Shield of Achilles is the shield that Achilles uses in his fight with Hector in Homer’s epic Iliad. Auden’s poem uses the shield to bring out a contrast between the heroic past and the unheroic present. It is written in two different stanza forms, one with shorter lines and the other with longer lines. The stanzas with shorter lines describe the making of the shield by the god Hephaestus. Achilles’s mother Thetis expects to find scenes of happiness and peace on the shield, as in Homer’s Iliad. However, Auden’s version replaces them with scenes of a barren and impersonal modern world. The Shield of Achilles is one of the most critically appreciated antiwar poems of the 20th century. It is filled with images of absence of hope and meaning in modern life and Auden makes these images appear even more sorrowful by juxtaposing them with classical imagery of the Iliad.
#8 The Man He Killed
"Had he and I but met By some old ancient inn, We should have sat us down to wet Right many a nipperkin! "But ranged as infantry, And staring face to face, I shot at him as he at me, And killed him in his place. "I shot him dead because — Because he was my foe, Just so: my foe of course he was; That's clear enough; although "He thought he'd 'list, perhaps, Off-hand like — just as I — Was out of work — had sold his traps — No other reason why. "Yes; quaint and curious war is! You shoot a fellow down You'd treat if met where any bar is, Or help to half-a-crown."
Thomas Hardy was an influential English poet and novelist in the Victorian era. He wrote this poem at the time of the Second Boer War between the British Empire and the two Boer states, the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, over the control of South Africa. Hardy didn’t support British Empire’s invasion of South Africa as he believed that the Boers were only defending their land against the English. In this poem, the narrator, an unnamed soldier, struggles with his thoughts as he faces his foe on the battlefield. He thinks that in another situation he could have befriended the person who he has to fight against. Although he kills his opponent, he wonders how strange war is which makes a person kill someone he could have befriended easily. The Man He Killed is one of the most famous war poems of the 20th century.
#7 Easter, 1916
|Poet:||William Butler Yeats|
I have met them at close of day Coming with vivid faces From counter or desk among grey Eighteenth-century houses. I have passed with a nod of the head Or polite meaningless words, Or have lingered awhile and said Polite meaningless words, And thought before I had done Of a mocking tale or a gibe To please a companion Around the fire at the club, Being certain that they and I But lived where motley is worn: All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born. That woman's days were spent In ignorant good-will, Her nights in argument Until her voice grew shrill. What voice more sweet than hers When, young and beautiful, She rode to harriers? This man had kept a school And rode our wingèd horse; This other his helper and friend Was coming into his force; He might have won fame in the end, So sensitive his nature seemed, So daring and sweet his thought. This other man I had dreamed A drunken, vainglorious lout. He had done most bitter wrong To some who are near my heart, Yet I number him in the song; He, too, has resigned his part In the casual comedy; He, too, has been changed in his turn, Transformed utterly: A terrible beauty is born. Hearts with one purpose alone Through summer and winter seem Enchanted to a stone To trouble the living stream. The horse that comes from the road, The rider, the birds that range From cloud to tumbling cloud, Minute by minute they change; A shadow of cloud on the stream Changes minute by minute; A horse-hoof slides on the brim, And a horse plashes within it; The long-legged moor-hens dive, And hens to moor-cocks call; Minute by minute they live: The stone's in the midst of all. Too long a sacrifice Can make a stone of the heart. O when may it suffice? That is Heaven's part, our part To murmur name upon name, As a mother names her child When sleep at last has come On limbs that had run wild. What is it but nightfall? No, no, not night but death; Was it needless death after all? For England may keep faith For all that is done and said. We know their dream; enough To know they dreamed and are dead; And what if excess of love Bewildered them till they died? I write it out in a verse— MacDonagh and MacBride And Connolly and Pearse Now and in time to be, Wherever green is worn, Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.
Easter Rising was an armed insurrection in Ireland against British rule on Easter Monday, April 24, 1916. The uprising was unsuccessful, and most of the Irish republican leaders involved were executed for treason. It is famous for being the event that brought Irish republicanism to the forefront in the politics of the country, which ultimately led to the Irish War of Independence. Though Yeats was against violence as means to achieve Irish independence, he was shocked at the executions of the revolutionaries and understood their contribution to the greater national cause. He wrote this poem to commemorate the martyrs of the Easter Rising. It is the best-known literary work to come out of the event and its line “A terrible beauty is born” is one of the most famous in modern poetry.
#6 Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? — Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells; Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,— The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells; And bugles calling for them from sad shires. What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes. The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall; Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds, And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
During World War I, Wilfred Owen was blown up by a trench mortar and spent several days unconscious among the remains of one of his fellow officers. A few days later he was diagnosed as suffering from shell shock and sent to a hospital for treatment. While recovering, Owen met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow soldier and poet. Sassoon had a deep influence on Owen’s poetic voice. However, ultimately, Owen’s poetry became much more widely acclaimed than that of his mentor. Anthem for Doomed Youth was written between September and October 1917, when Owen was a patient at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. Written in the traditional form of a Petrarchan sonnet, the poem is a lament for young soldiers whose lives were unnecessarily lost in the First World War.
#5 The Soldier
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam; A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Rupert Brooke was an English poet best known for his idealistic war poems which were hugely popular in his country during the First World War. The Soldier is the most famous among them. It is the fifth in a series of five sonnets published as a collection titled 1914 & Other Poems. A Petrarchan sonnet, The Soldier represents the patriotic ideals that characterized pre-war England. In the octave of the sonnet, the narrator portrays death for one’s country as a noble end and says that his grave will become a part of England. In the sestet, he talks about his sacrifice for England as redemption saying that life would be the most appropriate thing to give his motherland in return for the great things she has given to him. The Soldier is one of the best known pro-war poems in English literature.
#4 The Charge of the Light Brigade
|Poet:||Alfred Lord Tennyson|
I Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward, All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. “Forward, the Light Brigade! Charge for the guns!” he said. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. II “Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die. Into the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. III Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell Rode the six hundred. IV Flashed all their sabres bare, Flashed as they turned in air Sabring the gunners there, Charging an army, while All the world wondered. Plunged in the battery-smoke Right through the line they broke; Cossack and Russian Reeled from the sabre stroke Shattered and sundered. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred. V Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon behind them Volleyed and thundered; Stormed at with shot and shell, While horse and hero fell. They that had fought so well Came through the jaws of Death, Back from the mouth of hell, All that was left of them, Left of six hundred. VI When can their glory fade? O the wild charge they made! All the world wondered. Honour the charge they made! Honour the Light Brigade, Noble six hundred!
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British light cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25th October 1854, in the Crimean War. It was originally intended to send the Light Brigade to pursue a retreating Russian force but miscommunication led to them launching a suicidal attack against a different and heavily defended position. Weeks after news of the assault reached Britain, Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom at the time, wrote this poem to commemorate the heroism of the Light Brigade for bravely carrying out their orders regardless of the obvious outcome. The poem has since remained hugely popular and it is one of the most famous works of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
#3 Dulce 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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.
“Dulce et Decorum est” is a Latin title taken from the Roman poet Horace. It means “it is sweet and honorable”. Owen’s poem combines two sonnets and thus it consists of 28 lines. It focuses on a scene from the front lines of the First World War in which British soldiers are attacked with chlorine gas. As the shells with the poisonous gas explode, one soldier is unable to put his mask on in time due to the rush. The narrator of the poem then describes the gruesome effects the gas has on the man. He then concludes by saying, if one were to see first-hand the reality of war, one might not repeat false but common statements like dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: “How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.” Dulce et Decorum est is the most famous poem of one of the greatest war poets of all time.
#2 In Flanders Fields
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. We are the Dead. Short days ago We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie, In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe: To you from failing hands we throw The torch; be yours to hold it high. If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep, though poppies grow In Flanders fields.
John McCrae was a Canadian poet and physician who served as a soldier during World War I. Though he had the option of joining the medical corps, he volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as a gunner and medical officer at the age of 41. McCrae fought in the Second Battle of Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium. On May 2, 1915, his close friend and former student Alexis Helmer was killed by a German shell. McCrae wrote this poem the following day after presiding over the funeral of his friend. According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially dissatisfied with his work, discarded it. The poem is written from the point of view of the dead. It talks about their sacrifice and urges the living to press on. In Flanders Fields is one of Canada’s best-known literary works and it is also widely known in the United States where it is associated with Veterans Day and Memorial Day. It is perhaps the most popular and most quoted poem of the First World War.
|Published:||8th century BCE|
RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage, Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls Of heroes into Hades' dark, And left their bodies to rot as feasts For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done. Begin with the clash between Agamemnon-- The Greek warlord--and godlike Achilles. Which of the immortals set these two At each other's throats? Apollo Zeus' son and Leto's, offended By the warlord. Agamemnon had dishonored Chryses, Apollo's priest, so the god Struck the Greek camp with plague, And the soldiers were dying of it.
In Greek mythology, the Trojan War was waged against the city of Troy by the Greeks after Paris of Troy took Helen from her husband Menelaus, king of Sparta. Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem which focuses on the Trojan War with the Greek warrior Achilles being its primary focus. It is set during the ten-year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greek states. It recounts some of the significant events of the final weeks of the Trojan War. It mentions or alludes to many of the Greek legends about the siege; the earlier events; and the causes of the war. It also talks about events prophesied for the future, such as Achilles’ imminent death and the fall of Troy. Along with its sequel the Odyssey, the Iliad is among the oldest extant and best known works in Western literature. It is the most famous war poem of all time.