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 anti-war poems ever written. Here are the 10 most famous war poems of all time.
Poet: Wilfred Owen
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”.
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?
#9 The Shield of Achilles
Poet: W. H. Auden
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 anti-war 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.
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.
#8 The Man He Killed
Poet: Thomas Hardy
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.
“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.”
#7 Easter, 1916
Poet: William Butler Yeats
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.
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.
#6 Anthem for Doomed Youth
Poet: Wilfred Owen
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.
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.
#5 The Soldier
Poet: Rupert Brooke
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.
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.
#4 The Charge of the Light Brigade
Poet: Alfred Lord Tennyson
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.
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.
#3 Dulce et Decorum est
Poet: Wilfred Owen
“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.
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.
#2 In Flanders Fields
Poet: John McCrae
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.
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.
Year: 8th century BC
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.
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.