Aftermath - when the boys came home

Saturday 11 June 2011

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Introduction (1)

As this site is about the aftermath of war, the poetry in this online anthology is selected mainly from work published after (sometimes long after) the Great War. I have yet to find any major post-war poems which present the victory over Germany from a triumphalist viewpoint, and the general sense is one of loss, and disillusion.

There is also an index of the poems

Poets of the Great War is a rather unwieldy and slow-loading site, but it does contain some useful information about poetry of the period, especially for beginners 

Poems written between 1914-1945

For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, is the earliest poem in this collection. It was published in The Times on 21st September 1914. The fourth verse became very much part of the war's aftermath as it was increasingly included in services of Remembrance. The whole poem is rarely seen now, which is why I've included it.

John McCrae  - who was Canadian by birth served as a medical officer in both the Boer War and World War I. In Flanders Fields was published in Punch magazine, on December 8, 1915, and is still widely quoted around Armistice Day - "Poppy Day " as it is often called in Britain. Lesser known is his poem The Anxious Dead, which carries a similar message from the dead to the living. McCrae's war ended in 1918 when he died of pneumonia.

The poetry of Wilfred Owen might seem a strange choice, since he did not survive the war. But his work was virtually unknown until two years after the war when the first edition was published. The Guardian recently reprinted its 1920 review of the poems which makes fascinating reading. And since Strange Meeting is singled out as one of the finest, I've included that in  this Aftermath collection.

High Wood, written in 1918, is amazingly prophetic about the Pilgrimage industry, even if Philip Johnstone is perhaps too harsh and unfeeling about people's very real need to visit the war cemeteries. Two Years After, a much less familiar poem, sums up only too well the swift disillusionment which set in amongst a huge number of returning heroes, finding that the world they'd imagined, and the reality were very different.

Rudyard Kipling did not go to war, but of course his son John did, encouraged and assisted by his father, despite his chronically bad eyesight. He became one of the "missing" at Loos and the story of Kipling's grief and sense of guilt and the strange story of how John's body was discovered in 1992, and then the growing doubts about whether it really was John Kipling's body is brilliantly told in Tonie and Valmai Holt's My Boy Jack. A brief press account of the story can be found here. The poem London Stone appeared in the Times on November 11 1923, and is still suffused with a father's sorrow.

Also by Kipling, The King's Pilgrimage provided the foreword to a best selling book about King George V's visit to the war cemeteries in 1922. There is an account of that visit in Pilgrimage.

Edmund Blunden's Undertones of War is rightly viewed as a twentieth century classic; in the poem 1916 viewed from 1921 - as in the autobiography - the engulfing horrors of war cannot completely swamp his love of the countryside. 

Perhaps by Vera Brittain is filled with the grief she felt when her fiancé Roland Leighton was killed. She wrote The Superfluous Woman in 1920. It's a another cry from the heart from this woman who lost several people she loved in the war. Her daughter Shirley Williams observed in an introduction to the 1978 edition of her mother's autobiography Testament of Youth that it "was hard for her to laugh unconstrainedly; at the back of her mind the row upon row of wooden crosses were planted too deeply."

Charlotte Mew wrote The Cenotaph (September 1919), which also looks at the tragedy of war from a woman's viewpoint. There is a power in some of the images, particular the last few lines, which stand comparison with some of Owen's best (and most bitter) work.

Sassoon's poem Aftermath is of course in a different league to most post-war poems. At the time he wrote this, he saw remembrance as an absolute duty for those who had been there. Forgetting, coming to terms, wasn't an option. It's a powerful, bitter poem.

Other poems by Sassoon are Ex-Service, On Passing the New Menin Gate and Memorial Tablet - a scathing portrait of the complacent old squire who blithely sent young men to die and will never have a clue what it was really like in the trenches.

There is something of Sassoon's bitterness in Osbert Sitwell's prophecy in The Next War that the old men will wait until the orphaned children are old enough and then send them off to war again. G.K.Chesterton's poem To the Unknown Warrior hints at the scant regard for the living ex-soldier, doomed to be a "sandwich man" (carrying portable advertising hoardings around the street).

In a similar vein, though very different in style is The Unknown Soldier by Billy Rose (whom I know nothing about). Like some of the other pieces in this "anthology" it's hardly great poetry, but apart from the last verse ("I'd do it all over again") I'm sure it expresses what most veterans felt about the way they were treated once the shooting stopped.

1925 recently appeared on Helen McPhail's Poetry page in Stand To! (the journal of the Western Front Association). She discovered it in a 1930 collection, An Anthology of War Poems. Like her, I know nothing about Sherard Vines, the author, although I take the poem to be a series of reflections brought about by the 1925 Remembrance Day commemoration.

I've included the extract from T.S.Eliot's The Wasteland because for me it powerfully evokes the memory of watching Remembrance Day services on television on cold, grey November days, with a brooding sense of just how closely life and death are linked.

Poems written from 1945...

 

 

 

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