Ten great First World War poems

British soldiers, newly arrived in France ready themselves for the front line

First World War poetry described the terror of the trenches and the futility of war. Here are ten of the best

LAST UPDATED AT 14:02 ON Mon 4 Aug 2014

In his introduction to The Oxford Book of War Poetry, Jon Stallworthy underlines the emotive power of poems about war: "'Poetry', Wordsworth reminds us, 'is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings', and there can be no area of human experience that has generated a wider range of powerful feelings than war: hope and fear; exhilaration and humiliation; hatred – not only for the enemy, but also for generals, politicians, and war-profiteers; love – for fellow soldiers, for women and children left behind, for country (often) and cause (occasionally)."

The First World War was "one of the seminal moments of the twentieth century in which literate soldiers, plunged into inhuman conditions, reacted to their surroundings in poems," Oxford University English lecturer Dr Stuart Lee says.

Many collections of poems from and about the first world war have been drawn together over the past hundred years. Below are ten greats:

In Flanders Fields, John McRae

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.

 

Marching Men, by Marjorie Pickthall

Under the level winter sky

I saw a thousand Christs go by.

They sang an idle song and free

As they went up to calvary.

 

Careless of eye and coarse of lip,

They marched in holiest fellowship.

That heaven might heal the world, they gave

Their earth-born dreams to deck the grave.

 

With souls unpurged and steadfast breath

They supped the sacrament of death.

And for each one, far off, apart,

Seven swords have rent a woman's heart.

 

The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever 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 the 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.

 

 

My Boy Jack, by Rudyard Kipling

"Have you news of my boy Jack?”

Not this tide.

“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

 

“Has any one else had word of him?”

Not this tide.

For what is sunk will hardly swim,

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

 

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”

None this tide,

Nor any tide,

Except he did not shame his kind —

Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

 

Then hold your head up all the more,

This tide,

And every tide;

Because he was the son you bore,

And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

 

To his love, by Ivor Gurney

He’s gone, and all our plans

Are useless indeed.

We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds

Where the sheep feed

Quietly and take no heed.

 

His body that was so quick

Is not as you

Knew it, on Severn River

Under the blue

Driving our small boat through.

 

You would not know him now…

But still he died

Nobly, so cover him over

With violets of pride

Purple from Severn side.

 

Cover him, cover him soon!

And with thick-set

Masses of memoried flowers-

Hide that red wet

Thing I must somehow forget.

 

Dulce et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen

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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped 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 I 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.

 

To Germany, by Charles Hamilton Sorley

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,

And no man claimed the conquest of your land.

But gropers both through fields of thought confined

We stumble and we do not understand.

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each others dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again

With new won eyes each other's truer form and

wonder.

 Grown more loving kind and warm

We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,

When it is peace. But until peace, the storm,

 The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

 

Break of Day in the Trenches, by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away.

It is the same old druid Time as ever,

Only a live thing leaps my hand,

A queer sardonic rat,

As I pull the parapet’s poppy

To stick behind my ear.

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew

Your cosmopolitan sympathies.

Now you have touched this English hand

You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure

To cross the sleeping green between.

It seems you inwardly grin as you pass

Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,

Less chanced than you for life,

Bonds to the whims of murder,

Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,

The torn fields of France.

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

What quaver—what heart aghast?

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins

Drop, and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe—

Just a little white with the dust.

 

Lights Out, by Edward Thomas

I have come to the borders of sleep,

The unfathomable deep

Forest where all must lose

Their way, however straight,

Or winding, soon or late;

They cannot choose.

 

Many a road and track

That, since the dawn’s first crack,

Up to the forest brink,

Deceived the travellers,

Suddenly now blurs,

And in they sink.

 

Here love ends,

Despair, ambition ends;

All pleasure and all trouble,

Although most sweet or bitter,

Here ends in sleep that is sweeter

Than tasks most noble.

 

There is not any book

Or face of dearest look

That I would not turn from now

To go into the unknown

I must enter and leave, alone,

I know not how.

 

The tall forest towers;

Its cloudy foliage lowers

Ahead, shelf above shelf;

Its silence I hear and obey

That I may lose my way

And myself.

 

June, 1915 by Charlotte Mew

Who thinks of June's first rose today?

Only some child, perhaps, with shining eyes and

rough bright hair will reach it down.

In a green sunny lane, to us almost as far away

As are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.

What's little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim

From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?

Or what's the broken world to June and him

Of the small eager hand, the shining eyes, the rough bright head? · 

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