The generation of poets inspired by WW1

The First World War had a profound influence on poets and is credited with inspiring the modernist movement that changed British literature, shaping the work of writers such as Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.

It is believed that the First World War had the highest number of active serving writers, artists and musicians of any war in history.

Poetry is one of the richest legacies of the war. The words of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and Laurence Binyon have resonated down the generations and are familiar to millions today.

The war had a profound influence on poets and writers who did not even take part, and is credited with inspiring the modernist movement that changed British literature.

Isaac Rosenberg

Most war poets came from middle or upper classes. One exception was Isaac Rosenberg, whose parents were Jewish Lithuanian immigrants. Born in Bristol in 1890, Rosenberg grew up in poverty, going to school for only a year aged 14. His family moved to East London and set up a butcher’s shop which was later confiscated.

Rosenberg trained as an engraver in Fleet Street and won a scholarship to Slade Art School. Out of work in 1915, he joined up partly so his mother could receive a “separation allowance” and was determined to immerse himself in the conflict. He wrote to Laurence Binyon:

I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.

Rosenberg turned down the chance to apply for a commission in the 12th Bantam Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment and served as a private with the South Lancs and the King’s Own Royal Lancaster regiments. He applied for a transfer to a Jewish battalion in Mesopotamia but was turned down. He was killed aged 28 on a wiring patrol on April 1, 1918, near Arras, during the German Spring offensive.

After some promising but immature early work, the war brought Rosenberg’s poetry a distinctive voice, rooted in the Old Testament and the Jewish identity which he had been forced to bury.

“Had he lived to develop further,” wrote literary historian David Daiches, “he might have changed the course of modern English poetry, producing side by side with the poetry of TS Eliot… a richer and more monumental kind of verse, a new romantic poetry.”

Self-portraits of Rosenberg hang in the National Portrait Gallery and Tate Britain, there is a blue commemorative plaque at the Whitechapel Gallery. In 1985, he was among 16 First World War poets commemorated on a stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner.

Wilfred Owen

Born in Oswestry, Wilfred Owen is best know for works including Dulce et Decorum Est, The Show, Strange Meeting, Futility and Anthem For Doomed Youth. 

After failing to win a university scholarship he worked as a vicar’s assistant then an English teacher in France. He served as a 2nd lieutenant with the Lancashire Regiment from 1916.

After suffering shell shock he was hospitalised at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital for psychiatric treatment and there met Siegfried Sassoon, who became his mentor.

Owen wrote all his poems in just 13 months to September 1918, when he returned to the trenches. He was killed a week before the end of the war.

Siegfried Sassoon

As an officer in the Royal Welch Regiment, Sassoon won the MC for near-suicidal exploits in France and was nicknamed “Mad Jack” by soldiers.

But his Soldier’s Declaration of 1917 – in which he refused to fight because he believed the war had become less about defence and more about conquest – caused a sensation.

He was sent to Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart War Hospital, where he met Wilfred Owen. 

Sassoon went back to action and was twice wounded. His collection of bleak anti-war poems, Counter Attack, was published in 1918

Rupert Brooke

A teacher’s son from Rugby, Rupert Brooke is known for idealistic poems such as The Soldier which includes the lines "If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England."

Described by poet WB Yeats as “the handsomest young man in England”, he was friends with the Bloomsbury group of artists and intellectuals which included EM Forster and Virginia Woolf.

He died from blood poisoning en route to the Dardanelles with the Royal Naval Division and is buried on the Greek island of Skyros.

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