The poetry of the great war: owen and rosenberg

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The Poetry of the Great War: Owen and Rosenberg

Tony Brown

(The lecture considers the work of the work of just two of the many poets who wrote in the Great War, Owen and Rosenberg. Students might wish to consider, for example the work of Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorely, Robert Graves, all of which is in the Library and which is also considered in critical studies such as those by JonSilkin and Paul Fussell. See booklist for this course on Blackbaord).

One of Fussell's chapters is entitled 'Oh, What a Literary War'. Emphasizes the fact that many of the soldiers (primarily the of icers) were the products of a literary (and Classical) education, at public school and university. Many had pocket editions of Classical authors in their kit bag and also pocket editions of A.E. Housman(see below). Fussell quotes one officer who has spent the day worrying about a forthcoming night attack:

Well, that day dawdled away. Ovid and his mistress would not have addressed the gods that day: 'O lente, lente currite noctis equi' [O run slowly, slowly horses of the night]

As so often in this writing the Classical allusion--here (in Ovid) to an atmosphere of love and content--issardonically distorted by its new context. This is one theme of this lecture: the way poets use the pre-existing literary tradition in the savage new environment of the War. This is especially true of Owen. (Rosenberg, for a number of reasons--he's not public-school and university educated, but working-class and Jewish, the son of Russian immigrants--is more outside this tradition, and thusperhaps felt more free to experiment.) The War was itself a contributory factor to the emergence of that sense of breakdown and fragmentariness we call Modernism. Eliot's The Waste Land is essentially a post-War poem; poets like Owen and Rosenberg had experienced the actual waste land of the Western Front.

Owen brought up in genteel home; genteel, middle-class values of mother's background. Born andbrought up in Oswestry, WO was sent to the fee-paying Birkenhead Institute and gained reputation of being bookish, prim and precocious. (Jon Stallworthy quotes a note WO sent to his mother at 16: 'After seeing you off I repaired to the museum and found two priceless objects of whose presence there I was formerly unaware'.) The young WO's favourite author was Keats; WO's earliest poems (at age of17) being Keatsian imitations; in 'The Rivals' the poet tells his imaginary lover hat she has a rival in Nature:

Many a slim tree, dark of tresses,
Whispering, gives me strange caresses.
Steadfast shines Narcissus' eye
When I would his beauty try.
And he loads my sighs with scent,
Not with frowns of discontent.
Waterlilies all tranquil lie
When there secrecies I spy.
Ruddy pout themouths of roses
More I kiss, more each discloses

Many echoes and parallels with Keats; the poem essentially Romantic, tactile, caressive--all qualities apparent in WO's war poetry, but there thrust into new circumstances.

After action on the Western Front as an infantry lieutenant, WO diagnosed as suffering from 'neurasthenia' (shell-shock) and invalided to Craiglockhart Hospital, Edinburgh,which specialised in treating soldiers suffering psychological damage. Almost certainly by the time WO got to C. in June 1917 he had written no war poetry as such. At C. he met Siegfried Sassoon, to whom he later wrote:

I held you as Keats and Christ and Elijah and my Colonel and my father confessor . . . I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear fellow. You have fixed my life. . . I spun round you a satellite for a month.

Sassoon was the first published poet WO had met. S was by now implacably against the war. His poetry was quite different to WO's pre-war Romantic, Iyrical poetry. It was angry, realistic and satirical. But it showed WO how the actual experience of life in the trenches could be made into poetry. WO did write some Sassoon-like poems, angry and...
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