Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2018

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, edited by Jon Silkin

The blurb at Goodreads is an interesting introduction to this collection of First World War Poetry:

This volume aims at being comprehensive within the confines of excellence. it does not attempt a picture, in verse, of the War; nor does it aim at representing all those who wrote verse. It offers the best work by the best poets. It therefore includes a few poets such as Hardy, Kipling and Flint who were not combatants, but who yet wrote good poetry concerned, in the main, directly with the War. Most of the poets however were combatants and some, like Sorley, did not survive long enough to do more than hint at their potential. Others, like Edward Thomas, did not survive long enough for the experience of combat to enter into their work, although the War is certainly present.

The principal poets, such as Rosenberg and Owen, are of course well represented. But there is also Herbert Read, Sassoon, Blunden and, difficult though he is to represent, David Jones (In Parenthesis). The anthology also contains a sample from the work (in translation) of German, French, and Italian ‘War’ poetry. [And Russian too!  Why did they leave that out of the blurb?  Because of the Cold War in 1979 when the book was published?] As far as English poetry is concerned the period is still, and will remain, crucial to the development of modern poetry, besides providing some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century. The period also offers an alternate route to that provided by Eliot and Pound, and one in which experience and value come painfully together.

I think that point about the Modernists Eliot and Pound is a way of saying, these poems are comprehensible to ordinary mortals.

It was the poetry in translation that most interested me when I picked up this book from the U3A bookswap shelf.  Like most people of my generation I read the famous war poets at school (and can still recite bits of them.)  But I had only ever read the English poets – I’ve just checked my old copy of Smyth’s A Book of Poetry and there wasn’t one Australian war poet (and indeed few Australian poets at all).  Yet there were Australian poets moved to write about this horrific war – as you can hear if you visit this site at the ABC to hear (somewhat variable) readings of poetry by Banjo Paterson, Dame Mary Gilmore, Eva Dobell and others.

Given that my adolescence coincided with the era of the Vietnam War, most of what I remember of school poetry focussed on the futility of war, and (apart from WW2 which I think was a ‘just war‘), that’s an attitude I still hold.  (It’s worth reading the article on war poetry at Honest History for a balanced picture of the role of poetry in shaping attitudes towards war.)

So I’d like to share a couple of poems from this collection that I found very interesting.  I’ve chosen ones that are presumably free of copyright by now:

From Requiem for the Dead of Europe by Yvan Goll translated from the German by Patrick Bridgwater

Let me lament the exodus of so many men from their time;
Let me lament the women whose warbling hearts now scream;
Every lament let me note and add to the list,
When young widows sit by the lamplight mourning for husbands lost;
I hear the blonde-voiced children crying for God their father at bedtime;
On every mantelpiece stand photographs wreathed with ivy, smiling, true to the past;
At every window stand lonely girls whose burning eyes are bright with tears;
In every garden lilies are growing, as though there’s a grave to prepare;
In every street the cars are moving more slowly, as though to a funeral;
In every city you can hear the passing bell;
In every heart there’s a single plaint,
I hear it more clearly every day.

From July 14 by the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova,  translated from the Russian by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. 

This poem shows the tense foreboding apparent even before the war which the editors Jon Silkin and David McDuff say is largely missing from English poetry of the pre-war period.

Indeed, if it [pre-war poetry] viewed war at all, it considered it, or physical violence, as the agent for nobility or moral hygiene.  For some, war was moral athletics; others looked forward to the experience of war as a ‘vacation from life’ – a vacation from a society disjoined by class and constrained by the rigid structures of labour.  (Note to the Second Edition, p12)


All month a smell of burning, of dry peat
smouldering in the bogs.
Even the birds have stopped singing,
the aspen does not tremble.

The god of wrath glares in the sky,
the fields have been parched since Easter,
A one-legged pilgrim stood in the yard
with his mouth full of prophecies:

‘Beware of terrible times… the earth
opening for a crowd of corpses,
Expect famine, earthquakes, plagues,
and heavens darkened by eclipses.

‘But our land will not be divided
by the enemy at his pleasure:
the Mother-of-God will spread
a white shroud over these great sorrows.’

And this one, deliberately placed out of chronology at the very end of the book, to show that some things never change:

The Drum by John Scott (1730-83)

I hate that drum’s discordant sound,
Parading round, and round, and round,
To thoughtless youth it pleasure yields,
And lures from cities and from fields,
To sell their liberty for charms
Of tawdry lace, and glittering arms;
And when Ambition’s voice commands,
To march, and fight, and fall, in foreign lands.

I hate that drum’s discordant sound,
Parading round, and round, and round,
To me it talks of ravag’d plains,
And burning towns, and ruin’d swains,
And mangled limbs, and dying groans,
And widows’ tears, and orphans’ moans;
And all that Misery’s hand bestows,
To fill the catalogue of human woes.

BTW the Introduction by Jon Silkin is excellent.  It’s not just a couple of pages, it’s almost a third of the book (77 pages in a book of 282 pages, though that includes the indexes and the bibliography.) He talks about the issue of evaluating the war poets for their explicit ideas, even if we disagree (as to militarism, patriotism, pacifism and so on) and his schema consists of two parts:

  • … an arrangement, or progression, of poets according to a developing consciousness, in relation to the war and the ‘good’ of society as a whole
  • …an attempt to group poets in terms of sensibility and language.

He places the war poets in context with the preceding Romantic poets, and he identifies four stages of consciousness:

  • … a passive reflection of, or conduit for, the prevailing patriot ideas, and the cant that’s contingent on most social abstract impulsions.
  • …’the role of the angry prophet’, protesting against the war through the recreation of physical horror, through anger and satire, and through sardonic distancing.
  • …’compassion’ – with strength of feeling
  • …’an active desire for change, a change that will re-align the elements of human society in such a way as to make it more creative and fruitful.

This is a very good collection, thoughtfully arranged and inclusive of both sides of the conflict.

Editors: Jon Silkin and David McDuff
Title: The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, Second Edition
Publisher: Penguin, 1979
ISBN: 014 0422552
Source: U3A bookswap shelves.

I had no luck at Brotherhood Books, but there was a second-hand copy for $8.37 at Fishpond on the day I looked: The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry


  1. I don’t like poetry or war and nearly skipped this post, but dad had published a collection of ‘Australian verse of the Great War’. Lots of poets, the table of contents runs to five pages.


    • Good for him! He obviously saw that there was a gap that needed to be filled.
      Really, I was quite surprised that the standard poetry text book when I was at school didn’t have any. The intro says that it has poetry from Australia, South Africa, Canada and NZ, but when I looked at the ToC where the country of origin is given if not from Britain, it was quite thin on the ground.


      • Ironic, as he ended up in charge of Victorian primary curriculum.


        • Ah, well there might be evidence of his choices in the Victorian Readers… I only have Grades 5 and 6 and I’ll check them out… just not quite sure where I’ve shelved them.


          • I have the Readers too and I think they pre-date him by quite a number of years, though they’re pretty representative of his own British-slanted reading.


            • For all their flaws, they did include some Australian storytelling and poetry. As a kid, I was rapt when I got my copy and devoured the whole thing in a weekend. And then had to put up with them being the only reading material for a whole year!


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