War Poetry


I am not the biggest fan of “Flanders Fields.” It rhymes too much and is too perfect. War is not perfect.
I am going to share my favourite of the World War I poems that i have encountered thus far…and yes, it has an anecdotal story attached that highlights my own pretentiousness.


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 a 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

The title of this poem is lifted from a piece by Horace that recounts a Roman view of war: sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country. I am currently reading a lot classical biography and i must say…it’s an ethos that pervades their literature anyways. Of course, in a world of mass warfare, honour in war is a horrific joke. I love the active present participles in the third stanza. Wilfred Owen is one of my favourite poets, among Dickinson and Rilke, and i am not an avid poetry lover. I like the instant gratification possible here. I don’t mind having to think hard about art…but i want something to egg me on…i need a carrot.

so, what’s that anecdote i teased you with? The last lines of this poem were what inspired me to look into both a liberal arts education and latin. I love Latin…it’s like crossword puzzles, but prettier. I realized that i knew nothing of this cultural heritage being railed against here by a soldier who would die before the end of the war. How could i understand this war, which at the time i was studying as best a CEGEP student can, when i couldn’t understand the background out of which it emerged…4 years later i am as hopelessly lossed as ever. But i still love this poem.


2 thoughts on “War Poetry

  1. Ah, reading that reminded me of the good old CEGEP days sitting in Martin Bowman’s class!

    I agree that the Owen poems we looked at in that course were some of the best. However, I still prefer the angry, anti-war cynicism of Sassoon.

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