Poetry of The Great War: ‘From Darkness to Light’?

The historian and literary critic Paul Fussell has noted in The Great War and Modern Memory that, "Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it." He argues that World War I, with its unprecedented trench warfare and mass devastation across the European landscape, left a dark cloud hanging over the world. Despite the patriotism, optimism, and idealism held by the young men who eagerly fought for their respective country, World War I was fraught with widespread destruction and loss.

The very symbol of dawn, which traditionally would bring with it the hope and freshness of a new day, was reconfigured in a war like no other in history. Instead of the symbolic hope and freshness of a new day, the WWI dawn often brought with it the profound reality of a landscape flecked with causalities and devastation as young soldiers peered from the dark depths of their trenches. With dawn as a common symbol in poetry, it is no wonder that, like a new understanding of dawn itself, a comprehensive body of "World War I Poetry" emerged from the trenches as well.

Perhaps the most widely read and anthologized WWI poet, Wilfred Owen fought and ultimately died in WWI. His famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" presents a raw portrait of the life soldiers often experienced during the War. Edgar Guest, who was born in England and raised in the U.S., was in his early thirties when WWI began. Though he wrote about The Great War, he never fought in it. He worked at the Detroit Free Press newspaper as a verse columnist and has been called "the people's poet."

Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" and Guest's famous poem "The Things That Make a Soldier Great" enable close analysis of common poetic devices (e.g., meter, rhyme, tone, symbol, image, consonance, etc.) and of each poem's marriage of form and content. Different interpretations of WWI itself emerge from these poems, which ultimately offer a far-reaching literary supplement to our collective history and understanding of The Great War.

Guiding Questions

What are some common poetic devices, and how are they used to present and interpret WWI?

What is the relationship between a poem's form and its content?

Learning Objectives

Students will explore the historical context of "World War I poetry.

Students will be able to define and understand in context common poetic devices.

Students will be able to compare and contrast poems via active class discussion.

Students will be able to provide a well-supported, written analysis of the relationship between a poem's form and its content.