Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

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


The Lesson


"Almost Buried." One of the most compelling photographs of World War I

"Almost Buried." One of the most compelling photographs of World War I, which dramatized the death and destruction that inspired the war's poets.

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Libray of Congress.

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.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The War in Context

If time allows, consider using the following EDSITEment lesson plans to provide an overview of World War I:

  • "A Documentary Chronology of World War I." (See in particular the Chronology of WWI)
  • "The Images of War" as a general context of the power of war images.

    For further overview of the war, consider having students review the WWI Photoessay from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Modern American Poetry to gain a general sense of the Great War. Students might consider the following questions: What do these photos suggest about the mood of the new soldiers? The mood of the civilians? What is the overall feeling that these photos evoke? How would you describe the weaponry of the photos of "The Somme, 1916."? Please note that some of these photos have potentially disturbing images of wounded and killed soldiers

Activity 2. Poetic Analysis Warm-up Exercises

Symbolism and Imagery: "Through Darkness to Light"

  • Many poetic devices, such as symbolism and imagery, can be used and understood outside the context of poetry. Ask students to provide a general definition for symbolism and imagery. The Purdue Online Writing Lab, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed Internet Public Library, provides a useful worksheet detailing these literary terms. While imagery helps set the tone and mood in a work, symbols tend to create a more pointed, one-to-one relationship between a symbol and the feeling or object to which it refers. In a western film, for example, the imagery of tumbleweed sets a tone of desolation and tension, while the hero's white hat and the villain's black hat are symbols of good and evil. Point out to students that symbolism in WWI posters can help us understand the general mood of the U.S. and Great Britain during the era of "The Great War"—before, during, and after the War. Show, for example, the "A Wonderful Opportunity for You" American solider recruitment poster housed at the National Archives and the "Only Road for an Englishman: Through Darkness to Light" poster from the Library of Congress' American Memory Project. Using the National Archives Poster Analysis Worksheet as a guide, discuss the posters' textual and visual rhetoric with your class at large. Then focus on the symbolism of light and darkness as students discuss the posters in more detail.
    • Symbolism and Imagery: Working with the posters and analysis worksheet, ask students to point out and discuss the symbols and imagery they identify in each poster. Additional considerations:
      • For the first poster, focus on the circular image behind the solider. Point out how that image evokes the sun (via its color, the circle, etc.). Discuss the sun's symbolism within the context of this poster. Then ask students to describe the soldier's mood by pointing to additional aspects of the poster that lead to their conclusions (e.g., the soldier's smile, his hurried pace, etc.).
      • For the second poster, ask students to describe the textual and visual references to darkness and light, and discuss how darkness and light are used symbolically in this poster.

In the Trenches

  • Mention to students that trench warfare was a defining aspect of WWI. Ask students to keep in mind the symbolism of darkness and light as they are learning more about WWI in and from the trenches.
    • Show students the following trench photos from the EDSITEment resource Photos of the Great War and videos from The Wilfred Owen Multimedia Digital Archive, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets site, and ask them first to imagine and then discuss what life in the trenches must have been like (e.g., darkness, underground, cramped quarters, rats, sounds, etc.). You might consider putting students into groups for this exercise, asking each to examine a single photograph or film before returning to a larger discussion about the war.
    • Have student volunteers read the following first-hand retrospective accounts of life in the trenches from the EDSITEment-reviewed WWI Primary Documents Archive, and then lead a class discussion to sum up the symbolism of darkness vs. light. Ask students whether certain symbols can change over time. To give this question some context, you can discuss the image of "dawn" in the second account of the trenches. The following questions can help generate discussion:
      • How does the soldier describe "yesterday's dawn" at the end of this excerpt?
      • How does his description of dawn change by the next day? Revisit the "A Wonderful Opportunity for You" poster, and compare MacGill's description of dawn to the symbol of the sun in the poster. A larger question is "In what ways did WWI change the symbolism of sun/light/dawn?"
      • From WWI Primary Documents Archive:
        • By Philip Curme: By January the Battalion had moved to the front line—arriving at night. "The darkness was continually illuminated, for a thousand very lights hung from the black velvet sky. Rifle shots and the traversing fire of machine-guns startled the air; monstrous rats came to life from behind the sandbags, scampering boldly ... through the mud. A door opened or a sackcloth curtain swung aside, revealing a candlelit dugout ... Gradually imperceptibly, the black & white pictures of the night were coloured by the sun. A dark phantasmal mass became a hooded farm wagon, derelict. For a space the war slept. By day there was stillness, broken now and then by a sniper firing suddenly ... or by a bombardment scattering men & things. Day was appallingly prosaic but night was beautiful & romantic. When the lights shot up into the sky the trenches became like fairyland." "Though only a thousand yards away from the German trenches, this spot seemed far away from the war. The undergrowth round the chateau was a riot of wild & garden flowers. Dogs barked at the guns, the vagrant cuckoo called to its mate and nightingales sang through the hours of darkness."
        • By Patrick MacGill: A RIM of grey clouds clustered thick on the horizon as if hiding some wonderful secret from the eyes of men. Above my head the stars were twinkling, a soft breeze swung over the open, and moist gusts caught me in the face as I picked my way carefully through the still figures in brown and grey that lay all over the stony face of the level lands. A spinney on the right was wrapped in shadow, and when, for a moment, I stood to listen, vague whispers and secret rustlings could be heard all around. The hour before the dawn was full of wonder, the world in which I moved was pregnant with mystery. "Who are these?" I asked myself as I looked at the still figures in khaki. "Where is the life, the vitality of yesterday's dawn; the fire of eager eyes, the mad pulsing of roving blood, and the great heart of young adventure? Has the roving, the vitality and the fire come to this; gone out like sparks from a star-shell falling in a pond? What are these things here? What am I? What is the purpose served by all this demolition and waste?" Like a child in the dark I put myself the question, but there was no answer. The stars wheel on their courses over the dance of death and the feast of joy, ever the same.
      • Read out loud Isaac Rosenberg's poem "Break of Day in the Trenches" (1916), available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Academy of American Poets. Define the terms metaphor and simile, and ask students what comparison Rosenberg makes to describe the trenches. Ask students to make comparisons between life in the trenches and more familiar settings/experiences, etc. How does Rosenberg feel about life in the trenches? How is nature portrayed in this poem? In an earlier exercise, students explored the use of light and dark in recruitment posters—how does light and dark work as symbols in this poem? Students should support their answer with concrete details from the poem.
Activity 3. Close Analysis of Poetic Form and Content

Poetic Devices

  • Hand out the Poetic Devices Worksheet. Work with students to define the literary terms, and ask students to take notes in the definitions section of the worksheet. Norton's LitWeb Glossary, available via links from the EDSITEment-reviewed American Academy of Poets, has some useful, brief definitions.
  • Assign the following two poems for students to read for the next class period, and ask students to find examples of each poetic device from the assigned poems as they are reading the poems on their own time. Point out to students that they should consider as well the effects a poem's lack of certain devices has on the poem at large (e.g., the lack of meter, rhyme, etc.) Mention to students that they should be prepared to discuss the poems during the next class period.
  • Devote the second class period to close analysis of the selected WWI poems. Start by reading out loud Edgar Guest's "The Things That Make a Soldier Great" (1917). You should read the poem out loud, and then have a student volunteer read the poem again. Use the following questions to generate a class discussion:
    • Meter: You can use this poem to give a basic overview of how a poem's meter fundamentally is tied to the poem's syllable count per line. Ask students if they noticed a consistent syllabic pattern. Count the number of syllables with students, and then define meter as the number of stressed beats per line. There is no need to go into an advanced lesson on meter and scansion; instead, point out how Guest's lines have a consistent pattern of "beats." Ask students to notice how the consistent beat of Guest's poem evokes the consistent beat of marching soldiers, thereby adding to the poems patriotic call for soldiers to join the fight. For an extended lesson on meter, refer to the EDSITEment lesson "Listening to Poetry: Sounds of the Sonnet." You can note that this poem is a ballad (printed with long ballad lines of iambic heptameter), a form that is meant to sound song-like.
    • Rhyme: Use this poem to discuss rhyme. Ask students the following questions:
      • As you were listening to the poem, did you hear the rhyme scheme?
      • How would you describe this rhyming? (Song-like or "sing-songy")?
      • Where have you heard this type of rhyming? (Note that children's songs, or nursery rhymes, often are in short ballad form).
      • What emotional response does this poem's rhyme scheme elicit? How do the meter and rhyme scheme contribute to the poem's mood?
      • Write the first two lines of the poem on a whiteboard or chalkboard as follows:
        • The things that make a soldier great and send him out to die,
          To face the flaming cannon's mouth nor ever question why,
      • Now compare the poem as written above to "Mary Had a Little Lamb": Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow
        and everywhere that Mary went The lamb was sure to go
    • Tone and Images: Building on the questions above, be sure to elaborate on the poet's tone. Ask students the following questions:
      • How would you describe the poet's mood and/or the emotions the poem evokes?
      • What specific images contribute to the poet's tone (e.g., lilacs, tulips, children, flag, home, garden)? Why or how do these images affect the tone at large?
  • Note that "[The established poet] Robert Graves criticised [Poet Wilfred] Owen for not abiding by the rules of metre, and it is true that "Disabled" seems loosely organised with its apparently arbitrary irregularities of stanza, metre and rhyme. Perhaps Owen felt, not unreasonably, that a poet was entitled to break the rules as long as he knew them first" [Noted by Literary Critic Kenneth Simcox, 2001]. Keeping Owen's use of meter in mind, read out loud Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" (1917). Have students read the poem aloud, or listen to an actor read the poem at Encarta, available through the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library. Have students note and compare the titles of these poems; "Dulce et Decorum Est" roughly translates as "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country."
  • Lead another class discussion about this poem based on the following questions:
    • Meter/Rhyme:
      • Ask students if they hear a clear meter and rhyme scheme when this poem is read aloud? [Mention how the lack of consistent beats detracts from the rhyme scheme that is actually present in the poem.] Ask students to review the first stanza of Owen's poem, and compare it to the first stanza of "The Things That Make a Soldier Great."
        • 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.
        • The things that make a soldier great and send him out to die,
          To face the flaming cannon's mouth nor ever question why,
          Are lilacs by a little porch, the row of tulips red,
          The peonies and pansies, too, the old petunia bed,
          The grass plot where his children play, the roses on the wall:
          'Tis these that make a soldier great. He's fighting for them all.
      • Does this poem sound song-like as "The Things That Make a Soldier Great"? Why not? [Note that the heavy ballad beats are not present in this poem]. What is the mood/tone of this poem? Discuss how this lack of clearly organized beats changes the tone of the poem; it is far from "sing-songy."
    • Alliteration, Consonance, Assonance: Ask students to define alliteration (repetition of initial sounds), consonance (repetition of consonant sounds initially and/or within a word), and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds initially and/or within a word). Focus of the first four lines of Owen's poem: 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.
      • Discuss, for example, the hard "c" consonance of within the first few lines of "Dulce" (sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing, like, cursed, backs). Ask students what this consonance brings to mind (i.e., the sound of coughing itself):
      • As an example of assonance, point to the "u" sounds within the first few lines (including the ending of lines 2 and
      • Explain to students that this case of assonance, the "u" sounds slow down and therefore draw out the lines. Again form marries content as the soldiers "trudge" through "sludge."
    • Pacing: Turn to the lines "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!-An ecstasy of fumbling," to draw attention to the changed pace of the poem. Ask students what effect the use of one syllable words has on the poem's pace.
    • Additional Analysis: Break students into small groups, and have each group discuss the last two stanzas of the poem for 10 minutes. Regroup for full class discussion of the remainder of the poem.


Written Analysis: Comparison and Contrast Paper

Through Darkness to Light?

  • Guest and Owen make two very different arguments about fighting in WWI in "The Things That Make a Soldier Great" and "Dulce et Decorum Est." Compare and contrast the poems in a typed, 3-page written analysis. Remind students to be sure to use concrete details from each poem to support their key claims. Ask students to focus on at least 3 poetic devices as they compare and contrast the poems at large.
  • Ask students to examine the poetic devices in other WWI poems, such as those listed in "Extending the Lesson" below.

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3-5 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
  • Writing skills
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)


Activity Worksheets