Our Town Books Reviews: Poems of the Great War

Poems of the Great WarThis book review originally appeared in the Jacksonville newspaper, The Source.

Poems of the Great War: An Anthology 1914-1918
Edited by Christopher Navratil
240 pp. Running Press. $5.95

In Poets Corner (the one in Westminster Abbey, not the one in our local bookstore) there is a memorial to the poets of World War I, many of whom are included in Poems of the Great War: An Anthology, 1914-1918.

World War I was a time of change for battlefield poetry. Unlike Victorian poets who glorified war but often never saw combat themselves, these poets fought, and in some cases, died in battle. They presented war in a more glaring and certainly a less picturesque light. Instead of Tennyson’s “Half a league, half a league, Half a league onward,” we find Charles Hamilton Sorley’s

“When you see millions of
the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale
battalions go,
Say not soft things as other
men have said,
That you’ll remember. For
you need not so.”

Or Siegfried Sassoon’s somber and disturbing images:

And trunks, face downward,
in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden
sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks,
mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept
in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began,–
the jolly old rain!

The 42 poems collected in this small volume are arranged chronologically, beginning with John Masefield’s “August, 1914” and ending with Thomas Hardy’s “‘And There Was a Great Calm’ (On the Signing of the Armistice November 11, 1918).” Together they offer readers a sense of immediacy—illuminating for us the susceptibility of youth and, ultimately, the lasting horror of war. Through the work of these War Poets, our understanding spreads and deepens in a way not possible when reading historical accounts of battle.

A book need not be large to be worthwhile. It need not be expensive to be beautiful. At only 3” by 2 ½” and handsomely bound, Poems of the Great War is agreeable to hold and read. It is illustrated throughout with sepia-toned World War I battlefield photographs.

Reviewed by Sally Nurss

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