The Poetry of War, Part I

Beyond Gethsemane

The Great War of 1914-18 created what we think of as “modern times”. The magnitude of the catastrophe, along with the resulting Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, irretrievably destroyed the world that went before and ushered in, for good or ill, the world we know now.

For Western Civilization the Great War altered the way that war itself is generally perceived. Before 1914, war was a grim but noble undertaking in which all that was good and heroic in men could manifest itself. After 1918, war was seen as senseless slaughter that could only debase those nations which practiced it.

The nature of English war poetry changed at the same time. Before 1914, and in the early stages of the war, the heroic model still prevailed: If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England. (Rupert Brooke) By the war’s end, the poetic sentiment could be summed up in these lines: I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,/Lurching to ragtime tunes and “Home, sweet Home”,/And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls/To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume. (Siegfried Sassoon)

A poet whose long career bridged the chasm between these two worlds was Rudyard Kipling. Kipling is well known as the unabashed booster of Empire, the poet of “Gunga Din” and “The White Man’s Burden”. More than any other poet he embodied the British Empire in its ideal form (for an informative and very readable study of Kipling, see this article by John Derbyshire in The New Criterion).

But the First World War dealt Kipling a tragic blow: his beloved son John was killed the first time he saw action, at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Kipling had pulled strings to get his boy, whose eyesight was deficient, into the Irish guards. The loss of his son brought a melancholy into Kipling’s work which had not been previously seen. The brief and poignant “Gethsemane” is an example of the result:


The Garden called Gethsemane
     In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
     The English soldiers pass.
We used to pass — we used to pass
     Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
     Beyond Gethsemane.
The Garden called Gethsemane,
     It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
     I prayed my cup might pass.
The officer sat on the chair,
     The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there
     I prayed my cup might pass.
It didn’t pass — it didn’t pass —
     It didn’t pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
     Beyond Gethsemane!

The reference, of course, is to Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion (Matthew 26:39): “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.”

There, in succinct form, is the soldier’s lot: his fate is not his to will. The cup may or may not pass from him, but it does not lie under his control. After the Great War the image of the slaughter as a mass crucifixion of Christ-like soldiers became widespread, and the ideal of the soldier’s submission to his commander’s will was tarnished beyond repair.

From the trenches of the Western Front, poems celebrating the nobility of the warrior were superseded by poems of doom and resignation. In the years that followed the First World War, war poetry became antiwar poetry, and so it has remained.

Later posts will explore more on this topic.

17 thoughts on “The Poetry of War, Part I


    By: Laurence Binyon

    My maternal great-grandfather served in the Royal Highlanders of Canada (Black Watch) during the Great War at Ypres, Belgium. He was gassed but survived as a a wheezing wreck for 20 years after the war. It may surprise readers of this blog to find out that Canadians were considered some of the finest troops in the British army during the Great War and were often used as shock troops for the most difficult missions. Men were made of different stuff back then I guess. Imagine asking soldiers from Western countries today to spend four years wallowing in mud and guts (literally) with no hope of return except a serious wound or until the war ended.

    Oddly enough my paternal grandfather served in the Austro-Hungarian army and fought on the Italian front for four years, was wounded twice and spent three years after the war building railroads in malarial swamps in Albania as a POW of the Italians.

    If you REALLY want to understand the significance of the Great war and the rest of the 20th century and its consequences on the geopolitical situation today, read “The Shield of Achilles” by Philip Bobbitt.

    • I don’t think that a GoV’er would be all that enlightened by the works of Philip Bobbitt, especially his followup work to the “Shield of Achilles”, “Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twentieth Century”. The preview blurb from Amazon reveals his stance vis-a-vis Islamism, to wit: “Philip Bobbitt follows his magisterial Shield of Achilles with an equally provocative analysis of the West’s struggle against terror. Boldly stating that the primary driver of terrorism is not Islam but the emergence of market states (like the U.S. and the E.U.), Bobbitt warns of an era where weapons of mass destruction will be commodified and the wealthiest societies even more vulnerable to destabilizing, demoralizing terror. Unflinching in his analysis, Bobbitt addresses the deepest themes of history, law and strategy.”

  2. Dear Baron:

    Thank you for the wonderful post on Kipling. I am most interested in your background/take of the Kipling poem “Dane Geld,” as I feel the words are so appropriate for today. I am not an English major, and never had much exposure to Kipling (I went to public schools, what can you expect). I now am researching, thanks to you!

  3. We had a good time over at Belmont Club one day quoting & discussing Kipling, including Danegeld & White Man’s Burden. I think the latter, though very politically incorrect, is wonderful.

    And yes, we’re definitely paying “Moorgeld” right now.

    I’m not and English major either — math was my field.

  4. See what you mean Baron. I happened upon it under a link named Proud Baby Boomer,but when I went back an hour later it was gone. Can’t find it anywhere. However, it was in my History, and I can still access it there. I made a copy. It is about 6 pages and I find it frightening. Last post was Friday 10th. I can send you a copy if you want, but I don’t care to post it unless you will take it off tout suite.

  5. Go to my blog. Don’t ask me how I got it on there but it is there, photos and all. I am deleting it tomorrow. Culture of Life or Culture of Lies.

  6. “The ideal of the soldier’s submission to his commander’s will was tarnished beyond repair.

    From the trenches of the Western Front, poems celebrating the nobility of the warrior were superseded by poems of doom and resignation.”

    This is somewhat misleading and also incomplete. What Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the rest of the war poets wrote against was the sheer magnitude, the stupidity and the meaninglessness of the slaughter of trench warfare in the First World War. 60,000 British died on the first DAY of the Battle of the Somme. (That’s more than ALL of American losses in 15 years of the Vietnam War.) And this doesn’t even include French or German losses.

    Every statistic to do with WW1 is similarly gruesome and disheartening – thousands sent to their deaths for gains of sometimes just a couple of hundred yards. A lot of it had to do with the nature of the battle itself, comprising as it did of trench warfare and attrition. It was chiefly a question of who had more patience and who had more men to spare for the slaughter.

    In the hall of my secondary school in England, there was a plaque that contained over 200 names, the school’s former students among the dead. Every school and college, every town, public place and institution in England has such a memorial. An entire generation was literally wiped out in the mud of Flanders, and a large part of the blame lies with abstract concepts of ‘nobility’ and ‘glory’ that the commanders had inherited from their Victorian era military training. The full details of this disastrous nexus are in Paul Fussell’s classic study, The Great War and Modern Memory.

    So before death on the battlefield and unquestioning obedience to idiot commanders is glorified, readers might want to look at things more closely. Not for nothing that Alan Clark’s study of the military commanders of the War like Haig and Kitchener was titled ‘The Donkeys.”

  7. whatever — I’m afraid you completely misunderstand my intent. The “doom and resignation” were the only possible response to the magnitude of the calamity that was unfolding around these men.

    I’m well aware of the grotesque horror of WWI. My point is not that “unquestioning obedience” to orders should be “glorified”, but that it is completely understandable how the First World War destroyed the tradition of unquestioning obedience.

    “The stupidity and the meaninglessness” of what happened on the Western Front created the cultural climate which endures to this day, in which no war is ever seen as justified or necessary.

    My later posts will examine how the destruction of so many in the British upper-middle class (as opposed to mere working-class cannon fodder) changed the way that war was viewed by the opinion-makers, who were from the same class.

    BTW, I received my secondary education (O-level and A-level) in England in the 1960s, and concentrated part of my English-literature studies on the poets of the First World War, particularly Wilfred Owen. I’m well aware of all the issues you raise, and fundamentally agree with them.

    The First World War — through the blindness and stupidity of the political leaders and upper levels of the military command — permanently destroyed the trust of the educated classes in their countries’ ability to conduct wars. 80 years down the line, we are still experiencing the fallout from this event.

  8. Look forward to your next installment.

    We have definitely evolved with more technological methods of fighting (precision munitions, UAVs…)while eliminating horrific casualty rates. But somehow I doubt that the old days of glory about war will ever return in the West.

    For the Jihadis, I think its a very different story. Their extremism remains linked to the glory of past century’s attitudes of war. Will it take the same horrific killing to turn their elites against Jihad? And will it be nuclear devastation that becomes their WWI defining event?

  9. This is an excellent series of posts. I can see that we’re pretty much on the same page about the First World War.

    El Bud is right about the Canadians, in particular, they were splendid at Vimy Ridge.

    The British lost so much of their tiny regular army in 1914-15 that they had insufficient cadres to properly train all the volunteers of Kitchener’s New Armies. They had to learn by OJT, and paid in blood, particularly that of theeir junior officers and NCO’s.

  10. We must remember the war fever entusiasm that passed through Europe. Many men ran to recruitement point svoluntering for a war all thought that will be short. This was a catastrofic war. In France there is no place so tiny it have not his “monument aux mort de la grande guerre”. There can be nothing more, no school, no shops, even no inhabitants, nothing but a monument. I think this, and the second World War, fascism and else have much to do with wat we are suffering now. It looks like if many europeans thinks that we must pay for past wrondoings and deasapear as people. Some kind of a colective suicidal. A feature of this is the way anything a country has made during european expansionism is used to blaim all europe as a whole. And certain parts are just silenced, like the fact that slaves taken to new world where bought from muslim slave traders. Another fact that has been kept undercover whas the enslavig of europeans by barbary pirates and turks. It looks like if scool curricula have been designed in order in get shame of our past. Some peoples override this school mad job. French dive into medievalism and I think they are resurfacing. I think much has to be done in this matter. As if you are shame of your past you cannot have confidence in the future.

  11. I wrote this poem on the civil war some years ago, I’ll pass it along HYDRALeonadis Polk walked stately on the KenesawMinutes before the cannon puffed whiteLater musket blue was everywhere.Then most men dropped to any log for shadow.Again July berries came fat and dark.True cumulus and August corn.The whole is mostly bits.Sherman stalked. Georgia got his cigar butts.Out of the Chatachoochee a huge rump of dirty blueReared to rend the greyback. Sherman smoked.Johnston got his spade and God.Dug. Prayed with his manuel.Glittering spits bathed wheezing camps.Sherman squatted.Affinity bares not the wilder game.Following Atlanta’s flame Virginis burstwith dogwood pinkAnd heavy balls slid smoothly through the warm peach skin.Newest greens turned red and Gentle Leebled deep.Blue flanks and fore moved on. Shermanroared.Bits are halves of dreams.The horses stunk, the sweat, the blood,The roost of carrion brood. Melon rindAnd green broken pear lay.Hoofs thudded in the dust, dug in the clay,In mud and broke the sky in puddle, inriver, in creek;Fodder hung on jilted fence.Dreams are quartered with memory.

  12. Antonio,
    What nationality are you? I am curious. Your last comment regarding a nation’s confidence, is very poignant and I do believe that it will be America’s mentality for my generation and that of my future children. I am a female, who never voted for George W. and protested his war against Iraq during my undergrad studies. I, too, believe that war is destructive to both ends. However, in some respects, I believe the shame many Americans feel over this hasty (and, now, seemingly endless) war will prevent our future generations and consequently administrations the confidence our nation will need should a war of global proportions occur.

    Btw, BB, this is a wonderful blog and I’m glad I “stumbled” on it.
    Thank you.

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