History

Poets of the First World War

History

On 11 November 1985 in Poets’ Corner Westminster Abbey Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate, unveiled a memorial stone commemorating poets of the First World War. Sixteen are mentioned by name:

Richard Aldington (1892-1962) who served in the trenches and achieved success with his novel Death of a Hero based on his war experiences;

Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) whose words ‘They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old…’, from his war poem 'For the Fallen', are heard each year on Remembrance Sunday. He was buried at Aldworth in Berkshire.;

Edmund Blunden (1896-1974) who fought at Ypres and the Somme and later became Professor of Poetry at Oxford and wrote poems on rural life as well as the war. He is buried at Long Melford in Suffolk.;

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) ‘the handsomest young man in England’ died en route to the Dardanelles and is buried on the Greek island of Skyros. His War Sonnets included ‘The Soldier’ with the famous lines ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England’;

Wilfred Gibson (1878-1962) of Northumberland whose poetry also dealt with rural themes;

Robert Graves (1895-1985) was badly wounded on the Somme but was the only one of the poets still living at the time of the unveiling. He was professor of poetry at Oxford and his novels include I,Claudius;

Julian Grenfell (1888-1915) whose celebrated poem ‘Into Battle’ appeared in the same year that he was killed at Ypres;

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was gassed during the war and never fully recovered, being taken into care for the last years of his life. He also composed many songs;

David Jones (1895-1974) had a Welsh father but was born in Kent and served throughout the Great War. His epic work was In Parenthesis on the subject of war;

Robert Nichols (1893-1944) had early success with his poem Invocation in 1915 but he later turned to writing plays;

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), from whose Collected Poems the quote on the stone is taken, won the Military Cross and was killed just a week before the Armistice;

Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968) had a distinguished war record and was poet, critic and writer on fine art, being knighted in 1953;

Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) was killed in action. The publication in 1937 of his Collected Works confirmed his importance as a writer of realistic war poetry;

Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) won the Military Cross and was invalided out. His volume of bleak anti-war poems, Counter Attack, was published in 1918 but his reputation became established in the following decade. He was buried at Mells in Somerset.;

Charles Sorley (1895-1915) was killed at the battle of Loos aged only 20 so left comparatively few complete poems but was well regarded by his contemporary poets;

Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was encouraged to write by the American poet Robert Frost and was killed at Arras and his work is now highly regarded.

None of the poets are actually buried in the Abbey. The stone is of Westmoreland slate, cut by Harry Meadows. The inscription in red lettering around the names reads “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity”, with the date 1914+1918 at the base.

The idea for this memorial came from the Dean of Westminster, Edward Carpenter, who initially thought that five or seven poets could be chosen to represent all the poets of the Great War. He consulted with eminent historians and authors to ask for their suggestions. From those suggestions a final list of sixteen representative poets was drawn up and funding was obtained. The oration at the service was given by Professor Michael Howard, Regius Professor of Modern History and Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford. The readings were by Jill Balcon, Ted Hughes, Stephen Lushington and Richard Pasco. They read from Aldington's 'On the march', Binyon's 'They went with songs to the battle', Brooke's 'The Soldier' and 'The Dead', Gibson's 'A Lament', Gurney's 'To the poet before battle', Grenfell's 'Into Battle', Nichols' 'By the wood', Owen's 'Anthem for doomed youth' and 'Futility', Rosenberg's 'Break of day in the trenches', Read's 'The refugees', Sassoon's 'The Hero' and 'Reconciliation', Sorley's 'All the hills and vales along', Graves' 'Two Fusiliers' and Thomas' 'Lights Out' and In 'Memoriam-Easter 1915'.

A photograph of the stone can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library.