Dr. Ian Watson: First World War Poetry

I saw this lecture in 2014. Dr. Ian Watson is an independent scholar and poet who spent many years teaching at the Bremen University as senior lecturer. His lecture covers first world war poetry from Ireland, which is a topic he claims to feel intimately connected to because of his own experience, hearing stories from war veterans as well as reading poetry from the time. Watson proposes the idea that the suffering experienced during that time has created poetry that is filled with intense poetic expression.

Watson makes some important distinctions between (a) combatant and non-combatant poets, combatant poets being those who actually fought in the war, (b) survived and didn’t survive, referring to whether or not the poet made it out of the war alive, (c) patriotic or critical (anti-war), judging the sympathies of the poet in context to the war, and (d) established poets or newcomers, referring to the level of acclaim, which the poet has already come to.

Combatant poets were Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Rupert Brooke, Lt. General John McCrae, and Isaac Rosenberg, who also fall under the category of non-survivors, while those combatant poets who survived are Robert Graves, Edmund Blunden and Laurence Binyon. Non-combatant poets were Jessie Pope, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and Sir Henry Newbolt.

Critical poets were Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, D.H. Lawrence, Isaac Rosenberg, Rudyard Kipling, and Thomas Hardy, while Jessie Pope, Rupert Brooke, Lt. General John McCrae, and Sir Henry Newbolt were non-critical of the war. Kipling was non-critical until 1910, experiencing a change from being highly nationalist and pro-war to a more liberal view, when his son was killed in the war.

Watson chooses three war-critical poets to focus on in the lecture: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. Both Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen did not survive the war. Siegfried Sassoon, however, managed to exit the war alive. Watson highlights the differences between these three war-critical poets by setting them is contrast to poets who supported the war. He also outlines the differences between those poets who survived and those who did not by comparing their work.

After briefly introducing the audience to a pro-war propaganda poem by John McCrae from 1915, which utilizes symbolism a to convey a patriotic message, Watson shows the audience what he calls the most iconic first-world war poem: For the Fallen by Laurence Binyon. After that he discusses Vitai Lampada by Sir Henry Newbolt, which expresses pro-war sympathies, metaphorically turning the endeavour of war into a sports event, which would appeal to youngsters.

Watson then describes the difference between Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Own, who dealt with the war very differently, not only because of their unlike background, Sassoon being from the upper class, and Owen from the lower class, but also the fact that Sassoon survived, while Owen died in the war. However, Watson explains that, after meeting Owen, Sassoon was highly influenced by Owen’s work. Sassoon engaged in a type of angry anti-war satire poetry. In comparison, Wilfred Owen’s poems are of a more realist nature. Watson describes the difference between Sassoon and Owen as one of satire versus compassion. While Sassoon shows a more privileged perspective of the horrors of war, but still highly critical of the war, Owen’s work details the horrific events that took place in a more realistic light. A further anti-war poet whom Watson introduces the audience to is Edward Thomas, whose poem As the team’s head-brass, details how Britain changed due to the war.

In brief, Watson’s lecture introduces the audience to the different kinds of Irish First World-War poetry and the different perspectives from which it is told.



About AnekaB

Literature, Philosophy, Culture
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