For Remembrance: Ten poems about War

10 November 2017

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Read on for a selection of poems about the experience and impact of war, written by some of the finest contemporary and classic poets.

Bantam
Jackie Kay

It wisnae men they sent tae war.
It wis boys like the Bantams
– wee men named efter
sma’ chickens,
or later a jeep, a bike, a camera.
That needy, fir soldiers, they drapped height
Restriction, so small men came to war.
As a prisoner, my faither’s weight dropped
And years later, the shrapnel frae the Somme
Shot oot, a wee jewel hidden in his right airm.

From Bantam by Jackie Kay.
 

Anthem for Doomed Youth
Wilfred Owen

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
     Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
     Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
     And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
     Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
    The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Features in Poetry of the First World War, edited by Marcus Chapman.
 

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
       In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
       In Flanders fields.

Features in Poetry of the First World War, edited by Marcus Chapman. 
 

Dreamers
Siegfied Sassoon

Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

Features in A Poem for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri. 

The Christmas Truce
Carol Ann Duffy



Written by Carol Ann Duffy and illustrated by David Roberts, The Christmas Truce is based on the miraculous true story of the truce of Christmas Day 1914, when Allied and German troops played football, sang carols and found temporary peace in the No Man's Land of the Western Front. 

The Last Post
Robert Graves

The bugler sent a call of high romance—
"Lights out! Lights out!" to the deserted square.
On the thin brazen notes he threw a prayer:
"God, if it's this for me next time in France,
O spare the phantom bugle as I lie
Dead in the gas and smoke and roar of guns,
Dead in a row with other broken ones,
Lying so stiff and still under the sky—
Jolly young Fusiliers, too good to die..."
The music ceased, and the red sunset flare
Was blood about his head as he stood there.

Features in Poetry of the First World War, edited by Marcus Clapham.

War Mothers
Ella Wheeler Wilcox

In the old times of peace we went our ways,
Through proper days
Of little joys and tasks. Lonely at times,
When from the steeple sounded wedding chimes,
Telling to all the world some maid was wife—
But taking patiently our part in life
As it was portioned us by Church and State,
Believing it our fate.
    Our thoughts all chaste
Held yet a secret wish to love and mate
    Ere youth and virtue should go quite to waste.
But men we criticised for lack of strength,
And kept them at arm's length.
Then the war came—
The world was all aflame!
The men we had thought dull and void of power
Were heroes in an hour.
He who had seemed a slave to petty greed
Showed masterful in that great time of need.
He who had plotted for his neighbour's pelf,
Now for his fellows offers up himself.
And we were only women, forced by war
To sacrifice the things worth living for.

Something within us broke,
    Something within us woke,
        The wild cave-woman spoke.
 
When we heard the sound of drumming,
    As our soldiers went to camp,
    Heard them tramp, tramp, tramp;
As we watched to see them coming,
    And they looked at us and smiled
    (Yes, looked back at us and smiled),
As they filed along by hillock and by hollow,
    Then our hearts were so beguiled
    That, for many and many a day,
    We dreamed we heard them say,
'Oh, follow, follow, follow!'
    And the distant, rolling drum
    Called us 'Come, come, come!'
    Till our virtue seemed a thing to give away.
 
Read the full poem
 

The Dead 
Rupert Brooke

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
     Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth.
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
     And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
     Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
     Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
     Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
     Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.

Features in A Poem for Every Day of the Year, edited by Allie Esiri.

Dunkirk
Mary Désirée Anderson
M.D.A., Lady Cox, lived in London during the war.

 

For many days it seemed as if the sky
Held back its breath in anguish, and the sea
Seemed frozen by our fear, for storms meant death
To countless thousands who this calm set free.

Our whole world dwindled to that narrow beach;
We watched a miracle with hearts of stone,
Then, awestruck with relief, we turned once more
To seek for friends – and found ourselves alone.

Features in Poems from the Second World War, selected by Gaby Morgan.

 

And There Was a Great Calm
Thomas Hardy


(On the Signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov. 1918)

                                      I
There had been years of Passion—scorching, cold,
And much Despair, and Anger heaving high,
Care whitely watching, Sorrows manifold,
Among the young, among the weak and old,
And the pensive Spirit of Pity whispered, “Why?”


                                      II
Men had not paused to answer. Foes distraught
Pierced the thinned peoples in a brute-like blindness,
Philosophies that sages long had taught,
And Selflessness, were as an unknown thought,
And “Hell!” and “Shell!” were yapped at Lovingkindness.


                                      III
The feeble folk at home had grown full-used
To 'dug-outs', 'snipers', 'Huns', from the war-adept
In the mornings heard, and at evetides perused;
To day-dreamt men in millions, when they mused—
To nightmare-men in millions when they slept.

Read the full poem

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