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Georg Herwegh

A war poet is a poet who participates in a war and writes about his experiences, or a non-combatant who writes poems about war. While the term is applied especially to those who served during World War I,[1] the term can be applied to a poet of any nationality writing about any war, including Homer's Iliad, from around the 8th century BC, and the Old English poem The Battle of Maldon, that celebrated the actual battle of 991, as well as poetry of the American and the Spanish Civil War, the Crimean War, etc.

American Civil WarEdit

Commemorative stamp of American poet Walt Whitman in 1940

As the American Civil War was beginning, American poet Walt Whitman published his poem "Beat! Beat! Drums!" as a patriotic rally call for the North.[2] Whitman volunteered for a time as a nurse in the army hospitals,[3] and his collection Drum-Taps (1865) deals with his experiences during the War.

German Revolutions of 1848–49Edit

Georg Herwegh who wrote during the German revolutions of 1848–49 is an example of a 19th century German war poet.[4][5]

Crimean WarEdit

Probably the most famous 19th century war poem is Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade", which he supposedly wrote in only a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in The Times. As poet laureate he often wrote verses about public events. It immediately became hugely popular, even reaching the troops in the Crimea, where it was distributed in pamphlet form.[6]

Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Last of the Light Brigade", written some forty years after the appearance of "The Charge of the Light Brigade", in 1891, focuses on the terrible hardships faced in old age by veterans of the Crimean War, as exemplified by the cavalry men of the Light Brigade, in an attempt to shame the British public into offering financial assistance.[7] Various lines from the poem are randomly quoted by Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.

Boer WarEdit

Rudyard Kipling wrote poetry in support of the British cause in the Boer War,[8] including the well known "Lichtenberg", which is about a combatant's death in a foreign land.[9] Swinburne, Thomas Hardy, and others wrote also poems relating to the Boer War. Hardy's poems include "Drummer Hodge",and "The Man He Killed". '"Swinburne regularly donated work to the papers to rouse the spirit, from 'Transvaal', with the infamous closing line, 'Strike, England, and strike home', to 'The Turning of the Tide'."[10]

"But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

"I shot him dead because —
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That's clear enough; although

"He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
No other reason why.

"Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
Or help to half-a-crown."

Thomas Hardy's Boer War poem "The Man He Killed" (1909).[11]

World War IEdit


The major novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840 – 1928) wrote a number of significant war poems that relate to Napoleonic Wars, the Boer Wars and World War I, including "Drummer Hodge", "In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations'", and "The Man He Killed"; his work had a profound influence on other war poets such as Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon".[12] Hardy in these poems often used the viewpoint of ordinary soldiers and their colloquial speech.[12] A theme in the Wessex Poems (1898) is the long shadow that the Napoleonic Wars cast over the 19th century, as seen, for example, in "The Sergeant's Song" and "Leipzig". The Napoleonic War is the subject of Hardy's drama in verse The Dynasts (1904–08).[13]

At the beginning of World War I, like many other writers, Kipling wrote pamphlets and poems which enthusiastically supported the UK's war aims of restoring Belgium after that kingdom had been occupied by Germany together with more generalised statements that Britain was standing up for the cause of good.[14]

For the first time, a substantial number of important British poets were soldiers, writing about their experiences of war. A number of them died on the battlefield, most famously Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, and Charles Sorley. Others including Robert Graves,[15] Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon survived but were scarred by their experiences, and this was reflected in their poetry. Robert H. Ross describes the British "war poets" as Georgian poets.[16] Many poems by British war poets were published in newspapers and then collected in anthologies. Several of these early anthologies were published during the war and were very popular, though the tone of the poetry changed as the war progressed. One of the wartime anthologies, The Muse in Arms, was published in 1917, and several were published in the years following the war.

David Jones' epic poem of World War I In Parenthesis was first published in England in 1937, and is based on Jones's own experience as an infantryman in the War. In Parenthesis narrates the experiences of English Private John Ball in a mixed English-Welsh regiment starting with their leaving England and ending seven months later with the assault on Mametz Wood during the Battle of the Somme. The work employs a mixture of lyrical verse and prose, is highly allusive, and ranges in tone from formal to Cockney colloquial and military slang. The poem won the Hawthornden Prize and the admiration of writers such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot.[17]

In November 1985, a slate memorial was unveiled in Poet's Corner commemorating 16 poets of the Great War: Richard Aldington, Laurence Binyon, Edmund Blunden, Rupert Brooke, Wilfrid Gibson, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, David Jones, Robert Nichols, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas.[18]


Some Irish World War I poets include: Tom Kettle, Francis Ledwidge, John O'Donnell, W. B. Yeats, and Katharine Tynan. Kettle's best known poem is a sonnet, "To My Daughter Betty, the Gift of God", written just days before his death. The last lines are an answer to those who criticised Irishmen for fighting in the British army saying that they "Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor/But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed/and for the secret Scripture of the poor."[19] Francis Ledwidge published three volumes of poetry between 1916–18 and he was killed in action in 1917. His work as "peasant poet" and "soldier poet", was once a standard part of the Irish school curriculum.[20] John O'Donnell was born in Tuam, County Galway in 1890, and He served in the Australian army during World War I, arriving at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. He later fought at the Battle of the Somme. In 1918 he was invalided home, during which time he wrote the last six poems of his only collection, dealing with the war from the perspective of an Australian.

W. B. Yeats's first war poem was "On being asked for a War Poem" written on February 6, 1915 in response to a request by Henry James that Yeats compose a political poem about World War I.[21] Yeats changed the poem's title from "To a friend who has asked me to sign his manifesto to the neutral nations" to "A Reason for Keeping Silent" before sending it in a letter to James, which Yeats wrote at Coole Park on August 20, 1915.[22] When it was later reprinted the title was changed to "On being asked for a War Poem".[23] Yeats' most famous war poem is "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death". the poem is a soliloquy given by an aviator in the First World War in which the narrator describes the circumstances surrounding his imminent death. The poem is a work that discusses the role of Irish soldiers fighting for the United Kingdom during a time when the Irish were trying to establish independence for Ireland. Wishing to show restraint from publishing political poems during the height of the war, Yeats withheld publication of the poem until after the conflict had ended.[24] "The Second Coming" is a poem written by Irish poet W. B. Yeats in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War[25] and the beginning of the Irish War of Independence that followed the Easter Rising, at a time before the British Government decided to send in the Black and Tans to Ireland.[26] The poem uses Christian imagery regarding the Apocalypse and Second Coming allegorically to describe the atmosphere of post-war Europe.[27]


Canadian war poets of this period included John McCrae, who wrote In Flanders Fields, and Robert W. Service who worked as an ambulance driver for the Canadian Red Cross and was a war correspondent for the Canadian government.


Russia also produced a number of significant war poets including Nikolay Gumilyov (whose war poems were assembled in the collection The Quiver (1916)), Alexander Blok, Ilya Ehrenburg (who published war poems in his book "On the Eve"), and Nikolay Semenovich Tikhonov (who published the book Orda (The Horde) in 1922).[28]


Amongst French World War I poets are the following: Guillaume Apollinaire, Adrien Bertrand, Yvan Goll, Yann-Ber Kalloc'h, Charles Péguy, and Louis Pergaud.


German World War I poets include: Rudolf G. Binding, Walter Flex, Stefan George, Yvan Goll, Heinrich Mann, Reinhard Sorge, and August Stramm.


Serbian World War I poets include: Milutin Bojić, Vladislav Petković Dis, Miloš Crnjanski, Dušan Vasiljev, Ljubomir Micić, Proka Jovkić, Rastko Petrović, Stanislav Vinaver, Branislav Milosavljević, Milosav Jelić, Vladimir Stanimirović. and others.[29]


The Spanish Civil WarEdit

Ruins of Guernica, Spain, bombed by the German airforce in 1937

The Spanish Civil War produced a substantial volume[30] of poetry in English (as well as in Spanish). There were English-speaking poets serving in the Spanish Civil War on both sides. Among those fighting with the Republicans as volunteers in the International Brigades were Clive Branson, John Cornford, Charles Donnelly, Alex McDade and Tom Wintringham.[31] On the Nationalist side, the most famous English language poet of the Spanish Civil War remains South African Roy Campbell.

Spanish Civil War poets, include Federico García Lorca, and the brothers Antonio Machado, and Manuel Machado. While Antonio wrote a poem to honor the Communist General Enrique Líster,[32] his brother Manuel dedicated one to the saber of the rebel Generalissimo Francisco Franco.

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda became intensely politicised for the first time during the Spanish Civil War. His experiences during the War and its aftermath moved him away from privately focused work in the direction of collective obligation. Neruda became an ardent Communist for the rest of his life. The radical leftist politics of his literary friends, as well as that of del Carril, were contributing factors, but the most important catalyst was the execution of García Lorca by forces loyal to the dictator Francisco Franco.[33] By means of his speeches and writings, Neruda threw his support behind the Spanish Republic, publishing the collection España en el corazón (Spain in Our Hearts, 1938). He lost his post as consul due to his political militancy.[33]

World War IIEdit


By World War II the role of "war poet" was so well-established in the public mind, and it was anticipated that the outbreak of war in 1939 would produce a literary response equal to that of the First World War. The Times Literary Supplement went so far as to pose the question in 1940: "Where are the war-poets?"[34] Alun Lewis and Keith Douglas are the standard critical choices amongst British war poets of this time.[35] In 1942, Henry Reed published a collection of three poems about British infantry training entitled Lessons of the War; three more were added after the war.[36] Sidney Keyes was another important and prolific Second World War poet.[34] The revival in interest in Hamish Henderson has increased awareness of his Somerset Maugham Award winning poem "Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica" which drew heavily on Henderson's experience in the North African campaign.


Karl Shapiro, a stylish writer with a commendable regard for his craft,[37] wrote poetry in the Pacific Theater while he served there during World War II. His collection V-Letter and Other Poems, written while Shapiro was stationed in New Guinea, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1945, while Shapiro was still in the military. Shapiro was American Poet Laureate in 1946 and 1947. (At the time this title was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress which was changed by Congress in 1985 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.). Also, while serving in the U.S. Army, the American poet Randall Jarrell published his second book of poems, Little Friend, Little Friend (1945) based on his wartime experiences. The book includes one of Jarrell's best known war poems, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." In his follow-up book, Losses (1948), he also focused on the war. The poet Robert Lowell stated publicly that he thought Jarrell had written "the best poetry in English about the Second World War."[38]


During World War II, Anna Akhmatova witnessed the 900-day Siege of Leningrad (now St Petersburg). In 1940, Akhmatova started her Poem without a Hero, finishing a first draft in Tashkent, but working on "The Poem" for twenty years and considering it to be the major work of her life, dedicating it to "the memory of its first audience – my friends and fellow citizens who perished in Leningrad during the siege".[39]


The Romanian-born poet Paul Celan wrote war poetry including "Todesfuge" (translated into English as "Death Fugue",[40] and "Fugue of Death",[41]) a German language poem written by probably around 1945 and first published in 1948. It is "among Celan's most well-known and often-anthologized poems".[42] The is regarded as a "masterful description of horror and death in a concentration camp".[43] Celan was born to a Jewish family in Cernauti, Romania (now Chernivtsy, Ukraine); his parents died in a camp during the Second World War, and Celan himself was a prisoner for a time in a work camp.

Tristan Tzara was a Romanian and French avant-garde poet, essayist and performance artist, best for being one of the founders and central figures of the anti-establishment Dada movement. During the final part of his career, Tzara combined his humanist and anti-fascist perspective with a communist vision, joining the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance during World War II, and serving a term in the National Assembly. Having spoken in favor of liberalization in the People's Republic of Hungary just before the Revolution of 1956, he distanced himself from the French Communist Party, of which he was by then a member. In 1960, he was among the intellectuals who protested against French actions in the Algerian War.


Ryuichi Tamura (1923–98) who served in the Japanese navy during World War II is a major Japanese war poet. Following the war, he "helped begin a poetry magazine, The Waste Land" and those poets who contributed to it were “the Waste Land Poets.” The work of these writers was especially influenced by T.S. Eliot, Steven Spender, C. Day Lewis and W.H. Auden. Tamura's first book of poems, Four Thousand Days and Nights was published in 1956.[44]

Sadako Kurihara was living in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and it was then "that her life was transformed from being a shopkeeper to becoming one of Japan’s most controversial poets. Her first major collection of poems, Black Eggs, published in 1946", but it was heavily censored by the American Occupation Forces Censor, because of how she dealt with the horrors following the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. Kurihara has also "taken a stand on Japan’s aggressive rule" during the occupation of China, "the mistreatment of Koreans in Japan, and the need for a world-wide ban on nuclear weapons".[45]


Amongst Serbian poets during World War II, the most notable is Desanka Maksimović. She is well-known for "Krvava bajka" or "Bloody Fairy Story". The poem is about a group of schoolchildren who fell victim to the Nazis in 1941 in Kragujevac massacre.[46]

Later warsEdit

American poetsEdit

The Korean War produced the American war poets Rolando Hinojosa and William Wantling. [47]

The Vietnam war also produced war poets, including Michael Casey whose début collection, Obscenities, drew on his work as military police officer in Vietnam's Quang Nga province. The book won the 1972 Yale Younger Poets Award. Other prominent Vietnam War poets include W. D. Ehrhart, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Bruce Weigl.[48]

Most recently, the Iraq War has produced war poets including Brian Turner whose début collection, Here, Bullet, is based on his experience as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from November 2003 until November 2004 in Iraq. The book won numerous awards including the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the 2006 Maine Literary Award in Poetry, and the 2006 Northern California Book Award in Poetry.[49][50] The book also was an Editor's Choice in The New York Times and received significant attention from the press including reviews and notices on NPR and in The New Yorker, The Global and Mail, and the Library Journal. In The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear wrote that, "As a war poet, [Brian Turner] sidesteps the classic distinction between romance and irony, opting instead for the surreal."[51]

Rob Jacques, a Vietnam-Era Navy veteran, has explored the tension between love and violence in war from the perspective of gay servicemen in his collection, War Poet, published by Sibling Rivalry Press.[52]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "war poet noun" The Oxford Dictionary of English (revised edition). Ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson. Oxford University Press, 2005
  2. ^ Callow, 283
  3. ^ Callow, 293
  4. ^ Herwegh, Georg, The Columbia Encyclopedia (2008)
  5. ^ The Times, Southern Germany, 29 September 1848
  6. ^ Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poems, ed. Hallam Lord Tennyson and annotated by Alfred Lord Tennyson (London: Macmillan, 1908), II, 369.
  7. ^ Brighton, Terry (2005), Hell Riders: The True Story of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Penguin
  8. ^ Carrington, C. E., (1955) The life of Rudyard Kipling, Doubleday & Co., Garden City, NY, p. 236
  9. ^ Craig Raine (ed.), Kipling, Selected Poetry (Penguin, 1992), pp. 214–215
  10. ^ Poetry of the Boer War, St Andrew's University [1]
  11. ^ Time's Laughingstocks and Other Verses (London: Macmillan, 1909)
  12. ^ a b Axelrod, Jeremy. "Thomas Hardy". The Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
  13. ^ Katherine Kearney Maynard, Thomas Hardy's Tragic Poetry: The Lyrics and The Dynasts. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991, pp. 8–12.
  14. ^ Gilmour, David, The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, London: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002
  15. ^ Richard Perceval Graves, ‘Graves, Robert von Ranke (1895–1985)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  16. ^ The Georgian Revolt, p. 166.
  17. ^ Dilworth, Thomas. Reading David Jones. Cardiff: University of W Wales, 2008, p. 1; Dilworth, Thomas. The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988; Eliot, T.S. "A note of introduction," In Parenthesis. By David Jones. London: Faber, 1961, vii.
  18. ^ Westminster Abbey: Poets of the First World War
  19. ^ Jim Haughey, The First World War in Irish Poetry, Bucknell University Press, 2002, p. 102
  20. ^ E. Longley, "Ledwidge, Francis Edward (1887–1917)" : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, (2004), vol. 33, pp. 45–46.
  21. ^ Jeffares,Alexander Norman.A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats.Stanford University Press (1968) p. 189
  22. ^ Yeats, William Butler. qtd. in A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeatsby Norman Alexander Jeffares. Stanford University Press (1968) p. 189
  23. ^ Haughey, Jim. The First World War in Irish Poetry Bucknell University Press (2002) p. 162
  24. ^ Foster 2001 pp. 68–69
  25. ^ Haughey, Jim (2002). The First World War in Irish Poetry. Bucknell University Press. p. 161. ISBN 9781611481518.
  26. ^ Deane, Seamus (1998). "Boredom and Apocalypse". Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790. Clarendon lectures in English literature. Clarendon Press. p. 179. ISBN 9780198184904.
  27. ^ Albright, Daniel. "Quantum Poetics: Yeats's figures as reflections in Water", Cambridge University Press (1997), p. 35.
  28. ^ R.R. Milner-Gulland in A.K. Thorlby (ed.), The Penguin Companion to Literature: European (Penguin, 1969), p. 762.
  29. ^ Luković, Suzana. "VELIKI SRPSKI PESNICI U VELIKOM RATU Prešao je preko Albanije, radio kao srpski obaveštajac i ovekovečio sahrane srpskih mladića u BESMRTNOJ PESMI". (in Serbian). Retrieved 2019-07-25.
  30. ^ The Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse, edited by Valentine Cunningham (Penguin, 1980); see also War Poets Association: Spanish War
  31. ^ Poems from Spain: British and Irish International Brigaders of the Spanish Civil War in Verse, edited by Jim Jump. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2006)
  32. ^ A Líster, jefe en los ejércitos del Ebro, Antonio Machado, June 1938.
  33. ^ a b Tarn (1975) p. 16
  34. ^ a b Blythe, Ronald (1966). Components of the Scene. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  35. ^ London Review; Andrew Sinclair, The War Decade: An Anthology Of The 1940s. London; Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0241125677 (p. 47)
  36. ^ Press, John (1 March 1994). "Poets of World War II". In Scott-Kilvert, Ian (ed.). British Writers: 007. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 422–423. ISBN 978-0684166384. Retrieved 25 May 2015.
  37. ^ Scannell, Vernon Not Without Glory Woburn Press , London 1976 ISBN 0713000945
  38. ^ Gilroy, Harry. "Poets Honor Memory of Jarrell at Yale." The New York Times 1 March 1966.
  39. ^ Martin (2007) p. 10
  40. ^ e.g. translation by Jerome Rothenburg at website, accessed 1 July 2014
  41. ^ e.g. translation by Christopher Middleton at, accessed 1 July 2014.
  42. ^ "Paul Celan", in website, accessed 1 July 2014; Duroche (1967), p. 472.
  43. ^ Glenn (1972), p. 25.
  44. ^ Voices of Education, "WWII Japanese Poets [2]
  45. ^ Voices of Education, "WWII Japanese Poets
  46. ^ "Krvava bajka - Serbo-Croatian Poetry Translation". Retrieved 2019-07-25.
  47. ^ W. D. Ehrhart, The Madness of It All: Essays in War, Literature and American Life, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2002) pp. 141–172.
  48. ^ Unaccustomed Mercy: Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War, edited by W. D. Ehrhart. (Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1989)
  49. ^ Lorraine Ash, A Poet Goes to War, September 17, 2006
  50. ^ Book Publisher's Site Info on Book
  51. ^ New Yorker Article
  52. ^ Jacques, Rob (2017). War Poet. Sibling Rivalry Press. ISBN 978-1-943977-29-1.


External linksEdit