Egremont’s examination of the First World War as seen through the lives and work of its most famous poets is a fascinating book (the poets include Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden, Julian Grenfell, Charles Sorley, and Robert Nichols).
Part biography, part history, the book is unique in its organization: a chapter is devoted to each year of the war, detailing the circumstances and mental states of each of the eleven writers who supply the lenses through which we see and understand the horror and the heroism of modern warfare.
For those not particularly interested in poetry, the book should still be of great interest: Egremont is concerned with the meaning and meaninglessness of the WWI, arguing its general significance (“More than twice as many British were killed in the First World War as in the Second”), as well as describing its particularities (after Charles Sorley was killed by a sniper as he led his men into battle at Loos, his manuscript of the poem “When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead” was found on his body , including the line, “It is easy to be dead”).
While Egremont’s book isn’t concerned with interpreting the poetry, poems that are mentioned in the chronological account of the war are included at the end of each chapter, and placing the poems in the context of the time and the battle experiences in which they were written allows readers to see them in a new light.
For those who are familiar with the writers of the late 19th and early 20th century, it’s fascinating to learn how small the artistic community was: Edward Thomas was an intimate of Robert Frost, Siegfried Sassoon befriended Oscar Wilde’s former lover, E.M. Forester worked in Egypt for the Red Cross, Virginia Woolf knew Rupert Brooke and reviewed his posthumous Collected Poems, and Ivor Gurney studied music under Ralph Vaughn Williams after the war.
But the book is at its best in its last chapter, “Aftermath.” Here, Egremont tells of the lives of the men who survived, as well as the ways in which certain poets became more admired after the war, while others fell out of fashion, often due to a writer’s vision of the war or the style in which he chose to communicate that vision. The book asserts that as time passed, “the poets’ war was seen as the truth,” much to the dismay of historians, and that “What the poets wrote was seductive, often spellbindingly good, so much so that it was claimed they contributed to the climate of appeasement in the 1930s: the wish to avoid war at almost any price.” As well, Egremont compares the poetry of WWI with other retellings of the war, from BBC documentaries to television comedies such as "Blackadder."
Most importantly, this book frees the poets from the superficial label of “British World War I poet” and reveals the individual writers in all of their complexities: Fabian socialist, manic depressive, handsome narcissist, pre-war advocate for pacifism, gifted musician, aristocratic fox-hunter, son of poor Jewish immigrants – these are the men who fought and died, or survived to be haunted by a war that transformed the modern world, the men who described the war with such power and poignancy that their language has shaped our view of The Great War.