Poetry of the First World War - A Day of Talks

Talk Heritage First World War

“This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War.” Wilfred Owen, 1918

To commemorate the Centenary of the end of the First World War, Southwark Cathedral in partnership with the Poetry Society is delighted to host this day of talks on First World War poetry.

Poetry of the First World War continues to have a powerful effect on readers and over the course of the day you will discover the poetry of the First World War which is some of Britain’s most well known and celebrated literature. It has also been the medium through which successive generations have best come to understand the human tragedy of the conflict.

These illustrated talks will take place in the elegant Cathedral Library.

David Roberts - “At the end of the First World War came "The peace to end peace" (Siegfried Sassoon) - what had been achieved? What are the lessons? -  The poetry, the politics, the facts. A talk and discussion

Britain declared war on Germany on 4th of August 2014 to save Belgium then under relentless attack by the German army. We declared war on Austria-Hungary and on Turkey shortly after this. The war was promoted as "a war to end war."

After ten million deaths and the declaration of victory the popular mood in Britain was a mixture of triumph, heartbreak and disillusionment.

Author, David Roberts, who has edited three very successful anthologies of First World War war poetry with historical background and is the editor of The War Poetry Website, explores with factual evidence and the words of poets and commentators of the time, the achievements and responses of the British people to the war's end. There was indeed peace, but what kind of peace was it? What can we learn from the experience of the First World War for the furthering of peace in the future?​

Tony Geraghty - Rendevouz with Death: Artists and Writers in the Thick of It 1914 - 1918

This book sheds new light on the colorful personalities including Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Alan Seeger, Ivor Gurney, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Ralph Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth, all major figures among England's creative artists during the First World War.

Thanks to the authors research and knowledge, the book is a very English story about the tragically short spring of English artistic creativity between 1910 and 1920; the greatest such renaissance since Shakespeare and Purcell in the 17th century. It focuses on these exceptional poets, composers and artists' experiences in the front line and what resulted from these.

Linda Parker - Woodbine Willie: A Seeker After Truths

Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy, often known as ‘Woodbine Willie’ is arguably one of the most famous army chaplains of the Great War. He is commemorated in the calendar of Common Worship  on 8th March as  ‘priest’ and ‘poet’ and a large part of  his popularity as a chaplain and his  post war fame sprung from his publication of his ‘ rough rhymes ‘ as he modestly described them. His poetry written in the trenches was written in a ballad style, often in the dialect words of the soldiers as he experienced them. The poems, such as “What’s the Good”? and “Sinner and Saint –A Sermon in a Billet “were accessible to the soldiers, and dealt with the problems and doubts and trials that   that they were all experiencing .

Studdert Kennedy had his pre war ideas and faith severely tested by the conflict, but worked out his theology and political ideology during the course of   the war. He came to believe in suffering God who shared our grief and pain and tried out these ideas in his talks to soldiers and in his poetry in such poems as “The Suffering God “and “The Sorrows of God “.

Some of his poems prefigured his political and pacifist stances after the war and others described the comradeship of the trenches and the suffering of the women and families who were left behind .

Studdert Kennedy’s poetry was an essential expression of his pastoral and theological ministry during the war and much can be discovered  about this complex, eccentric and brave chaplain by examining his poetry.

Linda Parker is an independent researcher and author.  Her main writing focus is on army chaplaincy in both world wars, and her main historical interests lie in 20th century military, social and religious history.

Dr Santanu Das - South Asian Poetry and Song of the First World War

During 1914-18, hundreds of thousands of South Asians voyaged to the heart of whiteness and beyond – from Mesopotamia to East Africa – to take part in the First World War. Of all the colonial empires, undivided India contributed around 1.7 million men. Starting with archival material from across South Asia, Europe and Australia – trench objects, shell-cases, diaries, images, and original sound-recordings of Indian POWs done in 1915 - this talk will explore a substantial body of largely unknown poetry from across undivided India - in Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali and English, among others. Dr Das will use this poetry to question the colour of war literature and raise larger questions of what it may mean for our understanding of the term 'First World War poetry'. For to engage with such poetry, we need to get beyond the world of print into a rich oral culture: many of the participants were non-literate but robustly literary, reciting, quoting, singing or trading in verse; Dr Das will also engage with folksongs sung by the women when their men went to war.

Starting with verse - elite, street-side, written, spoken or sung - by both combatants and civilians, men and women, Dr Das will focus on a few selected 'war poems' of the three most famous South Asian poets of the time - Rabindranath Tagore, Muhammed Iqbal and Kazi Nazrul Islam - who were later adopted as the national poets of the future India, Pakistan and Bangladesh respectively; at the same time.

Educated in Kolkata and Cambridge, Dr Santanu Das is currently Reader in English at King’s College London. He is the author of the award-winning monograph Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge, 2006) and Indian Troops in Europe, 1914-1918 (Paris, 2014) and the editor of Race, Empire and First World War Writing (2016) and the Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War (2014). He has written for the Guardian and The Independent and presented the series 'Soldiers of the Empire' for BBC Radio 4. His next book South Asia and the First World War: Literature, Images and Songs is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press later this year.

Dr Jean Moorcroft Wilson - Robert Graves: from Great War Poet to 'Good-bye to All That'.

The writer and poet Robert Graves suppressed virtually all the poems he had published during and just after the First World War. Until his son, William Graves, reprinted almost all the Poems About War in 1988, Graves's status as a war poet seems to have depended mainly on his prose memoir (and bestseller), Goodbye to All That. None of the previous biographies written on Graves, however excellent, attempt to deal with this paradox in any depth. The suppressed poems themselves have been largely neglected until now. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, celebrated biographer of Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas, relates Graves's fascinating life during the period from his birth up until the early 1930s: his experiences in the war, his being left for dead at the Battle of the Somme, his leap from a first-floor window after his lover Laura Riding, his move to Spain and his final 'goodbye' to Sassoon in 1933.

In this deeply-researched new book, containing startling archival material never previously revealed, Moorcroft Wilson traces not only Gravess compelling life, but also the development of his poetry during the First World War, his thinking about the conflict and his shifting attitude towards it. Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Goodbye to All That casts new light on the life, prose and poetry of Graves, without which the story of Great War Poetry is incomplete.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson has been described as the 'doyenne of war poet biographers'. Her publications include biographies of Isaac Rosenberg (on whom she lectures worldwide), Siegfried Sassoon, Edward Thomas and Virginia Woolf.

The Poetry Society 

The day will also include a screening of two commissioned animations inspired by poems from and about the First World War, followed by a reading by members of the The Poetry Society’s Young Poets Network.

The Young Poets Network members will read a selection of classic and contemporary First World War poems, illuminating today’s talks and lectures with verse.

The Poetry Society was founded in 1909 to promote “a more general recognition and appreciation of poetry”. Since then, it has grown into one of Britain’s most dynamic arts organisations, representing British poetry both nationally and internationally. Today it has more than 4000 members worldwide and publishes the leading poetry magazine, The Poetry Review.