Book review: Poetry of the First World War: an anthology  

Published by Oxford World’s Classics

Review by Lesley Finlay

Meet my new best friend. I must confess that when this book dropped through my door I did think, ‘Oh no, not another one.’ Having been consumed by First World War cultural news and events, was this book one too far? The answer is categorically no; for if you need one book that showcases the so-called War Poets, this is the one you need.

Edited by Tim Kendall, Professor of English at Exeter University and President of the War Poets Association, this collection clearly wants to ‘share the love’. This is a collection by poets ‘who lived through the First World War’ and in his introduction, Kendall explores the very nature of war poetry – and the conflict among poets writing it.

There were the traditionalists – like Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy, who continued to compose work supporting the war effort – and the new wave, the Georgians, who had already changed the nature of the art form by eschewing Victorian flourish in favour of ‘intelligibility in art; they wrote with deceptive simplicity’.

Yet, as Kendall reminds us, the soldier-poets were not necessarily anti-war ‘[they] believed the War to be necessary but wanted the costs acknowledged and the truths told’. To the poets themselves: there are the familiar (Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon) and the relatively unknown female poets (May Sinclair and Charlotte Mew).

Each is given their own platform with a revealing biography highlighting their place in the war and their often heart-breaking stories. The tragic life story of Ivor Gurney, for example, adds to the poignancy of his work. This is an intelligent and accessible volume, recommended unreservedly.