On War Poetry and Oasis

by George Sutherland Fraser

A war is one of the few periods in English history, in the Twentieth century anyway, when a large number of people who might not otherwise think of themselves as poets feel a need to write poems. The main themes of the poems of the two world wars were very different. Before 1914, there had been the Crimean War, the Mutiny, and the Boer War, but these were all wars of professional soldiers and might touch the feelings but not the experience of poets - give or take a few exceptions like Tennyson on the 'Charge of the Light Brigade' or Kipling's Boer War poems. Even Kipling's poems are not up in quality on the whole, to his poems on peacetime soldiering in India.

The two Twentieth Century world wars were the first wars in our history to use the bulk of the fit young manhood of the nation, outside reserved jobs. The pattern in each, however, was different. The 1914-18 war was a long static war of attrition in which neither side really achieved a breakthrough of a stalemate position. It was far more costly in British lives (though not in German or Russian lives) than the Second World War. The pattern of war poetry then goes from the early romantic enthusiasm of Rupert Brooke or Julian Grenfell to the compassion and sense of the pointlessness of the whole operation felt by Owen, Rosenberg, and Sassoon (with Sassoon's satire an additional personal quality). Graves bears the horrors, as Sassoon says, by almost exaggerating them; Blunden finds glimpses of the natural beauty which is his real subject even in France and I suspect, humane man though he was, what moved him most was the desecration of good forest and farmland, the war against nature, even more than the deaths of men.

The poets of the Second World War, particularly those in the Near East, faced a different situation. The war in the desert with first-rate commanders like Rommel and Montgomery on either side was mobile, exciting, horrifying in some ways but much less costly in life than trench warfare.

A feeling of grimly almost enjoying the war, like some rough game, marks for instance Keith Douglas's poems. The special feelings that Oasis poets express are often a reaction to new, strange, and picturesque surroundings (the mixture of opulence and squalor in Cairo, for instance), homesickness, loneliness (typical feelings of the civilian soldier), but not the pessimism of the First World War poems.

It is difficult, in retrospect, to feel that the First World War was necessary; longer-sighted diplomats might have avoided it. None of the combatant countries in the long run gained anything from it. The post-First World War policy of reparations led to the rise of Hitler. No serving man in the Second World War felt, as Sassoon had done about the First, that the war was pointless; Hitlerism was something which threatened the very humanity of man and had to be destroyed.

The universal theme of the poems in Oasis seems, therefore, to be less protest against war as such than feelings of a personal kind shared by many soldiers and to some degree hopes for a better world after the war. Both the sense of loneliness and the sense of comradeship are important. Most of these poets are able to express feelings that were widely shared by their comrades in a direct and natural way. Some (not, I think, the majority) went on to pursue careers, if not as poets, at least as writers of some sort after the war but for many the war had been a special stimulus, and they fell silent. One may add that the public fairly rapidly lost a wide interest in war poetry after the war, and that as far as any clear new trends in British poetry were concerned, the years between 1945 and 1953 say, were rather a blank.