5/31/2010

Greatest Poems About War



 
Poetry is meant to evoke mood and emotion, which is perhaps why - next to love - so many of the most eloquent poems are about war.  In honor of Memorial Day, I have compiled the following list of some of the most evocative poems about war, and war's aftermath.
  1. In Flanders Fields, Lt. Col. John McCrae.  If there's a poem that expresses more succinctly, or more viscerally, the simultaneous tragedy and nobility of war, I've never encountered it.  This poem is responsible for the indelible association of poppies with celebrations of remembrance, and also  responsible for some of the most moving imagery in modern poetry:  Take up our quarrel with the foe:/ To you from failing hands we throw/ The torch; be yours to hold it high./ If ye break faith with us who die/ We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.
  2. Battle Hymn of the Republic, Julia Ward Howe.  Since time immemorial soldiers have derived comfort from the conviction that they were fighting on the side of God (or gods, as the case may be).  To my mind, no poem expresses the power and glory of this conviction better that this hymn composed during the American Civil War.  While I love the imagery of I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps, and the glorious conviction of He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:, it's a particular line in the final verse of the hymn that makes me want to actually take up arms and go off to join the fight: As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,/ While God is marching on! 
  3. Destruction of Sennacherib, George Gordon Byron.  Heard this for the first time when a college history teacher of mine read it aloud, and the opening couplet - The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold; - still has the power to raise goosebumps on my arms.  What a simile! What imagery!  But the poem may be better known for the more sober lines that follow, a reminder of the ghastly cost of war: And there lay the rider distorted and pale,/  With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:/ And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,/ The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.
  4. Charge of the Light Brigade, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.  Theirs not to make reply,/  Theirs not to reason why,/  Theirs but to do and die:/  Into the valley of Death.  Rarely has any poet done a finer job of capturing in verse both the courage and horror of soldiers staltwartly marching into a battle against impossible odds, fully aware that they will not survive.
  5. The Soldier, Rupert Brooke.  Though Brooke's "war sonnets," composed in the early years of the first World War, are considered by some to be naively patriotic, that's precisely what I love about them.  Whatever your politics, surely we can all get behind the notion that warriors deserve to believe that they are risking their lives for something that is worth dying for, and no one does it better than Rupert, as the opening lines of this verse attest: If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there's some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England.
  6. Paul Revere's Ride, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  Next to most of the verses here, Longfellow's contribution must appear a bit simplistic and idealized.  But given that the events retold have themselves become simplified and idealized, you could argue that Longfellow perfectly captures the essence of the famous events leading up to the first battle of the American War for Independence.  That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,/ The fate of a nation was riding that night;/ And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,/ Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
  7. Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen.  Unlike Rupert Brooke, Owen was under no illusions about the glories of the first World War.  This poem, in which he describes the gruesome death of a soldier by poison gas (If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/ Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs), is as brutally realistic - and horrific - as Brooke's poems are sentimental.  The title, which translates (roughly) as "It is good and right to die for your country," is entirely ironic. 
  8. Gunga Din, Rudyard Kipling.  Also from the "realism school of war poetry" comes this tale of a native water boy who gives his life to save a British officer.  Though the poem is perhaps best known for it's final lines (Tho' I've belted you an' flayed you,/  By the livin' Gawd that made you,/ You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!), the poem also stands as a testiment to the courage of all the men who, despite being despised for their race, fought and died alongside the men who disdained them.
  9. The Iliad, Homer.  A story so thrilling - and themes so immortal - that two thousand years later it's still as relevant as the day Homer first set the events of the Trojan War to verse.
  10. Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln.  Not technically considered a poem, but anyone who's thrilled to the alliteration of four score and seven years ago, or felt their hearts break upon the dolorous vowels of we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground, or felt their pulse quicken at the rising momentum of of the people, by the people, for the people, intuitively comprehends that the 144 words of the Gettysburg Address are poetry at its finest and most effecting.

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