War, Poetry and the Human Spirit - Stallworthy - 1

Born in 1935, Jon Stallworth was educated at Rugby, in the Royal West African Frontier Force, and at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize of Poetry.  A Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Literature, he is a Professor of English Literature at Oxford.  He has published seven books of poetry. His biography of Wilfred Owen won the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize, the W. H. Smith Literary Award, and the E. M. Forster Award of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

War, Poetry and the Human Spirit

In making Voices in Wartime, extensive interviews were conducted with all featured “voices” that appear in the film. Jon Stallworthy helped to provide the insight and structure upon which the film was built. His experience as a poet, writer and historian of war poetry offers a unique perspective on the poetry in Voices in Wartime, and provides an insight into the history and lives of a number of the poets whose works were presented.

What follows is an extensive excerpt from the interview Voices in Wartime director Rick King did with Stallworthy. Questions asked of him, and his responses are woven throughout the text with questions posed for the reader for reflection and discussion, as well as with activities intended for classroom use. “War, Poetry and the Human Spirit” is offered here as an entry point into studying poetry that comes as a result of war.


Tell us a little bit about the relationship between poetry and war.

One of the essences of poetry is emotion. Many of the best poems, or I might even say most of the best poems, arise as a result of powerful emotion, words that speak in emotional recollection and tranquility.  Sometimes it’s not recollection and tranquility, but certainly there’s emotion.

Few things arouse stronger emotions than love and war, and while one might expect that in time of war the emotion would be hate, that is not always the case.  People–soldiers–express affection for the people they left behind: their wives, their children, their comrades, and their country.

So the power in many of the best war poems derives from the driving power of the emotion behind it.

How long have war and poetry been linked?

As near the beginning as one can ascertain war and poetry have been linked. There’s a lot of war and indeed war poetry in the Old Testament, Greek literature, Latin literature, and early Chinese literature.  Just as the “Song of Solomon” contains poems about love, so in Exodus and other Old Testament books you get accounts of violent conflict. 

In many of them, interestingly—the early accounts of war in Jewish, Chinese, Greek, and Latin history and literature—in almost all of them there are horses and chariots, and the warriors who use these horses and chariots are from a warrior caste. They are of aristocratic blood, and in those days what a man did was fight, and the reason for fighting was to acquire money, possessions, and also reputation, honor. So you fought for glory and for honor, and that is the motive, I think, behind the actions of the heroes in The Iliad, The Aeneid, and Beowulf.

It even goes right through to the First World War. I think you could say that Julian Grenfell is very much one of their descendants, and what is important to him is the honor and glory of being a successful soldier in a successful action. 

Questions for Reflection: “Into Battle” and the Expectation of Duty

You mentioned The Iliad. Is this the greatest war poem of all time?

I am no ancient historian but to the best of my understanding The Iliad is the earliest comprehensive account of battle, and it contains most of the emotions, most of the subjects that you find in poetry afterwards. You have the negotiations, the talking that goes on. You have the strategy. You have the violent hand-to-hand combat which is described with a terrible force.

The account of spears going through a brain and what then happens, how the brain spatters the shield of the man who has thrown the spear and so on, is very graphic. People sometimes speak as if Homer was just all violence. That’s not right at all.
At the end of The Iliad you have the very moving episode where Hector is finally killed by Achilles, who ties his legs together, drags him behind his chariot ‘round and ‘round Troy. On the walls of Troy is his wife and younger son, and the grief of the widow and the grief of the old father are very poignantly captured.  Homer, whoever Homer was, was interested not only in the violence but also in the different emotions.  Emotions of jealously, of pride, of hunger for glory, and also the terrible grief that follows from the activities of the battlefield.

Did Homer ever question the concept of war?

To the best of my knowledge, I would say not. I would think that Homer didn’t approve or disapprove. War was just a fact of life in the world in which he lived, and indeed in many societies war has been a fact of life and not something that you question any more than you would question the weather. It’s going to rain. There’s going to be a war. Nothing you can do about it. Just better get on and endure it.

Investigating Homer and The Iliad

With the advent of World War One, is there more of a sense of identity between the soldiers on both sides?

Yes, mind you there had been something of that before. When warriors from two countries fight each other as in the Battle of Malden they fight under the same code. And in the Battle of Malden the Anglo-Saxon soldiers say to the Vikings, “Do come across the ford, let us fight here like gentlemen,” and they give them this extraordinary advantage.

If they had kept the Vikings over the water they could have thrown spears at them and probably won the battle, but instead they said, “No, come across, come across.” So they let them come across unchallenged and then they fight them on the ground and lose. So there was a certain sort of fellow feeling there, although the Vikings would have killed them.


Investigating The Battle of Malden

  1. “The Battle of Malden” is an epic poem that recounts a Danish incursion into Essex, England.  The Ealdorman (Chief Magistrate) of Essex permits the Danes to cross the causeway linking Northey Island with the mainland.  The Ealdorman is thought to be proud and confident.  Read the 325 line poem and summarize it in your own words.
  2. On whose behalf do you believe the soldiers to be fighting? 
  3. How does the poem deal with soldiers who desert in a time of impending defeat?
  4. How would you define the spirit of the warriors, both the invading Danes and the followers of the Earldorman of Essex?  What rules of valor do you think they both follow?  How is this spirit similar to or different from what you perceive as the spirit of current day warriors?
  5. The poem, “The Battle of Malden” ends with a rallying speech delivered by an old warrior, Byrhtwold.  He proclaims: “Mind must be firmer, heart the more fierce, courage the greater, as our strength diminishes.” How would you interrupt Byrhtwold’s words?  What do you foresee as the outcome of the battle?


In the First World War you get it most movingly exemplified in the famous Christmas truce where the soldiers—not the generals—said to themselves, “Enough is enough.” They sang hymns, and they came out of their trenches, and they met, and they smoked cigarettes and talked together. This was much disapproved of by the general staff.

Wilfred Owen, in his favorite “Strange Meeting” has the very piercing line, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” Enemy and friend in the same line. And David Jones who many years later was to write a truly wonderful book (still too little known) called In Parenthesis, about his experience as a private foot soldier in the Great War, dedicates his poem, in a wonderful long dedication, to a whole list of Welshmen whose names I can’t recall, and then to “the bearded infantry with whom weexchanged loaves at a trench’s intersection.” 

Questions for Reflection: In Parenthesis and the Writing of David Jones

I think these are the French poilus: “and to the enemy front fighters against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.” He dedicates his account of his experience ranging from a parade ground in England to a killing ground in France. All his comrades are killed on the first of July 1916, and he dedicates his account to the enemy front fighters, “against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.” And so there is this strong sense of comradeship which very strikingly contrasts with the clear feelings of hostility that many of the poets have.

* Poilu is an informal term for a French infantryman, literally meaning, hairy one. The term came into popular usage in France during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte and referred to citizen armies.  It was still widely used as a term of endearment for the French infantry of World War I.

The strong sense of companionship discernible in the poems, the letters, the diaries of all the First World War soldiers is greatly at variance with the strong negative feelings that many of them have for the politicians, for the generals, and much more for the profiteers. And in the poems of Owen and Sassoon particularly, this gets simplified as a conflict between the young and the old: the young men who are being needlessly sacrificed, as they see it, by the old men.

Sassoon writes a poem about a bishop, in which the bishop offers a whole series of platitudes about the young men who would come back mutilated from the war. That became, I think, very important in the generation of poets who followed Owen and Sassoon. These were the poets Auden and Spender, who went off to the Spanish Civil War and wrote poems from the Spanish Civil War, many of which show the clear influence of Wilfred Owen. 

Investigating W.H. Auden and the Spanish Civil War

I think Owen is seen as the quintessential war poet. Quite a few people can point to roughnesses, irregularities, and clumsiness in some of the poems. I think, for example, there are lines in “Dulce et Decorum Est” which had Owen lived a little bit longer he might have improved, but the raw power of the poem is more important than any slight flaws like that.

And for my money, he is the strongest, most audible voice of the poets of the Great War. Not because he speaks the loudest. Sassoon’s poems are often more overtly protesting. But Sassoon’s poems seem to me, very fine though many of them are, rather like two-dimensional poster poems. They deliver a tremendous sort of shock, but once you’ve read them and know how they’re going to end, it doesn’t make so much of an impact.

Some of Owen’s early poems, written under the influence of Sassoon—and Sassoon was the most constructive, creative, and helpful influence in Owen’s short life—go beyond Sassoon in that they are not poster poems. They are not two-dimensional; they are three- or four-dimensional poems with tremendous depth and resonance to them.

They’re not so easily explicable, perhaps, as Sassoon’s. There are always new depths opening up in front of you so that the poems are very rich and strange, to my mind richer and stranger than Sassoon’s. And I don’t think there’s another poet of the Great War to equal him.

Questions for Reflection: “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen


Questions for Reflection: “Dead Man’s Dump” by Isaac Rosenberg

But then on April 1st, 1918, he is killed. About half the poets we think of as the great poets of the Great War, never came home.  Edward Thomas would be another one, though he was older than the other poets and had a different slant in that he alone, I think, of the major poets was married and had children.  So most of his war poems were written before he got to France.  His poems are very conscious of the impact of the war on the country he’s leaving behind and on the people he’s leaving behind.