The Imagery of Landscape in the Poetry of the First World War: From Rupert Brooke to Edward Thomas
At the turn of the nineteenth century, and the start of the ‘War to end all Wars’, there was a rise in an exclusive kind of poetry, born in the suffering hands of the ‘War poet’. He is often seen in a state of despair, and combines the peaceful scenes of the preceding century with a sense of extreme pain and depression. It is the descriptions of landscape that this amalgamation is most clear, where the destruction of the peaceful and stable past is evident and where a new sense of misery is observed. The First World War had Britain ask itself if the country could ever return to its prior state; the nature of politics had been impacted by the violence in Europe, and the military prosperity that had previously existed was now a mass of shattered morale. Poetry had lost much of its Romantic aspect, with many Georgian poets, such as Rupert Brooke, fighting in the trenches and becoming realists in their work.
One of Brooke’s most notable work is the poem ‘The Soldier’, which not only questions a failure of the war on the British part, but also deals with what is to become of the landscape. Brooke opens the poem with an address that; “If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England” (Penguin 2006, p. 108). There is clearly a patriotic sense in that Brooke would refuse to let any land become foreign while his remains are buried below, and gives a strong feeling that landscape was extremely important to the men fighting the war. It has been suggested that these passionate lines written by Brooke “immortalise the fallen English soldier by appropriating a corner of foreign land” (Grafe and Estanove 2015, p.32). The poet continues by stressing that “There shall be In that rich Earth a richer dust concealed” (Penguin 2006, p. 108), which again serves to prove Brooke’s patriotism but also his acceptance of the possibility of death. Perhaps, Brooke understood that should he be a victim of war, his final resting place would be among the surrounding “sea of mud as far as the eye could see. Mud and Barbwire, and deep craters” (Eldridge 2014, p. 76), since the likelihood of recovering a soldier’s body and having it buried in England was almost non-existent. The poem however does not give visual impressions of the trenches, instead it makes use of nature to juxtapose the ugliness of barbwire and such; “breathing English air,/ Washed by the rivers blest by the suns of home” (Penguin 2006, p. 108).
Providing a more intense description of his surroundings is Siegfried Sassoon, whose poem ‘The Rank Stench of those Bodies Haunts me still’ primarily deals with the corpses that spew out of the ground with every shell of artillery fire. The explosions are described as digging “pits in fields of death” while wounded men are “moaning in the woods” (Kendall 2013, p. 91). Sassoon can be seen to mirror the destruction of traditional landscape with the destruction of human life and, particularly with the ending of the poem where a soldier is described as laying dead in the mud, there is a sense that at the end of life in the trenches there is only nature to hold and mourn the death. Like Brooke, Sassoon appears aware that after death, a soldier only has the surrounding landscapes of the battlefield to acknowledge his existence; this was an exceptionally sad trait of the First World War, where men had become emotionless to the sight of a dismembered corpse.
Sassoon also uses an effective deal of imagery with landscape in this poem; “radiant water sways the floating sky/ Below dark, shivering trees” (ibid). Perhaps, Sassoon intends for the reader to observe a comparison between the miserable trees in the rain, and the soldiers below. The soldiers have become emotionally strong, like the strength and size of the tree. They stand in the harsh weather and have become almost purposeless, solid inside yet vulnerable to death. Sassoon presents the trees as “shivering”, and comparable the soldiers, have no shelter from the cold. Both the trees and the soldiers are victims of the effects of enemy gunfire; they are killed this way, often torn to shreds. Through this idea, we get the impression that the majority of soldiers of the war had lost individuality; they become less known by their names, and more by their number, like the way in which trees stand together but have no individual identity.
Another poem with a strong presence of nature is Wilfred Owen’s ‘Spring Offensive’, which unlike the majority of First World War poems, is not set against a cold, showery setting and depressive atmosphere, but on the side of a quiet hill in spring. The British soldiers are lulled into peace by the gentle breeze and sun’s warm rays, and “breathe like trees unstirred” (Penguin 2006, p. 133). The buttercups in the field are said to affix onto their boots as they walk on, and are personified by Owen as having “blessed with gold” the soldiers that are about to enter battle. The “May breeze” turns into a “cold gust” and the troops are warned to prepare their weapons; Owen here uses the change in nature as a foreboding message that peace is soon to be broken, and indeed there is a sudden change in landscape as the men race over the hill. “Instantly the whole sky burnt/ With fury against them” and nature’s “green slopes” (ibid) are replaced with German trenches and broken landscape. By the end of the conflict, the troops emerge and are reunited with the “peaceful air” of the countryside, yet they do not speak of the men they lost.
It is interesting that Owen should present two different landscapes during one event in the poem. A deeper reading into this may conclude that War is seen to disrupt the traditional, idealistic nature, and is the cause for its alteration. At the end of the poem, the survivors of the battle return to the same fresh landscape as before, and perhaps Owen is attempting to show that nature always remains the same, unless broken by human conflict. This however does not apply to the individual soldier, for the war is known to have astounding effects on the human mind and one cannot simply return to their peaceful state before such violence. Here, the difference between landscape and the soldier is clear; the soldier returns from the battle to the identical spring hillside, but mentally he is not the same. In addition, the peaceful hillside may be seen to provide security and safety for the troops; they cannot be harmed unless they travel to the hostile landscape of the trenches, where many lost their lives.
Edward Thomas’s ‘As the Team’s Head-Brass’ is much like Owen’s masterpiece, in the sense that it begins in a typically Georgian scene, yet set during the war. A soldier is sat on the boughs of an Elm and is watching a ploughman with his horses. There is a feeling of tranquillity as there is no mention of conflict; there is only mankind at peace with nature. The introduction to this poem highlights the retreat that Georgian landscape provided for many weary troops. It seems as if, for the troops, a peaceful landscape was a chance for them to become human again, as opposed to war machines that have become numb from their experiences. The ploughman asks the speaker if he knows when they will take the fallen Elm away, by which he replies “When the war’s over” (Penguin 2006. P. 200). It is probable that Thomas intended to portray the war through the symbolism of landscape; the tree may very well represent the fallen soldiers, whose bodies won’t be removed from the battlefield until after the war. It is also an example of the fast pace of the war; there is simply no time to remove a fallen Elm, just as an effort cannot be made to recover the dead. They speak of the lives lost, and the ploughman mentions his “mate” who was killed “the second day in France” (ibid). He tells the soldier that if his friend had stayed on the farm “we should have moved the tree” and the soldier replies that he “should not have sat here” (ibid). They are clearly both fatigued by the war, and are philosophical in the way they suggest that they would not have met. The soldier was attracted to sit down because of the seat the fallen tree provided, and if that Elm had not fallen, he would not be speaking to the ploughman.
An alternative reading of the landscape in war poetry may conclude that, for the trench soldiers, landscape was all that they had. It was their only security, their only source of pleasure, and for the casualties, their final resting place. The landscape of France that was untouched by the war was a taste of the countryside in Britain, and a reminder of what they were fighting for. Furthermore, it can be said that landscape and the soldier share many comparable qualities; they are affected by battle, wounded and worn, yet at peace when away from conflict. Neither of them are invincible and in many cases the war is their ultimate destruction. Ultimately, the presentation of the First World War that these poets provide is that it heavily disrupts the classic idea and interpretation of a landscape. Often it is painted in grey and photos reveal the extent of its alien form. It is a landscape that contemporaries would have been unfamiliar with, and one which is best overlooked by the men who lived upon it.
Eldridge, Jim (2014) Courageous First World War Stories. London: Scholastic UK.
Grafe, Adrian and Estanove, Laurence (2015) Poet: New Perspectives. North Carolina: McFarland & Company.
Kendall, Tim (2013) Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Meyer, Jessica (2008) British Popular Culture and the First World War. Netherlands: Brill NV.
Richardson, Mervyn (2005) Environmental Xenobiotics. London: Taylor and Francis ltd.
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