World War I's shocking death toll is reflected in the high mortality rate of its poets.
So many poets linked to the war didn't survive: Wifred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke, Guilluame Apollinaire, John McCrae, Charles Sorley, Joyce Kilmer. The poems that brought them posthumous fame were often found in their mess kits, uniform jackets or inside the books they had carried with them to the front.
Two famous English poets who did survive: Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves, enjoyed long lives, witnessing another world war, the deprivations of the 1950s and the freedoms of the swinging '60s.
Graves's "I Claudius" was one of the first BBC/PBS popular hits. His academically dubious study of myth and poetry, "The White Goddess," was a bible for 1960s new age mystics. Graves drew upon his war experiences for one of the best memoirs of life in the trenches, "Goodbye to All That." The book is one of the most striking accounts of soldiers' difficulties in returning to civilian life.
On Sunday, the 100th anniversary of the end of the war, Emory's Michael Carlos Museum sponsored a special program on the World War I poets and how they were influenced by classical literature. The three Emory professors who read poems and gave commentary were fine, but I would have preferred a pure reading of the poems and letting them speak for themselves.
I was not convinced that Homer's "The Illiad" and "The Odyssey" were the major influences on Owen, Brooke and the others. The men killed in World War I were products of one of the last generations steeped in Latin and Greek, and I wondered if they read the classic works in their original languages rather than in translation. I believe that their most recent translation of Homer would have been Alexander Pope's from the 18th century.
But the lecturers ignored the influence of the English pastoral tradition, although it was mentioned that one posthumous poem was found in a copy of Houseman's "The Shropshire Lad," an English pastoral hallmark. But Houseman was also a classical scholar, so his book found on the poet also showed the importance of Greek and Latin authors.
But the English poetic tradition was the World War I poets' main lodestar. The upper class, Oxford-educated poets intimately knew the work of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Sidney, Milton, Pope, Blake, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Arnold, Tennyson, Hopkins, Kipling and Hardy.
Poets like Brooke and Sorley who died early in the war remained faithful to the traditional English iambic pentameter line and expressed the noble sentiments of English history and culture.
Owen, who died five days before the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, strained against the metrical tradition and refined upper-class style, presaging modernism with his sardonic irony and use of the vernacular. His work rejects the traditions of valor and English certitude.
The armistice was signed in a rail car in France's Compiègne Forest at 5:45 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. But the killing continued for another six hours, until the armistice took effect under the agreement at 11 a.m. Paris time, noon in Berlin.
In many ways, the war never ended. The great war's poems will last until war stops forever.