By Megan Powell, Hannah Spruce, Yagmur Dur and Serena Kerrigan-Noble
Remembrance is often a key theme explored in classic literature, with the likes of Emily Brontë and Thomas Hardy writing on emotion. The purpose is to honour and remember a loved one, evoking intense feelings of loss and commemoration. The function of this type of poetry has become an imperative form when examining literature that is concerned with aspects of war. It reflects on the sheer brutality and unimaginable tragedies experienced and endured by mankind because of the two World Wars. During the wars and in the aftermath, men and women turned to writing as a coping mechanism. It became an emotional outlet to put their experiences of the wars into words. Generally portrayed through poetry, novels, memoirs, diaries or letters, classical literature of the First and Second World Wars shines a light onto the drastic wave of social, political and economic changes. It brings to the forefront the horrific realities of warfare, ultimately opening-up conversations about life and death, one’s patriotism to their country and their sense of purpose during and after the wars, as well as sacrifice, justice and love. The works discussed in this issue such as the memoirs Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain and Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen are just two of the many works that give emotional accounts of the hardships and great sacrifices made by men and women during the First and Second World Wars.
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
November is always a poignant month, when we remember the terrible sacrifices and loss of human life incurred during the First and Second World Wars. One book which distills this sense of universal grief, at the same time as it captures the often inarticulable pain of individual loss, is Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. This constitutes the first installment of Vera Brittain’s memoir, covering the period 1900–1925, where she relates her experiences as a young woman at Oxford University, her training as a nurse and the shock waves which would ripple through British society because of the First World War. Brittain’s memoir is both a deeply moving account of personal loss and disillusionment, faced with the death of loved ones, and a powerful testament to Brittain’s pacifism and enduring human spirit in the face of destruction. Amidst a dizzying barrage of statistics, Brittain pays tribute to the individual men and women whose lives were irrevocably changed by the First World War and reminds readers of the ever-urgent need to foster peace and international collaboration.
Dulce et Decorum est by Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen is one of the most prolific poets of the First World War which was cemented by the emotive poem, Dulce et Decorum Est [pro patria mori], translated as “it is sweet and fitting to die for one's' country.” The poem subverts the title by exposing the harsh and horrifying reality of war and the futility of the situation. By immersing the reader in the experience of a gas explosion, we are privy to the trauma which haunts the soldiers long after the event takes place. Owen uses impactful verbs, “guttering, choking, drowning,” to emphasize the helpless and heartbreaking consequences of war. Owen highlights the naivety of the young soldiers and is criticising the propaganda which failed to capture the true sacrifices the soldiers made when they went to war. This poem is a stark reminder of the debt owed to the soldiers who fought for their country and the lives which were lost in such senseless ways due to war. Wilfred Owen sadly died a week before the Armistice in 1918, but his posthumous poetry provided an important depiction of the brutality of war and secured his legacy as one of the great war poets.
In Flanders Fields by John McRae
When it comes to identifying remembrance poems, In Flanders Fields is placed high above all the rest, as the main themes that are eloquently written have paved the way for how we celebrate Armistice Day. Originally published in 1915, John McRae’s remembrance poem has become synonymous with remembrance of the First World War. The legacy of the poem is significant to how we remember the history and subsequently show respect and honour those who fought in the war. Upon its prolific popularity, McRae utilised the poem to raise money for the war, like the Poppy Appeal that we have today. The main motif within the poem is that of the red poppy, which has since become the symbol and logo for Remembrance Day. The form of the poem is a rondeau and is not only concerned with the tragic loss of the soldiers, but presents a stunning connection to nature and finding beauty within such a dark time.