First World War Literature

A.D. Harvey reflects on why the Great War captured the literary imagination.

The 1939 war had barely completed its second year when writer Robert Graves began an article in The Listener, 'I have been asked to explain as a "war poet of the last war" why so little poetry has so far been produced by this one'. More than half a century later it seems one might equally well be asked to explain why the First World War looms so much larger in English Literature, as taught in schools and universities, than in the literatures of the other belligerents.

From the very first week, the 1914-18 war inspired enormous quantities of poetry and fiction. The claim that three million war poems were written in Germany in the first six months of hostilities is difficult to substantiate, but Catherine W. Reilly has counted 2,225 English poets of the First World War, of whom 1,808 were civilians. For example, William Watson (then an esteemed poet, today virtually forgotten) quickly decided that his war poems should be 'so much in evidence that people [would] be saying that W.W. is the real national poet in this crisis', and had sixteen different war poems printed in various newspapers in the first six weeks.

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