I saw the old god of war stand in a bog between chasm and rockface.
He smelled of free beer and carbolic and showed his testicles to adolescents, for he had been rejuvenated by several professors.
In a hoarse wolfish voice he declared his love for everything young.

Bertold Brecht (translation by Michael Hamburger)

The various conflicts that swept through the world from 1939 to 1945 produced an extraordinary body of poetry by several hundred poets. Like the military action itself, the literature of the Second World War is a truly international phenomenon.

The long, ominous build-up to war had been expressed in poems of fear and foreboding by, among others, Bertold Brecht, who fled from Germany in 1933. WH Auden, who had seen first-hand the struggle against fascism in Spain, and who was criticised for ‘fleeing’ to America at the outbreak of war, wrote ‘September 1, 1939’ from ‘one of the dives on Fifty-Second Street’:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies…

In the event, the unparalleled scale of the inhumanity and violence unleashed after 1939 was such that it seemed to many to be beyond poetry, or even to be an inappropriate subject for poets. Theodor Adorno, the German critic, was not alone in thinking that ‘After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry’.

Few victims of the death camps survived to describe their experience. Those who did include Paul Celan, who wrote deeply tragic poems about the Holocaust such as ‘Death Fugue’, and Hungarian Janos Pilinszky, whose poems were translated by Ted Hughes:

Already their bodies belong to silence.
And they thrust their faces towards the height
As if they strained for a scent
Of the faraway celestial troughs

Because, prepared for their coming
Like an opened cattle-yard,
Its gates flung savagely back,
Death gapes to its hinges.

In Britain the reading and writing of poetry again became a popular and popularised way of responding to the extreme emotions generated by the experience of war. Many looked back nostalgically to the flourishing of poetry in 1914 and, not finding a new Owen or Sassoon, asked ‘where are the war poets?’Robert Graves, the veteran war poet of 1914, who tried to re-enlist in 1939 and whose eldest son died in Burma, attempted to explain: ‘Poems about the horrors of the trenches were originally written to stir the ignorant and complacent people at home… But it is extremely unlike that [the poet of World war II] will feel any qualms about the justice of the British cause’.

The memory of the Great War poets seemed in fact an inhibition to the new generation of British poets, making writers such as Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis self-consciously ‘soldier poets’. Douglas, in ‘Desert Flowers, wrote:

Living in a wide landscape are the flowers –
Rosenberg I only repeat what you were saying…

Douglas wrote some of the finest poetry of the war, in any language, rising not only to the situation he found himself in, but to the challenge of responding to Owen and Rosenberg’s example. Other British poets who wrote about their experience of active service in the war include Sidney Keyes, Norman Cameron, Roy Fuller, Charles Causley and FT Prince. The nature of the war was such, however, that it affected civilians and soldiers, and women as well as men, in equal measure. No poet of the time remained untouched by its events.

Suggested Reading

  • Poetry of the Second World War, edited by Desmond Graham (Chatto and Windus, 1995)
  • The Poetry of War 1939-45, edited by Ian Hamilton (Ross, 1965)
  • Hearts Undefeated: Women’s Writing of the Second World War, edited by Jenny Hartley (Virago, 1994)
  • Anthology of Second World War French Poetry, edited by Ian Higgins (University of Glasgow, 1994)
  • Shadows of War: British Women’s Poetry of the Second World War, edited by Anne Powell (Sutton, 1999)
  • Not Without Glory: Poets of the Second World War, by Vernon Scannell (Woburn Press, 1976)
  • Poetry of World War II, edited by Harvey Shapiro (New American Library, 2003)
  • Holocaust Poetry, edited by Hilda Schiff (St Martin’s Press, 1995)
  • The Poetry of Survival: Post-War Poets of Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Daniel Weissbort (Penguin, 1991)