What Owen, Rosenberg, Sassoon and Thomas have most in common is being ‘chained to a historical event, and an abnormal one at that’. Chained both by their times, and by their reception. The seeming inevitability of their association, and of their relationship to literary Modernism, has much to do with how the Great War has been memorialised in English culture, and in particular with the role literature has acquired as a vehicle for the relaying of historical experience. Poetry’s part in the popular and educational reproduction of what Ted Hughes called ‘our number one national ghost’ is exceptional, and has some striking consequences. One is the distortion of the historical record by unrepresentative voices, another, the identification of war poetry as the acme of modern poetry. Rosenberg, Sassoon and Owen have all been ‘novelised’ in recent years, the most apt homage a culture increasingly hostile to the discourses of printed verse can afford.
Reading these wartime writers as poets can put us at odds with assumptions put into circulation by the category of war poet, with all its political and ideological freight. In fact, to read more critically depends on reading more historically, with a less sentimental investment in the production of national history, to which Great War poetry has been conscripted. Of all the contexts we require in this respect, the most important – concerning evolving attitudes to war in prospect, actuality and memory – is the most elusive. Such attitudes are refracted by our own orientations to war as pageant or scourge, crusade or shambles.