First World War Poetry Digital Archive

Comparing Literature

This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, or grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.

'This Is No Case Of Petty Right Or Wrong' ll. 1–4, Edward Thomas

The Great War, with its carnage of ruling class rhetoric, put paid to some of the more strident forms of chauvenism on which English had previously thrived...[literature] represented a search for spiritual solutions on the part of the English ruling class... [it] would be at once solace and reaffirmation, a familiar ground on which Englishmen could regroup both to explore, and to find some alternative to, the nightmare of history

Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (1983), p. 30.


The divisions in Europe created by the Great War are still felt today. Socially, the War provided an enormous upheaval in perceptions of hierarchy and duty. It fed on existing prejudices and created new ones that are still present throughout Europe today (as witnessed in the continuing struggles in the Balkans). Many of these were later replayed in the Second World War.

First World War poetry to a degree, breaks free of many of the stereotypes one would associate with war poems, yet at the same time perpetuates many myths. On the one hand the poets presented in the previous tutorials find common cause with Thomas's sentiments expressed above. It is almost impossible to find in the poetry of Sassoon or Owen anything which could be described as anti-German per se. Sassoon, for example, does not choose to direct his anger towards the enemies in the opposing trenches but instead at the High Command or the public back home. Owen, also, chastises the war-mongers and jingoists in Britain (as with 'Dulce et Decorum est') or concentrates on the pitiful nature of the conflict. Yet at the same time the study of First World War poetry is very insular, and the tutorials in this series could also be accused of suffering from this. Nearly all of the poems presented so far have been British, and even more narrowly focusing entirely on the poetry of the Western Front.

This tutorial attempts to redress the balance. Not only will it bring some other poets to the fore from non-British backgrounds, but it will also ask users to question their own inherent prejudices. To most people in English-speaking countries the German, Turkish, or Austrian soldier is an unknown quantity, vaguely referred to in some of the poems. Yet what sentiments were the poets from those countries attempting to express? Similarly, even though they were allies during the War, the poetry of the soldiers of France, Russia, or Italy are seldom read outside of their countries by the beginning student.

Stuart D. Lee


Why not 'Comparative Literature'?