British Actors Read Poignant Poetry from World War I

The First World War (1914–1918) changed Britain to a degree that was unthink­able in 1914. Pre-war cer­tain­ties and val­ues such as hon­or, father­land and progress dis­in­te­grat­ed on the bat­tle­fields and trench­es in France and Bel­gium. New tech­nol­o­gy such as tanks, machine guns, grenades, flame throw­ers and poi­son gas were used to destroy the ene­my; con­stant fire for days on end was intend­ed to break the sol­diers in the trench­es. Unspeak­able hor­rors led to psy­cho­log­i­cal prob­lems of unknown pro­por­tions.

Cop­ing with these hor­rors dur­ing and after The Great War (as it’s still called in Britain today) seemed like a Her­culean task to poets — how do you put the unspeak­able into words? Some poets, e.g. Rupert Brooke, still cel­e­brat­ed the hero­ism of the Eng­lish sol­diers (e.g., 1914 II. Safe­ty), where­as oth­ers, such as Wil­fred Owen, tried to describe the hor­rors of this war (e.g., Dulce et Deco­rum Est).

Every year on the Sun­day clos­est to Novem­ber 11, Britain remem­bers the dead of the First World War. For Remem­brance Day 2012, famous British actors were asked to recite First World War poet­ry. The fin­ished clips were to be shown on TV that day. The video above shows three actors recit­ing four poems by Rupert Brooke and Wil­fred Owen (click the names of the actors for infor­ma­tion about them and the titles of the poems for the full text):

  1. Sean Bean reads Wil­fred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth
  2. Gem­ma Arter­ton reads Wil­fred Owen’s “Arms and the Boy
  3. Sophie Okone­do reads Rupert Brooke’s “The Sol­dier
  4. Sean Bean reads Wil­fred Owen’s “The Last Laugh

Bonus mate­r­i­al:

By pro­fes­sion, Matthias Rasch­er teach­es Eng­lish and His­to­ry at a High School in north­ern Bavaria, Ger­many. In his free time he scours the web for good links and posts the best finds on Twit­ter.

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Comments (4)
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  • It’s “four poems” and not “fours poem”, of course (blush­ing…).

  • Luke says:

    I’m in the mid­dle of plan­ning a World War I unit for a human­i­ties class (lit­er­a­ture + social stud­ies). I get a bit bored and decid­ed to click through Google Read­er to clear my head. And this was there. Pure serendip­i­ty. Thank you.

  • Will Henderson says:

    Hey guys, I just want­ed to let you know that you made a typo on para­graph 3 sen­tence 2 word three. the it’s their, not there. Thanks for your time!

  • Open Culture says:

    Thank you for tak­ing the time to tell us about your expe­ri­ence Luke! Much appre­ci­at­ed!

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