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):
- Sean Bean reads Wilfred Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth”
- Gemma Arterton reads Wilfred Owen’s “Arms and the Boy”
- Sophie Okonedo reads Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”
- Sean Bean reads Wilfred Owen’s “The Last Laugh”
- A little known yet very powerful poem by TE Hulme: Trenches: St Eloi
- Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the road to war
- University of Oxford: First World War Poetry Digital Archive
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.