presentation on the poets of world war one




Modernism, in the arts, is a radical break with the past and the concurrent search for new

forms of expression. Modernism fostered a period of experimentation in the arts from the late 19th

to the mid-20th century, particularly in the years following World War I.

In an era characterized by industrialization, rapid social change, and advances

in science and the social sciences (e.g., Freudian theory), Modernists felt a growing alienation

incompatible with Victorian morality, optimism, and convention. New ideas in psychology,

philosophy, and political theory kindled a search for new modes of expression.


The Modernist impulse is fueled in various literatures by industrialization and

urbanization and by the search for an authentic response to a much-changed world. Although

prewar works by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and other writers are considered Modernist,

Modernism as a literary movement is typically associated with the period after World War I. The

enormity of the war had undermined humankind’s faith in the foundations of Western society and

culture, and postwar Modernist literature reflected a sense of disillusionment and fragmentation.

A primary theme of T.S. Eliot’s long poem The Waste Land (1922), a seminal Modernist work, is

the search for redemption and renewal in a sterile and spiritually empty landscape. With its

fragmentary images and obscure allusions, the poem is typical of Modernism in requiring the

reader to take an active role in interpreting the text.

The publication of the Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922 was a landmark event in

the development of Modernist literature. Dense, lengthy, and controversial, the novel details the

events of one day in the life of three Dubliners through a technique known as stream of

consciousness, which commonly ignores orderly sentence structure and incorporates fragments of

thought in an attempt to capture the flow of characters’ mental processes. Portions of the book

were considered obscene, and Ulysses was banned for many years in English-speaking countries.

Other European and American Modernist authors whose works rejected chronological

and narrative continuity include Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, Gertrude Stein, and William


The term Modernism is also used to refer to literary movements other than the European

and American movement of the early to mid-20th century. In Latin American

literature, Modernismo arose in the late 19th century in the works of Manuel Gutiérrez

Nájera and José Martí. The movement, which continued into the early 20th century, reached its

peak in the poetry of Rubén Darío. Over the span of these movements, artists increasingly focused

on the intrinsic qualities of their media—e.g., line, form, and colour—and moved away from

inherited notions of art. By the beginning of the 20th century, architects also had increasingly

abandoned past styles and conventions in favour of a form of architecture based on essential

functional concerns. They were helped by advances in building technologies such as the steel

frame and the curtain wall. In the period after World War I these tendencies became codified as

the International style, which utilized simple geometric shapes and unadorned facades and which

abandoned any use of historical reference; the steel-and-glass buildings of Ludwig Mies van der


Rohe and Le Corbusier embodied this style. In the mid-to-late 20th century this style manifested

itself in clean-lined, unadorned glass skyscrapers and mass housing projects.

What are the characteristics of modern poetry?

Modernist poetry is characterized by themes of disillusionment, fragmentation and

alienation from society. These characteristics are widely believed to be feelings brought on by the

Industrial Revolution and the many social, political and economic changes that accompanied it.

This multinational cultural movement began in the late 19th century and maintained its prevalence

in art throughout World War I and the immediately subsequent years. Many modernist poems have

speakers that seem to be struggling with their own definition of self and placement in society.

The rapid rise of cities in the late 19th century was brought on by the shift from a largely

agricultural economy to a largely industrial one. Massive waves of immigrants from Europe

seeking economic opportunities flocked to major cities. This left many artists and poets feeling

alone and isolated in the midst of busy, populated cities. The poetry of the period reflects feelings

of disenchantment, anxiety and hopelessness, especially in the work following the devastation of

World War I. Modernist poets are also noted for their rejection of Romantic ideas and artistic

styles, preferring to approach language with more suspicion, resulting in fragmented sentence

structure. Notable modernist poets include Wallace Stevens, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot and

Virginia Woolf.

1. Modern (better call it Modernist) poetry is more predominantly intellectual/cerebral in

its appeal, rather than emotive; Eliot and Pound would be the examples;

2. It is chiefly imagistic and involves symbolism, often private in nature; you can think of

Eliot and Yeats;

3. It is often full of allusions of sorts, and inter-textual references; again Eliot is a great


4. It is impersonal, anti-romantic, innovative in attitudes and approaches to life; opposed

to the Romanticist poetics of spontaneity and imagination;

5. It is often lexically, semantically and grammatically challenging for the uninitiated


6. It rejects traditional versification and metrics to opt for free-verses and various

experimental forms.


World War I Poetry

The First World War inspired profound poetry – words in which the atmosphere and landscape of

battle were evoked perhaps more vividly than ever before.

The poets – many of whom lost their lives – became a collective voice , illuminating not only the

war’s tragedies and their irreparable effects, but the hopes and disappointments of an entire


Although it has been more than one hundred years since the Armistice and the end of the First

World War, it continues to move and inspire poets.

War Poets

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918).

Poetry seemed a natural outlet for the intense emotions generated by the war and its range

challenges the concept that only those with direct experience of fighting, i.e. soldiers, were allowed

to write about war. The Great War was a total war and no one was left untouched by it. Suffering,

mourning, patriotism, pity, and love were universally, if not equally, experienced. Thus "war

poetry" is as all-encompassing as total war itself.

Among the great figures of the war were its documentarians—the poets who served in the war as

soldiers or witnessed its effects in their time and responded with their personal accounts. Many of

their poems remain well-known today for their unflinching reflections on the tolls of battle, like

Wilfred Owen’s "Anthem for Doomed Youth," in which he describes “Only the monstrous anger

of the guns. / Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.”

World War II

Between 1939 and 1946, over 100 million people from over 30 countries were directly involved

in the Second World War, and an estimated 70 million people died: over 4 times as many as in

World War I.

By its conclusion in 1945, World War II had become the single deadliest conflict in history. Over

25 million soldiers had lost their lives, as well as 55 million civilians, including 11 million killed

in concentration camps.

Poets of World War II

Most of the poets included in the volume served in the armed forces; some—Louis Simpson,

Anthony Hecht, Kenneth Koch—saw combat in the infantry, while others—James Dickey,

Howard Nemerov, Richard Hugo, John Ciardi—fought in the air.

Also included: poets who experienced the war as civilians, including Robinson Jeffers, Marianne

Moore, and Conrad Aiken; poems by conscientious objectors and draft resisters, including William

Stafford and Robert Lowell; and an elegy by James Tate for his father, who was killed in action

when Tate was an infant.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and dramatist (playwright). Some think he was the

greatest poet of the twentieth century. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1923. The works of


William Butler Yeats form a bridge between the romantic poetry of the nineteenth century and the

hard clear language of modern poetry.

Yeats was not only one of the greatest poets and a major figure in the Irish literary

renaissance (rebirth), but also wrote some of the greatest of all twentieth-century literature. Among

his acquaintances at this time were his father's artist and writer friends, including William Morris

(1834–1896), George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), and Oscar Wilde (1856–1900).

Major Impacts on Yeats’ Poetry

• The Relationship Between Art and Politics: Yeats believed that art and politics were

intrinsically linked and used his writing to express his attitudes toward Irish politics, as well as to

educate his readers about Irish cultural history.

• The Impact of Fate and the Divine on History: Yeats’s devotion to mysticism led to the

development of a unique spiritual and philosophical system that emphasized the role of fate and

historical determinism, or the belief that events have been preordained.

The Transition from Romanticism to Modernism

Yeats started his long literary career as a romantic poet and gradually evolved into a

modernist poet. When he began publishing poetry in the 1880s, his poems had a lyrical, romantic

style, and they focused on love, longing and loss, and Irish myths. His early writing follows the

conventions of romantic verse, utilizing familiar rhyme schemes, metric patterns, and poetic

structures. Although it is lighter than his later writings, his early poetry is still sophisticated and


Several factors contributed to his poetic evolution: his interest in mysticism and the occult

led him to explore spiritually and philosophically complex subjects. Yeats’s frustrated romantic

relationship with Maud Gonne caused the starry-eyed romantic idealism of his early work to

become more knowing and cynical. Additionally, his concern with Irish subjects evolved as he

became more closely connected to nationalist political causes.

As a result, Yeats shifted his focus from myth and folklore to contemporary politics, often

linking the two to make potent statements that reflected political agitation and turbulence in Ireland

and abroad. Finally, and most significantly, Yeats’s connection with the changing face of literary

culture in the early twentieth century led him to pick up some of the styles and conventions of the


modernist poets. The modernists experimented with verse forms, aggressively engaged with

contemporary politics, challenged poetic conventions and the literary tradition at large, and

rejected the notion that poetry should simply be lyrical and beautiful. These influences caused his

poetry to become darker, edgier, and more concise. Although he never abandoned the verse forms

that provided the sounds and rhythms of his earlier poetry, there is still a noticeable shift in style

and tone over the course of his career.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

I know that I shall meet my fate

Somewhere among the clouds above;

Those that I fight I do not hate

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,

No likely end could bring them loss

Or leave them happier than before.

Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,

Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.



The speaker, an Irish airman fighting in World War I, declares that he knows he will die

fighting among the clouds. He says that he does not hate those he fights, nor love those he guards.

His country is “Kiltartan’s Cross,” his countrymen “Kiltartan’s poor.” He says that no outcome in

the war will make their lives worse or better than before the war began. He says that he did not

decide to fight because of a law or a sense of duty, nor because of “public men” or “cheering

crowds.” Rather, “a lonely impulse of delight” drove him to “this tumult in the clouds.” He says

that he weighed his life in his mind, and found that “The years to come seemed waste of breath, /

A waste of breath the years behind.”

This short sixteen-line poem has a very simple structure: lines metered in iambic

tetrameter, and four grouped “quatrains” of alternating rhymes: ABABCDCDEFEFGHGH, or four

repetitions of the basic ABAB scheme utilizing different rhymes.


This simple poem is one of Yeats’s most explicit statements about the First World War,

and illustrates both his active political consciousness (“Those I fight I do not hate, / Those I guard

I do not love”) and his increasing propensity for a kind of hard-edged mystical rapture (the airman

was driven to the clouds by “A lonely impulse of delight”). The poem, which, like flying,

emphasizes balance, essentially enacts a kind of accounting, whereby the airman lists every factor

weighing upon his situation and his vision of death, and rejects every possible factor he believes

to be false: he does not hate or love his enemies or his allies, his country will neither be benefited

nor hurt by any outcome of the war, he does not fight for political or moral motives but because

of his “impulse of delight”; his past life seems a waste, his future life seems that it would be a

waste, and his death will balance his life. Complementing this kind of tragic arithmetic is the neatly

balanced structure of the poem, with its cycles of alternating rhymes and its clipped, stoical meter.

Irish Nationalism and Politics

Throughout his literary career, Yeats incorporated distinctly Irish themes and issues into

his work. He used his writing as a tool to comment on Irish politics and the home rule movement

and to educate and inform people about Irish history and culture. Yeats also used the backdrop of

the Irish countryside to retell stories and legends from Irish folklore. As he became increasingly

involved in nationalist politics, his poems took on a patriotic tone. Yeats addressed Irish politics


in a variety of ways: sometimes his statements are explicit political commentary, as in “An Irish

Airman Foresees His Death,” in which he addresses the hypocrisy of the British use of Irish

soldiers in World War I. Such poems as “Easter1916” and “In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and

Con Markiewicz” address individuals and events connected to Irish nationalist politics, while “The

Second Coming” and “Leda and the Swan” subtly include the idea of Irish nationalism. In these

poems, a sense of cultural crisis and conflict seeps through, even though the poems are not

explicitly about Ireland. By using images of chaos, disorder, and war, Yeats engaged in an

understated commentary on the political situations in Ireland and abroad. Yeats’s active

participation in Irish politics informed his poetry, and he used his work to further comment on the

nationalist issues of his day.

Summary: The poem is almost like a meditation. The speaker knows that he will die somewhere

in the clouds. Still, he doesn't hate his enemies, and he doesn't love his countrymen. In fact, his

real attachment is to his little local village. And nobody forced him into this business either. Some

weird impulse drove him to join the military. At least in the military, he says, his life won't be just

some waste of breath.

The Speaker: Our speaker is the star of the poem, and we learn a lot about him. For starters, he's

an Irish airman (a pilot, not a guy made of air); we know this from the title. But he's a very special

Irish airman, one with the power to foresee his own death, sort of. In a war as fierce as World War

I, being able to predict one's own death in battle wasn't exactly that hard to do. But the airman is

not too scared about it, which seems a little weird to us.

This lack of fear is because he seems to think he's made the right decision. A glorious death

in the air seems a lot better when balanced against his wasted youth and an equally wasteful future.

Along these same lines, he's a strong-minded dude. Neither the cheering crowds, nor your run-of-

the-mill recruiters were able to persuade him to sign up. Instead, some weird sense of duty and the

law were also unable to touch him. He did that on his own because of some powerful, internal

"impulse" he felt, no other reason. He's very much "his own man," so to speak.

The people he really cares about and fights for aren't the English or their allies, but the poor back

in Kiltartan, where he's from. He loves them, and only them, and he hates nobody, not even the

enemy he is supposed to be fighting against.


It's possible that he doesn't really feel like his life has been wasted breath. He could just be saying

that ironically, implying that his death up in the clouds is pointless and that his past and his future

are, in fact, much more important. Though we really do think the speaker is being serious here (he

seems to be earnest in his love of village and rejection of social pressures), we can't really be 100%

sure. And since we can't be sure, we'll go ahead and say that our speaker is, at the very least, a

mysterious man.

It might be that the poem is about the real Robert Gregory, who was kind of a mystery to

Yeats as well. But, even though Yeats knew Gregory, he didn't totally "know" him? In some ways,

this poem is an attempt to come to grips with some of the mysteries of Robert Gregory: how he

felt up in the sky, why he joined the air force, and why he chose to put his life on the line. So the

poem is kind of an extended investigation into Gregory's mind-set, aimed at giving us a portrait of

how Gregory may have felt, and just who this man was.


The speaker is an airman, and he sure talks a lot about the clouds, doesn't he? That's one

way to think of this poem's setting: the clouds. Now the speaker isn't exactly flying through the

clouds or anything like that. The way he talks about them being "above" makes us think he's still

on the ground, maybe standing next to his plane. But he directs our attention upwards, imploring

us to imagine him flying through these clouds and eventually dying.

Symbol Analysis

Air is all over this poem, in one way or another. There's the "airman" of the title, the clouds

that the speaker mentions twice, and all that stuff towards the end about breath. The speaker is

worried that his breath will just be wasted, so he takes to the clouds, searching for a life that is not

a waste. It's as though the clouds offer breath, or air, that is not wasted.

• Title: The poem is about an airman, a guy who spends his time up in the

clouds flying a plane.

• Lines 1- 2: The speaker knows he will die "somewhere among the clouds

above." The phrase "meet my fate" is an example of periphrasis, a roundabout way of


saying something. Here the speaker says he will meet his fate rather than he will die. While

these clouds are just clouds, they are also a battlefield, the place where the airman will die.

• Line 12: The clouds-as-battlefield idea is expressed again. Here, they are

described as a scene of "tumult," which seems like a bit of an understatement to us. We can

definitely assure you that planes shooting at each other and dudes dying is a little more

than just a tumult.

• Line 14: The speaker says the future ("years to come") seemed like a "waste

of breath." This is a metaphor for the fact that the future seems totally pointless.

• Line 15: The speaker uses the same metaphor to describe the past as wasted

breath. We also have a neat figure here called chiasmus(named for the Greek letter Chi).

A chiasmus is a group of phrases that take the form of X-Y-Y-X. So, here we have years

to come-wasted breath and wasted breath-years behind.

Form and Meter: While Yeats sometimes likes to play games with meter, in "An Irish Airman

Foresees His Death" he's pretty straightforward: iambic tetrameter all the way. You see, iambic

tetrameter is just like iambic pentameter, except there are four (the prefix tetra- means four) iambs,

instead of five. They're two-syllable pairs that contain an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed

syllable. Each iamb makes the sound da-DUM, as in the word "allow." Since we have four of those

in these lines, each line should sound like da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. But don't take

our word for it. Check out an example:

Nor law nor duty bade me fight. (9)

I know that I shall meet my fate.

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is a short dramatic monologue, originally one of

four poems written by William Butler Yeats to commemorate the death of Major Robert Gregory,

son of Lady Augusta Gregory (Yeats’s onetime patron and later his colleague). Gregory, never a

close personal friend of Yeats, was a multitalented Renaissance man, titled Irish gentry, athlete,

aviator, scholar, and artist who, even though over the age for compulsory military service, enlisted

in World War I. He did so because it was a magnificent avenue for adventure.

The poem is equally divided into two eight-line sentences with four iambic tetrameter

quatrains. Yeats writes in the first person, donning the persona of the airman as he prepares to go

into battle in the sky. In the first quatrain, Yeats shows the airman’s ambiguous feelings about


fighting in the war; he has no strong emotions concerning either those he is fighting against or

those he is fighting to protect. Even with these mixed sentiments, however, he is sure that he will

die in this adventure. Not only is death from enemy contact possible but also, with aviation in its

infancy, the chances for mechanical error multiply the dangers he faces.

The second quatrain continues this ambiguity as the airman realizes the fruitlessness of his

participation in the war. He knows that no matter what the outcome of his personal battles, they

will not affect the overall war effort—nor will the outcome of...



It is clear that the pilot, serving in Britain’s Royal Air Force, does not feel patriotism in the

traditional sense of the word: he neither loves the ones he protects nor hates those he fights. He

does feel a sense of identity, but it is with the people of Ireland, specifically those of Kiltartan. The

reason this does not seem to make sense to the reader is that the political situation he lives under

has split the word patriotism into two meanings. Usually, we think of a patriot as fighting for his

or her own country. In this case, though, because Ireland is under British control, the country that

the airman is fighting for is one country, while his country is a completely different one to him.

One imagines that much in colonial life must have created this sort of dilemma, with citizens owing

their loyalty to both the government over their heads and also a distant government across the sea.

Yeats has dramatized this situation to its fullest by putting the airman in a life-or-death situation.

The poem also makes the situation as pathetic as it could be by having the airman lay down his

life for the country in which he does not believe. It is arguable whether this approach would be as

effective in stirring Irish patriotism as well as a straightforward, pro-Irish poem would, but Yeats

was writing about an actual occurrence, and this issue of dual loyalty (or loyalty versus affection)

certainly is worth being examined.


The power of this poem lies in its first line: the speaker is not trying to beat his fate, nor is

he trying to make things work out to his advantage. He is so certain that he will die that he uses

the term “meet my fate” to mean the same thing as “die,” accepting the fact that he has no other

possible fate except dying. The reader is meant to see this sort of fatalism as depressing; it should

shock us and give us a sense of waste to find out that a young, healthy man feels that he has nothing

left to live for or look forward to. For the poem’s speaker, though, knowing his fate is actually a

blessing. Freed of his responsibility to make the world better in the future or preserve the life he

has known; he is able to act spontaneously—to follow “a lonely impulse of delight” by flying off

into the clouds.

Yeats is bending the rules of reality by making the speaker so absolutely certain of his fate:

the ability to predict the future is always flawed by the fact that something unexpected could come

up. On the other hand, the poet does support the speaker’s certainty by telling us that he has thought

this through completely, “brought all to mind.” We are not told exactly why his past and future are

so pointless, but we are given a pretty good guess in


Robert Frost (1834-1963)

Robert Frost was born in 1874 in San Francisco, California, not the New England with

which he was later so closely associated. His father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a native of

Lawrence, Massachusetts, and a graduate of Harvard College. However, he was something of an

adventurer and wandered to the West Coast in search of a livelier environment and a career in

journalism or law. Frost spent most of his early days in San Francisco and returned for good to

New England and Lawrence only when his father died in 1886. After living on a farm with limited

success, Frost took the family to England in 1912 and settled in the rural village of Beaconsfield,

where he hoped to devote his time to …