10 best war poems of all time
Our round up of best poems written in response to war
It has taken a while to whittle down this list: such is the range and scope of poetry written in response to war. Covering the emotional spectrum - from nostalgic escapism to stark realism, from idealism to bitter cynicism - here are just ten of the finest examples of war poems, along with the composers who took inspiration from them.
Best war poems of all time
1.‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae
Ever wondered why exactly the poppy became a symbol of Remembrance? Well, it partly comes down to this poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, which the Canadian physician Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote after watching his friend die during the Second Battle of Ypres in May 1915.
Speaking of duty and the honour of sacrifice, it quickly caught on as a motivational tool in Great Britain, where it was reprinted across the country as part of the recruitment drive. It is still one of the most quoted poems of the First World War, and one that, as early as 1920, had already been set to music by at least 55 composers, among them Charles Ives, Arthur Foote and John Philip Sousa.
2. ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ by Wilfred Owen
Taken from the Latin for ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’, the title drips with bitter irony. Wilfred Owen wrote this poem in 1917 while recovering from shell shock at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.
What poured out was a horrifying account of his experiences from the front lines of World War One, specifically, of British soldiers attacked with chlorine gas, that continues to rank among the most vivid condemnations of war in poetry.
Published posthumously - Owen himself was killed in action just one week before the Armistice - it has been referenced in many works of art and literature, and, while there are fewer musical settings of it than one might expect, one piece that successfully captures its visceral power is ‘dulce et decorum - requiem for peace’ by the Canadian composer Larry Nickel.
3. ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke
Often contrasted with ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ because of its idealism, ‘The Soldier’ is an outpouring of patriotic sentiment, centred on the poet’s hope that ‘if I should die…there is some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England.’
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Nowadays, it is considered somewhat naive: although Brooke served in the war, he wrote this poem in 1914, before the full horrors of conflict had revealed themselves. Plus, as an officer in the Navy, he never saw active combat at the front line. Still, this poem encapsulated the patriotism of Brooke’s time, winning him many enthusiasts and followers before he died of blood poisoning on a hospital ship in 1915.
Among the artists inspired by this poem was the composer John Ireland, who set it as a song for solo voice and piano.
4. ‘For the Fallen’ by Laurence Binyon
Although this poem in its entirety may not be familiar to everyone, its middle lines (‘they shall grow not old…we will remember them,’) are some of the most famous and most frequently quoted from World War I poetry, regularly forming a part of the annual Remembrance Day celebrations.
Unlike many war poems, which were written from the trenches, this one was written by a poet back home: Laurence Binyon, who composed it in honour of the casualties from the opening action of the war. Published in The Times on 21 September 1914, just seven weeks after the start of the war, it soon came to be viewed as one of the most patriotic, stirring tributes to the noble sacrifice made by fallen soldiers.
It also caught the attention of various composers, among them Edward Elgar, who set it to music as part of The Spirit of England, his 1917 work for chorus, orchestra and soprano/tenor soloist.
We named ‘For the Fallen’ one of the best poems of all time
5. ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ by Wilfred Owen
Also written during Owen’s recuperation in hospital in 1917, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ describes the horrors of active combat, while lamenting the loss of young life in war. In particular, it disdains the ceremony surrounding war, highlighting the contrast between the glory associated with conflict, and the grim reality of it.
Acidly ironic - an anthem is customarily a song of celebration - it is one of the most bitter condemnations of war and its impact, which is why it forms a key part of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, written in 1962, as a response to wartime violence.
6. ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Inspired by the disastrous British military calamity of 1854, in which some 670 men charged against 25000 Russian soldiers, the poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade’ is a homage to the bravery of the ‘noble six hundred’ who obeyed their orders and rode into ‘the valley of death’. With its vivid language and biblical allusions, it brings home the soldiers’ grand sacrifice, as well as the comforting message of good overcoming evil. The fact that it still resonates with us today is a testament to Tennyson's poetic power.
Among the most famous musical responses to this poem is Max Steiner’s score to the 1936 film of the same name, which is considered one of the film composer’s finest achievements.
We named Steiner the best film composer ever
7. 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' by Julia Ward Howe
This patriotic hymn, 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic', written by Julia Ward Howe during the American Civil War quickly captured the imagination of the American public, thanks to its strong sense of national purpose and moral righteousness. In fact, the hymn’s refrain, ‘Glory, glory, hallelujah’ become a rallying cry for the Union Army, often sung by soldiers as they marched into battle.
Although the best known musical version of the words is by American composer William Steffe, others have tried their hand at setting it, including the Irish composer Ina Boyle, in her 1918 piece for solo soprano, mixed choir and orchestra.
We named 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' one of the best American patriotic songs of all time
8. 'Dirge for Two Veterans' by Walt Whitman
Written shortly after the end of the civil war, in 1865, this vivid poem uses two veterans, one from the Union Army and one from the Confederate Army, who are now buried side-by-side as a symbol of the struggle for post-war unity and healing.
As such it expresses a deep sense of sadness and loss, but also a hopeful vision for the future, making it a lasting symbol of reconciliation. Among the composers to have set it are the English composer Vaughan Williams and the German composer Kurt Weill.
9. 'Suicide in the Trenches' by Siegfried Sassoon
In this 1918 poem, Sassoon deals with a particularly disturbing topic: the psychological suffering of a young soldier, whose distress, depression and fear in the face of trench warfare has driven him to put a bullet through his own brain.
At a time when suicide in the army was condemned as a cowardly act, Sassoon’s poem was attacked for its unpatriotic message. That message, however, combined with an unflinching realism, is what gives it its power and longevity: it’s a heart breaking poem, and one that inspired various musicians, including the rock star Pete Doherty and the contemporary classical composer Ian Venables.
10. 'Severn Meadows' by Ivor Gurney
Not everybody is familiar with the work of Ivor Gurney, the war poet and composer, who seemed so full of promise, but who turned suicidal and delusional after the war and ended his days, aged just 47, in a lunatic asylum; it’s only in the last couple of decades that we’ve paid more attention to his long-neglected output.
But there’s so much there to discover, such as this poem, which he composed in the trenches in March 1917 and set to music himself. Nostalgically recalling Gurney’s Gloucestershire home, it’s an intensely moving poem, whose valedictory tone and elegiac musical setting somehow seem to glimpse what lies ahead for this all too short-lived, hugely-talented artist.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.