War Poetry: Challenging the Nationalist Narrative

From its declaration of war in 1914, Britain’s ruling class appealed to patriotism to boost its support and its military recruitment. By 1916 both were flagging. On the pages of socialist newspaper The Herald, poets used verse to question both nationalism and the war’s aims. When the government asked men to fight for King and Country, was it shielding its true motives?

Harcourt Williams prefaced his poem “England Fights” (published in The Herald on 16 December 1916) with a quote from Shakespeare’s Richard III: “To reap the harvest of Perpetual Peace By this one bloody trial of sharp war!”

Williams, a conscientious objector, portrays the First World War as the latest in a long line of English imperial crusades, in particular drawing comparisons with Sir Francis Drake’s sixteenth-century battles with Spain. He concludes by suggesting that, like the privateer Drake and his royal sponsor Elizabeth I, England’s contemporary war motive may have been to protect its riches rather than the more noble purpose it claimed. Williams was much better known as an actor than as a poet, and went on to become director of The Old Vic theatre company.

ENGLAND FIGHTS by Harcourt Williams

England fights; England fights!
As oft she did of yore –
In the cause of freedom –
To make an end of war.
Down from the musty racks
The muskets come again;
They grind the rusty steel
From battlefields of Spain.
The ghostly galleons rise –
(Drake’s drumming on the flood!)
They swab the shrouding seaweed
From decks amuck with blood.
And now the mangled men
Assemble from their sleep;
Whose wounds shall never heal
Till we Christ’s Peace can keep.
England fights! England fights!
Once more the story’s told.
But is it for humanity,
Or safety of her gold?

The poem Nations by G Egremont is written in a formal style called the Petrarchan sonnet. Its fourteen lines of iambic pentameter (each line containing five “beats” of an unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) consist of an octet (eight lines, rhymed abbaabba) setting out the problem that nations have divided people against each other, and a sestet (six lines, rhymed cdcdcd) offering the solution whereby global brotherhood destroys national division. The poet writes with the vocabulary of the time, in which men stand in for humanity as a whole, and with religious imagery that was common among poets and peace campaigners, and popular with The Herald’s editor, Christian socialist George Lansbury. The Herald published this poem on 30 March 2016. I have not been able to find out any information about the poet.

Nations by G Egremont

Let us be men, my brothers; men are more
Than nations;
Brotherhood’s once-loosened tide
Shall sweep away all barriers that divide
Mankind; “they may be one” —
can we not soar To this?
Through stygian darkness of the hoar
Past centuries, touch of each was lost; in wide
Emergence into dawn, shake hands! beside
The pale no longer cur-like snarl; the door
Of Love lies open; enter; rase for aye
The savage’s blood-pricked confines; patriots then
Of one vast realm where brother lights the way
For brother, with no crown on earth again
But His the Omnipotent King of Glory, say,
Shall this be so? not nations; no! but Men.

While, by Helen Cash, questions the call for loyalty to England when its people are experiencing such suffering and deprivation. Although not a sonnet, it is written in iambic pentameter style which gives it an epic tone, emphasising the scale and seriousness of the subject matter. The Herald published this poem on 4 November 1916. “Cash” was the pen name (perhaps the maiden name?) of Helen Stocker, who published two books of poetry — The Dreamer and other poems (c.1918), which includes While, and Machines and Men and other new poems (1923). There is little other information available about her, other than that she was married to Richard Dimsdale Stocker, who wrote extensively on telepathy and other ‘occult’ subjects.

While by Helen Cash

While there are weary feet and toilworn hands,
And lips too tired for laughter, eyes too sad
To weep, and hearts made wolfish by despair,
And misery that drives men almost mad;
While there are feet that creep before the dawn,
With brains enfeebled, bodies weak and starved,
And souls depraved by vile, incestuous loves,
Young faces marred by lines that crime has carved;
While there is bestial bargaining for love,
And loathsome gutters where wan children play,
And rooms in which men breed like human lice,
And men who say the world was made that way;
While there are sunshine, woods, and flowring fields,
Seashore, and brown wet rock, and golden sand,
While there is one wan child-face lacking these,
England, I scorn Thee, Thee my native land.

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