Muse of Fire: World War One as Seen through the Lives of the Soldier Poets

Image of Muse of Fire: World War I as Seen Through the Lives of the Soldier Poets
Release Date: 
April 23, 2024
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“Korda writes that the tragedy of the First World War can best be understood not by reading histories, but rather by reading the poems, letters, diaries, and memoirs of the men who fought in the war, . . . fabulous book.” 

The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan called World War I the “seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century, and reflecting on later events wrote that all the “lines of inquiry” lead back to that war. The noted biographer and historian Michael Korda would, no doubt, agree. His new book Muse of Fire views what an earlier generation called the “Great War” through the lives of six “soldier poets”: Rupert Brooke, Alan Seeger, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.

The First World War is the very definition of tragedy. Today’s world leaders and their top advisers should read as much as they can about the origins of the war, its four-plus years of fighting, its immediate aftermath, and its tragic consequences that are still with us. Korda’s book deftly touches on all of those subjects as he describes the interesting lives of the soldier poets who eventually informed the British public about the harsh realities of the war.

Brooke and Seeger were both enthusiastic participants in the war, but they didn’t live long enough to see all of its horrors. Brooke, a handsome and hedonistic young man, “came to symbolize the spirit in which Britain entered the Great War: optimistic, willing and even eager to sacrifice, patriotic,” Korda writes. Brooke “went to war with enthusiasm,” explains Korda, and “died before disgust set in.” He died in 1915 on a French hospital ship just as the Dardanelles campaign, championed by First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, lurched toward disaster.

Seeger, the only American among Korda’s soldier poets and a leftist who befriended John Reed (who later glorified the Bolshevik Revolution), fought for France as a member of the famed Foreign Legion. Unlike Brooke, Seeger saw a lot of combat but never lost the belief that the cause of France was worth fighting and, if necessary, dying for. He survived the slaughter of Verdun but was later killed by machine-gun fire at the Battle of the Somme.

Brooke and Seeger’s poetry championed the causes they fought for and glorified war. Korda’s other soldier poets were good soldiers who performed their duties well, but the realities of the war transformed them into critics of the political and military leaders who led Europe to the edge of the abyss and then pushed it over. These soldier poets “expressed their disgust at the waste, the senseless killing, and the savagery; they raged at the incompetence of the generals and at the inability of the politicians and diplomats to find a way out of the mess they created.”

Isaac Rosenberg, unlike the other soldier poets, joined the army because as a starving artist he needed the money. He was, Korda writes, “deeply, numbingly miserable and lonely,” and turned to writing poetry to escape the bullying and boredom of barracks life. “Isaac began to write poems about his life in the army,” Korda explains, “and almost immediately he found the voice that would lift him to the first rank of British war poets.”

Korda notes that Rosenberg’s artistic eye helped him describe war’s “cruelty and suffering” during the Battle of the Somme. Rosenberg’s poetry, Korda writes, was about “war shorn of glory” and full of “moment[s] of numbing discomfort and misery.” One of his most famous poems, “Break Day in the Trenches,” tells about soldiers “Bonds to the whims of murder/Sprawled in the bowels of the earth/The torn fields of France . . . the shrieking iron and flame . . .” There is in Rosenberg’s poems no patriotism, no glory, no heroism. Nothing but “a world of violent death, mud, rusted barbed wire, and suffering.” After surviving the Somme and a bout of influenza, Rosenberg was sent back to the Western Front in 1917, where he was killed while on a patrol in “no-man’s land.”

Robert Graves enlisted in the army soon after the outbreak of war. He joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and fought at the Battle of Loos in the fall of 1915, which Korda describes as a “three-week bloodbath [that] cost the British nearly sixty thousand casualties, including four major-generals.” The British attacked with a massive artillery display and the use of poison gas. Graves later described the British trenches there as having a “gas-blood-lyddite-latrine smell.” It was a British military disaster—60,000 casualties and no ground gained. Loos would be replicated on a grander scale at Verdun and the Somme and at Ypres.

Graves survived the war and lived to an old age. During the war he met fellow soldier poet Siegfried Sassoon, also a member of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. They became friends and shared their love of poetry with each other. Graves wrote about “the boys who were killed in battle . . . / peacefully sleeping on pallets of mud/Low down with the worm and the ant.” Graves hated the war but loved his regiment.

Sassoon, like Graves, cared deeply about the men in his regiment. Unlike some other officers in Britain’s army, Sassoon showed “constant concern about the discomfort of his men, and their miserable food and living conditions.” Korda writes that Sassoon seemed “to have understood almost at once that the war had become a giant killing machine, [and] that dying well was unlikely or impossible.” In his poems, he “wanted people to see the war as it was, in all its ugliness and random brutality.”

Sassoon’s poetry got shriller and shriller as the casualty lists grew exponentially: “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye/Who cheer when soldier lads march by/Sneak home and pray you’ll never know/The hell where youth and laughter go.” He raged in his poems at anyone who profited by the war who tried to “sentimentalize” it. He was wounded at Arras in 1917 but survived the war.

Wilfred Owen did not survive the war. He was killed crossing the Sambre-Oise Canal near the Belgian border a few days before the armistice ending the war was signed. Korda notes that on November 11, 1918, church bells range in Britain and Owen's mother received the telegram informing her that Wilfred had been killed. He had been sent to the front in January 1917, fought in northern France, where he described the battlefield as “crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.”

Owen's poems, Korda writes, offered “an inescapable tide of misery, pain, and suffering.” Owen wrote about seeing “unburiable” dead bodies that were the “most execrable sights on earth.” He later suffered from shell shock and met Siegfried Sassoon, whom he worshiped, at a convalescent hospital. Sassoon helped edit some of Owen's finest poems, including “Anthem for a Doomed Youth.” Owen once wrote that the subject of his poems was “the pity of War.”

Korda writes that the tragedy of the First World War can best be understood not by reading histories, but rather by reading the poems, letters, diaries, and memoirs of the men who fought in the war, including the soldier poets he writes about in this fabulous book. 

“[W]e still live among its ruins, groping with the problems that the war created and that the peace that followed it failed to resolve, or that it solved in ways that only guaranteed more fighting,” Korda writes about World War I. It was, he continues, “a first step into the abyss” caused by a “succession of small misjudgments and poor decisions” that led to “human catastrophe on an unimaginable scale,” that was described so vividly by the soldier poets. He fears that we may be making those same “misjudgments and poor decisions” in failing to use diplomacy to end the “waste and . . . death” in Ukraine.