War Poetry

Is Yeats's "Easter, 1916" a pro-war poem? That's a bit too simple of a question, I suppose, but I wonder because I'm in the war and politics section of my classes right now and I've been wondering if there's any really good pro-war poem. Today, we covered Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier" and Lovelace's "To Lucasta, Going to the Wars," but I think they're fundamentally dishonest poems because they romanticize the ugliness of war. And the war poem examples that are most often taught in classes are the anti-war poems: "Dulce et Decorum Est," "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," "i sing of Olaf glad and big" to name a few.

The obvious reason that there are more good anti-war poems than pro-war poems is that the anti-war poems are more vivid. The imagery strikes home harder, because most people understand that war is an ugly thing at best. Even if we believe the claims of military people about things like the surgical strike capability of modern weapons, the facts of war are still horrid. We're not that far removed from the days of

"Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod.
or from
"while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments--
if indeed we're removed from them at all.

Which brings me to Yeats. How supportive of the Irish revolution is he in that poem? And how honest is he about the implications of the Irish uprising? The simple answer is that I really don't know, as I'm too far removed from the situation and don't have anything concrete to base any opinion on, but my guess is this: he's torn, especially when he asks the question "Was it needless death after all?" Was it necessary for all the people who died that day and afterward to have died? And what of his "terrible beauty"? Is there really anything beautiful about war and bloodshed? I have problems with the concept, personally. I can look at a situation and say that a war may be the only recourse in a situation, or may be justified, but I find it difficult to take that next step and call it beautiful, even qualified with the word terrible.

Because in the end, war is always a failure. It's the result of being unwilling or unable to resolve differences in any other way, which is not to say that it's always a last resort. But it is always a failure, and it's hard to write honest poetry in support of failure without at least acknowledging that there is a failure. Poets like Lovelace and Jessie Pope never acknowledge that, and so their poems ring false, propagandist instead of artful. And I think that, in part, is why war poetry since the Modern period has been almost exclusively anti-war, because there's no way for us --okay, for me--to approach a subject as horrible as war and not acknowledge that it indeed horrible.

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