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David Lassman War of words

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 02, 2014

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As you will no doubt be aware, this year marks the centenary of the First World War.

One hundred years ago nations went to war in a way unknown before and the resultant four-year conflict meant the world would never be the same again.

There will probably be as many words written this year about the war as actual men who died in it but hopefully a good number of those will be about the writers affected by it. These are just a few of them.

War seems to have a polarising effect on the literary community. They can either be persecuted, as DH Lawrence was; first hounded out of Cornwall as a spy – his only 'crime' seemingly being married to a German – and then harangued around England until he finally chose voluntary exile.

Or else, at the other end of the spectrum, writers become exalted through their participation in war.

This is the case with two poets connected with the West Country. Before the First World War, Edward Thomas and Rupert Brooke had been part of the Dymock Poets, a group of writers closely linked with the Gloucestershire village of Dymock.

I know that Terence James, my writing partner and fellow columnist, has more than a passing admiration of them, so I will let him pay fuller homage to them in a future column.

As famous as this localised group is though, Thomas and Brooke would go on to become part of an even more prestigious group – that of the War Poets; writers who wrote about their experiences of warfare and who, for the most part, were soldiers in this particular conflict.

Brooke's most famous poem is probably The Soldier – the one with the corner of a foreign field being forever England. In Brooke's case, that particular corner lies on the Greek island of Sykros, as it was not an enemy bullet which took the poet's life but a mosquito bite which turned fatally poisonous.

The particular location being the place where the French hospital ship on which he died was moored at the time.

Meanwhile, already an established writer, Edward Thomas was killed during the battle of Arras, shortly after he had arrived in France. Although he survived the fighting itself, a blast wave from one of the final shells fired killed him as he stood lighting his pipe.

Despite the manner of their deaths, the names of both men are on a memorial in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner commemorating the Great War poets; along with an inscription that solemnly reads: 'My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.'

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