Poetry and Propaganda: The War Recruitment Efforts
By Kristina Wong Kwan Chuen
for Literary Movements with Prof. Lorne Roberts
Literary and other creative works, such as poetry, have often been used to express political opinions; such was the case during the First World War from 1914 to 1918. In England, from the very moment the news broke, poems on the subject started getting published. Rupert Brooke was one of the poets writing about the glorious side of war, the anticipated victories, the noble deaths, etc. Needless to say, he was a pro-war soldier-poet. Brooke’s appeal to patriotism in his writing, his use of literary devices and the historical context of his situation show that poetry was used to recruit soldiers for the army.
Rupert Brooke appeals to patriotism in his writing. This is apparent in “The Soldier.” It is about an English soldier describing how he wishes to be remembered if he dies in the war. It focuses on patriotic sentiment and how it would be an honour to die for one’s country. The soldier says that if he dies, “some corner in a foreign field” will be “for ever England” (Brooke 2-3). In the literal sense, it means that once he has died, his body will decompose into the ground. Since he is English, as soon as he becomes part of the ground, it becomes English as well. It also suggests a theme of colonization: the soldier is fighting for England to conquer and gain ownership of more land. Each soldier who dies fighting for the cause is therefore further expanding England’s territory and glory. This implies that death is a sacrifice people should be willing to make for their country, that it is worth it. The soldier is described as “a body of England’s, breathing English air, / Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home” (7-8). The author is attaching importance to his nationality. England is referred to by name five times in the poem. The repetition shows that Brooke is purposefully specifying the context: it is not about any soldier anywhere, but an English soldier from British soil. He ends the poem with the dreamy promise of “an English heaven” (14). He depicts England’s beauty, its laughter, camaraderie and gentleness (12-13), assuring that the soldier will find peace and tranquility after his death, in a place as good as the country for which he died. The poem’s use of patriotic sentiment, linked to a glorious death, is ideal to encourage more people to join the army ranks.
The literary devices Brooke uses in his poetry help add complexity and deeper meaning to his words. In “Peace,” he uses metaphors that paint war in a positive light. In the first few lines, Brooke writes: “God be thanked who has matched us with his hour, / And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!” (1-2). He is implying that it is of great fortune to be alive during times of war. Sleep being a common euphemism for death, it suggests that God is not only waking people up: he is bringing them to life, at this specific moment in time of war. Brooke uses a simile to describe soldiers going to war “as swimmers into cleanness leaping, / Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary” (4-5). That makes for an idealistic image of embracing modernity and shedding the old ways. According to Brooke, going to war is akin to taking a dive into the water and it is a “clean” plane compared to the current state of the world. The people who choose not to go to war are depicted as “sick hearts” and “half-men” (6-7). The author’s use of diction, his choice of words, serves to shame those who don’t fight in the war and imply that soldiers are better than civilians. Sickness is associated with the weak, and a sick heart suggests cruelty, cowardice or apathy. The connotations of those words make it clear that people who do not enlist are considered lesser men. It questions their humanity, their personhood. Brooke continues with a description of soldiers as people “who have known shame, [who] have found release there, / Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending” (9-10). Once again, sleep is used to signify death. He frames soldiers as people who have liberated themselves, and for whom death is the final step to being free. To mend something is to repair it, and the line suggests that death is the only thing that can fix people’s troubles. Brooke’s use of literary devices feeds readers positive images of war, and finds dignity in soldiers’ deaths, thus inspiring the youth to participate in the war.
Historical context is important to understand poetry’s role in war recruitment efforts for the first world war. A lot of the published English poetry from the early 1910s was favourable to the war. Rupert Brooke’s works, for example, are considered part of early war literature, which was “characterised by a patriotic fervour not yet eroded by the long years of trench warfare” according to a British Library article. Most of the poems that show criticism and explore war’s negative aspects only gained notoriety after 1918. In the months during or leading up to the beginning of the war, people read poems like Brooke’s every day in newspapers and magazines. Jessie Pope, a British writer at the time, wrote and published pro-war poems to encourage young men to join the army. The poetry reflected the popular opinion of the time, which was that England declaring war on Germany would lead to a good, prosperous future. However, the entirety of pro-war literature might not have been purely motivated by the poets’ beliefs. The media’s stance on the war was overtly positive, and the writers who wanted to see their work published were aware of that. In the course of an interview on World War I poetry, Tim Kendall, an expert in verse from 1914-1918, said: “many of the poets are saying what they think will get them into print and earn a fee. You could call some of it propaganda.” Despite the possible lack of sincerity behind the works, the effects are undeniable. A massive publication of pro-war material classifying as propaganda would drive hundreds of young people into enlistment.
To conclude, works of poetry were used early on in the First World War for recruitment purposes. Rupert Brooke’s poetry, his use of literary devices and patriotic appeals, as well as the study of literature from 1914-1918, all indicate that poems with positive views on the war were published and read all throughout England, encouraging citizens to join the army. Literature has more influence on people’s decisions than one might think. Before taking a superior stance and assuming that literature plays an insignificant role in life, one should stop and investigate a little more how they are affected by the things they read.
Brooke, Rupert. “Peace.” Poetry Foundation, 1915. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/13074/peace. Web.
Brooke, Rupert. “The Soldier.” Poetry Foundation, 1915. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/13076/the-soldier. Web.
Das, Santanu. “Reframing First World War poetry.” British Library, 7 February 2014, https://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/articles/reframing-first-world-war-poetry. Web.
Dowd, Vincent. “The ‘lost’ poetry of World War One.” BBC, 10 August 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-28705819. Web.