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This article is taken from PN Review 85, Volume 18 Number 5, May - June 1992.

The Problem of War Poetry Bernard Bergonzi

WAR POETRY is easier to talk about than to define; if it has claims to be a literary genre, then it is a very loose one. This much is apparent from the Oxford Book of War Poetry, edited by Jon Stallworthy, which came out in 1984. It ranges very widely, beginning with the Book of Exodus and the death of Hector in the Iliad, and ending with Peter Porter's poem about the outbreak of nuclear war. The English poems written before the end of the 18th century have a decidedly marginal and miscellaneous aspect, as though the editor had been hard put to it to get a convincing number of them together. We have, among other things, an extract from Chaucer's Knight's Tale, Michael Drayton's 'Ballad of Agincourt', Lovelace's 'To Lucasta, Going to the Wars', Marvell's 'Horatian Ode', and a disappointingly brief extract from the war in heaven in Paradise Lost. The eighteenth century provides 'Rule, Britannia', and Johnson's powerful lines about Charles XII of Sweden from The Vanity of Human Wishes. But the next poem to Johnson's in the anthology is much closer to what we have come to think of as war poetry: providing not celebration or mere description, but the note of angry rejection:
I hate that drum's discordant sound,
Parading round, and round, and round:
To me it talks of ravaged plains,
And burning towns, and ruined swains,
And mangled limbs, and dying groans,
And widow's tears, ...

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