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Imaginative Geography In The Poetry Of War Of Rupert Brooke And Siegfried Sassoon

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“If I should die, think only this of me: that there is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England… hearts at peace, under and English heaven”. This is a line from a sonnet by Rupert Brooke which highlights the use of imaginative geographies that were during World War 1. This line evokes a powerful sense of heroinism within us, as he makes us feel as though dying for our country is the most noble way to die. He almost makes dying in the war seem dreamy and romantic.

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World War 1 was the first of its kind to witness the use of imaginative geographies, through propaganda and media, to target the public and to utilize these imaginative geographies to gain support in the war. These imaginative geographies include the propaganda used in the war efforts such as film, posters, poetry and memorialization which were used to memorialize the dead. Censorship was also a major part of the war efforts. The use of these imaginative geographies was socially constructed to portray an idealistic image of the war to the public. They played an essential role in the war and the war efforts. It was seen on both sides of war, with both sides attempting to discredit each other’s motives. Wellington House was the primary place for the British Propaganda Organization. They kept the location of the propaganda organization top secret, even the British parliament didn’t know where it was located.

There were also two other organizations established to cope with propaganda during the war. These were the New Department of the Foreign Office and the Neutral Press Committee. The Neutral Press Committee provided the neutral countries, such as Switzerland and Denmark, with news regarding the war. The other organization was the Foreign Office News department which was essentially the main area for the foreign press. This department contained all the statements regarding Britain Foreign policy. This department also participated in various trips to the Western Front. Wellington House was the hub of the British propaganda. Copies of posters and publications were distributed for comment and if the publications were classified as allowable then they were issued in large quantities to the public.

Another imaginative geography which was necessary in supporting World War 1 and constructing positive images about the war was poetry. There were poets who conveyed the horrors of war, such as Siegfried Sassoon and those who expressed patriotism in their poems, such as Rupert Brooke. Brooke was considered a national hero during World War 1. He was referred to as “the handsomest young man in England” by Yeats. His poetry expresses the romantic and patriotic scenes of war and how it was an honour to die for country. He evoked positive and idealistic emotions in a country which was in the middle of a devastating world war. In his sonnets “Nineteen Fourteen”, he indicates the excitement and the idealism that was felt in the country when Britain first entered the war. In the first sonnet, which was called “Peace”, Brooke celebrates the sentiment that the war offered relief and happiness to a country which was empty in meaning.

The quote that I began this essay with is from his sonnet “The Soldier” where he envisions his own death on the battlefield. However, he is not afraid or saddened at the thought of facing death, but rather he believes that it is his chance to be a hero and to make a noble sacrifice for his country, as if it is was his sole purpose, what he was meant to do. He depicts the war in a romantic fashion, almost constructing death to sound angelic and peaceful when in fact dying in war was anything but peaceful. Most soldiers died in pain or lost a limb in the war, but these devastating realities were hidden from Brooke’s poetry. Brooke describes death in a positive and pristine light. This contributed to several young men enlisting in the war to fulfil these idealistic expectations and to gain heroism. Brooke’s death in 1915 left the country in a wave of sadness and grief as their war hero had died. Eder proclaims that “All England mourned the poet-soldiers death”.

Rupert Brooke represented the ideal heroic British man and highlighted that there was hope for the public, that war was going to bring heroinism and a peaceful death. Critiques have criticised Brooke’s poetry for his lack of realism about the war. In contrast to Brooke’s poetry, poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon described the devastation and the terrors of war in their poems. Lehmann claims Brooke’s poetry to be “sentimental and unrealistic”.

Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry severely contrasted to Brooke’s. Sassoon described the horror and cruelty that was seen by the soldiers in the trenches and he criticised the generals, politicians and churchmen for their foolishness and blindness when it came to the war. Sassoon served in the war and was directly faced by the tragedy experienced in war. He has been criticised for his lack of patriotism towards his country and they believed that the experiences he illustrated were too extreme. Margaret B wrote about his “harshly realistic laments or satires”.

Even though his poetry conveyed a realistic truth with regards to the war the public did not want to believe that these were the horrors that their loved ones were facing in the trenches, instead they chose to believe in imperialism and the notion of “duty, honour and sacrifice”. Sassoon believed that the war was lasting too long and that pointless lives were being lost for a fight over power. “I believed this war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”. This illustrates the intense power that imaginative geographies had on World War 1. It allowed people to believe what was necessary to believe and to hide the horrific details that might contribute to them losing the war. They needed men to enlist and the public to help fund the war efforts and by spreading idealistic poetry it helped created positive and peaceful imagery of the war. Commercial advertising was employed by both sides of the war and was an efficient method for campaigning for the recruitment of soldiers and for raising money to aid the funding of the war. Techniques were used to appeal to young men and women. Posters used headlines such as “Women of Britain say Go!” which conveyed women and children as needing protection and security which made it more appealing towards young men who wished to join the war for romantic purposes.

During World War 1, the effect that these posters had a major impact as a method of communication at that stage more than at any other time in history. The posters were capable of motivating, notifying and persuading the public and coupled with its dazzling and energetic design, it was a useful method of employing imaginative geographies. Both sides issued an immense amount of war posters widely across the country to attempt to gain support, to pressure the public to act and to encourage them to remain hopeful during the war period. The United States of America produced the most posters during World War 1 even though they were a late entry into the war. The main issues that the posters dealt with were recruitment, raising finance and informing the public with regards to problems at the front line. In some countries, conscription was the law, so recruitment posters were not needed and in that case the war posters centred around obtaining finance to fund the war. The public could help by purchasing bonds or purchasing war loans.

Women were also targeted in these posters although it wasn’t for recruitment purposes. They were requested to help the war through relief organisations like the YWCA or the Red Cross. Posters had a major contribution to the war and they had the ability to reach a range of people across the country which helped with recruitment and finance issues. It also allowed the public to stay informed when it came to the war and the issues that were occurring at the front line. Another form of propaganda that was used in World War 1 to spread imaginative geographies was memorialisation. Both sides found time to erect various monuments to honour their dead and to boost public morale. Statues and gardens were designed to show the public what a true noble hero was. These statues were to act as a personal inspiration for other men. It showed that even the mundane individual can do great things in the war. These memorials served a unique purpose for the war because “if called upon to do so, they will believe themselves capable of emulating those who epitomise the best of the race”. The Cenotaph in Whitehall is the national War memorial for England to commemorate the deaths that occurred from 1914-1918. The word Cenotaph originates from the Greek word kenos meaning “empty” and tephos which means “tomb”. This structured represents all the lives that were lost in the war. No names appear on the monument which allows people to assign their own names of the loved ones they have lost. They wanted to honour the men who died fighting for their country, however this was not the case in Ireland. Each year Ireland commemorates all the heroes who died fighting in the 1916 Easter Rising, but nothing is done for the 50, 000 Irish men who lost their lives fighting with the allies during the Great War.

The loss of these Irish lives were celebrated in a low key manner. The Irish National War Memorial Gardens is a World War 1 memorial which is situated in Islandbridge. Unlike the Garden of Remembrance in Parnell Square which is dedicated to all the men who fought for Irish freedom and which was commissioned by the state, the Islandbridge memorial was established because of the public who asked for a memorial to be dedicated to the men of World War 1. It is exceptionally different to the memorial seen in the Garden of Remembrance. The cross and stone seen in Islandbridge do not mention that it is in fact Irishmen that are being memorialized in the garden. The reason for this hostility and ignorance can be attributed to the fact that these Irishmen represented a time where Ireland was under England’s control and these men chose to fight for England and its allies instead of risking their life fighting for Ireland’s independence. This highlights the issue that although World War 1 was underpinned by the construction of imaginative geographies, not every country agreed with it. It is true that World War 1 was vastly reinforced by the manufacturing and spreading of many imaginative geographies across the world which led to an increase in recruitment and finance which greatly benefited the war.

Each range of imaginative geography that I discussed previously all involves censorship to portray an ideal image of the war. If they were to show the reality of the war and the cruel, horrific way many men lost their lives or where gravely injured then this would have a negative implication on the war. It is my utmost contention that these forms of propaganda, such as poetry and posters, only underpinned World War 1 because they were being utilised in such a manner as to do so, they informed the public with regards to what they wished to hear and did not disclose the information that they deemed unnecessary. World War 1 was the first war to utilise the media and propaganda for their own personal benefits and to construct it in a manner that conveyed to the public their own perceived perception of the war, although there were people who challenged this, such as Siegfried Sassoon, their message was not acknowledged as it was not what the public wished to hear. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote “I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest”.

15 July 2020

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