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Abstract

While many scholars of World War I poetry have identified aspects of soldier poets’ work that embody the change from enthusiastic support of the war to disillusioned criticism of it, in this paper I argue for an additional, and highly meaningful marker of this significant change: the use of the dead and their bodies in this poetry. The commonly held critical view of World War I poetry is that there is a clear divide between poetry of the early and late years of the war, usually located after the Battle of the Somme in 1916, where poetry moves from odes to courageous sacrifice and protection of the homeland to bitter or grief-stricken verses on the horror and pointless suffering of the war. This change is particularly noticeable in the poetry of “soldier poets." Through analysis of poems by a variety of World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, and others, I track this shift and examine how it is mapped onto the bodies of soldiers in their poetry. I argue that poetry of the early years of the war depicts bodies as stable, insulated objects on which poets can project messages of admiration for the sacrifice and nobility of soldiers, support for the war, or concepts of nationalism and empire; in contrast, in the later poetry of the war, bodies are unstable, exposed, and corrupted, no longer able to support old messages of courage and noble sacrifice but reflecting the futility, senselessness, and destruction of the war.

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