Monday, 4 February 2019

Why was poetry so popular during the First World War?

I think the answer to that question lies in the fact that, unlike now when there are so many distractions, there was relatively little for people to do in their spare time in the early part of the 20th Century. For a start, there were no computers and no Internet, no radio or television broadcasts and most people did not have telephones in their homes.  There were several literary magazines that published poetry and newspapers such as “The Daily Mail”, to which the poet Jessie Pope was a regular contributor, also published poems on a regular basis. We know that newspapers and magazines were made available to those at the Front, so people would have been exposed to poetry in a way that we are not.  Music hall entertainers recited poems and monologues on stage. Patriotic poems were especially popular in time of war and during WW1 music halls in Britain were used to recruit volunteers for the armed forces.

Poetry was taught in schools – my Mother, who was born in 1910, often used to quote from poems she learnt at primary school.  People copied out poems into exercise books – I have seen quite a few – and they read or recited poems at family gatherings.

In his book “The Years of Promise”, writer, journalist and poet Cecil Roberts, who worked for the “Liverpool Post” during WW1, has this to say: “In the years preceding the First World War there was a renaissance of poetry in England.   Two events marked the spirit of this time, one was the publication in 1912 of the first volume of “Georgian Poetry” edited by Edward Marsh, which has a phenomenal success; the other was a brave enterprise launched by Harold Munro.”  Roberts was referring to The Poetry Workshop, which opened in Devonshire Street, off Holborn in January 1913.

On Friday, 12th June 1914, Cecil Roberts, hired the Bechstein Hall in Wigmore Street, London W1 for an evening reciting poems he had written.  Tickets were on sale from ten shillings and sixpence (which represents the buying power of about £115 in today’s money) down to two shillings (about £20 today), and the event was a sell-out and a great success.  Incidentally, like the British Royal Family, the Bechstein Hall had a name change during the First World War and it became the Wigmore Hall.

“The Years of Promise” (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1968 )