Muse of Fire : World War 1 as Seen Through the Lives of the Soldier Poets by Michael Korda.

It is chillingly plain that the young, fashionable English poet Rupert Brooke had romanticized the great bloodletting that was about to happen.

'' Come and die,'' he wrote to a friend in  1915, during the first winter of World War 1.  ''It will be great fun.''

A few weeks later, he had dinner at 10 Downing Street with some of his admirers, including the first lord of the Admiralty,  Winston Churchill. Brooke fell in love with Churchill's plan to capture Constantinople.

He did not predict what that effort would actually entail : over 100,000 British and Commonwealth casualties, and his own anticlimactic death following an infected mosquito bite before he had even reached the fighting.

The British government filtered most forms of media during the First World War. A new book argues that there was an exception : POETRY.

As the novelist and editor Michael Korda writes in '' Muse of Fire,'' an erudite and often funny group biography of the Allied soldiers who turned their battlefield experiences into verse, '' Nobody considered that celebrated soldier poets might one day turn against the war.''

The soldiers he follows represent the whole arc of public opinion as the war progressed : from the enthusiasm of Brooke and Alan Seeger, to the resigned disgust of Isaac Rosenberg and Robert Graves, the incandescent rage of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.

At the start of the war, Brooke seemed exactly the sort of nationalist martyr Britain needed. A great many young people would have to die, so it came in handy to have a national poet who could glorify youthful death with such a stirring and eternal lines as

 '' If I should die, think only this of me : 

That there's some corner of a foreign field 


Korda sets the intimate details of Brooke's story, jewel like, amid the larger context of a Europe on the blind precipice of catastrophe. These early chapters have all the delicious elements of a Dark Academia novel that might blow up on BookTok ;

Secret societies, left-wing politics; scandalous letters; and, above all, a terror of aging, an iconic and ominous wish to die young.

Korda's claim about the singular integrity of poetry during the war is also perhaps overstated - Sassoon, for instance, seems to have toned down his disgust with British brutality at the end of the war in his poem '' ATROCITIES. '' 

Still, Korda's group portrait of soldier poets skillfully depicts how different classes of men experienced the Western Front and offers an entry point into a rich seam of under-read war poetry.

It's an overarching picture, and yet, no poem can really make its audience understand the nature of war.  It can give only a bitter taste, enough to teach readers to treasure their ignorance, as Sassoon angrily urged cheering crowds to do in 1918 :

'' Sneak home and pray you'll never know The hell where youth and laughter go. ''

The World Students Society thanks review author Alice Winn - who is also the author of '' In Memoriam,'' a novel set during the First World War.


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