William Butler Yeats

On Being Asked for a War Poem (1915)

I think it better that in times like these
A poet's mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter's night.

In 1936 William Butler Yeats edited The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935. Absent from its pages-- to the surprise of some-- were all the poets of The Great War; summarily dismissed were Owen, Sassoon, Blunden, Rosenberg and all their comrades who had written and in some cases died during the war. Yeats explains his editorial decision in a passage from the introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse:

I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war; they are in all anthologies, but I have substituted Herbert Read's 'End of the War' written long after. The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross; their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy-- for all skill is joyful-- but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his "Empedocles on Etna" from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced (From the "Introduction," p. xxxiv).
Yeats probably had somewhere in his mind the words of Wilfred Owen. In June, 1918, a few months before he was killed at the front, Owen was preparing Disabled and Other Poems for publication. He was drafting these comments as a preface for the book-- now-famous words that have become essential in discussing his work and much of the poetry of World War I: "This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or land, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful."

If the matter ended here, we could regard Yeats's Olympian editorial decision as a matter of literary taste and high standards. He was not content, however, to dismiss these silenced voices-- especially Owen's-- without another twist of his critic's knife, pissing, as it were, on the poet's grave.

"My anthology continues to sell," Yeats says, "& the critics get more & more angry. When I excluded Wilfred Owen, whom I consider unworthy of the poets' corner of a country newspaper, I did not know I was excluding a revered sandwich-board Man of the revolution & that some body has put his worst & most famous poem in a glass-case in the British Museum-- however if I had known it I would have excluded him just the same. He is all blood, dirt & sucked sugar stick (look at the selection in Faber's Anthology-- he calls poets 'bards,' a girl a 'maid,' & talks about 'Titanic wars'). There is every excuse for him but none for those who like him. . . ." (from a letter of December 26, 1936, in Letters on Poetry from W. B. Yeats to Dorothy Wellesley, p. 113).

A charitable observation is that Yeats is simply wrong-headed and churlish in his evaluation of Owen's poetry.