War poets debated in lead up to Remembrance Sunday

The poets who brought the First World War to life for generations of young people were remembered and their contributions debated at the Imperial War Museum in central London in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday.

Posted: 3 November 2014

image for news story War poets debated in lead up to Remembrance Sunday
Professor Paul O'Prey, who led the debate on war poetry at the Imperial War Museum

The debate was led by Professor Paul O’Prey, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Roehampton and an expert on the poetry of the Great War. It took place just a week before Tuesday 11 November, when towns and villages across the UK will pause to reflect on the war and remember those who died.

John Simpson, who was the University’s first Chancellor, is the BBC’s World Affairs Editor, and has reported from war zones for more than 20 years was on the panel, together with Baroness Shirley Williams.

The event explored the different opinions and writing styles which the poets of the First World War held. It will include readings by the relatives of some of the most famous writers, including Siegfried Sassoon, and Mary Borden, whose nephew, TV presenter Adam Hart-Davis, read her work.

During the session, which was a key feature of the IWM’s commemorations, a choir of 20 Roehampton students performed the premieres of two poems from the war which have recently been set to music by former University senior lecturer Michael Burnett. The choir was led by Gulliver Ralston, Director of Music at the University’s Southlands College.

Professor O’Prey said: “During the war a small handful of young men and women created a body of poetry that shocked and challenged society, revealing the personal impact of war and its impact on people’s lives.

“Soldier-poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves as well as nurses, medical orderlies and army chaplains all wrote of their first-hand experiences, leaving a legacy that continues to shape our understanding of the time and its relevance today.”

A new anthology by Professor O’Prey, titled Poems From The Front, explores the most poignant poetry from World War One and challenges the notion that all poems by soldiers and nurses at the time were of an anti-war sentiment.

Last week, Professor O’Prey, who lived with Robert Graves in his final years, as his assistant, laid a wreath in memory of all the war poets at a ceremony at the Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium. The ceremony was watched by 2,000 people, and was described Professor O’Prey as a ‘great honour’ as two of his relatives, who were from Bethnal Green, have their names inscribed on the gate.

* On Tuesday 11 November from 10.45am, the University will carry out a short act of remembrance at the Society of the Sacred Heart’s war memorial at Digby Stuart College, which students, staff and relatives of those whose names are on the memorial have been invited to attend.

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