Britain Discovers a New (Yet Very Old) War Poet

During his service in the trenches on the Western Front after the Normandy invasion, Dennis Wilson would scribble poems in his Field Service Pocket Book. Almost seven decades later -- thanks to a chance discovery by a scholar researching Wilson's father (who served as a spy) -- that poetry has finally been published.

The Daily Mail details how Tim Crook, a lecturer at the University of London, came upon Wilson's poems, and was so impressed that he offered him a book deal. Now, Elegy of a Common Soldier, according to its publisher, Kultura Press, is selling well, and Wilson, who is 91 years old, is being compared to famed World War I poet Wilfred Owen.

Like Owen, Wilson paints a harsh and unflinching portrayal of war form a soldier's perspective. In his book's title poem, he writes of civilized man with bitter irony:

This is a learned, scientific age:
An age of progress: Man is civilized...

It calls to mind the tone Owen famously employed in his poem "Dulce et Decorum Est," -- which attacked the romanticization of war that was still common in those days.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

That last line, from Horace, translates roughly to "It is sweet and right to die for one's country." Wilson, as Owen once did, vehemently disagrees. In his book's introduction, he describes his poetry as:

The reflections of an ordinary soldier, of any nationality, temporarily withdrawn from the front line to an area of comparative peace, in any of the wars to which unwilling Mankind has been subjected by the ambitions, greed or stupidity of his rulers.

In another similarity to Owen's work, Wilson's poetry offers insight into the psychological turmoil that soldiers have to endure in wartime. In "Aftermath," Wilson asks what war has done "to the Youth of the World." He answers, in part,

It has taught him to gaze on the friend who fell beside him in battle,
With less compassion and anger than inward relief:
Relief that the bullet found a heart other than his own;
But relief followed instantly by guilt that will never go away.

Owen was eventually killed in battle, and Wilson considers himself one of the fortunate ones. He told The Daily Mail about the day he was wounded by a German shell: "I was in agony and initially thought I was going to lose my arm.' But I later realized I had been lucky and it was one of the happiest days of my life because it proved to be my ticket out of there."

You can preview Elegy of A Common Soldier here.