The Great War Poets and the Campaign for Empathy

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2019


The British soldier-poets of the Great War (1914–1918) composed works that openly, intuitively sought empathy from civilians back home and commanders absent from the Western front. As a term coined only in 1909, empathy was derived, ironically, from German aesthetics (Einfühlung) by an English psychologist: two peoples imaginatively and intellectually engaged in peacetime, later locked in a prolonged, mutual slaughter. While most of the war poets had never heard the word, many of their poems demonstrate a variety of concepts and tropes that we recognise to be empathic. Examining lines by some of the war’s most famous poets – Edward Thomas, Thomas Sorley, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley, and Ivor Gurney – the authors illustrate ways the poets campaigned for empathy in verse.