Radical Feeling in the Poetry of WWI
August 27, 2014
Aug 27, 2014
12 Min read time
The most popular English poem of the First World War was “In Flanders Fields,” written by John McCrae after fighting in the second Battle of Ypres in 1915. The poem ventriloquizes the British dead and concludes with a bit of hortatory sentimental propaganda:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:To you from failing hands we throwThe torch; be yours to hold it high.If ye break faith with us who dieWe shall not sleep, though poppies growIn Flanders fields.
But in the decades following the war, a very different kind of poem would come to be “seen as the truth,” as Max Egremont puts it in his new anthology Some Desperate Glory: The First World War the Poets Knew. These poems showed the war as “a series of failed attacks from water-filled trenches across lunar landscapes threaded with barbed wire, in an atmosphere of dread, under the command of stupid, moustachioed, out-of-touch generals.” This picture emerged in part from the work of a number of poets who, like McCrae, fought in the war but who, unlike McCrae, did not care to produce propaganda. (Rupert Brooke, who died of an infected mosquito bite towards the beginning of the war, did write overtly patriotic verse; he is the exception.) Some of the names (Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg) will be familiar to general readers; others (Ivor Gurney, Robert Nichols, Edward Thomas, Julian Grenfell, Charles Sorley, Edmund Blunden) less so. Of the eleven poets included, six—Sorley, Owen, Rosenberg, Brooke, Thomas, and Grenfell—died in the war, while Sassoon, Blunden, and Graves all went on to write valuable war memoirs.
Some Desperate Glory provides selections from these poets’ work by year from 1914 to 1918. A general introduction at the beginning of each section sketches the lives of the poets as well as relevant military and cultural history. Egremont, a biographer of Siegfried Sassoon, is a knowledgeable guide, but his narrative is perhaps too compressed for eloquence. Too often, biographical and historical details seem selected at random and read as non-sequiturs. Learning that England in the years before the war was not as stable as it sometimes seemed, we are told that “hysteria could burst out, as when, in 1900, the relief of Mafeking [in the Boer War] set off wild celebrations, at which the young Edward Thomas caught venereal disease.” Why we are told in this way about Thomas’s bad luck is unclear. Figures of speech sometimes get away from Egremont, for instance when, a page later, he informs us that “The [Great War] damaged Britain, perhaps fatally.” Is the jury still out? Awkward language and a certain sensationalism mar his characterization of the poets. Rupert Brooke suffers a “collapse” “when a love affair with Ka Cox seemed to end before flaring up again”—not unlike Thomas’s venereal disease, perhaps. Speaking of whom, “Thomas’s thoughts of suicide show barely controllable desperation, not faith in progress.” Duly noted. Of pre-war Sassoon, we learn that “Convention and timidity had manoeuvred him into a life of fox-hunting, cricket, the writing of sweet, privately printed verse and buried homosexuality.” Ah, those familiar fruits of convention and timidity. At its worst, Egremont’s awkwardness becomes actually incoherent. Discussing Bloomsbury’s snobbish attitude toward the war poets, he cites a diary entry of Virginia Woolf’s “describing a farewell dinner given for Edmund Blunden” before Blunden moved to Japan: “[Woolf] wondered loftily, ‘Did we believe in Blunden’s genius? Had we read his poems? How much sincerity was there in the whole thing?’ Sincerity there would have been, for many people loved Blunden.” Does “sincerity” refer to the party, or to the poetry? Does Blunden’s social popularity reflect his work’s “sincerity”? I have no idea, here, what Egremont thinks he means.
Faults of style notwithstanding, Some Desperate Glory is a useful reminder of a literary genealogy running alongside, but rarely intersecting, the more familiar trajectory of modernism from Wyndham Lewis’s magazine of the Vorticist movement, Blast (1914), to Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). Egremont writes of Robert Graves what might be said of most of the poets collected here: “Graves stayed apart from Eliot and Pound and is closer to another kind of poetry; a realism, even a nostalgia, that stretches from Hardy, Masefield, through the Georgians, through parts of Auden and MacNeice, to Larkin and to Hughes.” As a result, most of the poets of the Great War appear rather minor now, conspicuously apart from the most interesting aesthetic developments of the day.
One might have expected formal radicalism to result from the encounter with the new and horrifying kind of fighting the Great War imposed. If in 1909 a mere automobile could send the Italian Futurists into spasms of aesthetic experimentation, shouldn’t mechanized warfare have done something similar to British poetry? Egremont quotes Edmund Gosse on the intellectually salubrious effects of war: “War is the great scavenger of thought. It is the sovereign disinfectant, and its red stream of blood is the Condy’s fluid [a disinfectant] that cleans out the stagnant pools and clotted channels of the intellect.” I am reminded of Gertrude Stein’s postwar theorizing in “Composition as Explanation,” a lecture delivered at Cambridge and Oxford in 1925. Rather elliptically, Stein links the novel demands of modern warfare to modernist form: “And so there was the natural phenomena that was war, which had been, before war came, several generations behind the contemporary composition, because it became war and so completely needed to be contemporary became completely contemporary and so created the completed recognition of the contemporary composition.” This is more extreme than Gosse, and its stakes are more narrowly aesthetic, but it participates in a similar pattern of thought.
That modernity might be an “evil dream”—stalked by the no longer living but the not yet dead—is surely one of the Great War’s most enduring symbols.
For the most part, though, the poets who fought in the Great War were not involved in such radical reinventions of the aesthetic as Stein had in mind. As Paul Fussell observes in his classic The Great War and the Making of Modern Memory (1975), “The roster of major innovative talents who were not involved with the war is long and impressive. It includes Yeats, Woolf, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, and Joyce—that is, the masters of the modern movement. It was left to lesser talents—always more traditional and technically prudent—to recall in literary form a war they had actually experienced.” Wyndham Lewis and Ford Madox Ford should be noted as exceptions: major innovators who did see combat. David Jones, author of the long war poem In Parenthesis, is another, but Egremont leaves him out because, he maintains, “In Parenthesis should be read as a whole; extracts seem discordant and pointless.”
The war poets were radical not in form but in feeling. These men—mostly officer-class products of the English elite—register in their basically traditional verse a bitter disillusionment with the official narratives of their own culture that is, in places, nearly revolutionary. One measure of that disillusionment is the distance between Rupert Brooke’s patriotic “Peace”—“Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour, / And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping”—and Edward Thomas’s disgust at home front jingoism in “This is No Case of Petty Right or Wrong”: “Beside my hate of one fat patriot / My hatred of the Kaiser is love true.” Alienation from and hostility toward civilians was a common experience for soldiers on leave, a painful emotional predicament captured in Sassoon’s “Blighters”:
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,And there’d be no more jokes in Music-hallsTo mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.
Just as angry, and even more politically incendiary, is Sassoon’s “The General,” which pits staff against fighting men:
‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General saidWhen we met him last week on our way to the line.Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to JackAs they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Contempt for the staff was a given for those in the trenches, and could be so intense that historians have wondered at the almost total absence of mutinies on the British line. (France and Germany both faced much more soldierly insurrection.) Sassoon attempted his own rebellion when, on leave, he issued a statement in opposition to the war, rendering him vulnerable to charges of treason. To protect his friend, Robert Graves convinced officials that Sassoon was suffering from shell shock; he was sent to Craiglockhart Hospital to recover, his political gesture thereby defanged. Eventually, ashamed to think he’d abandoned his men, he returned to the front.
In his 1937 memoir Blasting and Bombardiering, Wyndham Lewis takes issue with Sassoon’s “cursing the poor little general-officers” in such poems as “The General”:
That was too easy and obvious. It amazes me that so many people should accept that as satisfactory. The incompetent general was clearly such a very secondary thing compared to the incompetent, or unscrupulous, politician, that this conventional ‘grouse’ against the imperfect strategy of the military gentleman directing operations in the field seemed not only unintelligent but dangerously misleading. ‘Harry and Jack’ were killed, not by the General, but by the people, whoever they were, responsible for the war. (emphasis added)
The difficulty of assigning blame for the catastrophe—or the sense that blame lay so deep as to defy assignation in the normal sense—generated one of Great War poetry’s signal effects, its insistence that the trenches reveal something permanently awry at the root of society, or of the world. The final stanza of Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” gets at this:
If in some smothering dreams you too could paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in,And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum estPro patria mori.
Ezra Pound would pick up these lines in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920), where “Died some, pro patria, / non ‘dulce’ non ‘et decor’ [...] / believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving.” Mauberley’s “hysterias, trench confessions, / laughter out of dead bellies”—horrors perpetrated “For an old bitch gone in the teeth, / For a botched civilization”—bring the poetry of the Great War most clearly into the orbit of aesthetic modernism. And two years later The Waste Land would summon the war in one of its uncanniest passages:
Unreal City,Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,I had not thought death had undone so many. [. . .]There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson!”You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!That corpse you planted last year in your garden,Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Like Pound’s eerie “laughter out of dead bellies,” Eliot has recourse to what had become a familiar topos of Great War verse: the figuration of the trenches and No-man’s-land as zones of the animated dead, corpses persisting at life with zombie-like tenacity. Owen wrote to his mother of the “Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language . . . everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sight on earth.” He suggests that there is little difference between the living and the dead, recalling the “blindfold look” of the men, “without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.” In Sassoon’s “Counter-Attack,” a poem of shocking narrative and imagistic force, the speaker “loath[es] the strangled horror / And butchered, frantic gestures of the dead.” Isaac Rosenberg—a poor Jew from Whitechapel who, unlike most war poets, was not an officer—describes in “Dead Man’s Dump” a trench-scene eternal as any afterlife: “And shells go crying over them / From night till night and now.” In a letter, Rosenberg worried that “We will become like mummies—look warm and lifelike, but a touch and we will crumble to pieces.”
Owen and Rosenberg were both killed in the last year of the war. Edward Thomas, who was killed in 1917, concludes his 1916 poem “Home” with lines that might be read as about not the perils of death but of traumatized survival:
. . . this captivitymust somehow come to an end, else I should beAnother man, as often now I seem,Or this life be only an evil dream.
The possibility that modernity might be an “evil dream”—stalked by the no longer living but the not yet dead—is surely one of the Great War’s most enduring symbols. It is part of the genetic unconscious of all zombie films, with their pathos of entrails, their melancholy of gore. It is behind novels such as J.G. Ballard’s Crash, whose theme is the aestheticized vulnerability of the human body to machines. Its primal scene is Ivor Gurney’s 1917 “To his Love”: “Cover him, cover him soon! / And with thick-set / Masses of memoried flowers— / Hide that red wet / Thing I must somehow forget.” Its most elaborated development in modernism proper is Wyndham Lewis’s woefully neglected novel The Childermass (1928), in which two victims of the Great War must navigate a bizarre purgatorial afterlife whose workings are clogged up because of the unprecedented quantity of the newly dead. Lewis gives us a version of Eliot’s “Unreal city,” here a proto-Ballardian wasteland—“tinselled banners; gigantic grey sea-green and speckled cones, rising like truncated eggs from a system of profuse nests; and a florid zoologic symbolism”—fit only for the undead: “It is without human life, like a city after a tragic exodus.” The poets collected in Some Desperate Glory first felt, and first expressed, a depth of alienation and a visionary disenchantment it would be left to others—Eliot, Pound, Lewis—to make modern.
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August 27, 2014
12 Min read time