Coming Out of War
Poetry, Grieving, and the Culture of the World Wars
By Janis P. Stout
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2005 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Aspirations to Heroism
The Old That Passed Away
... men and women who still thought of war in terms of heroic pageantry.
— Philip Gibbs, Realities of War (1920)
We had vague childish memories of the Boer War, and from these and from a general diffusion of Kiplingesque sentiments, we managed to infuse into war a decided element of adventurous romance.
— Herbert Read, The Innocent Eye (1947)
A study of literary and artistic representations of World War I is also, necessarily, a study of the origins of modernism. The linkage has been made so often and so persuasively that it has become virtually a commonplace. Paul Fussell states ringingly in The Great War and Modern Memory that "there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War" (35). Barbara Tuchman writes more succinctly in The Guns of August that among the various results of the war was "one dominant one transcending all others: disillusion" (440). Disillusion and irony: the characteristic tones of modernism. And we owe their prevalence largely to the war. In Sandra M. Gilbert's words, the First World War "fostered characteristically modernist irony in young men" ("Soldier's Heart" 201). Trudi Tate concludes that the terms "modernism" and "war writing" were virtually interchangeable at the time and that "modernism after 1914 begins to look like a peculiar but significant form of war writing" (3). Samuel Hynes, in A War Imagined, moves his frame of reference a decade later than Tate's to find that "during the later years of the Twenties, war writing and Modernist writing interpenetrated each other" (458). Together, these various comments capture the standard view of the Great War's causal relation to modernism. It is a view that I do not contest though I do seek to amplify and refine it.
Modernism had, in fact, many beginning points. The modernist way of seeing, with all that it implies, can be (and certainly has been) traced, for example, to the paintings of Paul Cézanne in the late 1880s. Joyce Medina makes such an argument in her Cézanne and Modernism, citing the position taken by British art critics Clive Bell and Roger Fry as early as 1913 (Medina 1–3). Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in the first two volumes of No Man's Land, trace both the Great War and modernism to an unsettlement of gender relations in the years leading up to the war, and Hynes points to prewar "blasts" of modernism in the avant-garde movements of futurism and vorticism. What seems clear is that the modern implements of war and the horrors of their use were one, even if not the only, great wellspring of modernism as it continued in the twenties and beyond. The war served as a great dividing line in human conceptions of the world and in the language in which such conceptions were expressed. As James Hannah, an anthologist of Great War writings, puts it, the war "murdered romanticism" and "established a very real boundary between the old ways of seeing and a modernity best characterized by its attitudes of irony and skepticism" (xvii–xviii). That sense of fundamental change — a boundary or dividing line or break point — was widespread and profound at the time and has persisted to our own day.
Some commentators go beyond identifying modernism's origins with the war and propose that it was born specifically at the Battle of the Somme, fought from July to November 1916. Even Samuel Hynes, whose challenge of what he calls "the Myth of the [Great] War" entails debating the notion that the war gave rise to modernism, says that a "new realism" emerged at the Somme (120). Fussell narrows the point of origin to a single day, writing that on the first day of that immense battle, July 1, 1916, the "innocent [British] army fully attained the knowledge of good and evil" (Great War 29). Such a statement is, of course, a great (and certainly, as Fussell proposes it, a deliberate) hyperbole. To date so complex a cultural change, let alone the ultimate moral awareness of a people, from one historic episode, distilled in one day, is to exaggerate its singularity. But as hyperboles go, it is a plausible one.
The sequence of suicidal engagements known collectively by the name of the river along which it was fought, the Somme, was a disaster of enormous dimensions for both sides. On only the first day of the assault, July 1, Britain alone suffered 60,000 casualties, including 19,000 dead. By its end in November, the Battle of the Somme would generate more than 500,000 Allied and about 600,000 German casualties — more than a million men dead or wounded in slightly less than five months. And to no outcome. The assembled armies still occupied the same basic positions they had before, and the war went on. Earlier that same year, 1916, casualties in the Battle of Verdun had been almost a million (540,000 French, 430,000 German), as a result of which Germany succeeded in advancing four miles in six months. Little wonder the thinking of a generation should become characterized by disillusionment and irony! Greater lessons in futility and the ugliness to which modern technology could be turned can scarcely be imagined.
Even before Verdun and the Somme, however, the Great War had already provided horrors enough to account for the epochal change in worldview, and thus in art, that is associated with modernism. Widespread use of the fully automatic machine gun and massive artillery like the Germans' so-called Big Bertha had made war a matter of mass killing and maiming. Zeppelins, airplanes, and submarines struck new terror into the souls of a generation. Flamethrowers were introduced. Poison gas, probably the most noted and apparently, to soldiers, the most unnerving of the war's innovations, was first used by Germany in October 1914 at the First Battle of Ypres, was used again by Germany in April 1915 at the Second Battle of Ypres, and then was used by Britain in fighting near Loos on September 15, 1915. The form used at these battles was chlorine gas. Soon phosgene and mustard gases were developed, as well as more exotic variations. Though never a very practical weapon, being too uncontrollable (at Loos, the chlorine gas used by the British blew back into their own lines), it was a terrifying one, causing hideous deaths, debilities, and nightmares. These are graphically described by Wilfred Owen in one of the best-known poems of the war, "Dulce et Decorum Est." It also made troops more vulnerable to other forms of attack by producing helplessness, panic, and disorientation. And then, at the Somme, tanks were used for the first time — by the British.
The conditions of the trenches themselves, which had been extended to previously unimagined dimensions, were a new kind of warfare — filthy, vermin-infested, muddy, or standing in water from the incessant rains, stinking from natural functions and from bodies and body parts that lay necessarily unburied or reemerged from the earth with new bombardments. Prolonged entrenchment entailed a nearness of death and decay succinctly conveyed in Cannadine's summary observation, "The combat zone might remain littered for weeks with bodies" while "new trenches might be dug through them; parapets might be made of them" (204; also quoted by Gilbert, "'Rats' Alley'" 186). These conditions, or some ameliorated version of them, were communicated with such readiness that people back home became aware of the filthiness, misery, and impersonality being experienced by the troops.
Colonialism and nationalistic fervor, feeding a congeries of ancient ethnic hostilities and geopolitical resentments, had borne a bitter fruit. Total casualties of the war among military personnel are estimated at more than 10 million dead, plus some 3 million missing and presumed dead, with a far larger number wounded or psychologically crippled. Civilian casualties have been estimated at an additional 5 million dead from injuries, famine, and illness spread by the war. These numbers do not include (except when they occasionally overlap) the 15 to 25 million deaths in the flu epidemic of 1917–20. But how many of those should also be attributed to the movement of people caused by the war? The extent of the Great War's havoc — even setting aside that of the Second World War and wars in between — becomes incalculable.
A sea change in literary and artistic content, vision, and style occurred, impelling us all — not the avant-garde alone — into the modernist mentality. Interestingly, leaders among the so-called high modernists — W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound — regarded the poets of the war such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon as excessively emotional and therefore alien to the spirit of hard-edged modernist writing. Yeats famously excluded the "trench poets" from The Oxford Book of Modern Verse. In Margot Norris's judgment, the result of this exclusion of Owen, Sassoon, and others from the canon of modernism was that "the poetry of the Great War skipped a generation, leaving little trace of itself on the literature of World War II" (37). Had not Yeats ousted these writers from the canon of modernism, Norris argues, the poetry of the late war "might have (in 1936) rhetorically served as remembering, warning, and prophecy of the mass violence of the imminent Second World War" (37). Many other readers and critics, however, have identified a decisive turn in the writing and art that came out of the later years of the Great War, after the Somme. Charles Harrison, in a study of modernism in English painting, judges that the most successful artists of the period 1900 to 1939 were those whose work was "most thoroughly modified by the experience" of the war (121). Richard Cork, in A Bitter Truth: Avant-Garde Art and the Great War (1994), insistently points out the change in paintings of 1916 and after, in which stark horror is increasingly evident. Music, with its greater abstractness, did not reflect the change so immediately or perhaps so clearly, although the rhetoric of twentieth-century art music relating to war can be understood by its rejection of conventions of martial music that had prevailed before World War I. (Primary among these were regular rhythms suitable for marching; emphasis on drums and brass instruments, or sometimes bagpipes, because of their audibility for signaling troop movements; and the use of intervals that could be played by brass instruments lacking valves — that is, the intervals we associate with fanfares.) Although long-established conventions in the arts persisted in officially sanctioned popular usage, they were displaced in what has been recognized as high art by an idiom conveying disruption, indeterminacy, and bitterness.
The change from traditional martial verse to a poetry of irony, disillusionment, and bitterness was abrupt and emphatic. But to better understand what was new about the new war poetry, we first need a clearer understanding of the old and its persistence into the early years of the Great War
Before July 1, 1916, the poetry of war had largely continued along the traditional lines laid down by centuries of patriotic martial verse. It was often hortatory or given to praise of glorious deeds. Its rhetoric drew on ancient Greek and Roman ideas of manly honor, courage, and individual achievement and on Medieval conceptions of knightly chivalry. Its trappings were often archaic, linking present conflicts with mythical or historic events so distant as to be readily glorified in an elevated language of lances, banners, and trumpets, duty and manly honor. It is scarcely incidental that the Latin root of the English word "virtue," virtus, meant not only moral excellence or goodness but "manliness, manhood, virility; strength; valor, gallantry" (Traupman 446). As Fussell has so influentially indicated in The Great War and Modern Memory, the vocabulary of ennoblement and abstraction that served these ends readily covered up the gritty actualities. Its appeal can be explained in part by the prevalence, in the years leading up to the war, of a sense of need to break out of bourgeois stasis and stagnation of the imagination — a sense that produced a widespread language of smashing and fighting in journalism and social commentary.
The Battle of the Somme made the old kind of war poetry "difficult to sustain" (Martin 33). Before, war poetry drew on long-established tropes to convey a sense of glorious masculine achievement, courage, and valor; it celebrated ideals of patriotism, of fighting for love of country. Afterward, the poetry of war imbibed a quality of irony, bitterness, and brutality that radically altered the arts and critical thinking. These are, of course, broad outlines, and in much of what follows I challenge the notion that twentieth-century poetry of war can be so neatly categorized, as if it all followed a single pattern. Just as we now discern multiple modernisms, not just the "high modernism" of complexity and irony that was once taken to be the sole and defining type, so must we recognize that the poetry that emerged from the Great War was more various in its sensibility and rhetoric, and in the aspects of the totality of war which it addressed, than the ironic and disillusioned "trench poetry" alone. But as broad outlines go, they are sufficient.
Traditional war poetry tended to have a clear, readily grasped meaning. After all, if a writer's purpose, whether conscious or not, is to evoke a specific action — to call men to arms or to a mental readiness to take up arms — it can scarcely be useful to leave readers in a state of uncertainty. They need to know right away what to do and how to feel about it. The message such poetry conveyed was linked to an equally clear, black-and-white vision of good and evil. God is on our side, it proclaimed. Assuming a hierarchical social framework, it was disproportionately interested in the experience of officers and tended to depict common soldiers as quaint (as in Rudyard Kipling's dialect poems of barracks life in India) or boyish (in English verse, with the idealizing use of the word "lad"). This emphasis on youth or boyishness is implicated in the depiction of warfare as a kind of game — a peculiar variant of the heroic idiom that became widespread in the early poetry of the Great War. The usefulness of such a conception for propaganda purposes is readily apparent. Conceiving of enlistment in war as joining a vast game or contest being played out by two sides or teams effaces its mortal consequences. The battlefield becomes an enlarged playing field, perhaps an extension of school. "Lads" might go off to war with a jaunty attitude. Indeed, on a few occasions British soldiers actually did kick footballs — in American parlance, soccer balls — ahead of them in assaults. The trope of sport is surprisingly prevalent — surprising, that is, to twenty-first-century eyes; contemporary readers were accustomed to such language through the "propagating" of images of war as a game by British newspapers in the decade or two leading up to the conflict (Wilkinson 29). Just how prevalent is demonstrated by Willa Cather's invocation of the metaphor in her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel One of Ours, excoriated by male reviewers of its day for naïveté, as if she did not understand just what it was she was writing about. When the deluded central character of the novel is leaving shore on a troop ship "going over," he and his fellows look like "a crowd of American boys going to a football game somewhere" (222). The line catches not one but two of the most common tropes of Great War conventional verse: the rendering of men as boys and of the grim business of war as sport. (Continues...)
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