The First World War or Great War was the first military conflict in history that evoked the widest possible spectrum of literary responses1, ranging from enthusiastic patriotic affirmation to disillusioned reductio ad absurdum. The poets Rupert Brooke, Robert Nichols, Julian Grenfell, and Charles Sorley hailed the War as a renewal and purification, in time-hallowed terms and forms.2 The traditional commonplace metaphors gained new life from the feeling that the sickly sluggishness and suicidal subversionism of the Decadent Movement and the Fin de Siècle had to be overcome: a sick organism must be radically purged, foul weather must be cleared by a purifying thunderstorm or "stahlgewitter", wintry stagnation must be broken up to yield to regenerative vitality. Thus Robert Nichols proclaimed in 'The Day's March':
Heads forget heaviness,
The poets Rupert Brooke and Rudyard Kipling praised the sacrificial benefits of the War, with more or less strong evocations of the biblical doctrine of the imitatio Christi in faithfulness and self-sacrifice. The posthumous soldier-speaker of Kipling's lyric prayed in Picardy, like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, that his "cup might pass"; but the cup would not pass, and he met his death in a gas attack, like Christ on the cross upon Golgotha, beyond Gethsemane:
It didn't pass - it didn't pass
Kipling also gave voice to an even more apocalyptic Christian view of the War current in Britain, based on the Anglo-Israel parallel. God's own chosen people, the British, and their Allies, fought the Battle of Armageddon against the Germans or "Huns", prophesied to lead to the final victory of good over evil upon the earth (Revelation 16. 16). King George and his true "God" would overcome Kaiser Wilhelm and his idol "Gott" just as the Kings of Israel and their true Jehovah overcame the heathens and their Baal:
Emmanuel's vanguard dying
The neutrality, which Kipling here denounces, found a strong supporter in the dramatist G. B. Shaw. In such plays as Heartbreak House (1919) and Saint Joan (1923), Shaw diagnosed a number of low motives for the outbreak of the War: the Death Force (as opposed to the Life Force), the cupidity of capitalists, the inefficiency or greed and ambition of political leaders, the Pharisaism of patriots, and, last but not least, an animal mixture of stupidity and cruelty. The latter is especially stressed in St Joan's very modern plea for the abolition of the traditional chivalrous rules of warfare and the introduction of more effective armament, glancing at the radical innovations of the Great War.6Both in his Essay Commonsense About the War (1914) and in various prefaces to his plays Shaw called upon the British and the Germans to mutually respect their cultural and scientific achievements, in the evolutionist's hope that progress in political science would lead to a victory over war just as progress in medicine would lead to a victory over certain diseases. Shaw's numerous suggestions that Britain had been no better than Germany were resented as subversive:
It was exactly that fierceness of a "half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery" which W. B. Yeats criticized both in the Irish Easter Rising of 1916 and in the death in action of Major Robert Gregory in 1918, a false heroism prefigured in the myth of Cuchulain. Yeats's pacifism was not fundamental, but mystical and aesthetic, advocating an elegant, dance-like, balanced management of conflicts.8At all events it is clear that the kingdom of the Prince of Peace has not yet become the kingdom of this world. His attempts at invasion have been resisted far more fiercely than the Kaiser's.7
Another argument of a more radical aesthetic pacifism was, with varying emphasis, advanced by D. H. Lawrence and A. E. Housman, who regarded the War as a destruction of the male youth and beauty of rural old England, chiefly in the interest of money.9 As also in the case of Wilfred Owen, traditionalism and homoeroticism combined into disgust of the War. In many homoerotic War poems, however, death in action was oddly welcomed as providing a remedy both against old age and against homophobic prejudice, fixing male beauty in the speakers' memories (in a Keatsian moment of highest bloom) and relieving its erotic enjoyment of all worldly encumbrance.
At the extreme subversive end of that wide spectrum of literary responses to the Great War stood those War poets who would more properly be called trench poets: Edward Thomas (born 1878), Frederic Manning (born 1882), Siegfried Sassoon (born 1886), Ivor Gurney and Isaac Rosenberg (both born 1890), Richard Aldington and Osbert Sitwell (both born 1892), Wilfred Owen and Herbert Read (both born 1893), Robert von Ranke Graves (born 1895), and Edmund Blunden (born 1896). Beside these major trench poets and conscious artists, scores of other names of trench soldiers could be added, whose shock erupted into verse, and whose poems are either still in manuscript or were printed in cheap rare editions. Some of them have been recently (and more or less deservedly) salvaged from oblivion.10 These soldier poets were the first to experience the radical innovations, the breakdown of the old forms and norms of warfare as mirroring the final breakdown of all the crumbling forms and norms, that 'Crisis of European Civilization'11 which shattered all the brittle traditional beliefs. They experienced the War as a meaningless gap in time and history, raising their very personal and subjective experience to the rank of a general philosophy.12 They belonged to what Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway called "the lost generation".13 Their pitiful or angry exposure of the absurdity of the Great War, as revealing the absurdity of life and death in general, proved a signal contribution to the breakthrough of literary 'Modernism'.14
Trench poetry proper could only be written under the shock of the immediate experience of that radically new kind of warfare: either in the trenches themselves (as in the case of Isaac Rosenberg, who had only one brief leave in his twenty months at the Front)15, or in hospital (as in the case of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, who were wounded in the trenches and sent home for recovery, where they met), or immediately after the War (as in the case of Edmund Blunden, who survived sane), or in mental homes (as in the case of Ivor Gurney, who survived insane and relived his experience until his death in 1937).16 The freshness of this shock did not allow the trench poets to gain distance to their experience of total chaos, to relate it to new metaphysical or anthropological concepts, to discern new purposes in self-sacrifice and war, to re-establish a theodicy.17 Such distance could only be either in time, after the immediate experience, or in space, removed from the immediate experience. Thus, Robert Graves later overcame the absurd view of life and death expressed in his trench poetry, Over the Brazier (1916) and Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), and elimitated these poems from later collections of his poetry. Thus, after a lapse of almost twenty years, the Welsh poet David Jones could rediscover a secret universal meaning in his very personal suffering in the trenches. His long epic of mixed poetry and prose, In Parenthesis (1937), written on the model of T. S. Eliot's Waste Land (1922) with its conglomeration of archetypes of ritual and mystery, succeeded in unbracketing the individual trench experience and relating it to previous noble wars and their epics of heroic self-sacrifice (such as La Chanson de Roland and Y Gododdin).18 Thus, the poetess May Wedderburn Cannan, who was a volunteer nurse behind the lines, and the poetess Jessie Pope and the popular novelist Mrs Humphry Ward, who never came near the front line, could write affirmative poems and tales restating Christian sacrifice and Britain's just cause.19
On the whole, the most varied contemporary sources inform us that all those who had no immediate trench experience were quite incapable of believing the horrors of the chaos that trench soldiers (writing letters or wounded or on leave) reported. Small wonder that such trench soldiers were taken either for cowards, braggarts, or madmen. Thus, H. G. Wells could only write his shockingly realistic war novel Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916) in the context of a visit to the Western Front.20 The home-leave episodes in War memoirs and War novels, Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That or Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (both 1929), give us lively portraits of an irreconcilable clash.21 On the one hand, civilians and back area soldiers desperately clung to an already shaken belief in an orderly world where war was a natural season of divinely sanctioned and calculated conflict; on the other hand, trench soldiers shattered that shaken belief altogether.22 Wilfred Owen wrote one of his angriest poems on reading Jessie Pope's War Poems (1915), published to instil English children with a Horatian sense of patriotism. Had Jessie ever seen the chaos of the trenches, Owen scolded,
The Crimean War and the Boer War could still be imagined at home; the Great War surpassed the imagination of all those who had no immediate trench experience. Never before in history had war so radically changed its face and turned into what seemed an autonomous urchaos. Camouflage and steel helmets replaced shining uniforms, tanks replaced horses, machine guns forced armies into immobile dirty trenches, aeroplanes and gas were other quite new weapons threatening the mass destruction of soldiers who had themselves become masses instead of individual combatants. The newness was registered on both sides, in Thomas Hardy's poem 'Then and Now' (1915) and in Karl Kraus's satire on "der chlorreiche Krieg".24 Paintings of War scenes, such as Stanley Spencer's Travoys or John Singer Sargent's Gassed, show numbers of soldiers without individual faces.25 The impossibility of conventional individual heroism in that infernal chaos was obvious, and a favourite subject in the poetry and prose of the trench soldiers.26 The fallen enemy in Robert Graves's poem 'A Dead Boche' (1917) has no face, no name, no heroic attribute, not even any human attributes any more. The illusion of the hero's blood and fame gradually yields to a real vision of ugly black blood dribbling out of a stinking dehumanized clump of flesh (reminiscent of Benn's Morgue poems):
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
Modern armour and modern warfare had paradoxically reduced man to his nakedness, his ignoble savagery, both in his passive vulnerability and in his active aggressiveness, foreshadowing the characters of Tennessee Williams's plays. The illusion of safety behind armour-plated tanks and protecting walls had restored soldiers to a sense of human fragility, and consequently of a new brotherly "humanity" uniting and outliving the trenches, as in the Imagist verse of the Italian trench poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. But that sense of fragility paradoxically alternated with animalistic outbreaks of ferocity. Thus, Herbert Read's two volumes of trench poems were entitled Songs of Chaos (1915) and Naked Warriors (1919).31 His ironic Imagist poem 'The Happy Warrior' describes a soldier in a state of murderous frenzy, reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia:
On the less shocking Eastern Front, the collapse of the old order of war was also obvious. In Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926 and 1935), T. E. Lawrence described the first guerilla war that a civilized country (Britain) organized against another civilized country (Turkey), and his own frantic officer's orders to slaughter beaten and defenceless Turkish soldiers and prisoners. Both happened in open violation of the traditional chivalrous rules of warfare which Lawrence well knew and very highly respected as an expert in ancient and medieval war literature, carrying Malory's Morte Darthur in his saddle-bags throughout the Arabian campaign. The maddening tension of his fascinating book lies in its Conradian dichotomy between involvement and judgment, honest confessions of the pleasures of slaughter alternating with stern moral assessments of human failure under tragic necessities.33 Such honest confessions, implicitly admitting the similarity of English, Turkish, and German War crimes, brought the excellently written book and its author much critical and personal hostility. Thomas Hardy's complaint of the loss of "knightlihood" in the Great War, though primarily aimed at Germany (for lack of immediate frontline experience), applied to the Eastern as well as the Western Front on both sides, and also to the unrestricted and murderous submarine war:
But now, behold, what
The awareness of the radical changes in civilization, which the War had made apparent, did not dawn upon the population of Britain until the years after the end of the War.35 One of the most comprehensive artistic accounts of that growing sense of historical discontinuity is George Orwell's novel Coming Up for Air (1939), written in the shadow of the unavoidably imminent Second World War. George Bowling, the novel's first-person narrator, a bourgeois and quite unheroic protagonist, looks back upon his life from 1938 against a background of new grotesquely bungled bomber and gas-mask exercises to 1893 (the year of his birth before the outbreak of the Boer War). This narrative device not only allowed Orwell to present the Boer War as Britain's last 'normal' war. The protagonist's very personal and subjective stream of consciousness takes us, Proust-like, back into the temps perdu before 1914, into the War years 1914-1918, into the years following the peace, and time and again into 1938. These frequently shifting memories build up a contrast between "those days" of rural old England (before the Great War) and "these days" of lost identities (after the Great War). "Those days" were not ideal times. There existed social injustice and poverty, there occurred private and commercial catastrophes. But in "those days" men were still individuals who had social as well as local roots. The cobbler and the grocer had been cobblers and grocers in one village for generations, their children had hidden playgrounds in the surrounding landscape, their food still had identity and taste. Men and women had their assigned gender roles, and churches were frequented. Signs of the decline of that old order appeared with the turn of the century: trade went down, bankruptcies forced more and more honest tradesmen out of their traditional professions into other jobs and out of their traditional villages into other places. Agnosticism and woman's suffrage added to the increasing decay of the old order. Then came the Great War, experienced as a disruptive watershed in the history of European civilization36, and the crumbling old order broke down completely. After the Great War, the chaos appeared to be complete, all identities lost. It was the England that Ezra Pound and D. H. Lawrence left in disgust, in 1919.37 Soldiers returning from the front had to find new jobs in new places, often as travelling salesmen, and went hunting for customers (in inversion of the old order). Analogously, shops and food lost their identities. General stores sold the most varied articles, restaurant chains sold generic food, fresh food was replaced by preserves, where fish and meat exchanged their taste. Masses (of men and products), devoid of individual or corporate identity, revealed a cult of falseness: false teeth (with which the novel begins), false packing, false food, false playgrounds for children, false names, false grammar. "Ersatz" replaced the real thing. Gigantically disproportionate houses, where false replaced true Tudor, and gigantically disproportionate factories flattened villages and landscapes, providing mass housing and mass products for deracinated men. George Bowling's unsuccessful recherche du temps perdu anticipates Winston Smith's38 insofar as it is at the same time a displaced person's unsuccessful recherche de l'identite perdue. George Bowling's view of deteriorating and identity-crippling post-War civilization is obviously George Orwell's.39 It was this mass civilization which, in Orwell's view, led to the dictatorships of Hitler and Stalin who could easily replace lost identities by new ones, as analysed in Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), with Big Brother as "Ersatzgott". George Bowling's recherche du temps perdu, first mental and then physical, ends in disappointment and the signs of a new imminent war. Sunk in the dump of modern civilization, more and more deprived of their genetic and acquired identities, neither fish nor men can any longer "come up for air".40 George Bowling's stream-of-consciousness evocation of his wartime experiences, as a young 'involuntary volunteer' wounded in the trenches, makes him realize how the absurdity of modern life broke out with the absurdity of the Great War:
It's very strange, the things the war did to people. ... It was like an enormous machine that had got hold of you. You'd no sense of acting of your own free will, and at the same time no notion of trying to resist. ... Why had I joined the army? Or the million other idiots who joined before conscription came in? ... The machine had got hold of you and it could do what it liked with you. It lifted you up and dumped you down among places and things you'd never dreamed of ...41
Not only did soldiers realize that things just "happened" to them, and that they "found themselves" in unwanted situations, both when they volunteered and when bombs lifted them from one place to another. The traditional homo ludens, who steered his own fortunes, had been replaced by a homo lusus, a marionette that fortune played with. Soldiers also realized that the War machine itself was no longer under reasonable control and began to follow its own absurd dynamism, much like the wheels of machines and bicycles in the pre-War novels of H. G. Wells:
It was like a great flood rushing you along to death, and suddenly it would shoot you up some backwater where you'd find yourself doing incredible and pointless things and drawing extra pay for them. There were labour batallions making roads across the desert that didn't lead anywhere. There were chaps marooned on oceanic islands to look out for German cruisers which had been sunk years earlier ...42
Incompetent officers, mostly members of an obsolete aristocracy, gave stupid orders,43 until the whole chain of command was as disconnected as the torn bodies of their victims in their own armies. The disconnectedness and fragmentation of post-War life, already realized by 'modern' pre-War artists and magnified in the Great War itself, is symbolized in a grammatically crippled (pre-Dada) newspaper headline on a murder: "LEGS. FAMOUS SURGEON'S STATEMENT."44
Orwell's novel raises the old Hobbesian question which the novels of Joseph Conrad and H. G. Wells as well as the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud raised before and after the War, and which is central to the verse of the trench poets. Possibly the war of everybody against everybody was the atavic human condition, homo homini lupus. Possibly all civilization was a mere crust, based upon a fragile social contract, ready to dissolve upon a call to arms. Possibly the relapsing of modern civilization into the primordial jungle had already begun, and Conrad was right in imagining that the jungle would finally be victorious: "The horror!" Possibly all historiography and mythography had told abject lies about the reality of past conflicts, and weak man had never had a chance against the brutal strength of a malevolent and godless fate, as in Robert Graves's poem 'Goliath and David' (1916). Possibly religious hold in life was a pious lie, and not even a Romantic prophetic child (Wordsworth's mighty prophet and seer blest) could detect a sanctuarium anywhere, as in Robert Graves's poem 'A Boy in Church' (1917). Or, in modern terms, life and death possibly were intrinsically absurd and circular, devoid of divine nature and aim and sense and order.
Similarly in Wells's War novel Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), the protagonist asks himself whether the War had done more than merely "unmask reality."45 And Graves cast doubt upon the truth of all myths of creation:
Here now is chaos once again,
In their pessimistic view of man, however, Orwell's novels went a step beyond Wells's The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) and Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1902), with the War experience behind their back. Beyond evincing the anthropophagic and predatory nature of man chiefly from the natural cruelty of 'culturally unspoilt' children, they stressed their herding and hoarding instincts. George Bowling's Black Hand Gang and Big Brother's Young Spies are described in term of animal (especially wolf) packs that delight in hunting, roaming, creeping, torturing, and killing.46 The hunting instinct, which European civilization had only domesticated, would break all bounds when men and animals alike herded for war, Huns as well as non-Huns. The game would shed its rules and become brutal murder. In Siegfried Sassoon's fictionalized war memoirs, the George Sherston Trilogy, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) was succeeded by Memoirs of an Infantry Soldier (1930). The transition appears natural, in George Sherston as well as his comrades in the trenches: "Dick's father was a very good man with a gun, so Dick used to say ..."47 In Ford Madox Ford's novel The Good Soldier (1915), a study of the society that produced the Great War, the titular hero is Edward Ashburnham, a landowner of a redundant and useless aristocracy in search of a renewal of its traditional sphere of activity: war. There is chaos lurking behind the conservative façade, ending in suicide, and the bookcase holds a gun instead of books.48
Not only hunting, but all games could be seen as temporarily domesticated battles. In the introduction to his best-selling anthology of War poems, The Muse in Arms (1917), E. B. Osborn called attention to the fact that "this stout old nation persists in thinking of war as a sport".49 In Wilfred Owen's poem 'Disabled' (MS 1917-18), a crippled soldier hears the voices of playing boys and remembers how he liked being cheered with a blood-smear down his leg after football, before a shell tore away both his legs. And the emotionally crippled soldier-speaker of Edward Thomas's poem 'Tears' (MS 1915) would cry, if cry he still could, when he remembers his former delight in watching a fox-hunt or a splendid military parade. Their sporting instincts had obviously driven both to volunteer for a War which cost the one his leg and the other his feelings.
With regard to the masses of volunteers on both sides and the triumph of the Death Force over the Life Force in the Great War, G. B. Shaw wrote in the preface to his War drama Heartbreak House:
What really happened was that the impact of physical death and destruction ... tore off the masks of education, art, science, and religion from our ignorance and barbarism, and left us glorying grotesquely in the licence suddenly accorded to our vilest passions and most abject terrors.50Even the most sceptical of the trench poets, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and even the half-German poet Robert von Ranke Graves, as well as the half-German novelist Ford Madox Hueffer (later Ford), had volunteered, driven by an irresistible instinct. And those among them who were wounded and sent home longed to go back into the trenches, in spite of the insight that they had gained from their trench experience. Robert Graves, who records that absurdly inconsistent behaviour observed both in himself and others, attests that even Siegfried Sassoon "varied between happy warrior and bitter pacifist", and that he later offered a poem in praise of war as an ironical satire.51 And Graves slyly suggests that intellectuals and pacifists like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell did not volunteer for the simple reason that they were rejected for being too ill or too old.52 It should be added that even Isaac Rosenberg, one of the bitterest trench poets, initially wrote patriotic poems in praise of the War.53 Rosenberg's later shamefaced statement, that he had been poor and volunteered for the money, must be regarded as an anti-myth and post festum excuse.54
Orwell's George Bowling summarizes the absurdity and confusion of such helpless, senseless, and incoherent geworfensein. Dumped down in the muck of a ditch by a shell and then back into civilian life by the same "enormous hand" or "enormous machine", George Bowling realizes that post-War existence with its reckless fight for jobs and housing is much more warlike than "those days" before the War. The new mass civilization with its brittle Peace of Versailles had imposed a thinner crust and poorer domestication upon that predatory animal, man. Vivere militare est. The Second World War would soon follow the First, as its natural result.55
But, retrospectively, pre-War life had also already shown closer affinities to the Great War than tradition would allow to admit. There was the same social hierarchy, with the same stupid and obsolete aristocrats in command of university dons, who were in command of the death-doomed privates. The trenches bore the names of well-known streets, squares, and junctions. And the soldiers, bored in a War stuck in the mud due to new machine guns, alternately played games, killed enemies, and read or wrote literary texts.56 C'était une drôle de guerre. Retrospectively, the Great War proved to be the result not only of a fatal network of alliances, but as the historically and psychologically unavoidable mise en scène of feelings and convictions of a death-doomed world that had lost both its sense and support. War had been in the air, which well before it broke out was a subject of the poetry and painting of all the European countries involved. The Austrian poets Georg Heym (died 1912) and Georg Trakl (died 1914) described it in terms of their inherited fin-de-siècle imagery of autumnal decay. The German poet Gottfried Benn refashioned Baudelaire in his Morgue cycle (1912), reducing human existence to hollow bodies rattling themselves into life and again out of life after having been moved round an absurd circle of mere incoherent coincidences, a confused mass of fragmentarily perceived or amputated limbs, in a life or death where (as in the later poetry of the trenches) rats and flowers have more individuality and command more sympathy than men. The German painters Otto Dix and George Grosz (later soldiers of the trenches) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner painted street scenes with hollow houses and hollow men in chaotic cities that show waste-land scenes of barrenness, war chaos, war devastation, war fire, and death years before the outbreak of the War, claiming war to be the condition of modern man even in what was misnamed 'peace'. In pre-War paintings James Ensor, Egon Schiele and Emil Nolde, human beings appear as faceless fragments or histrionic masks in a mere circus world, a theme later insistently taken up by Max Beckmann. The mask is no longer a temporary and ritual alter ego for a divinely created unique and distinctive individual that can (and must) again unmask itself, but the arbitrarily interchangeable husk of hollowness and emptiness. It is typical of these paintings that their hollow-eyed men and women move on unstable, slippery ground. Any metaphysical or physical individuality or security in life is implicitly denied. Their hollowness, their waste-land situation, and their lack of an individual core reflect similar images of man in the earlier novels of H. G. Wells,anticipating central themes in the early poetry of T. S. Eliot, Prufrock (1915), The Waste Land (1922) and The Hollow Men (1925). Thus, the War made apparent that absurdity of human existence to which 'Modern' artists had already given expression, in various movements and styles characterized by a multiplicity of -isms, itself a manifestation of the sense of disconnectedness and fragmentariness: Imagism, Vorticism, Divisionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Constructivism, etc.
Wilfred Owen's poem 'Apologia Pro Poemate Meo' (MS 1917), an ars poetica of trench poetry, poses the question of the absurdity of all existence in view of the physical experience of such chaotic confusion:
Merry it was to laugh there -
The poem is a plea for the aesthetics of ugliness and chaos, in rejection of any literary rule of reason or decorum as well as any theology. After a short perversion of Henry Cardinal Newman's experience of God in its first line, the poem proceeds to an ironical hymnification of trench life as the human condition. Where mud and excrement replace biblical clay, the absurdity of life and death becomes apparent, just as in the disorderly confusion of established categories. Where hell is but trench life and heaven but the trajectory of a shell, fair and foul become indiscriminate and merge into wry laughter. Owen describes a mixture that was later elaborated in the theatre of the absurd:
I have perceived much beauty
War poems, War novels, and War memoirs frequently describe scenes of misplaced, mad mirth. There was the infernal grin in the faces of soldiers who died in greatest pain,59 and there was the frequent dementia due to shell-shock and gas-raids.60 But these appeared as mere related symptoms of a more universal disease, the total loss of order. Isaac Rosenberg, the most visionary of all the trench poets, wrote consciously uncoordinated poems evoking scenes of trench life as "a demons' pantomime" with men "flung on the shrieking pyre"61, with "grinning faces" and "yelling in lurid glee".62 In 'Dead Man's Dump', the speaker wildly addresses a merely mad earth, which had formerly been seen as the divine seedground of the dialectics of birth, death, and resurrection:
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowl
Small wonder that shrieking madness was perceived and formulated everywhere, both literally and metaphorically. Robert Graves's War memoirs Goodbye to All That (1929), his farewell to the old life in an old world, describes frequent scenes of madness, such as the "nightmare" when the inmates of a lunatic asylum were "caught between two fires, broke out and ran all over the countryside".64 In Wells's Mr Britling Sees It Through, the protagonist's son Hugh, a volunteer in Flanders, sends disappointed letters about the War's madness and absurdity. So, he reports the senseless prolonged shelling of an empty village, misaimed with the destruction of only one or two houses "just as though they had been kicked to pieces by a lunatic giant".65 And in Orwell's Coming Up for Air, George Bowling finds that after the War the old feudal Binfield House has been converted into a "loony bin".66
God, it was said, died in the trenches of the Great War, after the increasing doubt that atheists and agnostics had for more than a century cast upon His existence. And with Him died the belief in the harmonia mundi as the expression of the sanity of the world. The trench poets' harping on the mad shrieks of battles of materiél as modern harmony coincided with Arnold Schönberg's composition of atonal music. The "maniac blast" of barrage-fire was felt to be the concert of a modern world torn and undermined by war, as in Edmund Blunden's poem 'Concert Party: Busseboom':
To this new concert, white we stood;
The soldiers listen to that maniac blast as they would formerly have listened to a tonal symphony. This imaginative pattern, the observance of old forms filled with new opposite contents, is also that of literary parody. Parody, especially of church anthems, hymns, and Georgian pastorals, easily offered itself to the trench poets. Robert Graves reports how spontaneously soldiers perceived a mess of officers as "a caricature of the Last Supper", and how readily they exchanged the words of hymns so as to discredit the biblical message of any church- or field-service. Where "the last trump" of the Apocalypse became "the last crump" (a German shell) of the Great War, any metaphysical perspective was denied and ridiculed.68 Wilfred Owen's 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' (MS 1917) is perhaps the most consistent and best-known exercise in techniques of perversion, typical of trench poetry. Thundering guns replace harmonious passing-bells, rattling rifles replace prayers, the mad noise of shells replaces choirs, the tears of boys and the pallor of girls replace candles and palls. The deconstruction of the Missa Pro Defunctis is underlined by pararhymes:
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
There existed other - inherited and radicalizable - literary techniques to discredit conventional faith. One was the reductio ad absurdum of the dialogue between man and God, and, analogously, man and God's alleged representatives upon earth, divines and officers. The soldier asking questions underneath a cross, or being sermonized by a preacher or instructed by an officer, is offered ready-made clichés instead of answers: purification, regeneration, sacrifice. Underlining the disruption of communication, the soldiers' questions are in modern dialect, and their superiors' answers in obsolete Authorized Version or Book of Common Prayer English. Sassoon's poems 'They' and 'Christ and the Soldier' are typical instances of this pre-absurd technique.70 Another, related technique of discrediting was the negation of the redemptive power of Christian symbols, in the literary tradition of Romantic disillusionism (Byron, Heine, Leopardi). The cross, like the charred trees, shows unregenerative death; the sun wakes the seeds, but not the dead71; the rain and the wind do not "quicken a new birth"72, but soak the trenches in mud and cold73; "bitter stars" and "withered suns" stare indifferently down upon a "Devil's Mass" of a War instead of conferring biblical peace and consolation.74 Richard Aldington's 'Battlefield' is a 'Waste Land', though without T.S. Eliot's later hope of regeneration:
The wind is piercing chill
But in this fruitless land,
The grave is not a solemn promise of resurrectio mortuorum, but a most unholy dead and anonymous man's dump.76 Either the frozen earth would not admit a burial of the dead, or falling bombs would fling the buried corpses up again and again, as a modern circular form of the resurrection. Wells's novel Mr Britling Sees It Through imagines such a scene of repeated piecemeal resurrection by shelling:
And as luck would have it, he was spun up again. In pieces. The trench howled with laughter ...77
This is the same absurd laughter described in Owen's 'Apologia Pro Poemate Meo'.
All the major trench poets, including the self-taught Isaac Rosenberg, were conscious artists, steeped in pre-War English literature, philosophy, and theology. Late Victorian and Edwardian epistemological scepticism, relativism and perspectivism, the reduction of the world to an indvidual's experience of disrupted sensations, was quite familiar to them. It prefigured their later very personal and narrow trench-view of war and peace, death and life. The saying that the trench experience made them poets is a similar terrible simplification as the saying that they went into the War like Rupert Brooke and came out like Siegfried Sassoon.78 Their reading, especially in Romantic and neo-Romantic literature, was enormous, so that they knew the religious and literary conventions which they alternately followed and undermined. They had published poems, written poems, or at least cultivated literary connections before the War, and they continued doing so in the trenches. Isaac Rosenberg, though delighting in the Romantic image of an untaught child of nature, carried on a sophisticated literary correspondence with Edward Marsh, editor of Georgian Poetry (1912-1922). And Rosenberg might also have become a professor of poetry specializing in the Romantics, like Edmund Blunden and Herbert Read, had he survived the War like them.79
Georgian poetry, often misunderstood as a pastoral escape from 'Modernism'80, was the starting point of most trench poets. Georgian poetry was one of several attempts at overcoming the literature of the décadence and fin de siècle, in this case by a recourse to the beauty and vitality of English landscape. But unprejudiced readers of the pre-War Georgian poetry and prose of Rupert Brooke or Edmund Blunden or Edward Thomas will notice the modern undertone of doubt, just as viewers of the pre-War Georgian landscape paintings of the later trench painter Paul Nash will note the menacing quality of seeming idylls. Rupert Brooke's poem 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester' (MS 1912) ends on too many question marks, and his 'Five War Sonnets' (MS 1914) contain too many subtle satirical lunges at established rites of war to be read as pure confirmations of man's vital regeneration by England's landscapes and England's wars. Had Brooke not died in 1915, on his way to the Eastern Front and without the trench experience, he might well have come to write trench poems like Sassoon's or Owen's. In 1917, with the disillusioning experience of the trenches of the Western Front, Ivor Gurney wrote 'Five War Sonnets' in critical imitation of Rupert Brooke's.81 In these he consciously darkened Brooke's shades of doubt, while minimizing his belief in the sense of the War for rural old England:
So the dark horror clouds us, and the dread
Firstly, Georgian poetry was neo-Romantic poetry of a seemingly "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" or "emotions recollected in tranquillity", quite distinct from Imagist poetry with its 'early Modern' insistence on formal precision and emotional detachment. Occasional attempts at writing Imagist trench poems, as was done by Herbert Read and Isaac Rosenberg, were quickly dropped because they could not adequately convey the trench experience. Secondly, Georgian poetry with its elements of doubt easily offered the techniques of a destruction of pastoral illusion, especially with a background knowledge of William Blake's Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794). Insofar, Edward Thomas's 'As the Team's Head Brass' (MS 1916) may be read as an ironical counterpart to Rupert Brooke's 'The Old Vicarage, Grantchester'. Georgian pastoralism is progressively unmasked as an illusion, when Thomas's speaker watches a ploughman with his team of horses and the flashing brass on their harness. The elm, symbol of vitality, was felled by a natural disaster, a blizzard, analogous to the War in which the other horses and the ploughman's mate were conscripted and killed. The information is conveyed in a dialogue between the speaker and the ploughman, and ends on the sceptical reflection that a peaceful world "might seem good" if "we could see all".83 The dialogue is just as torn as the poem's metre and rhyme-scheme. Again, peace is no real alternative to war. Lovers, who disappear at the poem's beginning, emerge out of the wood again, the short idyll is past, post coitum homo tristis. And the disappointed speaker sees the initially idyllic scene in terms of toil and torn earth:
A study of Edmund Blunden's landscape-centred War poems reveals a similar progression from illusions of innocence to experience of earthly reality, though without Blake's millenarian synthesis. As in 'Thiepval Wood', there is no regeneration for the charred stalks of trees in a shell- and gas-defiled earth:
Byronic negative Romanticism is here driven to its extreme, using Byron's literary techniques. The extreme consists in the suggestion that ugliness and deformity are the beauty and natural order of the modern world, deprived of its former cultural varnish. Blackened trees that looked like pillars or gibbets, or that were artificial traps to hide snipers; the above-mentioned atonal symphony of shelling; faces covered by soot or grotesque gas-masks86; zeppelins or planes or tanks or submarines that looked like strange and ugly additions to the old creation; the whole War stuck in the mud of trenches due to monstrous machine-guns; and the breakdown of the traditional chivalrous rules of warfare by land and water; - all that seemed to confirm H. G. Wells, whose novel The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) had doubted the existence of 'natural' forms and norms, both physical and moral.87 Analogous to this was the above-mentioned denial of a divine natural core in individual man, identity as opposed to mask. It constituted a reversion from the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of the individual soul to former polytheism, which (as cultural anthropology has shown) had known no such difference between persona (the inner individual) and persona (the outer mask). Scepticism towards physical verities found its parallel in scepticism towards psychological verities. Man had begun sacrilegiously to understand himself as an amalgam of exchangeable masks (which could be peeled like the rings of an onion), a Proteus varying between peacefulness and aggressiveness, refinement and vulgarity, deceit and honesty. Thus, in André Gide's novel Les caves du vatican (1914) or Wells's novel The History of Mr Polly (1910), characters like Protos or Polly can alternately be stupid and brilliant, moral and criminal, courageous and cowardly, reckless and conscience-ridden, believers or unbelievers. The denial of natural individuality and identity preceded the denaturation and de-individualization of man in the trenches of the Western Front. Again, the shocks of the War blew up beliefs that pre-War scepticism had already shaken. The Island of Dr Moreau, Wells's nominalistic and perspectivistic nightmare of the possible arbitrariness of all physical and psychological fixities, as well as of the possible fraudulence of all ethical and aesthetical norms, corresponded to the nightmarish confusion of the trench soldiers. Everything that had been dear to the Romantic and Georgian lovers of nature, - love, fresh spring, red dawn, green trees, rain showers, the song of birds, the beauty of butterflies - , was suddenly either false or deadly. In Isaac Rosenberg's poems 'Spring 1916' (MS 1916) and 'Returning, We Hear the Larks' (MS 1917) spring, song, lark, and love are divested of their Romantic Shelleyan symbolism of regeneration and metaphysical certainty. The larks appear as mocking harbingers of death, their song "showering" down at uncertain moments upon blind soldiers who can no longer see the sky, any more than lovers can see the serpent hiding to destroy them.88 In Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues, young Paul Bäumer is shot dead when thinking of beautiful autumnal trees (in the novel of 1929) or while observing a beautiful butterfly (in the film version of 1930). And Edmund Blunden's poem 'Trench Raid Near Hooge' visualizes false untimely dawns with false thunders which are, in reality, caused by deadly gunfire, bombs, and shells. The traditional Homeric epithet is discredited:
At an hour before the rosy-fingered
Through the black reached strange long rosy fingers;
This alienation of nature and beauty was the more nightmarish for its breaking of assumed units. The mass of dismembered bodies and the distorted vision of the battlefield upon a torn earth shaking under heavy bombing and obscured by nebelwerfer weirdly confirmed the truth of the fragmented view of things in the pre-War prose of Wells and Conrad, the poetry of Pound and Eliot, the Cubist paintings of Braque and Picasso. The surface of earth and civilization, broken in peace and finally rent up by the War, revealed a nightmarish inferno. Surrealistic techniques and fantasies of dreamlike subterraneous adventures, developed in Horace Walpole's Gothic Novel and Coleridge's Mystery Poems and Poe's Tales, combined with reports of the new nineteenth-century sciences psychiatry and psychoanalysis and found their way into trench poetry - and via trench poetry into post-War surrealism.90 The modern entropic assumption that hell is not a place of the world beyond, but the chaos within and without man, is here anticipated. The Hindenburg Line and the Maginot Line, with their long, maddening, dark tunnels above and below ground, naturally recalled both Romanticism and psychoanalysis. Sassoon's poem 'The Rear-Guard' (MS 1917) imagines a soldier staggering through a tunnel up on his way to the battleground:
Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
The tunnel's narrowness suggests fatalism, tragic necessity, its chaos and stench and animality and dead bodies suggest hell. The soldier's ascensio is not a dignified man's traditionally expected escape from hell to heaven, but a sniffing, creeping, groping, staggering, grabbing and climbing creature's movement underground. The biblical creature man is the heaven-orientated crown of creation, endowed with a natura humana separata; by contrast, the soldier of trench poetry is re-bestialized, even, as in Rosenberg's poem 'Break of Day in the Trenches' (MS 1916), below the rats who are at least cosmopolitan.92 The biblical people that walked in darkness have seen a great light93; by contrast, the soldier who gropes his way in darkness sees nothing but "dawn's ghost", "the rosy gloom of battle overhead", and "twilight air"94, and even that is nothing but the artificial light of gunfire. Here was a troglodyte world where soldiers felt they had relapsed from the illusory dignity of civilization into the pristine company of the omnipresent rats, a fact noted in numerous War poems, memoirs, and novels.95
Sassoon's soldier is not identified with regard to his nationality, implying the poet's quite unpatriotic awareness of the universality of the experience. Much the same applies to the speakers of Owen's poems 'Miners' and 'Strange Meeting' (both MSS 1918). Both speakers are soldiers who have dreamy visions of their enemies and of imminent unavoidable death. The first speaker listens to the sounds of his fireplace which spark off Coleridgean musings, of pristine earth before civilization, of miners suffering in pits and soldiers suffering in tunnels. The pristine human condition is the same in peace and war. All life is war, and peace is found in death alone:
I thought of all that worked dark pits
The second speaker tells a dream of his escape from battle down "some profound dull tunnel".97 But, instead of peace, he found a pristine inferno where he met the ghost of an enemy soldier whom he had recently killed. The ghost's concluding speech, coined by the omniscience of the dead, forms the longest part of the poem and reveals the enemy soldier to be the speaker's alter ego. He speaks "truths that lie too deep for taint", of the hopelessness of a civilization relapsing into barbarity, of the war poet's commitment to the cathartic pity of the war.98 Tragedy ends in death, and the ghost invites the speaker, Hamlet-like, to follow him: "Let us sleep now ... "99 A few months after the composition of his visionary poem, Owen was killed in action, a week before the end of the War.
Wells's Mr Britling realizes more and more, not least through the letters and final death in action of his shocked son Hugh (initially an enthusiastic volunteer), that the War has become a "bickering futility" and a "nightmare vision".100 This realization shatters Mr Britling's inherited Christian theodicies, and he becomes fragmentary and discontinuous in his search for new explanations of this suffering world. Was the world created by a malignant spirit, as in Gnosticism? Is the War a step in the scale of evolution towards higher things, such as a future federal world republic? Is God finite instead of omnipotent, Himself subject to a blind fate?101 All these heretical explanations have one thing in common: a sense of fatalism and helplessness in view of an absurd and bungled War which ran out of human control. When, at the end of the novel, Mr Britling forces his way back into orthodoxy in a desperate rage of traditional theodicy, both his style and the symbolism of the surrounding landscape discredit the possibility that the old order - and its philosophy and theology - could ever be genuinely recovered. The Christian symbol of the cock upon the spire, announcing the break of the dawn of mankind, is undermined by sights and sounds of scythes und guns:
It was as if there was nothing but morning and sunrise in the world.
The Crisis of European Civilization may, from a historian's point of view, be a myth engendered by the perspectivism and relativism of pre-War philosophy and literature, as Samuel Hynes claims, "the myth of disruption and fragmentation that is the Myth of the War".103 In the history of ideas, however, it marked a further advance of the philosophy and literature of the absurd (often inadequately identified with 'Modernism')104, a philosophy and literature under way ever since Byronic negative Romanticism.105 But 'modernism' is an unoriginal make-shift and omnibus term106 for various innovating ideological and stylistical tendencies in twentieth-century arts, which had their roots in the nineteenth century.107 As such, 'Modernism' is definable rather as the period or movement that was obliged to come to terms with the absurd, not only as a monolithic ideological formation accepting the absurd and giving it artistic forms. Later poets, the David Jones of In Parenthesis (1937) and the T.S. Eliot of Four Quartets (1943) and the Robert Graves of Collected Poems (1955), succeeded in overcoming Wilfred Owenism. Their works reformulate 'the circuitous journey of Ulysses'108, the Modern dialectical and melioristic recovery of their lost religious identity out of the bomb-rubble of their shattered belief in the sense of human suffering in wars, and out of their idolatry of the very Unholy and Absurd Trinity of Fate, Accident, and Nature's Blind Will.
University of Bonn
1 This was due to the fact that it was the first major modern war in Europe - excluding the American Civil War - in which ordinary educated civilians took part, and in which many intellectuals and artists enlisted voluntarily, for reasons shown below. For the War's promotion of interest in poetry cf. the references in the second chapter of Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse, 'Time Passes' (1927).
My life as an artist and my life as a soldier intertwine, in this unaffected narrative. I show, too, going from the particular to the general, how War and Art in those days mingled ...57 Lines 5-8, ed. cit. p. 39. Owen's peculiar mixture of styles, as noted in Desmond Graham's study, was only one expression of his anti-normative aesthetics. Cf. the mixture of styles in Frederic Manning's War novel Her Privates We (1930): Private Bourne's philosophical reflections alternate with vulgar (bowdlerized) soldiers' speech.
58 Owen, 'Apologia Pro Poemate Meo', lines 25-29, ed. cit. I. 124. Cf. Frederic Manning's poem 'Grotesque' (1917) with its description of the chaotic perversions of the Dantesque hell of the trenches; quoted in Bernard Bergonzi, Heroes' Twilight, pp. 74-75.
59 As in the death of the French trench soldier in the film version of Erich Maria Remarque's Im Westen nichts Neues (1930). Wilfred Owen's poem 'Mental Cases' (MS 1918), line 24, ed. cit. I. 169, speaks of the "Awful falseness of set smiling corpses".
60 Owen's 'Mental Cases' gives a disgustingly beautiful description of the causes and symptoms of trench madness, in the sense of his aesthetics of ugliness and deformity. A shell-shocked young War veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, is the second central character in Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway (1925), reminiscent of Nick Adams in Ernest Hemingway's short stories of 1925 and 1927.
61 Rosenberg, 'Dead Man's Dump', MS 1917, line 32, in Collected Works, ed. Ian Parsons, London, 1979, p. 110.
62 Rosenberg, 'Louse Hunting', MS 1917, line 2, ed. cit. p. 108.
63 Lines added in another (possibly final) version of 'Dead Man's Dump', ibid. p. 112. For the treatment of this theme in the arts of the period v. Richard Cork's excellent A Bitter Truth. Avant-Garde Art and the Great War, New Haven and London, 1994, passim.
64 Graves, Goodbye to All That, p. 146.
65 Wells, Mr Britling Sees It Through, p. 326.
66 Orwell, Coming Up for Air, p. 207.
67 Lines 21-24, in Poems of Many Years, London, 1957, p. 141. Cf. Ford Madox Ford's trench poem 'The Iron Music' (MS Albert 1916), in An Anthology of War Poems, ed. Frederick Brereton, p. 98, and the description of the "stupendous symphony" of the War in Richard Aldington, Death of a Hero, 1929, London, 1965, p. 321. Also v. John Morris, 'Life of an Anti-hero', in The First World War in Fiction, ed. Holger Klein, p. 192.
68 Graves, Goodbye to All That, pp. 124 and 164.
69 Lines 1-4, ed. cit. I. 99. The poem was set to music by Benjamin Britten as the significantly first solo aria of his War Requiem (1962), which punctuated the text of the Latin Mass for the Dead by Owen's poems.
70 Also cf. the commentary on the neglect of Easter and the obliteration of the principles of Christianity in Sassoon's Memoirs of George Sherston, 'At the Front', ed. cit. pp. 274.
71 For example in Wilfred Owen's poem 'Futility' (MS 1918), ed. cit. I. 158.
72 Shelley, 'Ode to the West Wind', 1820, line 64.
73 For example Edward Thomas's poem 'Rain', MS 1916, in the thematic context of The Faber Book of War Poetry, ed. Kenneth Baker, London, 1996, p. 246.
74 Edmund Blunden, '"Transport Up" at Ypres', lines 9, 17, 7, in Poems of Many Years, p. 21.
75 In The Oxford Book of War Poetry, ed. Jon Stallworthy, p. 200.
76 Note the technical similarities with Isaac Rosenberg's deconstruction of the biblical myth in 'Dead Man's Dump'. Cf. Edward Thomas's refusal to associate springtime with new life in his short lyrics 'In Memoriam (Easter 1915)' and 'The Cherry Trees'; The Oxford Book of War Poetry, p. 179.
77 Wells, Mr Britling Sees It Through, p. 324.
78 The Norton Anthology of English Literature, II.1849 (headnote to May Wedderburn Cannan).
79 For Owen's enthusiasm for the Romantics and his literary pilgrimages to the houses of Scott, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley v. Jon Stallworthy, Wilfred Owen, London, 1974, passim.
80 For example v. Vivian de Sola Pinto, Crisis in English Poetry, 1880-1940, New York, 1966, pp. 151-52, and Johnston, English Poetry of the First World War, pp. 3-5.
81 Gurney, Severn and Somme, 'Sonnets 1917 (To the Memory of Rupert Brooke)', London, 1917.
82 '1. For England', lines 9-14, in Gurney, Severn and Somme and War's Embers, ed. R. K. R. Thornton, Manchester, 1997, p. 49. Note the reference to the blind Immanent Will of Arthur Schopenhauer's and Thomas Hardy's voluntaristic philosophy. The title poem of Robert Graves's collection Over the Brazier, London, 1916, p. 31, turns on the fear of the loss of old England after the War's end:
"Old England's quite a hopeless place:
83 Line 32, in The Collected Poems, ed. R. George Thomas, Oxford, 1978, p. 327.
84 Lines 32-36, ibid. Ivor Gurney's two collections of trench poetry, Severn and Somme (1917) and War's Embers (1919), also elaborate the contrasts, even in their titles. Also v. Hynes, A War Imagined, chapter 9 ' The Death of Landscape', pp. 189-202.
85 Quoted from Johnston, English Poetry of the First World War, p. 120. Cf. the denial of Christian faith and imagery in Blunden's memoirs Undertones of War, London, 1928, beginning with two ironical epigraphs from the Articles of the Church of England and John Bunyan, and a first chapter entitled 'The Path without Primroses', and continued in such blunt statements as the characterization of the battlefield of Ypres as "a simulacrum of divine aberration" (p. 164).
86 Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, passim.
87 Also v. Rolf Lessenich, 'The World of the Novels of H. G. Wells', in Anglia, 115 (1997), 299-322. For the Modernist self's doubt of the naturalness of traditional moral norms also v. Christopher Butler, Early Modernism. Literature, Music and Painting in Europe 1900-1916, Oxford, 1994, pp. 89-96 and passim. A. C. Ward, Twentieth-Century Literature: 1901-1925, London, 1928, p. 201, formulates the Modernist creed: "I believe in the uncertainty of all things, I believe that all things are possible, nothing incredible ..." For man as an amalgam of exchangeable masks note the title of Ezra Pounds early collection of poems, Personae (1909), and v. Christoph Irmscher's Masken der Moderne, Würzburg, 1992, passim.
88 Lines 1-16, ed. cit. p. 109.
89 Quoted from Johnston, English Poetry of the First World War, p. 147. Wilfred Owen's poem 'Exposure' (MS 1916-17), line 11, ed. cit. I. 185, speaks of "the poignant misery of dawn"; the poem's similarly oblique reference to Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale' discredits regeneration and immortality by similar contrast, - a favourite parodistical technique of trench poetry.
90 A. D. Harvey, A Muse of Fire, pp. 161-162, points out the Surrealistic technique of the War poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, a pioneer of Surrealism, who had volunteered for the French army and was invalided in the trenches in 1916. Apollinaire died of his war wounds in 1918, the year of the publicatoion of his Calligrammes: Poèmes de la paix et de la guerre.
91 Sassoon, 'The Rear-Guard', lines 1-3, in Collected Poems, p. 69.
92 Rosenberg, 'Break of Day in the Trenches', line 2-12, in The Collected Works, p. 103.
93 Isaiah 9. 2.
94 Sassoon, 'The Rear-Guard', lines 20, 7, 24, ed. cit. pp. 69-70.
95 A typical example, though with biblical allusions to the downfall of great cities and civilizations, is Osbert Sitwell's War poem 'Therefore the Name of it is Called Babel' (1916); also v. John Lehmann, The English Poets of the First World War, pp. 114-15, and Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975, New York, 1977, pp. 36-74. In his introduction to An Anthology of War Poems, ed. Frederick Brereton, p. 24, Edmund Blunden speaks of "the mephitic gulf of the bombardment" and "prehistoric 1916 and 1917".
96 Owen, 'Miners', lines 21-24, ed. cit. I. 135.
97 Owen, 'Strange Meeting', line 2, ed. cit. I. 148.
98 Lines 15-45, ed. cit. pp. 35-36. The whole poem is set to music towards the end of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1962). The reference is to Owen's own famous preface to his projected book of Poems, published two years after his death with an introduction by Siegfried Sassoon (1920): "The subject of it is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the Pity". Edmund Blunden, War Poets 1914-1918, Writers and their Work, London, 1958, p. 36, follows Sassoon in identifying pity with soldierly compassion, but fails to see the emotional 'pity' as superior to the rational 'fear' in Owen's view of the catharsis of the Great War's tragedy.
99 Line 44, ed. cit. p. 36.
100 Wells, Mr Britling Sees It Through, pp. 282 and 318. For Wells's earlier disconnected and subversive War book, Boon (1915), v. Hynes, A War Imagined, pp. 21-24.
101 Wells, Mr Britling Sees It Through, ibid. p. 397. A finite and impotent God, himself a victim of a malign fate, was envisaged in many trench poems, e. g. Siegfried Sassoon's 'The Prince of Wounds' and Isaac Rosenberg's 'On Receiving News of the War'.
102 Ibid. p. 433. Cf. Owen's poem 'The Fates' (1917), ed. cit. I. 87, or cruel fate and blind chance thwarting all human plans in the plays of Gerhart Hauptmann as well as in the novels of H. G. Wells, Franz Kafka, and André Gide. "Kafkaesque" is a term coined for the post-Gothic literary creation of the vague, nightmarish, and uncanny incomprehensibility of such a threat. Especially in Hauptmann's pre-War tragedies (e.g. Rose Bernd 1903), unpredictable and unavoidable catastrophes gather above men's heads, the ground underneath their feet seems to break away, and there is no God or religion to provide help or consolation.
103 Hynes, A War Imagined, p. 436. Evelyn Cobley's counter-argument, that the mythical narratives of the War "unwittingly reveal their ideological complicity with the bourgeois-capitalist industrial complex", is a forbidding example of a distortion of facts by preconceived fashionable theories; Representing War. Form and Ideology in First World War Narratives, Toronto, 1993, p. 181.
104 Hynes, A War Imagined, pp. 457-59, enumerates: the removal of all abstract propositions about values, history, heroism, freedom, sacrifice, nation, institutions; the distrust of language and the acceptance of incoherence as reality's image; and the confinement of narrative to subjective experience.
105 Rich evidence of this is provided by Norbert Lennartz, Absurdität vor dem Theater des Absurden. Absurde Tendenzen und Paradigmata untersucht an ausgewählten Beispielen von Lord Byron bis T.S. Eliot, Trier, 1998, passim.
106 In the Neoclassical querelle des anciens et des modernes, for instance, 'moderns' such as Dryden used the word for their belief in their own superiority over the ancients, although (as Augustans) they never denied their debt to Horace and Virgil. Insofar, their 'Modernism' was radically different from twentieth-century 'Modernism', for which a new term will have to be found from the more comprehensive view of a future historical distance.
107 Note the wise plural in the title of Peter Nicholls, Modernisms. A Literary Guide, Basingstoke and London, 1995. It is, however, rather surprising that Nicholls's analysis of the Anglo-American Modernism of the 'Men of 1914' concentrates on alienating styles and masks alone and does not even mention the trench poets (pp. 165-192).
108 Ithaca (thesis), exodus and loss of orientation (antithesis), return to Ithaca a wiser and a better man (synthesis). Eliot's interpretation of the German bombing of London in 1942 as a Pentecostal redemption of "fire by fire" and identification of the end with the beginning reshapes absurd circularity into spiral elevation (Four Quartets, IV 'Little Gidding').