The Nation's Cause: French, English and German Poetry of the First World War

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Machine Gun Sonnets

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In a few years, much of the Western World will, for lack of a better word, celebrate the Centennial of The Great War in Europe from 1914-1918, the anniversary of that one round that loosed trillions more and signaled the death knell for societies and cultures once so steeped in the fine notions of romance and art. The First World War has long intrigued scholars in many fields, but one of the most interesting and unifying aspects of the conflict remains its many dichotomies: the way in which the arcane and the modern clashed in a manner that, unto that point in history, had never been seen before. Enter a new world where tactics so lagged behind the technologies of war that dragoons armed with lances and gasmasks charged headlong against entrenched machine gun nests; where the gentlemanly rules of Old World combat, devised by generals still under the illusion that great men, rather than great machines, achieved victory were put out to pasture and left to die; where educated and idealistic young men wrote of mustard gas and aerial bombardment using sonnets and couplets.

The Great War ushered in a unique milieu of poets—educated and romantic, yet fully modern—who, although they endured all the horrors of industrialized and mechanized warfare, retreated to a forms better suited to Tennyson and his Light Brigade to describe it. This amazingly odd juxtaposition carved World War One poetry a definite niche in the collective literary mindset; no other literary moment, for movement would be too strong a word to ascribe to a mere four years whose overall reputation has been solidified by two or three truly notable and highly antithetical figures, has spoken so drastically to two sides of a popular consciousness. Furthermore, the primary figure come to embody this period, Wilfred Owen, only suffered to have his work “discovered” and celebrated during the commemoration of the war’s 50th anniversary, which brought with it a renewed interest in scholarship for both the war and those who wrote during it.

To that end, it can and has been argued that Owen’s place in the pantheon of war poets rests not on the merits of his words or his skill at turning a phrase but because the tenor of his voice fit precisely with an age quickly turning against the idea that war can ever again be glorious or that it ever was an altruistic endeavor in the first place. To imagine a 1960s community of academics and then contemporary poets lauding over the works of Kipling and the once highly celebrated Rupert Brooke, the former capable of such a horrendously puerile take on the actual carnage about to befall the continent:

For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war,
The Hun is at the gate!

and of further asking that one “Face the naked days/In silent fortitude” because

There is but on task for all—
One life for each to give.
Who stands if Freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?

flies in the face of all social mores soon to dominate the landscape of counterculture England and America. Owen, although only five of his poems were published before his death in 1918, stood as the main antithesis to this jingoistic sentiment, and he has since not only come to dominate the conversation of Great War poets, but also managed a place in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, where he rests beside his friend Siegfried Sassoon—another notable poetic dissenter— and, to a lesser extent, the aforementioned Brooke, who at the outset of the war, and even a few years after its cessation, appeared as the poster child for all that was right and good with the young men of the Empire.

But politics and agenda aside, what is rather interesting is the range and scope of First World War poetry, for war poetry has never been a mode of discourse possessing a long shelf life. It is not the thing that complements a sunny afternoon, and while there is a decent tradition in American letters of the war novel, A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line and The Things They Carried all immediately come to mind, these works often arrive long after the final salvo, tend to be imbued with the cult of the author’s persona and to be written from the safety and distance of time, free from the possibility that a sniper bullet might arrest the author mid couplet; whereas the poems of the Great War, for the most part, exist devoid of ego and communicate a collective rather than personal mindset. As Patrick MacGill writes in the final quatrain of “Before the Charge:”

The dead leaves float in the sighing air,
  The darkness moves like a curtain drawn,
A veil which the morning sun will tear
  From the face of death.—We charge at dawn

Together, reads the unwritten and inferable coda; and together we die.

Still, perhaps the solution to this great paradox, that of Great War poetry’s resilience, lies in the simple fact that if World War II was the last “noble war,” then the Great War was the last chivalrous one, for no other modern conflict possesses the same aura of romance that ironically informs a three and a half year stalemate, where men smeared with mud lived amongst vermin and dead bodies in glorified holes in the ground while suffering exposure to the capricious weather known to suddenly befall Western Europe. In essence, World War One poetry is both the merging of art and suffering at its highest form and a controlled, packaged image of it. Through a masterful slight of hand and a brilliant bit of marketing on the part of those in literary offices away from the moonscapes of the Marne and Ypres, our popular consciousness has acquiesced to transform the craven hell of a No-Man’s-Land ripe with corpses splayed like scarecrows on barbed wire into “We are the dead. Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/Loved and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders fields,” which gives the impression that these Belgian poppy fields of John McCrae might not be that bad of a place after all.

However, in their own strange way, these poets and their poems would have served as a form of reportage for those back home. In the days before twenty-four hour news networks and instantaneous headlines, where radio was in its infancy and print served as the primary mechanism for disseminating information, to read a poem from a lad in a trench alongside the “hard reporting” from Verdun or the Somme would not have seemed out of the ordinary or a mixing of two, now distinctly different media. In fact, it would have been the poem that carried a greater weight, since it was offered by a primary source, one whose heart was both loyal to the Crown and yet burdened with the terrible weight of service to it. The warring poet, therefore, easily represented the very best the Empire had to offer because what cannot be forgotten is the social fabric that enabled such a war to take place and for it to be populated with a relatively erudite—by historical and possibly even modern standards—average fighting man who would have benefited from the recent schooling reforms instituted under the reign of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Much of this learning would have centered around an understanding of literature in a national context, poems which, according to Elizabeth A. Marsland in The Nation’s Cause: French, English and German Poetry of the First World War, were “the nation’s treasury of patriotic and heroic poems.” Thus it dovetails that by August 1914 a generation of young men educated on Byron, who himself went off to an ignoble yet glorious death in Greece, should not aspire to a similar end.

The poet martyr or, as George Walter calls it in his introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry the “Brooke Myth,” born through the death of Brooke (who ironically never saw action on the Western Front, instead dying of blood poisoning in the Aegean) relies on the trope of “that selfless young literary patriot who heeded his country’s call, only to die tragically and heroically when his promise seemed about to be fulfilled.” This early 20th Century interpretation of the tragic hero came to serve as foundation for an aesthetic disseminated to a market eager to read the massive outpouring of war poetry coming from the trenches of France, as well as serving as a means by which, in the early stages of the war, members of the media and the government could guide the national morale and sustain the recruitment of the troop levels needed to continuously refill ever thinning ranks.

It is this ideal, this myth of the lyric warrior, that strikes to the heart of Great War poetry, which even during its 1960s resurgence never jettisoned the notion of the poetic martyr but reappropriated it to one better suited to an evolving, more realistic social mindset, resulting in a transition from the ‘For God and Country’ mentality of Brooke:

If I should die, think only this of me:
    That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to live, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

to the haunting, humanist reproach of Owen’s famed “Dulce et Decorum est:”

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

How then, are we to judge the legacy of this literary time period, at once naïve and world-weary? How does it continue to inform a modern consciousness that might easily look back fondly on a time when wars were “good or bad” and enemies were defined? For even after Adorno decried it, both high and popular culture has persisted in looking to the arts for an understanding of the horrific by attempting to render the irrational accessible to the rational mind. Great War poetry serves as just that, a snapshot of a bygone era coming to grips with its misconceptions and imperfections, an example of men trying to communicate sights and sounds beyond comprehension using the only means at their disposal, but to ever imagine our society returning to a space where it would be imaginable for a grunt or Jarhead to compose the “Kandahar Sonnets” and to have them run on the front page of The New York Times or The San Francisco Chronicle is beyond laughable; it is absurd, especially if they should carry even the slightest hint of anything resembling patriotism. The war poem is obsolete in a world become too cynical for such an item, too intelligent to buy into such a jingoistic cliché. Or might it just be a blatant apathy, one born from a glorious remove, both physical and psychological, from all aspects of Operation Iraqi Freedom or of an Afghanistan Campaign being fought by faceless men in fatigues, who hump through the dusty foothills of the Hindu Kush remembered, as people, only by the loved ones or close friends stateside who anticipate their return.

Even in its most ignorant form, the poems of the Great War possess a legitimacy absent from the similar artistic pursuits today, which tend to be relegated to the back lots of Hollywood and undertaken by actors whose true knowledge of conflict comes from however much they might absorb from the technical advisor brought on set to guarantee “authenticity.” Instead, what these poems of the Great War offer is an immediacy, for they are not prey to the trickery of memories sulking in a truth distorted, no matter how slightly. Today, with nearly a century behind them, we allow the works of Owen and Sassoon and Brooke to masquerade as art, as historical iconography, but the idea and legacy of Great War Poetry, and of its serialization in major newspapers during the actual maneuvers on the Western Front, serves as a sobering reminder that war is fought by human beings. In their worst forms, the Great War Poems are not an apology for fighting, nor are they at their best calls for its cessation. Rather, they are evidence that even a human being who holds a gun and has been trained to kill is capable of intelligent and philosophical thought, perhaps even more capable than those who sit safely at home and examine them.

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