Heroes’ Twilight: A Study of the Literature of the Great War
Men Who March Away: Poems of the First World War
The Long Trail: What the British Soldier Sang and Said in 1914-18
A Passionate Prodigality
In Flanders these days, in the land from Passchendaele down to Mount Kemmel, there is nothing to be found but a sense of loss. The Queen of England visits the white drilled ranks of the cemetery at Tyne Cot: The oldest gardener is very old, and even he does not know where the front line ran. The long slopes of wheat are green and gradual. The woods are blandly foliate and have Flemish names. Zillebeke is a red-brick mining village. Ypres has been fitted together again out of gray ashlar which suggests a new public school. Hill 60 is a dimpled park beside a restaurant. At Poperinghe, in the padre’s house which was once a club and chapel for men coming down from the line or waiting to go up, they have let relics and faded photographs run away into a terrifying soldier-death cult which is more Mithraic than Christian.
What was, then, lost here fifty years ago? Nearly a million men around this salient alone, many British assumptions about war. Mr. Bergonzi considers that “the war of 1914-18 can still very properly be referred to by its original name of the Great War; for despite the greater magnitude of its more truly global successor, it represented a far more radical crisis in British civilization. In particular, it meant that the traditional mythology of heroism and hero, the Hotspurian mode of self-assertion, had ceased to be viable; even though heroic deeds could be, and were, performed in abundance.” Through the literature of the war, or rather through the development of the literature of the war from the death of Rupert Brooke in 1915 to the death of Isaac Rosenberg in 1918, the attitude to soldiering which Mr. Bergonzi names after Falstaff (“what is that honour? air, a trim reckoning”) rises as Hotspur sinks.
Mr. Bergonzi, after steadying his initial aim on this bit of critical furniture, has gone on to produce the broadest and most interesting study of British “Great War” writing which has been published. He reaches back to Shakespeare, to Byron and Stendhal in an introductory chapter, and makes usefully clear how far the nineteenth-century novel had already undermined the heroic view of war by the time that London fashion, encouraged by the long decades of peace, again swung martial. There was never, though, a period in which one approach reigned to the exclusion of the other; only periods in which their contradiction grew more acute. At the end of the century came the restless longing for violence, and the peak of ignorance about the aspect of violence: Chesterton writing greedily about “blood running in great red serpents that curl out into the main thoroughfare and shine in the moon,” or, later, Pound’s “Altaforte.” Shaw and Forster sniffed the violence coming, and knew at least that it would not be fine or fun.
THE ARRANGEMENT of the war poets in chapters is an order of response to the experience of the war. “Brooke, Grenfell, Sorley”: the …