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 tormented Georgian embracing war instead of “the little emptiness of love,” the young aristocrat “with a passion for sport and a talent for writing verse, who had not wholly discovered the way the war was shaping by the time he died,” and the detached, rather pro-German public schoolboy who had little patience with big talk about death. Sorley, also the author of some extraordinary letters, looks more and more interesting as time passes. He was subtle and thorough, and proof against the surrender to direct pity and rage which makes a great deal of war verse less than poetry:
All the hills and vales along…
And the singers are the chaps
Who are going to die perhaps.
Only in the last few years, it seems, have Sorley’s intentions in this disconcerting poem been appreciated.
“Graves, Blunden, Read”: the Georgians struggling in the full flood of war to support themselves on the memory of rural England, and the poets “of anti-heroic protest.” Sassoon has a chapter to himself. Then come Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen, killed in the war’s last year. Mr. Bergonzi is excited by Rosenberg—his urban and working-class presence in a group almost entirely drawn from the public-school upper classes would ensure him special interest from any young British critic—but finds it awkward to pass a final judgment. Rosenberg’s imagination “functioned dialectically,” a helpful comment, and Mr. Bergonzi follows it up with full critical analyses of several poems. Owen is, by common consent, the greatest poet of the First World War, and Mr. Bergonzi consents too. His evidence and argument for the conclusion, however, are not so impressive as in his discussion of Rosenberg. He cannot deny that Yeats’s fearful outburst against Owen’s work (“blood, dirt and sucked sugar-stick”) has a grain of justification, and mentions “sub-Keatsian poetic confectionary” which leaves “traces of mawkishness” even in his final works. His greatness is held to reside in this: that his poems “in their totality…have done more than any other work in English to form a sensibility that can grasp the nature of technological war.”
THE QUESTION PRESSING upon all discussions of First World War poetry is the question about immediacy: To what extent is the verse only narration or description of scenes and situations which the anguished soldier-poet feels he must communicate, and to what extent the work of men who had “mastered the war in poetic terms” (Bergonzi)? In his long introduction to Men Who March Away, an anthology of Great War verse, Mr. I. M. Parsons deals rather unsatisfactorily with this question, ending up with the blameless remark that “you cannot condemn a poem as limitingly subjective just because its origin is tied to a specific event.” But we have not yet entirely escaped from generous pity when we value these poets, especially the poets killed in action. Sorley, soon killed himself, seems to have foreseen this when he wrote about “your bright Promise, withered long and sped…Blossoms and is you when you are dead.” Mr. Bergonzi’s book, not without its own touches of sentimental generosity, selects Sorley, Rosenberg, and Owen as poets on the way to attaining sovereignty over their experience. Mr. Parsons, who has been wise enough to include far more than the “front-line” verse in his collection, gives a surprising amount of space to Robert Nichols (held in contempt by Bergonzi as a posturing versifier who passed in drawing-rooms for a “trench poet,” a verdict he borrows from Robert Graves). But, turning the pages, one comes across the “Irish Airman,” and then Lawrence’s “Bombardment.” Both are short poems, as many of the “front” poems were (Mr. Parsons says reasonably that an infantryman in action could scarcely be expected to produce anything bigger than a lyric), but the advantage of being non-combatant and remote is instantly obvious. Only a handful of the war verse written at the war itself achieved this worked-through mastery.
While the war lasted, the British writers at the front produced poetry, a few letters, odd fragments of prose like Siegfried Sassoon’s peace manifesto. In the years of peace, those few who had survived had time to write prose memoirs. These autobiographies, written out of a compulsion to order chaos in memory or to honor dead friends, form a distinct group in literature, and Bergonzi has two excellent chapters on these personal accounts and on the closely related war fiction, published in a curious rush or wave around the years 1928-30.
WE ARE EXPERIENCING such a wave now. This time the publications are mostly second-hand, “based-ons,” “inspired-bys.” Popular historians have got ranks of military skeletons out of their honored tombs and set them to frantic penal pack-drill: whose fault was the Somme, who could have called off Passchendaele? The ghastliest episodes are recounted on their own, as if the war was blood, rats, and mud to exclusion. The folk-songs of the trenches are being republished, and this new and considerably de-Bowdlerized edition of Brophy and Partridge’s The Long Trail is useful as a control on Joan Littlewood’s play, Oh, What a Lovely War! Here are these mournful, sardonic ballads, certainly folk songs in the unrecorded manner of their birth and the multiplicity of their versions, but—as it seems to me—utterly unrelated to the tradition of folk-song which runs back from the Liverpool-Irish lament to the border ballad. These are soldiers’ songs, and if we knew what Wellington’s army sang, we might find an ancestor for them:
…I want to go home,
I don’t want to go in the trenches no more,
Where whizz-bangs and shrapnel they whistle and roar.
Take me over the sea,
Where the Alleyman can’t get at me…
There follows a long glossary of soldiers’ slang, and a section on “chants and sayings,” those formulae which for no explicable reason could be relied on to cast a gang of helmeted soldiers into violent giggles, like: “Dear Mother, I am sending you ten shillings—but not this week.”
The prose accounts are almost without exception the work of officers, but something of the quality of those songs, the resigned melancholy, the unapologetic apology for being so low as to be frightened, is still there. Mr. Bergonzi’s study of these narratives, principally Blunden’s Undertones of War, Graves’s Goodbye to All That, and Sassoon’s various books, treats them with great respect for the art, not only the truth, that is in them. One would have liked to have heard his comments on A Passionate Prodigality, another of these memoirs first published in the 1928-30 period and now reissued. On the back cover, Peter Viereck has named this “one of the best war books in the entire history of the human race….” It isn’t that, but it is a very fine book indeed, worthy to go with the records of Graves and Blunden. Mr. Chapman is not a writer of great attainments, but he perceives with high visual sharpness, has profound understanding of the men who were around him, and has put back much remembered dialogue into direct speech, a tactic which can offend but which he has brought off effectively. His war was long and horrible, and perhaps none of the other accounts give us today so wide and complete a vision of it, from July 1915 through the Somme battles, through a period on the staff among those brass-hats the trench officers so much despised, back to his decimated battalion for a dreadful and unforgettably described spell in battle at “Tower Hamlets,” near the Menin Road, and at last the Armistice, for this battalion (which had lost in three years the equivalent of its entire strength of eight hundred in dead alone) something hardly to be comprehended or welcomed.
ALL THESE NARRATIVES form a corrective to the notion of the Great War which is now popular: that the reaction of the survivors could only be a total condemnation of violence and a denial that a man could “win” anything from modern war. We are living in an emotionally pacifist age, and so perhaps we should be, but this interpretation is quite false.
On the contrary, it is clear that the urge to violence emerged immensely strengthened from the war, no longer ignorant and gaming but grim, vengeful, purposeful. In Germany, the distinction was made far more clearly between violence itself (still accepted as a steeling and maturing experience) and the generals and profiteers who were to blame for inflicting it irresponsibly. Stahlhelm and Reichswehr prepared for a day of reckoning. Junger’s writing shows this. But the British reveal traces of it too, as Sassoon’s fantasies of anti-civilian massacre witness. The war had been a mistake and a tragedy, certainly, but its victims must hereafter stand together and use the ruthlessness and endurance it had taught them.
In the same way, these memoirs abound with evidence that these men found something in war, did not only lose. Mr. Chapman writes of the “compelling fascination” of war, in spite of his terror: “no wine gives fiercer intoxication, no drug more vivid exaltation. Every writer of imagination who has set down in honesty his experience has confessed it. Even those who hate her most are prisoners to her spell….” Robert Graves became an enthusiastic regimental officer. Grenfell had already seen bloody fighting when he wrote that “…who dies fighting has increase.” The martial ideal was not lost in this greatest of expeditionary wars, but only adjusted. Only a “total” war like the Second World War, especially in Europe, involved the entire population in conflict and broke down the distinction between unheeding home civilian and alienated overseas soldier, which is so terribly traumatic to the survivors of armies and so essential for the “martial discovery.” But the expeditionary wars in Korea, French Indo-China, Algeria, and now Vietnam show that this discovery can still be made.