The Great War and Modern Memory
Journey to the Trenches: The Life of Isaac Rosenberg 1890-1918
Isaac Rosenberg: The Half Used Life
Isaac Rosenberg: Poet and Painter
Keith Douglas 1920-1944
Keats, Shelley, and Byron died young. They were doomed youth. They were the war poets of a time before there were any. Neither Keats nor Shelley was machine-gunned in Flanders, but their followers or epigoni were, and Byron went out to fight for Greece and fell at Missolonghi, of a fever, not far from the scene of Rupert Brooke’s death, from blood poisoning, in 1915. Their poetry helped to write the poetry of future wars, and their fate helped to spread and perpetuate that feeling for misery and loss, for the destruction of talent and beauty, for blighted promise, for the outcast, the orphan, for the massacre of innocents, by which the romantic person was distinguished. It can sometimes appear that the Great War, when war poets came into being and were required by the public, was shaped by a scenario prepared in the heyday of Romanticism a hundred years before.
Paul Fussell’s book mentions a remark that is addressed to Virginia Woolf’s Jacob in Jacob’s Room: “They’re going to make you act in their play.” This is a reference to amateur theatricals, but Fussell suggests that it can also be treated as a reference to Britain’s Great War. He says that the Great War was theater: with its proscenium stage peered at from trench perimeters, its backcloth of dawn and sunset, its lights, sound effects, and cast of thousands, drawn from the most theatrical country in the world and sharing a keen sense of performance, who climbed over the top for their “shows” and “screaming farces” and frequently failed to leave the stage when the show was over. The Great War was also literature, and his book examines the literature which it produced. Much of it may be recognized as the literature of Romanticism.
The staying power of romantic attitudes is very striking, and can be studied in terms of what is still the case in several literatures. The worship of Keats and Shelley is a feature of the tradition which has proved especially tenacious. From the first, the romantic artist could be seen as both miserable and powerful, both as a victim and as a lawgiver. The writing and role playing of the early nineteenth century brought together a strain of masochism and a strain of megalomania, and encouraged the sensitive individual to defend his interests by retreating into privacies and secrecies where he could imagine, and enact, a destiny defiant of the social forces which seemed to be mustering against him. These forces were partly a matter of the rise in population throughout Western Europe, the extension of the industrial system, the captivity of the working class, and the impact of industrial disease and infant mortality. Later generations had to live with the same forces, and with new forms of distress: the orphan of the storm became the orphan of the Somme. Suffering, singing its old sad songs, was led to the trenches.
It can’t be claimed that the unprecedented …