Nonetheless

John Bayley

  • The Lost Voices of World War One: An International Anthology of Writers, Poets and Playwrights edited by Tim Cross
    Bloomsbury, 406 pp, £12.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0276 5
  • Poems by Paul Celan, translated by Michael Hamburger
    Anvil, 350 pp, £15.95, January 1989, ISBN 0 85646 198 9
  • Flights of Passage: Reflections of a World War Two Aviator by Samuel Hynes
    Bloomsbury, 270 pp, £13.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0333 8

Renato Serra, who died heroicaly in action on the Isonzo front in August 1915, wrote in his diary a week before that ‘war becomes like life itself. It’s all there is: not a passion any more nor a hope. Like life, rather sad and resigned, it wears a tired face, seamed and worn, similar to our own.’ All over Europe young men were finding out much the same thing, but this scholar and essayist, the friend and colleague of Benedetto Croce, put the matter unusually well. Like most young Italian intellectuals of the time, he was keen on sport, science, motor-cars, military conquest. He had written a penetrating study of Kipling, and a remarkable piece on the departure of a regiment for the Libyan adventure of 1912, an essay which combines patriotic fervour with a deep intelligence and self-questioning.

Like so many others he died and disappeared, his work now virtually unknown except to a few fellow bibliophiles: had he lived, he would probably have disappeared in any case into middle-aged obscurity, the state of resignation which, as he found of war, becomes existence for most people. Few if any of these ‘lost voices’ might have been heard again after the war, but that makes their personalities and their ‘promise’ all the more compelling. Tim Cross’s is a most remarkable and fascinating project and compilation, on which he and his colleagues are to be unreservedly congratulated. Inspired by the Armistice Festival, its method and format seem exactly right for its leading idea; even its incongruities and occasional puzzles add to the general historic flavour, and the reader becomes as absorbed as in old bound copies of the Sphere or Graphic magazines.

‘The war of 1914-1918 became a major cultural event,’ as the Introduction rightly observes. Some of the best excerpts are from Charles Péguy: from the Vers libre of Le Mystère de la charité de Jeanne d’Arc and from his attack on the ‘socialist art’ advocated by Jaurès. Modernism, well under way before it, as is testified not only in the work of such big names as Trakl and Apollinaire, taken by the war in 1914 and 1918 respectively, but in that of such temporary talents as Gustav Sack and Hans Leybold, received from the conflict its decisive authority. If T.S. Eliot had succeeded in joining the American Navy in 1917 and been sunk in action, the most important poem to come out of the war would not have been written. Trakl, who trained as a pharmacist before the war in order to have unlimited access to drugs, died of a cocaine overdose after experiencing the horrors of a dressing-station where he had been unable to do anything for the wounded. He is introduced and translated here by Michael Hamburger, who gives the German originals, including the last two war poems, ‘In the East’ and ‘Grodek’. Grodek was the place at the front where Trakl had his traumatic experience, but this last poem is somehow not adequate to its nature, any more than were the war poems that Rilke was writing. Trakl and Rilke, who, like Yeats, were already in the fullest sense poets when the war broke out, could not for that reason be inspired by it, or absorb it directly into their poetic experience.

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