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.
Rilke was to do so in his own way, late in the war, in the Duino Elegies, as Yeats did in his apocalyptic post-war poems. Trakl’s marvellous rhythms, with their celestial vocabulary and movement developed from Hölderlin, might have soared into a new and grim empyrean, had the poet survived. But apart from the war the drugs would probably have finished him. There is a photograph and sketch of him in the anthology, looking like a huge gnome, gentle and tormented, enduring a heart-breaking fate which would probably have condemned him, in this new and terrible age, to a silence like Hölderlin’s. Trakl is poetry’s worst war loss: Paul Celan, who killed himself after recording the horrors of the next war, is Trakl’s spiritual successor. Celan was the only poet of any nationality to do such a thing in poetry, and German is probably the only language in which it could have been done. The selection of his poems in German, with the fine English versions of Michael Hamburger, has just been issued in a revised edition with some forty new translations.
Wittgenstein’s Tractatus is itself, in a sense, a voice out of the war, in which the philosopher has conducted himself with suicidal bravery, almost as if he hoped to be killed. He admired the tone of Trakl’s poems, though characteristically saying he could not understand them. Their paths crossed in other ways. Not only did the philosopher donate part of his large fortune to the poet just before the war (Trakl was already too traumatised to sign the necessary forms), but he arrived at Grodek just too late to help his friend.
Russians, are in fact, the only absentees among the lost voices of this book. Khlebnikov, who served in the ranks throughout, produced some finely impassive poems, like his description of a gigantic battlefield cremation of the dead, but for poets the Revolution in Russia in a sense eclipsed the war: Blok’s ‘Twelve’ and Akhmatova’s ‘Poem without a Hero’ are nonetheless war poems, whose authors were involved in it on the street rather than at the front. Wilfred Owen would certainly not have found his voice outside the trenches (‘My subject is war and the pity of war’) and it is impossible to imagine him writing so well after it. His genius seems so strangely and exactly fitted to that subject and no other. Would Isaac Rosenberg, often claimed as the most promising casualty, really have developed as poet? It seems unlikely. There is certainly a contrast between poets involved in the war and those whom war made into poets in order to kill them.
Owen’s ‘One dies of war like any old disease’ echoes Renato Serra’s discovery in his diary, but neither is more or less true than Apollinaire’s haunting couplet
Ah Dieu! Que la guerre est jolie
Avec ses chants ses longs loisirs.
Had he not died of Spanish flu just before the Armistice, Apollinaire would have sailed effortlessly into Modernism like Franz Marc or Gaudier-Brzeska, shrugging off the immediate trauma of the conflict and utilising it in the space of their genius, as the non-combatants Picasso or T.S. Eliot were to do. In a very different way Edward Thomas, who found his true voice in the war but independently of the fighting, would probably have kept it, and been a real presence in post-poetry: yet speculation has an element of post hoc propter hoc. More typical is the way in which each country is aware of its own fallen poets and their promise but not of those in other countries, whether allied or enemy. Lost writers, like won battles, tend to be selectively remembered on a national basis; and that is why this anthology has a special and unusual value.
How many of us, for instance, have heard of August Stramm or Hermann Löns, Peter Baum or Walter Flex? But they are, or were, as notorious in their homeland as Rupert Brooke in our own; and when Tim Cross introduces us to their lives and works – the latter usually having the pathos of schoolboy essays or prize poems – they become as alive as Sorley, Ledwidge, and their other English opposite numbers admirably presented by Jon Stallworthy. Ian Higgins has done an equally good job for the young Frenchmen or Belgians – Gaston de Ruyter, Jean de La Ville de Mirmont, Marc de Larreguy de Civrieux – and V. Nersessian gives selections from the work of young Armenians killed in the 1915 Turkish massacres, printing their poems in Armenian script as well as in translation. As much or more promise no doubt died there, proportionately, as in the European armies and I found myself remembering from The Last Enemy Richard Hillary’s friend Noel Agazarian, shot down in his Spitfire in 1940.
The death in action of already well-known writers like Charles Péguy and Alain-Fournier seems like an accident: it is the younger ones who have the besoin de la fatalité, and are struck down by the Gods, as D.H. Lawrence said, as if in saga or tragedy. In Germany the memories of many of these innocents were revived by the Nazi movement. Walter Flex was the archetypal wandervogel, who, although he rejoiced in 1914 to be ‘one of the holy horde which sacrifices itself for you, Fatherland’, did not in fact so much glorify war as see it, with its songs and its long leisures, as the glorious apogee of romantic friendship and boy-scoutism. It was probably easier to feel this, and continue feeling it, in the East, where Lieutenant Flex was fighting, than in the trenches of the Western Front. Had he been sent back, as he hoped, to take part in the Kaiserschlacht, the big German push of 1918, he might have come to feel more like Peter Baum, the gentle stretcher-bearer, whose poems about nameless and shattered bits and pieces, ‘red flowers on the white field of honour’, have all the ironic anger of Owen or Sassoon. As it was, Flex happened to be hit by a stray bullet from a demoralised Russian while capturing the island of Osel at the head of the Gulf of Riga, part of the German Army’s glorious and painless march eastward which was fatefully to persuade Hitler to attempt the same thing in 1941. Published in 1917, Flex’s famous novella Der Wanderer zwischen beiden Welten was to remain immensely popular after the war and in the Thirties. Like the round cheerful bespectacled face that appears in the woodcut of his friend Walter Dahms, it has an unconquerable innocence, even sweetness about it, an innocence perhaps particularly German. Not all wars disillusion those who join them. I remember being startled in 1945 by a Russian with a tommy-gun who clapped me on the back shouting Voina prima! Voina gut! – ‘war’s the tops’ – a sentiment as macaronically cosmopolitan as any in this book, if hardly in keeping with its spirit. But the characters in War and Peace had felt much the same. ‘Here it comes – terrible and joyful.’
The same thing was felt by Teilhard de Chardin, a priest who had four years of it. ‘None the less it is indeed an exultation. And that’s why one likes the Front in spite of everything and misses it.’ Roland Dongelès, author of The Wooden Crosses, the French war novel which corresponds to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, thought that Edmond Adam’s poem ‘Gamecocks’ expressed the mood of the poilus, who fought their opponents until the death, cheered on by their civilian masters. For the first time, and probably the last, war produced class solidarity among all fighting men, and contempt for the leaders back home: the next time would be different, with national ideologies sustaining a mechanised conflict that included all civilians. Not so in 1914. ‘Send them along for just one bloody night’ is the fervent repeated refrain of a poem by Geza Gyoni, printed here in Hungarian with translation. Gyoni wrote much of his finest poetry in remote Siberia, after being captured with his brother at the fall of the Austrian fortress of Przemysl. He managed to become orderly to his younger brother, a regular officer, and so enjoyed a comparatively quiet life in the officers’ quarters of the POW camp and was able to write; but both brothers died in an epidemic before the Russian war was over. In the East, more died of typhus and flu than were killed in battle – among them, Jerzy Zulawski, of the Polish Academy of Sciences, who wore while fighting for the Austrians the damascene sword his father had used in the great 1863 revolt against Russia, the same sword that his son was to wear as an officer in the Polish Army, fighting against the Germans in 1939.
Flights of Passage takes us to a very different world of war, and yet the same factors are operating. Now a literature professor at Princeton, the author as a young man trained for the US Naval Air Service in the war with Japan, and ended it on dive-bombers attacking the garrisons of Okinawa and Iwojima. His book gives a wonderfully intelligent and humane account of wartime life, neither distanced nor romanticised, and one that makes no effort to plug a particular point of view about war, flying, and the mystique of both in which the author grew up. It is a quieter, more mature and more balanced book than The Last Enemy – perhaps an unfair judgment, because Hillary’s classic was written in the heat, while the author recovered for return to combat, but it gives no impression of dwelling on or summoning up the past, and Hynes in his own way writes as compellingly as Hillary did.
What chiefly emerges – and is so unlike the earlier war – is the sense of modern conflict as a series of random industrial or natural accidents, in which those involved can receive neither credit nor blame in military terms. The only moments for voluntary ‘nerve’ occur in training, when learning to loop the loop was ‘like being invited to a suicide you didn’t want to commit’. But probably even the Japanese kamikaze pilots felt they were just doing a job, at least when they took off. Hynes describes one such attack, shortly before the war ended.
The whole lasted perhaps fifteen minutes. We were excited by it – perhaps entertained is a more precise word – it was a spectacle, like a son et lumière, with noise, light, explosions. We didn’t know what was happening to human lives while we watched, but even if we had, I wonder if it would have mattered. We were a mile or so from the Randolph, and perhaps a mile is too far to project the imagination to another man’s death. We took it as a sign that the war was still with us, that we still had an enemy, and went to bed heartened by the incident.
The tone of that passage gives a good idea of the book’s unstylised meditativeness, its lack of show. Hynes has a lot of humour, and a lot of feeling, but doesn’t push either at us. He talks about his fellows, and the planes, and getting married; and reveals many things in passing, including the realities of the American class system as it then was, and probably still is. The pilots and the enlisted men used the same words but didn’t speak the same language. Some pilots had the job of censorship:
Lieutenant: Sergeant, you can’t do this.
Sergeant: Do what, sir?
Lieutenant (nervously): Well you say you’re going to fuck her cross-eyed. That’s no way to talk to your wife.
Sergeant: Why not? She’s my fucking wife, ain’t she? Sir?
In flying there are the Sanes and the Crazies, the former looking like schoolteachers or successful businessmen. And always the paradox of war: there is the approach to the test, the rite of passage, and afterwards the tedium of a way of life that has necessarily become humdrum, however disagreeable or dangerous. And always it made its mark, left some inexplicable compulsion behind. As Robert Wohl points out in his conclusion to The Lost Voices, Hitler was a veteran of the trenches, and he found his own way of exorcising and transforming the experience. ‘A war has no end for those who fought it,’ said Curzio Malaparte, who grew up admiring Marinetti and D’Annunzio and went through Hitler’s Russian campaign as a war correspondent. But even that is not necessarily true. The rites of a religion may in time be ignored and forgotten by those who once thought them a necessity.