- A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture by Samuel Hynes
Bodley Head, 514 pp, £20.00, October 1990, ISBN 0 370 30451 9
- Killing in Verse and Prose, and Other Essays by Paul Fussell
Bellew, 294 pp, £9.95, October 1990, ISBN 0 947792 55 4
That the ‘Great War’ is still deeply disturbing to the imagination came home to one last year, when a First World War tank stood on display in the forecourt of the British Museum. One reacted to the sight with a shudder of horror, and also an obscure resentment – at the idea, which seemed to be implied, that we must now proudly regard this appalling object as part of our ‘heritage’.
The truth is that the Great War was, and remains, unassimilable. For 16 years, that is to say from 1914 to 1930, the British people struggled to assimilate it and give it significance; and then in weariness, and no doubt wisely, they gave up. In this they were following, in some measure and according to their capacity, the brilliant example of Robert Graves, whose coming to maturity as a poet was a matter of saying a decisive ‘goodbye’ not only to the war but to all ghosts and rubbish (including cast-off language) that threatened the living. It was in 1930 that T.S. Eliot wrote in Criterion, with cold common sense: ‘Perhaps the most significant thing about the War is its insignificance; and it is this insignificance which makes it so acutely tragic. Perhaps fear of war is now rather an incentive, than a preventive, of war.’
If we assume this to be so, we might feel that Samuel Hynes, in completing his trilogy (the one which begins with The Edwardian Turn of Mind and ends with The Auden Generation – it was not originally planned as a trilogy), had a rather special problem on his hands. For in his approach, the calendar is all-important. His method is to follow the sequence of events in the national culture from very close up, laboriously registering each flux and reflux, each ripple and eddy, of attitude. It is a demanding method – the whole trilogy is a monument to tenacity – and historically it pays handsome dividends, allowing for none of the telescopings and falsifications of hindsight. It worked excellently in The Auden Generation, which dealt with a period of rapid movement and successive crises. Matters are somewhat different for him, however, when it comes to the Great War. For, as is well known, one of the most gruelling aspects of the war was its sheer stasis. The same small tract of soil in Flanders was fought over time and time again; and the same is true of the arguments about the war. These baffled theories and jockeyings and recriminations revolve in a circle or set up elaborate cross-currents, which the scrupulous historian has to chart: and yet two years later, ten years later, things look much as they did, and the same weary debate seems to be continuing. From the perspective of 1930 one might tell oneself that everything had changed (it was what one was supposed to think) or that maybe practically nothing had changed.
The rewards of Hynes’s mole’s-eye view are certainly great, and are as rich in the present book as in its predecessors. He burrows in all the media and always comes back with some choice morsel between his jaws. How significant it is, or so he makes it seem (but we need to ponder what the significance is), that, in the government-sponsored film of the Somme offensive in 1916, there was one detail, a soldier sliding back dead as his regiment is scrambling out of a trench, which everyone remembered and even still remembers. It was prized by some and condemned by others for bringing home the full horror of the war (the Dean of Durham and the zoologist Ray Lankester thought it a disgrace), and it was the one scene in the film that was not authentic and had been faked up behind the lines.
Hynes brings the same flair to advertisements. He reproduces a deliciously modish Bond Street tailor’s advertisement depicting ‘The Man of Today’: an infantry officer in superbly-cut uniform, stationed between the pile of his discarded top hat, white waistcoat and silver-topped cane and a mighty shell-burst labelled ‘WAR’. Again, one of the mushroom-growths of the war was ‘Reconstruction’. Asquith appointed a small Reconstruction Committee, and Lloyd George enlarged it into an entire ministry. Many was the pamphlet and committee-report produced on the subject, though Beatrice Webb complained that nobody ever seemed to read them. Hynes recaptures the whole thing in its aptest possible form, a Sanatogen advertisement: ‘And now for Reconstruction! But first Reconstruct Your Nervous System.’
Hynes is gifted in iconology and has an alert eye here, as in his literary criticism, for confused or unresolved intentions. How much we seem to learn, or recognise, about the Great War from his paragraphs on William Orpen and his commission from the Imperial War Museum for some pictures of the Versailles Peace Conference. Orpen felt in a rage against the whole event (‘The “frocks” had signed the Peace! The Army was forgotten’), and, finding he could not complete his formal group-picture, he painted out all the delegates, leaving only – set against the oppressive splendours of the Hall of Mirrors – a flag-draped coffin, guarded by two mad-looking half-nude soldiers in steel helmets, with two putti flying above carrying a wreath. This weird parody of a baroque funeral-monument (was it a joke? was it a ‘problem picture’?) was the hit of the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1923 but was turned down by the War Museum Committee; and upon this Orpen painted out even the soldiers and the putti, leaving only the coffin. They are pictures, as Hynes says, that posed all the problems of monument-making, in that moment of bitterly mixed feelings, without solving any of them.
One admires other things in the book too – for instance, the telling way in which Hynes runs certain, increasingly recognisable voices through the length of his narrative: Edmund Gosse’s (mind-bogglingly pontifical and complacent), Clive Bell’s (cheap), Middleton Murry’s (intelligent, trendy and dishonest). Or again – a fine effect – the way he uses Stanley Spencer’s great Resurrection of the Soldiers as a final rescue from this agonising, enervating, treadmill-like story.
There is no doubt, though, that he faces a problem. In this whole 16-year period of British opinion and culture he can only distinguish two indisputable landmarks. One is 1916, the date of the first battle of the Somme. This was a year generally regarded even at the time as a turning-point, or at least as what ought to be and must be made a turning-point, but one which from many points of view, as Hynes remarks, was more a running-down; it was a dead spot at the centre of the war, corresponding to an ‘imaginative vacuum’ on the part of writers, a feeling that war simply paralysed the imagination and could not be written about. The Armistice, argues Hynes, was not such a landmark, and he shows how, for many thinking people both in uniform and out of it, it was a very muted occasion, provoking a reaction of depression, or of snobbery at the ‘dreadful people celebrating in dreadful ways’. The first seven years after the war, he says, were ones in which ‘the most important cultural event was nothing that happened within it, but the war which preceded it.’ It took the General Strike, universally visualised in military terms and as another miniature Great War, to break the spell and allow the great prose ‘war-books’ to be written. It is a sparse plot. A writer telling it according to the calendar, in Hynes’s manner, must desperately envy Simon Schama, in his Citizens, where irreversible changes in the national consciousness seem to be happening almost every other week.
There are of course other plot-elements in Hynes’s narrative, less directly measured by the calendar: for instance, a story about artistic ‘Modernism’ in Britain and its interruption and redirection by the war; and above all the ever-familiar story of how the war changed (irreversibly?) British attitudes towards patriotism. It is told in rich detail by Hynes, but one can summarise it crudely thus. Public reaction to the war began with hysterical anger towards the Germans, but with at the same time the theory that a war was a good and needed thing: it would be a purge and corrective to false Edwardian ideas, a ‘Condy’s Fluid’ to ‘clean out the stagnant pools and clotted channels of the intellect’ (Edmund Gosse), a call to order from unsalubrious attitudes to art and ‘overmuch licence and even applause accorded to fallacious theories’ (Selwyn Image). The war, according to the same school of theory, was one that Britons had to some extent brought on themselves. To use Hynes’s words, ‘part of the argument was that English self-indulgence and English tolerance of disruptive movements, like Irish nationalism and Suffragism, had encouraged the Germans to think that England would not, and could not, fight.’ Then, as knowledge of the actualities of trench-warfare began to enter the general consciousness, a second crop of theories matured, all coloured by the notion of a difference, an unutterable strangeness, an unbridgeable separateness dividing soldier from civilian, Front from Home, Us from You, Us as We Are from Us as We Were. Those who ‘knew’ were embarrassed or enraged to be in the company of those who did not and could not stomach their ‘Big Words’ and idealistic rhetoric. Among war writers there developed what Hynes calls ‘a curious kind of élitism not unlike the attitude of the avant-garde artist towards bourgeois society, but set in terms of war’. A whole resentful mythology grew up, about profiteers and ignorant, patriotic, white-feather-giving women, and the ‘Old Men who sacrificed the young with such complacency’.
The story has become even oppressively familiar: so much so that one begins to wonder if it is not false, and actually in some minor ways I think that it is false, at least in implication. The chief trouble, though, lies elsewhere and is what makes for difficulties for Hynes’s book. I mean that, however many times one reads this story or responds to these myths, they seem to get one no further. It is utterly understandable that, given the hideous circumstances, people should have resorted to such myths – the ‘Old Men’, the ‘patriotic’ profiteer and so on – for emotional satisfaction. That was their great function: but then in that respect, if no other, they were much the same sort of things as the poisonous myths to which they were a response. There was nothing much you could do with either, except cherish them. They were not myths of a kind – say, like those of a Rousseau or a Freud – able to set the nation or humanity on a new path.
Or rather, there was one thing you could do with them, which is what Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon did – make poetry out of them. I think we need not trouble too much about Sassoon, whose war poems made their great and salutary impact at the time but now look a little diminished. Those extraordinarily poignant poems of Wilfred Owen are another matter. The standard account is that by sheer heroic honesty and force of character he found a way to write ‘true’ war-poems, in a style not imposed upon the facts of trench-warfare but dictated by them, and in the process he exposed for ever the hollowness of Rupert Brooke-type patriotic rhetoric, and to a large degree of traditional patriotism itself.
It is a story with a lot of truth in it, and yet somehow one does not want ever to hear it again; it wears thin, in a way that the poems themselves do not. It shares, that is to say, some of the dead-end quality of the wartime myths themselves. Anyway, as literary history, it is not altogether a true story. For after all, the inspiring motive for two of the other finest combatant poets of the Great War, Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney, was patriotism. One could, if one wished, even make Edward Thomas out to be a jingoist, for did he not write:
But with the best and meanest Englishmen
I am one in crying, God save England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.
The ages made her that made us from dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate her foe.
This would be to play a trick on him, for he wrote those stirring ‘History-play’ lines light-heartedly, and as the conclusion of a poem which runs earlier:
I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Nevertheless, if Thomas is not really eager to die for Magna Carta and the British flag, he is, like a good Georgian poet, ready to die for English woods, wildflowers and shire horses.
Thomas’s career is really very strange. War came as a welcome event to him, after years of poverty and the most dreary Grub Street hack work. It liberated him as a writer – for it was only in 1914 that he began to write verse – and yet the verse that he wrote, till he was killed at Arras in 1917, quite deliberately shut out the battlefront, the trenches and the slaughter and was a sustained reverie about English landscape and the Englishness of it. It would be wrong to regard this just as escapism, for we are meant to read the war between the lines of these poems that scarcely make a mention of it. The thing is done in full consciousness, as an act of poetic discipline, and these are real, and very fine, war poems. Still, such passionate attachment to the English countryside – a peculiarly tender, ‘Georgian’ (rather than Romantic) involvement, as with something that for all its fantasied ‘immemoriality’ is shortly going to be taken away – has to be called patriotism, and this patriotism was, for Thomas, greatly intensified by the war. It was so even more for Ivor Gurney, who was quite clear that, as a preservative against the war and his own mental trouble, he had only this to cling to. If the Cotswolds, the Severn and the clouds over them go stale, as he puts it in the lovely ‘Friendly are meadows’,
Then the all-universal and wide decree shall fail
Of world’s binding, and earth’s dust apart be loosed.
These preoccupations with loss – loss of a countryside to the motor-car, the tractor and the speculative builder; a ‘finer type’ of Englishman losing out to the profiteer and the townee – seem to be pre-war ones and part of ‘the Edwardian Turn of Mind’. This supports my general feeling: that the Great War myths were not so much constructive ways of grappling with the catastrophe as traumatic symptoms. They do not represent the British people learning from the war; and indeed it is not plain that they did learn much from it. It was less an event ‘out there’, on the planet, for them, as a shared private experience. The human being has an utterly panic-making knowledge of what it would be like for him or her to die, but normally a veil prevents it from coming to consciousness. However – this at least was Tolstoy’s theory, as regards his famous ‘night at Arzamas’ – the veil can on some rare occasions be torn; and it is conceivable that the shock of the Great War momentarily had this effect not just for one person but a nation.
Of course, what may or may not be part of the same phenomenon, it is notorious that, for all the oceans of ink spilt, no one has ever managed to explain what the war was about. A.J.P. Taylor said it happened because the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur took the wrong turning. By meditating on the Berlin-Baghdad Railway one might come to the conclusion that, like our present crisis, it was ‘all about’ oil. The question remains wide open.
Hynes for the most part keeps strictly to the rule that he is writing about myths – that is to say, ideas or theories about which we do not ask whether they are true or false. Occasionally, though, he seems to break it. A ‘fracture’ in history, a ‘discontinuous world cut off from history’: he offers such notions about history almost as if he were actually endorsing them. Ford Madox Ford was never more Fordian than when he wrote in the manuscript of No Enemy in 1919:
If, before the war, one had any function it was that of historian. Basing, as it were, one’s morality on the Europe of Charlemagne as modified by the Europe of Napoleon, I once had something to go upon. One could approach with composure the Lex Allemannica, the Feudal System, problems of Aerial Flight, the price of wheat or the relations of the sexes. But now, it seems to me, we have no method of approach to any of these problems.
Ford on the price of wheat or the Lex Allemannica: that would have been something to hear! But, admire dear old Fordie as an artist as much as we do, we really should not take his dafter pronouncements as anything but light relief.
Then, a larger disagreement, I do feel there is something wrong in Hynes’s whole theory about ‘Modernism’. It is to be remembered that the Great War was a great age for English literature. Those few years produced Joyce’s Ulysses, Yeats’s The Wild Swans at Coole and his great verse-play At the Hawk’s Well, Ezra Pound’s Cathay and ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’ and Eliot’s quatrain poems. None of these four writers allowed the war to deflect them in their poetic career, nor was there any reason why they should have done, seeing that they were not of English origin; all the same, it proves what an exceedingly powerful movement this ‘Modernist’ one was, and the natural death of Imagism and forced demise of Vorticism hardly disprove this.
Nor was the response of these writers to the war merely barren. Pound, who was to write the magnificent lines about it in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (‘These fought in any case,’ etc), had already produced a memorable ‘war poem’ in ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, of which he wrote that ‘it presents certain emotions as vital to me in 1917 faced with the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the British Empire, as they were to Propertius some centuries earlier when faced with the infinite and ineffable imbecility of the Roman Empire.’ Yeats, though he refused to write ‘war poems’ to order, composed one of the most memorable of all such poems in ‘An Irish airman foresees his death’ (as well, one might interject, as the most profoundly intelligent of all patriotic poems, ‘Easter 1916’).
I had the same feeling this time as with The Auden Generation, that Hynes has been misled by The Waste Land, which no one could deny is a despairing poem, into thinking of the ‘Modernist’ movement as intrinsically pessimistic, destructive and negative. To me it seems, a thoroughly invigorating and optimistic movement, confident in its ability to make meaning out of a disordered world, and notably successful (as much so as the Romantic movement, and infinitely more so than the middlebrow school) in defining possibilities of joy and ‘glory’. The fact that Lawrence, in that great piece of writing ‘The Crown’ and in some of the poems in Look! We have come through!, had been able to evoke joy with such intensity must help explain his later apocalyptic despair.
Hynes yokes The Waste Land with Ulysses as products of ‘the generation war’, as disenchanted works which ‘take the destruction of the past for granted’, and as satirical works (‘The Waste Land, Ulysses and Façade are clearly satires’) expressive of post-war anger and disillusionment. There seems something distinctly shaky about this theory. For one thing, it seems terribly limiting to Ulysses (a very affirmative work, surely?) to class it simply as a satire, though admittedly Hugh Kenner does so: but for another, Ulysses, if we are talking of when it was written, is not post-war. As for The Waste Land, Eliot himself said that the poem would have been much the same if the war had never happened.
Thus, when Hynes speaks of ‘Modernist’ method in painting being ‘validated’ by the mechanised shapes and desert-like vistas of the war, it is an acceptable façon de parler, but speaking strictly, one says to oneself, they did no such thing, and ‘Modernism’ was strong enough in itself not to require validation. It is, again, perfectly proper of him to describe some of Nash’s battlefront paintings as elegies not only for ‘the death of landscape’ but for the death of Romantic landscape-painting. That is exactly the thought, or fiction, that Paul Nash’s The Menin Road is meant to suggest. But one needs, obviously, to be careful not to misread this as some T.E. Hulme-like rejection of Romantic landscape-painting as a humanist deviation; it could hardly be so, seeing that Nash went on to be one of the most Romantic of our landscape-painters. (It is worth mentioning that he wrote in a letter that ‘this thing [the war] that brings men to fight and suffer together, no matter from what original or subsequent motives, is a very great and healthy force.’) The domestication and topical putting-to-use of Modernist techniques could sometime be fruitful – it was very much so in Nash’s case – but I doubt if it belongs to the history of ‘Modernism’.
Paul Fussell is the author of the well-known The Great War and Modern Memory, and he comes back to the same subject in the present collection, leaving me with a ‘getting nowhere’ feeling. The problem runs thus. Fussell is hugely impressed by what one may call the ‘Wilfred Owen’ attitude to the Great War, and rightly so. But what contemporary readers might reasonably have believed was that the truths perceived by Owen would not only throttle for ever ‘chivalrous’ cant about modern war, they might put an end to modern warfare itself. Well, this latter, as we now know, they did not even begin to do. Indeed, according to Fussell, modern war has if anything got worse: the horrors it exposes combatants to and causes them to commit are so atrocious that he wishes to ‘thank God for the atom bomb’ – this is the American title of the present collection – for shortening the Second World War. It is ‘cant’, he says, to speak of dropping the bomb as a crime, and only a non-combatant would think of doing so.
That ‘cant’ jars on me, as it is meant to, but let it pass. My point is that what the Owen story seems to show is that exposing ‘cant’, important as it is, has no effect on the course of events. If so, this is surely a cue for looking at Owen, and what he stands for, in a new light?