The Great War and the lost Arcadia

If the opposite of war is peace, the opposite of experiencing moments of war is proposing moments of peace. Since war takes place outdoors and always within nature, its symbolic status is that of ultimate anti-pastoral…….it belongs to the demonic world, and no one engages in it or contemplates it without implicitly or explicitly bringing to bear the contrasting “model world” by which its demonism is measured.1

So writes Paul Fussell in his seminal work The Great War and Modern Memory.  Although Fussell has been criticised on a number of counts since the initial publication of the book in 1975 (it was republished in 2000 and then again in 2012), here he touches on an aspect of the First World War which even today appears to have been largely ignored.  This is the influence of the English pastoral tradition on the writers and poets, including those who served in the trenches, in framing how they viewed and wrote about the war and its horrors.

However, it is not simply the case of such writers and poets longing for the tranquillity of the English countryside whilst they wallowed up to their necks in mud, blood and filth.  To start with, this was an imagined countryside, one which had to a large extent already been eradicated by industrialisation and urbanisation.  And this is one of the great ironies (and tragedies) of the war: that this image, this fantasy of the English pastoral, this rural idyll, was itself a function of industrialisation, a romantic reaction to it. In other words, the war was being fought to preserve something which no longer existed (and in many ways, never had existed).

But there is more to it:  in fact, there is a much darker side to the notion of the English pastoral, which Fussell also explores.  Take, for example, the fascination with flowers, which features strongly in many versions of the English pastoral.  There are two particular flowers which are especially pertinent in this regard: roses and poppies.  Both of these flowers were already associated with blood and sacrifice long before 1914.  The rose especially had connotations with ‘England’, ‘loyalty’ and ‘sacrifice.  Also there were sacramental connotations, with the rose as a communion symbol.  With regards to poppies, which have become the floral representation of the Great War, Fussell points out that these flowers had already accumulated a traditional symbolism in English writing dating back to Chaucer.

So what we have here is an association between symbols of the English pastoral and blood, sacrifice and death.  On this point Fussell notes that the English translation of Et in Arcadia ego reads: ‘Even in in Arcadia I, Death, hold sway’, whereas it is often taken to mean: ‘And I have dwelt in Arcadia too.’  This is the idea that even in the midst of paradise, death, the Fall, is present.

This raises an interesting question in regard to the actual function of the English pastoral in the (re)imaginings of those writers and poets who wanted to convey their experiences of trench warfare.  On the one hand it could be argued that the idea (or rather fantasy) of the English pastoral kept them going in the midst of the horrors of that ‘ultimate anti-pastoral’.  On the other hand it might not be stretching things too far to argue that it was precisely this fantasy of the (lost) Arcadia that perpetuated the war, and, ironically, ensured that the rural idyll would be well and truly destroyed forever.

In other words we once again encounter, in perhaps the unlikeliness of places, the objet a; in this case it’s the lost idyll, the imagined idea of ‘England’ and ‘Englishness’.  The tragedy of this, of course, is that the real England had become a military-industrial ‘anti-pastoral’, mobilised for total war.  But it was this fantasy of the idealised ‘England’, this lost jouissance, that kept the war machine going.

  1. Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, p.231 []