The Poetics of the Great War

Introduction: a war imagined

In the introduction to his book on the First World War and English Culture Samuel Hynes briefly but succinctly summaries what he calls the Myth of the War:

A brief sketch of that collective narrative of significance would go something like this: a generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory, and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy. They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals. Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them. They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance.[1]

One key question is how it is that this myth has survived, largely intact, until the early part of the twenty first century, a hundred years after its inception?   And this is in spite of numerous attempts to discredit it. However, another important question relates to the writing of the Myth in the first place: who were its key authors, be they poets, writers, artists, film maker, photographers, politicians and even historians themselves?

In this essay I want to focus on one group in particular, the poets. One reason for this is that in many ways the Great War poetry and poets seem to epitomise the Myth, although a closer reading soon reveals that this is not always the case.  Many of the poets were serving soldiers, and some did not survive the trenches, for example Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. Others did, but were left with enduring psychological scars, including Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves.

Although, as I have just suggested, it is certainly not the case that all Great War poetry was cynical and ‘anti-war’, much of it certainly was, and increasingly so as the war dragged on. Therefore it might seem unfair to argue that such poetry ‘fed’ the Myth of the War, because it would seem that the ‘realism’ and cynicism of much of the poetry was a necessary ‘antidote’ to the government propaganda of the War.  In this view, the Great War poetry could be seen as a way to undermine the real Myth based on the lies perpetuated by the ‘old men at home’ cited by Hynes.

However, as I will argue below, I think there is a strong case to argue that the Great War poets were instrumental in constructing the Myth, because propaganda should not be equated with mythology.  This is not to say that propaganda is not used in myth, but in the case of the Myth of the War, government propaganda, along with the idea of callous and incompetent generals, played the role of ‘villain’ within the Myth itself. In other words, and this is something Hynes explores in great detail in his work, the Myth of the War is precisely the Myth of disillusionment, of a ‘lost generation’, a generation forever traumatised and betrayed by ‘lying old men’.

Fussell and the poetics of the War

Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, some forty five years after its initial publication, retains its capacity to draw admiration and criticism in equal measures, although as time goes by the critics appear to be gaining the edge.[2]   In the Preface to the original edition, Fussell writes:

This book is about the British experience on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918 and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered, conventionalized, and mythologized. It is also about the literary dimensions of the trench experience itself. Indeed, if the book had a subtitle, it would be something like “An Inquiry into the Curious Literariness of Real Life.” I have focused on places and situations where literary tradition and real life notably transect, and in doing so I have tried to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favor by conferring forms upon life….At the same time the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth, and that myth is part of the fiber of our own lives.[3]

However, as Kate McLoughlin argues in her 2014 critical essay on Fussell’s book, although he might have been aiming to identify and explore the Myth of the War (to refer back to Hynes’ term) through the use of war literature and, especially, poetry, in the process he was also engaged the process of myth creation himself.[4]  She refers to this dual process of myth-identification and creation as mythography.

Leonard Smith makes the same point in a slightly different way by arguing that Fussell’s work is best defined as a lieu de mémoire or ‘site of memory’.[5]  Here, Smith is drawing upon the work of Pierre Nora, who:

…drew a severe distinction between “memory,” which exists in almost a once-upon-a-time past through folklore and the lived and often unspoken experience of common people, and “history,” which exists as created by historians in a professionalized and self-legitimizing present. Memory, having been torn from daily life by history, exists today only in lieux or “sites,” cultural constructions of the past that serve to define present national identity. In Nora’s words, memory “relies entirely on the materiality of the trace,” whether the stone of a physical monument, or the paper of documents in an archive or a published book.[6]

In the context of the Great War, the idea of ‘sites of memory’ has been taken up, amongst others, by Jay Winter, firstly in his book Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning,[7] and then in his later work, Remembering War.[8] As the title of Winter’s first book suggests, memory is linked closely with mourning and loss, and although these ‘sites’ are often associated with physically prominent structures such as war memorials and war graves, they include films, books and even, according to Winter in Remembering War, psychological trauma, for example ‘shell shock’, or in its modern incarnation, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If Smith is correct in his assertion that Fussell’s book can be included amongst these ‘sites of memory’ then this seems to suggest that it might be more useful to approach this work (and others like it) from a different perspective than that of criticising the factual accuracy of some of his assertions, or even his central argument that the ‘writing’ of the Great War was in the style of irony.

This is not to say that there are not some serious questions relating to his arguments and assertions. Just to take one example: as Martin Stephen points out, Fussell’s claim that the Great War subaltern poets were so enamoured by Georgian poetry that they wrote their verse through the rose-tinted glasses of the English Pastoral tradition is simply not true.[9]  Or, perhaps it might be more accurate to say that Fussell misrepresents Georgian poetry in the first place by “seeing it concerned with only dawn and sunset.”[10]

Things are even more problematic when it comes to Fussell’s central thesis, which is the concept of ironic writing. To be fair, Fussell is the first to admit that the basis of his argument, that the Great War was ‘written’ in the style of (tragic) irony, draws on the work of Northrop Frye and the wider New Criticism tradition (which Frye himself was critical of).  In particular, Fussell uses Frye’s idea of literary ‘modes’ of myth, romance, epic and tragedy (‘high mimetic’), comedy and realistic fiction (‘low-mimetic), and irony. These modes move in a cycle and it is this aspect that Fussell appears to forget in practice even though he acknowledges it in his book.  As Smith notes:

Frye included an intriguing twist in his chronology of literature, in which the descent into irony “moves steadily toward myth, and dim outlines of sacrificial rituals and dying gods begin to reappear in it.” Frye thus posited that the history of literature is cyclical.[11]

The key point here is that irony ‘cycles’ around back into myth.  To be fair to Fussell, this would fit his stated aim of exploring how the Great War became mythologised through (ironic) poetry and writing, but he fails to notice that in the process he is ‘feeding’ this myth himself.

And this comes back to the idea that his book can be explored as a ‘site of memory’ rather than an historically accurate account of the ‘writing’ of the Great War. In this sense, his work is very effective in its function of keeping the memory of the Great War ‘alive’.  And, of course, this could equally be said of the ever-growing corpus of Great War material dating back now just over a century and which shows little sign of abating.  In other words, all those thousands or even hundreds of thousands, of texts, poems, biographies, official histories and so on, all constitute a massive lieu de mémoire, whose main function is to both keep alive the memory of the War, but equally, drawing on Winter’s work, to keep alive the process of mourning.

The ambiguity of the war poets

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.  There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.[12]

Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’ is probably one of the best known and yet one of the most problematic poems of the Great War. This is especially so if it is remembered that it forms the final poem of the five ‘war sonnets’, collectively entitled ‘1914’. The first, somewhat ironically entitled ‘Peace’, is in many ways even more problematic:

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.[13]

This poem appears to epitomise the naivety of a younger generation who bore the brunt of the Great War, with its apparent embracing of war as the supposed antidote to the senility and complacency of the Edwardian era. ‘The Soldier’, on the other hand, could be seen as one of the worst examples of Georgian poetry with its attempt to transform the Flanders bloodbath into a piece of the English rural idyll.

In Brooke’s defence, though, it can easily be shown that his use of poetry to ‘write’ the War was not much different from that of many of his subaltern comrades, who were also prone to resort to the language of the English Pastoral when all other modes of expression failed them.  In fact, this is one of the central theses of Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory: that the Myth of the War was at least in part the result of the war being ‘written’ in the English Pastoral tradition.  But Fussell goes further by arguing that it had to be written like this, because if the war had been portrayed in more ‘literal’ terms no-one would have been interested:

Logically, one supposes, there’s no reason why a language devised by man should be inadequate to describe any of man’s works. The difficulty was in admitting that the war had been made by men and was being continued ad infinitum by them. The problem was less one of “language” than of gentility and optimism; it was less a problem of “linguistics” than of rhetoric. Louis Simpson speculates about the reason infantry soldiers so seldom render their experiences in language: “To a foot-soldier, war is almost entirely physical. That is why some men, when they think about war, fall silent. Language seems to falsify physical life and to betray those who have experienced it absolutely—the dead. But that can’t be right. The real reason is that soldiers have discovered that no one is very interested in the bad news they have to report. What listener wants to be torn and shaken when he doesn’t have to be? We have made unspeakable mean indescribable: it really means nasty.[14]

However, is this really a fair argument?  Take, for example, this poem by Charles Hamilton Sorley:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.[15]

Or this extract from Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est:

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.[16]

Not much left to the imagination here, I would argue, and there are numerous other examples.  Furthermore, as argued previously, Fussell’s attempts at myth identification all too easily slide into myth creation.  Therefore one begins to wonder whether it’s not so much that the poets and prose writers of the Great War were unable to convey the full horror of their experiences, but rather that Fussell himself is struggling, especially if we remember that he is writing as a veteran of the Second World War where he experienced first hand the reality of combat.

The ‘mythic’ nature of the writing

Ironically, perhaps, Barthes argued in Myth Today that poetry can be seen as a way of resisting myth:

Whereas myth aims at an ultrasignification, at the amplification of a first system, poetry, on the contrary, attempts to regain an infrasignification, a presemiological state of language; in short, it tries to transform the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of words, but the meaning of things themselves.  This is why it clouds the language, increases as much as it can the abstractness of the concept and the arbitrariness of the sign, and stretches to the limit the link between signifier and signified.  The openwork structure of the concept is here maximally exploited: unlike what happens in prose, it is all the potential of the signified that the poetic sign tries to actualize, in the hope of at least reaching something like the transcendent quality of the thing, it natural (not human) meaning.  Hence the essentialist ambitions of poetry, the conviction that it alone catches the thing in itself, inasmuch, precisely, as it wants to be an antilanguage. [17]

It should be noted that Barthes is referring to what he describes as contemporary poetry, and contrasts it with classical poetry, which he argues is a “strongly mythical system” because it represents a ‘fusion’ between the meaning of the discourse and the signifier of a new whole (the second plane of language).

The classics in the trenches

However, when it comes to the Great War poets it is hard to see how they would fit Barthes’ definition of ‘contemporary’, in the semiological sense at any rate.  Even in the most ardent ‘anti-war’ poems of Sassoon and Owen, there seems no attempt to ‘catch the thing in itself’.  And even if we take the excerpt from Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est quoted above, there is no ‘stretching to the limit of the link between signifier and signified’.  On the contrary, it is pretty clear what this poem is about (the effects of a gas attack), with very little or no abstraction.

It is also worth pointing out, perhaps, that many of the subaltern poets, or at least those that were public school educated, brought their classical education into the trenches and into their poetry (the title of Owen’s poem speaks for itself).  This is something Elizabeth Vandiver explores in some detail in her study of classical receptions in British Poetry in the Great War.[18]  Apart from the fact that much of the poetry of the Great War was neither ironic or ‘anti-war’ (in spite of the best efforts of the Myth of the War), even that which did fit this description still drew upon classical Greek and Roman language if not style.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all regarding the ‘ironic’ writing of the Great War (if we accept Fussell’s argument on this matter for the time being), is that it helped create a whole new myth of its own, even if it was intended (and it is by no means clear it was, according to writers such as Vandiver) to destroy the myth of Victorian/Edwardian ‘lie’.  In her book Vandiver gives some examples of how it is possible to read the same poem as both ‘anti-war’ and, for want of a better term, ‘pro-war’, including H.W Garrod’s Neuve Chapelle and Kipling’s Common Form.  Both poems are modelled on Simonides’ epitaph for the Spartan dead, and both can, on first reading, be seen as an inditement of war.  However, as Vandiver points out, on closer reading, and situating each poem within the wider context of its author’s work, neither can be read as denouncements of the war.  Neither, to be sure, can they be seen as glorifying war either; but it is only later on, as the Myth of the War took shape from the late 1920s onwards, that these poems, and many like them, could be read as anthems for a lost and disillusioned generation.

Sites of meaning, sites of trauma

If the writing of the Great War, be it in prose, poetry, art, film and so on, is a way to construct sites of memory and mourning, then why is this still so necessary a century on?  Or, to put it another way, why does the mourning process appear to be so interminable?  If we refer back to Freud’s paper Mourning and Melancholia then perhaps the reason is simple: something has gone wrong with the mourning process itself, so what we are left with is a state of perpetual collective melancholia.[19]  But taking the argument one step further, it could also be argued that mourning itself, as a process of working through, is a way to try and come to terms with loss; in other words, to ascribe meaning to the experience and to try and ‘make sense’ of it.  At this point it is worth quoting Freud in full with regards to his theory of mourning:

Reality-testing has shown that the loved object no longer exists, and it proceeds to demand that all libido shall be withdrawn from its attachments to that object. This demand arouses understandable opposition—it is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them. This opposition can be so intense that a turning away from reality takes place and a clinging to the object through the medium of a hallucinatory wishful psychosis. Normally, respect for reality gains the day. Nevertheless its orders cannot be obeyed at once. They are carried out bit by bit, at great expense of time and cathectic energy, and in the meantime the existence of the lost object is psychically prolonged. Each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido is bound to the object is brought up and hyper-cathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it. Why this compromise by which the command of reality is carried out piecemeal should be so extraordinarily painful is not at all easy to explain in terms of economics. It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us. The fact is, however, that when the work of mourning is completed the ego becomes free and uninhibited again.[20]

This seems to be a classic example of ‘working through’, with Freud’s reference to “each single one of the memories and expectations in which the libido” being bound to the object” being  “brought up and hyper-cathected, and detachment of the libido is accomplished in respect of it”.  The key point here is that this is a symbolic process, conducted within language.   And furthermore, this is the way that all psychotherapy operates, in the sense that it gives the subject the time and space to construct meaning, narratives, in order to ‘make sense’ of something that ultimately senseless and beyond meaning.

But what happens if this process of ‘working through’ fails?  In other words, if mourning fails?  According to Freud the result is melancholia, a never-ending identification of the subject’s ego with the lost object.  Of course, in one sense this is still an attempt at meaning through identification; a way to try and ‘hang on’ to the lost object.  Or one might even argue that meaning itself is simply a more sophisticated form of identification.


[1] Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1990), p.x.

[2] Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[3] Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, p.xv.

[4] Kate McLoughlin, ‘The Great War and Modern Memory’, Essays in Criticism, 64.4 (2014), 436–58.

[5] Leonard V. Smith, ‘Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory: Twenty-Five Years Later’, History and Theory, 40.2 (2001), 241–60.

[6] Smith, ‘Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory”, p.244.

[7] J. M. (Jay Murray) Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning : The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[8] Jay Winter, Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

[9] Martin Stephen, The Price of Pity: Poetry, History and Myth in the Great War (London: Leo Cooper, 1996).

[10] Stephen, The Price of Pity, p.234..

[11] Smith, ‘Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory”, p.256.

[12] Rupert Brooke, ‘The Soldier’, in Poems of the Great War 1914-1918 (London: Penguin, 1998).

[13] Rupert Brooke, ‘Peace’, in Poems of the Great War 1914-1918 (London: Penguin, 1998).

[14] Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, p.184, italics in original.

[15] Charles Hamilton Sorley, ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’, in Poems of the Great War 1914-1918 (London: Penguin, 1998).

[16] Wilfred Owen, ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, in Poems of the Great War 1914-1918 (London: Penguin, 1998).

[17] Barthes, Mythologies, pp.244-45.

[18] Elizabeth Vandiver, Stand in the Trench, Achilles : Classical Receptions in British Poetry of the Great War (Oxford, UNITED KINGDOM: Oxford University Press, 2010)

[19] S. Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in The Standard Edition (London: Vintage/Hogarth Press, 1917), pp. 239–58.

[20] Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, pp.244-45