Modernism And The First
Mehdi Hassanian esfahani (GS22456)
Modernism and Beyond (BBL5106)
Mr. Rohimmi Noor
The period of the World War One, which took place between July 28th, 1914
and November 11th, 1918 may seem short in the history of human being or art,
but its influence on technology, politics, people, their lifestyles and art was so
huge that the war was called The Great War of all the history. A part of this
effect was on literature. World War One changed people and their point of
views; writers changed their subjects and their literary techniques, readers
changed their expectations and changed their taste.
Peter Childs explains that “class system was rocked by trade unions and
the Labour party; beliefs in King and Country, patriotism and duty were
betrayed by the carnage of the war; the strength of patriarchy was challenged as
women went to work outside the home and the suffrage movement gained hold
… [as a result] it became absurd to celebrate noble ideas like human dignity in
art, or blithely to assert a belief in human progress” (20).
The following essay, as an assignment (and not a research paper on war
poetry), discusses the third chapter of Modernism by Steven Matthews
(published by Oxford Brookes University, UK: 2004) regarding the influence of
War on literature of war time, and also its impact on after-war period. The book
Modernism would be considered the main text, or the framework and I will not
cite it every time, unless there is an emphasis on it.
Literature and the First World War
The Great War between Central Powers (including the German Empire, the
Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria)
and Allies or Entente Powers (including the Russian Empire, France, the British
Empire, Italy, the Empire of Japan, and the United States) started in July 1914.
The progress of war implied that there wouldn’t be a soon ending for it and the
mass slaughter (and technology of reaching this aim) should be planned for. The
result was over 40 million casualties (including about 20 million dead).
Thousands and thousands who did not died in fronts, suffered from shell-shock,
which haunted them in their post-war lives.
This instigated radical incident, changed the form and content of literary
texts in English. Matthews explains that American émigrés like T. S. Eliot and
Ezra Pound insisted and used their innovative literary techniques they have
experienced in the previous years, but changed the subject matter. They moved
from highly concerns about aestheticism, to the nature of ‘civilization’ which
the war was fought for to preserve. Fears about cultural degeneration and
‘civilization’ (as opposed to barbarism) were the keywords of literary reviews at
that time. War brought the requirement of stylistic and formal change in the
works of emerging English novelists, including D. H. Lawrence and Virginia
Wyndham Lewis was the one who first pointed out the romance of war.
Perhaps the resemblance of the nature of the pastoral landscape in France in
which the fighting was taking place, and that of certain milder landscape in the
south of England was the reason that the scene at the Front was, therefore, a
relatively familiar one to the soldiers in the early stages of war, and the reason
that writers worked initially in a Romantic or a post-Romantic style. Lewis
recalls in his autobiographical Blasting and Bombardiering (1937) that “… we
plunged immediately into the romance of battle. But all henceforth was
romance. All this culminated, of course, in the scenery of the battlefields, like
desolate lunar panoramas” (114).
Edmund Blunden, remembering his experience of the battle of Ypres,
states that he cannot, as a writer, distinguishes between the incidents, sights,
faces, and words to narrate only some of them, perhaps the most important ones,
as if the ability of the artist to select materials, and to order them into coherence
is lost in the shock of the events. He would refute the appropriateness of
Lewis’s idealizing term ‘romance’, but he would not deny that art was
irrevocably altered (local, limited, incoherence) by the conflict.
It is worth noting that the style of Lewis’s Blasting and Bombardiering is
founded upon his belief that modern art is similar to the war. He insists that
instead of thinking of the influences of the war just-finished on the art, one
should demonstrate (and concern about) what a war-about-to-start (i.e.
Modernism) can do to art. Even though, he claims that war has succeeded in
bringing about the end of war itself: ‘it altered the face of our civilization. It left
the European nations impoverished, shell-shocked, discouraged and unsettled.
It is the time, when T. S. Eliot changes his key essays to questioning the
civilization which had suffered four years of World War One. He asks,
furthermore, what ‘civilization’ is in fact, if it can lead to such devastation
between notions. His style changes as well. Bradshaw believes that the title of
The Waste Land (1922) refers to the mass destruction, to the slaughter which
was enormous in size and “like never before, [had ever] large parts of Europe
been subjected to [such a] methodical destruction” (69), which as Cunningham
added in his book, “sounded the death knell for the world of settled values” and
“made a mockery of patriotic slogans” (559).
In the 1921 essay of Eliot, Matthews observes that, he established his
ideal poetry as one in which ideas and physical sensations are united, where
‘there is a direct sensuous apprehension of thought or a recreation of thought
into feeling’. Eliot, additionally, praises James Joyce’s (and Yeats’s) use of the
‘mythical method’ of writing, which brings “artistic order to the chaos of
modern life” (Childs, 100) and suggests a continuous parallel between
contemporary and antiquity. Eliot implies that the shapelessness of history (or
as Blunden says, its ‘incoherence’) can hope only to be partially restored
through literary means which bridges such gaps or dissociations.
At the same time, the same tension can be observed in the sequence of
poems by Ezra Pound. This sequence created the poet’s farewell to England,
before moving to Paris in early 1920s. His war poem, Hugh SelwynMauberly,
published in 1919, used, according to Bradbury, “fractured forms to express his
enraged reaction to the war, and explore the spectacle of a once-great artistic
culture destroyed through commercialism and nationalism, producing a
collapsed civilization” (7). Life and Contacts and E. P.’s Ode for His Choice of
Burial Place are the other notable ones which imply that the cost of human life
on the battlefields in France was not worth it. Pounds conclusion, as Matthews
states “seem to be that civilization from the perspective of England has achieved
little – certainly not enough to warrant the sacrifice of ‘the best’, including some
of his best friends” (68).
British poets who served at the fronts (also called the war poets),
experienced a huge change in the form and the content of their poetry. They had
found smooth rhythm of Romantic or post-Romantic style suitable, but it was
before the brutal alienating realities of newly technologies modern warfare.
Sassoon was one of the first poets, who described the after-war situation and
wounded, disabled soldier who cannot return to their previous lives. His
language “is deliberately anti-Romantic in its rejection of conventional poetic
diction in favor of sharp and biting colloquialism” (Carter, 332).
As an example, we may find in Sassoon’s Break of Day, ‘a distinct sense
of the literal dislocation enforced upon the individual by the war, the destruction
of all remnants of benevolent experience.’ The poet, here, asks for an Edenic
place (an ideal peaceful place) which is colorful in opposition to the gray and
brown barren landscapes of battlefields. According to Matthews,
“Much of the power of these poems of the First World War comes from
the dramatization of such contrasts. These are contrasts between England
and the Front, between the assumed radiant past and the horrific present,
between pastoral and the ‘angry guns’, between hitherto-held beliefs and
the grasped-out questionings of faith of the dying” (71).
Shocking and realistic war poetry of Wilfred Owen, influenced by his friend
Sassoon and his first hand experience of war, was also in contrast with the
heroic patriotic verses written by earlier. His realistic view of war resulted in
disillusionment which became the “spirit of frivolity to him, and caused
“bitterness and cynicism about anything connected with military glory”
Even the title of his most famous work, Dulce et Decorum Est (meaning
‘it is sweet and right to die for one’s country’) is ironic, when it starts by some
grotesque opening lines: ‘Bend double, like old beggars under sacks, / knocked-
kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…’ His detail of a gas
attack discloses the hellishness and evilness of war, as at the end of the poem,
the reader is convinced that the title was ‘the old lie’.
Earlier war poetry, like Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, was written from
another point of view, to encourage the reader and glory the sacrifice of soldiers
at the fronts. Carter quotes the first part of The Soldier, as “If I should die, think
only this of me / That there’s some corner of a foreign field / That is forever
England”, and explains that at the beginning of World War One, “the
characteristic response to it was that to serve in the war was a matter of duty”
(331). But again this tradition it changed by soldier/poets like Owen, who
according to Carter, “came to see it … as a duty to warn of the horrors of war
and to ask why political rulers allowed such mass destruction to continue for so
Combat stress reaction (in the pas commonly known as shell-shocked)
was a problem of during and after war period. Childs goes through the clinical
view and indicates its importance in psychology (Freudian analysis) and
literature of the time. He points out Mrs. Dalloway as an example in which a
shell-shocked is described whose marriage is destroyed by the conflict and who
eventually commits suicide. Owen’s compassion to victims of shell-shocked,
who were once his friends as he was a soldier and was killed in the battlefield,
is presented in his poem Mental Cases in which he directly addresses the reader
and talks about this madness.
Apart from poetry, war also changed fiction. The character of a shell-
shocked or a disabled person was much tangible at that time. The only different
is that, as Carter says, war poetry is written in trenches in the middle of a
battle, but novels were composed in an after-war period. Rebecca West’s The
Return of the Soldier and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover both
narrate the impact of trench experience upon those left behind at home,
principally upon their gender relations. There is a same sense of remoteness in
the returned soldier of both novels.
West’s shell-shocked soldier suffers from a loss of memory which means
that he thinks he remains in love with his first love, Margaret, rather than with
his wife, Kitty. Matthews clarifies that dividing and labeling society by class
definitions was another result of war, and the desire of Chris, the shell-shocked
soldier, for Margaret and his ignorance toward his marriage to the middle-class
Kitty is a return to the cross-class relationship his marriage had eradicated.
In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the central female character, Connie, does
overlook her wounded and incapacitated ex-soldier husband for the ‘whole’
man, Mellors, the gamekeeper on Sir Clifford Chatterley’s estate.
Matthews suggests that in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, “the tragedy of
World War One is reflected by the ‘sex war’ being enacted at home. [When] in
male novelist’s eye, the sense of tension between the sexes is clearly
exacerbated by the new-found freedom and independence amongst women
brought about amongst other things by the rise of the women’s movement in the
immediate pre-war years” (81). Quoting the scene when Connie experiences
and feels the sweetness of having sex with the ‘complete’ man, Bradshaw
comments that this novel describes sex “as a strange union of historical forces
and individual fulfillment”, where having sex with the gamekeeper “summons
up a primeval past and sparks Connie’s birth as a ‘woman’” (149).
In his semi-autobiographical novel Kangaroo, Lawrence describes how
the war changed (and changed other things) and sums up the view that ‘It was
in 1915, the old world ended’. “Picking a date of far more historical moment,
the point when an entire cultural tradition seemed to end in war (Bradbury,
16)”, he writes:
In the winter of 1916-16 the spirit of the old London collapsed, the
city, in some way, perished, perished, perished from being a heart of the
world, and became a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes, fears and
horrors. The integrity of London collapsed, and the genuine debasement
began, the unspeakable baseness of the press and the public voice.
Most significantly, perhaps, the war brought a real change in women’s statues
as they took over vital jobs vacated by men who went to the Front, particularly
after the introduction of conscription, whereby men were forced to enlist for
service, in 1916. Women were already increasingly taking up employment
before the war, but the years 1914-18 saw over e million women working in
engineering, munitions, transport and commerce, and on the land, for the first
time. There was a shift from domestic service to other employment which was
never to be reversed. Women suddenly found themselves independent in new
ways, as the average wage for working women nearly doubled from pre-war
Accordingly, as Childs quotes from Lawrence, the writer’s attempt was to
concentrate most fully on the theme of “woman becoming individual, self-
responsible, taking her own initiative” and “establishment of a new relation …
between man and woman” (142).
Bradbury, Malcolm. The Modern World. Ten Graet Writers. Great Britain:
Penguin Books, 1989.
Bradshaw, David and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. A Companion to Modernist
Literature and Culture. UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Carter, Ronald and Malcolm Bradbury. The Routledge History of
Literature in English. London: Routledge, 2001.
Childs, Peter. Modernism. USA: Routledge, 2000.
Cunningham, Lawrence and John J. Reich. Culture and Values: A
Survey of the Humanities. USA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.
Matthews, Steven. Modernism. UK: Oxford Brookes University, 2004.
Wyndham Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering. London: John Calder