Today, a little bit of war poetry.
Beloved by teachers, and op-ed writers as much as by genuine readers, the poets of the First World War lose some of their impact from their ubiquity in contemporary society. They get quoted, again and again, not because of what they say about the war they fought but because of the ease with which their war stands in for catastrophes we ourselves fear. In Canada, John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is inescapable, but I’m not sure that any of the rote repetitions of it that I and my classmates gave in elementary school drove home that the lines:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
are a call for revenge rather than reconciliation.
There’s as much farce as tragedy in the way that the major soldier-poets like Sassoon and Owen are read as unabashed critics of their war rather than conflicted combatants. Luckily, scholars on the web like George Simmers and Tim Kendall are there to remind us of the full extent of the poetry and fiction that the war inspired (both blogs are, by the way, great reads).
In fact, the war was a deep source of inspiration for writers of all creeds. Rudyard Kipling, best known today as a celebrant of the British empire, managed in his “Epitaphs of the War” to capture the cruel ironies of the situation. Side by side, we can read “Bombed in London” (“On land and sea I strove with anxious care / To escape conscription. It was in the air!”) and “R.A.F. (Aged Eighteen)” (“Laughing through clouds, his milk-teeth still unshed, / Cities and men he smote from overhead”), but also “Two Canadian Memorials” (the second, by request, for the citizens of Sault Ste. Marie:
We giving all gained all.
Neither lament us nor praise.
Only in all things recall,
It is fear, not Death that slays.
From little towns in a far land we came,
To save our honour and a world aflame.
By little towns in a far land we sleep;
And trust that world we won to you to keep!
In general, Kipling gets an undeservedly bad rap for jingoism. In the decade or so leading up to the First World War, Kipling had written on and off about the nature of modern war, and British preparedness. His son, John, went missing while with the Irish Guards at the 1915 battle of Loos. The loss led him to compile a history of the Irish Guards in the war (published in 1923), to throw himself into the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission, and (possibly) to write the most famous of the “Epitaphs”: “If any question why we died, / Tell them, because our fathers lied.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the cultural response to the war was that it didn’t collapse in the face of unimaginable loss. Though some memorials, like the London Cenotaph and the Thiepval Memorial (both designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens) avoided personifying the dead, most towns promptly got to work remembering the dead with heroic statutes. (The Germans, such as Otto Dix and Käthe Kollwitz, were more ambivalent). It took the horrors of another war, including both the Holocaust and the atomic bomb, to make heroic figures seem like an unsatisfactory way to remember and to open up new paths.