100 years on

With the publishing of a new, stunningly comprehensive book of WW1 poetry by one of the world’s biggest poetry houses, we take a look at one of the most interesting works in it and look back on its cultural impact, 100 years later.

The first World War shook the grand ideals and paragons, long embedded in Western society, to their very  core. How could one believe in honour when they had seen the desperate scrabble for life  in the trenches?  Where was justice when the family of a fourteen year old were told he had been killed in action? The death and horror of the War had been justified via the aggrandisement of the British as loyalists ,  and a subsequent vilification of the Germans as rebels. The dissolution of these core  values made people question these justifications of the war and realise that their great tragedy was rooted in human action rather than grand ideals.  It added to the growing feeling of sorrow and resentment of the war. The war had not been “an adventure”, nor had it been the glorious test of manhood and patriotism. Instead it had been grim, gritty and most importantly: base. There were no Gods influencing the fields of battle as there had been at Troy, no prophetic vision akin to Arthur’s insight into his own death at. There was nothing but a human desire to live and a desire for power.

The startling contrast between the idealism of the paragons and the reality of the war, which can be seen as the main impetus for the emerging Modernism, was accentuated by four main aspects. Firstly, and most importantly, the dissolution of absolute values.  The fixed values of ‘Truth’ ‘Honour’ and ‘Justice’ were very much apparent in the rhetoric of the War. To die for one’s country was to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of these ideals; it was a “death august and royal” The effect of the war was to bring these grand ideals to Earth, to ground idealism in reality. This can be seen in Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, a poem enthralled by the brutal physicality of the war. The focus in that work is on the tangible- “ boots” “sludge” “drowning” and “blind”- rather than the elevated ideals of war. Owen juxtaposes the physicality of the gas attack, full of “fumbling” and “choking” with the lack of any transcendental justification to reveal that there is no great meaning and purpose in war beyond that of human matters. The attack is not a grand event that will shape the war, just an everyday tragedy of no greater significance than the loss of life. The attack challenges combat as a “game” or contest of superiority because it doesn’t come from an opponent one can best in a show of valour but in the form of anonymous gas: a dehumanised, impartial killer. The aftermath of this collapse of inherent value can be seen in Modernism’s fascination with the details of city life, with bringing the motonony of normality to the forefront. The shift away from the grand narratives the epics and the self indulgent poetics to a more dispassionate view can be seen as a celebration of the heroics of the everyday, the untold epics of insignificance. There was no longing the binding ideals of what was worth to be enshrined with art.

Secondly, the setting of the battles. The idealic French country side is more likely to feature in Romantic literature than grim war stories, but it was in these fields that a huge number of men lost their lives. The natural world has long been associated with goodness, inherent morality and strength. This imagery was still prevalent in the early days of the war: in Grenfell’s “The fighting man shall from the sun/ Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth” and Brooke’s use of natural images to highlight the England that was worth fighting for: “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” The image of the pastoral, churned and sodden by the fury of war, exposes the natural world  lack of inherent benevolence and shows it to simply be a “countryside not caring” With the physical and idealisitc image of the country so despoiled, it is only natural for Modernism to look inwards at the cause of this desolation: city life. The country- symbol of intrinsic, natural  value- was treated with the same disdain as the subject matter it was synonomous with. The city then, the very image of humanity’s mastery of the artificial, was surely the perfect subject for study.

Thirdly, the reduction of Time from an absolute value to something far more complex. In Modernism Time, exists not only as an external concept but also a medium whose nature is dependent upon those who perceive it. This is not clearly apparent from the stereotypical image of the war:  bloodshed, mutilation and misery, and in this misinformed view something vital is lost. Every waking hour of a soldier’s life was not spent in combat or training for that fateful push, in fact the majority of it was spent hanging around the trenches. Time often seemed: “”  and the effect of living with long spaces of unfocussed time centred around single defining moments must have warped the combatants view of temporality. Though there was a standard routine in a soldier’s life these ordered aspects were reviled -the morning routine or “morning hate” especially so- given their connotations of top down oppression and authority in a place where traditional systems were rendered obsolete.  The aftermath of this can be seen in the seeming irrelevance of time in Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, and Septimus all have bizarre relationships with time.  The characters seeming inability to focus on the present clashes with the narrative of the novel which occurs on all on a single day. The scope of the book is simultaneously broadened decades into the past and into the future, and contained within the physical framework of objective temporal measurement. This contrast between the skewed perception of time and its external relevance is epitomised by the image of time as “leaden circles”: continuous, without beginning, end or any definable difference, yet at the same time heavy, solemn and poisonous. The image of a circle is reminiscient of a clockface and makes the reader question the very nature of a clock as something that represents the paradow: within the infinite nature of the circle is a series of precise measurements to dissect and order time. Modernism, bereft of overarching grand ideals, questions whether this order is really necessary and it is common to see a conflict between personal time and external time.

The last event that highlighted the contrast between idealism and reality was women taking men’s jobs over during the war. Women only gained the vote in 1918 and the First World War may be seen a major part of this because it broke down malicious stereotypes used to portray women as the weaker entity, one dependant on a man.  A woman doing what was considered a man’s job questioned the supposed inferiority of the gender and brought to light that social prejudice, rather than inherent defects, were the cause of female relegation.  This can be seen in Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which casts a critical commentary over the role of women following the war, one that posits women in traditional roles even when such paradigms have shifted to highlight the absurdity of what was considered normality. Women have gone from being empowered workers into figures of gossip scandal and triviality.  , for example, simply sits covered with furs whilst her husband works. Though she is not expected to support the household, she is expected to accompany her husband, suggesting that a women’s role is that of support. Her furs have connotations of luxury, softness and wealth, and can be seen to act as a metaphor for the perception of women as nothing more than an accessory, an item to adorn and supplement a man rather than a being in their own right. Clarissa Dalloway herself rather challenges this view. Although she appears to conform to the boundaries of society, she is simultaneously set in confliction with it. Rather than the young supple beauty, she is a rather plain older woman. She is not at all dependent on her husband and instead spends much time thinking about a past boyfriend and cherishing a semi-lesbianic relationship she had as a young woman.  We can see in Mrs Dalloway, an exasperated figure trapped within the artifice of her gender. She has as quick a mind and as competent a tongue as any other character, yet she is unable to garner the same respect for it that she would if she were a man. This social prejudice is highlighted by the role of her husband as an MP, ie. Someone whose profession is to debate. Her eloquence is unrecognised and her only form of real expression in wider society is to throw a party. The contrast between the image of a party – associated with trivial matters and pleasure- and the image of a MP- a serious figure of authority and power- throws into the marginalisation of women into sharp relief.

These aspects show the socio-political climate following the First World War to be one centred around the juxtaposing movements of change and conservatisim.  Modernism, Peter Childs claims, is an art form in which artists such as Ford Madox Ford were of the “a clash between old and new worlds”.  This is referenced in TS Eliot’s The Hollow men, with the juxtaposition of opposing ideals “Between the idea/ And the reality”, to show “the shadow.” Eliot can be seen to be alluding to a world devoid of light or dark, of any absolutes values, instead merely defined by the murky mix of subjectivity and conflict. The First World War created so many conflicts in social order, perception and the relation of ideology with reality, that its influence upon the style of Modernism cannot be underestimated. Modernism is an art form that reflects this uncertainty, the hope and the dread that a new order represented better than almost any other in history. The resentment and suppression of the war is juxtaposed with the lasting impact it had on society. The War is a theme that is often mentioned in passing, or not at all, but its impact on the following years is highly apparent. The Hollow Men never explicitly mentions the war at all but the dystopic world, it portrays mirrors the ruined idealism of war that was prevalent in the early 1910’s. The grim reality it describes is one “the dead land” where mankind “form[s] prayers to broken stone” . Stone, a symbol of strength and stability, represents the certainty of objective governing values and the world of The Hollow Men can be seen as the world bereft of overarching ideals, a world where a soldier is a murderer, where a man’s life is reduced to a commodity in some twisted market. Without these artifices men are devoid of any intrinsic core, rendered “hollow”, and the cold horror of everyday life is exposed. The loss of human life in a war is reduced from the dominant “bang” to a sign of misery and suffering, a helpless “whimper.”

The old society was both repressed and rejected. This fundamental change in perspective made the modern generation see the past in a horrified manner, without those central ideals to support them, many of the old facets of life seemed brutal and unfair.  Without the overarching values of the past, the class system and its presupposed right to dominance came under harsh scrutiny. Was the begger in the street any less of a man than the lord in his palace? In the past, the upper echelons were seen as intrinsically better, natural born leaders, but the massive losses of the War had brought this into question.  The war had been won not by a select elite by rather by the masses, by ordinary people: “lions led by donkeys.”

The tension between the masses and the elite brought focus upon the increased isolation of man in modern life. Technology was viewed with increasing suspicion, though it had revolutionised labour there was growing angst about the risk it represented. The use of gas and modern weaponry in the War had shown just how destructive machinery could be. It emphasised the incorporation of machines into everyday life and raised concern over their growing influence. Machinery took on a sinister aspect, as an embodiment of humanity in the modern time: a utility, a construct without intrinsic boundaries or values. In the iconic film Metropolis, men work in perfect order and synchronicity, reduced to machines. In. Stripped of any grand narrative, they simply exist and this fear of reduction is apparent throughout modernism. The First World War had both reduced men’s lives to statistics and emphasised the importance of machines. It brought to the fore anxieties about man’s place in the world, about the inherent benevolence of his nature. In such a world morality could well become subservient to utility or simply cease to exist at all. That idea was an anaethema to the centralised virtues of the past where good and evil were both definite and polarised. We see this conflict in where, who fears modernity, organises everything in absolutes and exists in a inflexible routine. For him the grey world of contemporary life is abhorrent and he tries to exclude himself from it by following absolutes: his world, like his room is made up of “black” and “white”.

There is no clear defining rhetoric to this new age of thinking, but rather a jumbled mess of ideas clashing and collaborating seemingly at will. The complexity of Modernism, the difficult diction and the focus on seemingly mundane aspects of life can all be linked to this opposition of the two worlds, where old meets new. The very core of its being is its diversity and such different texts and ideologies would have been unable to exist if the First World War had not challenged and destroyed a great number of fixed, centralised ideas. In the void that this dissolution created, there was both room and need for a myriad of interrelating concepts vying for authority and prominence. This paper does not claim that Modernism is a reaction only to the war but it is undeniable that The War served the key role in creating the crux of modernist sentiments. Although the great philosophical and scientific revolutions of the past centuries has created an environment of uncertainty and query, it was the First World War that brought these doubts into the popular mind. *Freud* Urbanisation served as one of the great tensions apparent in Modernism but it was the use of machines in association with The War, and thus the shattering of the old order, that intensified anxiety. The First World War did not create many of the central factors of the Modernist movement, it simply created changed the perceptions of the public into a state in which those factors had new relevance and severity. In that way, Modernism can definitely be seen as a necessary reaction to the War because only the sprawling, multifaceted anxiety and change of Modernism could address the feelings of a people who had lost the very core of their being, those “hollow men”


January 25, 2018

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