How the Great War altered 'English imaginations'

September 22, 1991|By Vincent Fitzpatrick




Samuel Hynes.


514 pages. $20.95. In 1920, as he looked back in anger upon World War I, Ezra Pound remarked savagely that a myriad had died "For an old bitch gone in the teeth,/For a botched civilization." It would have been unthinkable for a Victorian to speak so contemptuously of the queen or the country. Four years of slaughter, however, had irrevocably changed modern man's perspective on what was past, passing and to come.

Eight million soldiers lay dead, and 20 million were wounded or diseased. The war had cost more than $600 billion. About 25,000 miles of trenches, enough to circle the Equator, had been gouged out of the Western Front. Much of France lay in ruins: a pock-marked, mud-filled, corpse-ridden landscape that seemed otherworldly.

Had the British commanders paid more attention to America's Civil War after 1862 or to their own more recent struggles with the Boers, one harsh lesson would have been clear. Concentrated firepower, employed from an entrenched position, had changed the nature of military tactics. Yet on July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, more than 60,000 British troops were killed or wounded as they charged the German trenches. The wounded lay in No Man's Land for days.

At times on the Western Front, the life expectancy of a junior officer was about three months. As the carnage increased, some of the wounded were patched up two and three times and sent back to the line. "Neither race had won, nor could win, the War," Edmund Blunden remarked bitterly. "The War had won, and would go on winning."

H. G. Wells wrote a book titled "The War That Will End War," and Woodrow Wilson spoke of "making the world safe for democracy." Actually, after haggling at Versailles, vindictive politicians produced a treaty that marked, to borrow Charles Mee's phrase, "the end of order." Hitler rose to power fewer than 15 years later. As one British historian remarked, World War I proved "the greatest secular catastrophe which has tormented mankind since the fail of Rome."

To the shelfloads of commentary about this watershed, Samuel Hynes of Princeton University had added his distinguished "A War Imagined." Chronologically, it links two previous volumes, both equally commendable: his "The Edwardian Turn of Mind" and "The Auden Generation." As the present volume's subtitle suggests, the author examines the war's effect upon English culture, a term that is employed broadly. Dr. Hynes discusses not only literary but also social and political matters: the anti-war movement and the Great Strike of 1926, women's rights and the Irish question.

It is as a literary critic, though, that the author speaks in most detail and with greatest expertise. The research supporting this volume is staggering in scope. Dr. Hynes maintains a graceful narrative in an urbane style with a practiced eye for irony. My only quibble is that he could have better integrated military matters with literary issues, something that Paul Fussell did with extraordinary success in "The Great War and Modern Memory" (1975).

Discussing texts both famous and forgotten, the author examines all genres in his explanation of how the war altered the "English imaginations" and determined "what modern came to mean." Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford ("Parade's End" was "the greatest English novel of the war") figure prominently, and such foreign novelists as Hemingway, Remarque and Barbusse are discussed. Rupert Brooke, who died on a ship off Gallipoli before seeing combat, reigned as the most popular war poet. T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," by long odds the most consequential poem of the 20th century, was, among many other things, an analysis of a fragmented civilization after the war.

Among other autobiographies, Dr. Hynes illuminates Robert Graves' "Good-bye to All That," a title that has acquired its just acclaim. Discussing "Eminent Victorians," the most notorious biography produced during the war, the author wryly recounts Lytton Strachey's reply to the patriots who asked why he wasn't fighting to save civilization. "I am the civilization," Strachey said, "for which you are fighting."

Dr. Hynes is especially good in explaining how the language of literature changed during the war. Early on, when hopes were high, writers used images of cleansing and fiery purification to portray the war's supposedly beneficial effects. A flabby England once again would be made fit. With high-blown rhetoric, writers talked about "holiness" and "glory" and "nobility."

Later, as the horrors became all too clear, writers faced an appalling task: How to speak the unspeakable? Big words gave way to little ones; the abstract became concrete. Some writers angrily told the unadorned truth: exactly how a soldier choked to death after being gassed and how his body was "flung" into a wagon. It was hardly noble to die for one's country.

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