ModernistBritish poetry during World War I
Modernismis said to be the art consequent on the disestablishing of communalreality and conventional notions of the wholeness of individualcharacter, on the linguistic chaos that ensues when public notions oflanguage have been discredited and when all realities have becomesubjective fictions.
Itis the art consequent on Heisenberg’s ‘Uncertainty Principle,` ofthe destruction of civilization and reason in the First World War, ofthe World altered and reinterpreted by Darwin, Freud, and Marx, ofcapitalism and frequent industrial acceleration of existentialexposure to meaninglessness and absurdity. (Bradbury and McFarlane27).
Anumber of poets rise into prominence during the First World Warmajoring on modernism. This paper aims to view some of these poetswith regard to Bradbury and MacFarlane’s definition of modernism.
SigfriedSassoon is one poet who entirely agrees with the definition. In hispoem “The Redeemer,” he presents a scenario where, as a result ofhis experience in war, he is separated from the civilian world and isunable to rejoin it. The poem separates the soldier and the civilian.The soldier, according to Sassoon, does not deem himself at home,rather, he is quick to point out differences between those in Englandand himself:
Whenpeaceful folk in beds lay snug asleep
There,with much work to do before the light
Welugged our clay-sucked boots as best as we might
Alongthe trench sometimes a bullet sang. (Sassoon LL 3-6).
Thecivilian otherwise referred to as “peaceful folk” no longershares the same experiences as the soldier. Later on in the poem,Sassoon makes a comparison between a soldier and Christ:
Nothorny crown, only a woolen cap
Hewore—an English soldier, white and strong, . . .
ThatLancaster on Lune may stand [secure]. (Sassoon LL 19-27).
Thesoldier as a redeemer is quite English, but his Englishness is not inline with his reality. This concurs with what Bradbury and MacFarlanesay about modernism. According to Sassoon, the soldier’sEnglishness depends on the soldier’s self-sacrifice in order tosurvive. A few months later on the front, the poet’s optimisticblending of the trenches and the home front morphs into hopelessisolation. In separating the soldier from the civilian, Sassoonpresents the world which is essentially at odds with itself. Towardsthe end of the poem, a soldier flings “his burden in the muck,/mumbling: O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!” (Sassoon LL 35-36).The poet, just like the soldier, is stuck: he cannot see any futurebeyond the trenches.
Inhis poem “The Happy Warrior,” Herber Read shows how he hates warthrough his clear description of killings and brutality in war:
Hiswide eyes search unconsciously,
Dribblesdown his shapeless jacket,” (Read LL 4-7)
Thisdescription of war is horribly vivid. Use of words such as “bloody,”“Shriek” and “shapeless” portray the sense of disgust thespeaker feels about the war. The image depicted in line 6 is that ofa beastly animal with bloody saliva dripping down its mouth. In thisportrayal, Read suggests inhumanity. He views war as primitive andbarbaric. Read uses a reflective tone which reveals his intendedsarcasm at the end of the poem. Although his description can betermed shocking, the poem’s ending is quite sarcastic:
Isaw him stab . . .
Awell killed Boche,
Thisis the happy warrior,
Thisis [he]. (Read LL 8-12).
Thenarrator presents how he witnessed an enemy soldier being killed andfurther hints at the irony of it all. The speaker terms the survivor“happy warrior” despite killing another human being. Thisaccurately shows Read’s attitude towards war. In essence, he agreeswith Bradbury and MacFarlane by painting the actual picture ofdestroyed civilization.
WilfredGibson in his poem ‘Back,’ speaks of how war can change asoldier. He writes “They ask me where I’ve been, and what I’vedone and seen. But what can I reply” (Gibson LL 1-3), this explainshow hard it is for a soldier to put into words their experiences atwar. The reality in a way becomes subjective fiction because they arechanged by what transpired while in the battlefield. Gibson says,“And with my head and hands/Killed men in foreign lands/though Imust bear the blame/because he bore my name” (Gibson LL 7-10). Thisshows how war is cruel and forces one to take lives to survive.Eventually, all soldiers have to live with the guilt of taking livesof other human beings.
Inconclusion, the era of modernism saw the onset of the First World Warwhich was characterized by the surreal brutality of war as well asthe destruction of reason and civilization.
Bradbury,Malcolm, and James McFarlane. Modernism, 1890-1930. Hassocks, Sussex:Harvester Press Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1978.Print.
Gibson,Wilfred. "Wilfred’s Poems and the Georgians." The Reviewof English Studies 30.117 (1979): 28-40.
Sassoon,Siegfried. War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. Courier Corporation, 2012.Print.