As the First World War passes out of living memory, its centenary gives us the opportunity to commemorate the loss of life, but also to examine what we commemorate, and how we choose to do it. The names listed on the monuments and war graves are so numerous that the scale of the loss can become deadening. In contrast, the poems written by the men who took part in the battle, and the men and women who felt its effects further afield, are an intimate and evocative record of their authors’ experiences. The memorials of the First World War are about connection and consolation. So, too, is the literary legacy of the war.
Dr Andrew Palmer and Dr Sally Minogue have co-authored a book, The Remembered Dead: Poetry, Memory and the First World War, interrogating ideas of remembrance, mourning and commemoration as expressed in the poetry of the First World War. At the heart of the book are the poems themselves, and the ways in which they address this cataclysmic event and the human feelings underlying it.
On a sunny autumn afternoon I spoke to them about their project.
David Frankel: How did your interest in the subject of memorialisation and the literature of this period come about?
Andrew Palmer: I’m drawn to the literature of traumatic things, and this is the biggest, or joint biggest trauma of the 20th century, along with the holocaust. I’m not sure why, although I have some theories about it. It might be something to do with insecurity about the point of literature, and the notion that if you’re dealing with a serious subject it will in some way justify its existence. I’m interested in the question: when something really dreadful happens, why would you write a poem about it? It seems, at first glance, a trivial, or even wrong thing, to do to aestheticise the horror. But my experience of reading poetry from the First World War is that it captures something else — it’s a way of using language that captures something more powerful than all the documentary evidence. And I’m interested why some poems seem inadequate to the task, while others achieve something.
David Frankel: You’ve commented in the past that memorials are an expression of nation’s sympathy and formal recognition of loss, but can be seen as an attempt by the state to absolve itself – do you think poetry keeps the state honest in this respect?
Andrew Palmer: Of course many memorials have poetry on them. The one here, in Canterbury, for example.
David Frankel: The poetry included is very selective though… ‘if I should die think only this of me…’
Sally Minogue: Yes, [in our book] we use Brooke as the counter-example to the poets that we think deal with this better, but Brooke represents a feeling that people had, or felt they should have, and it’s easy for memorial – a succinct phrase that everyone can understand. I think probably, if you asked someone what they know of WW1 poetry, they would think of the Brooke poem first.
David Frankel: So the poem helps give people a connection with the memorial…
Sally Minogue: Yes, but has to be rather conservative.
Andrew Palmer: Yes, certainly for the memorials created at the time. Nobody was going to put Owen’s or Rosenberg’s work on memorials. They express the wrong attitude – the memorials are meant to be consoling, and were built when there were plenty of people alive who were personally grief stricken. Also those poems don’t lend themselves to memorials because they are more complicated. If you put up some lines from Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump or Charlotte Mew’s The Cenotaph most people would look at it and scratch their heads because, out of context, and without the whole poem, it’s difficult to understand. But that’s the point of the poem; to say ‘this is complicated’. For example, there is comfort in the lines of The Cenotaph, but there is contradiction there too. I’m oversimplifying but the poem says the memorial IS valuable but it’s ALSO a trick.
David Frankel: Why do you think it’s important to re-examine this memorialisation of World War1 now?
Andrew Palmer: Commemoration was important through most of the 20th century because there were people alive who had lost somebody, or suffered in some way, and so it was fitting that there was some form of public recognition of their suffering. So while those people are alive, it all makes perfect sense, but when they’re gone, which they now are, you might ask, do we have to keep doing this? Why do we have a minutes silence every year? And so on. This is the shift from what memory theorists call ‘commemorative memory’, where there are people remembering people they have lost, to ‘cultural memory’, which is where we remember the first war as historical information, as we remember the Battle of Waterloo.
Sally Minogue: Memory theorists put a hundred year span on this period, after which there is no one left alive who remembers the events, so we are at a time where the memory shifts from one point to the other. It’s interesting to see how perception of the poetry changes. One of the ways that the body of poetry we read from that time has changed is that it’s expanded to include work by women, and other points of view, which other forms of remembrance cannot do; the monument is inflexible.
David Frankel: How has our relationship with the poetry of the war changed?
Andrew Palmer: The sorts of poems that we now largely dismiss as the more jingoistic work of this period continued to be the most popular throughout the war and afterwards, so it wasn’t the case that people suddenly began to read Wilfred Owen and the scales fell from their eyes. But, in the 1930s, Owen, Rosenberg and others came to be valued by the next generation of poets, like Auden, for example, because they seemed to be writing in a way that answered a need. Various people began to make the case for some of the lesser known WW1 poets. For example: Larkin wrote essays about Owen. Later, Ian Parsons, who was a significant producer of poetry anthologies, edited Rosenberg’s first collection.
Sally Minogue: But it didn’t all go in one direction — I’m thinking of W.B. Yeats’ rejection of Owen.
Andrew Palmer: Yes, Yates famously left Owen out of the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, and in fact rejected most of the work of the so called ‘soldier poets’ because, he said, ‘passive suffering is not a fit subject for poetry’. And of course we go on re-evaluating the poetry today. None of it is inevitable. Every time somebody brings out a new anthology it is a statement about which [poems] are valuable and which are not. For example, in the sixties, Gardener produced an Anthology that was widely used in schools, in which the war poets were presented in a pacifist light. The Vietnam war was going on, so a simplification took place, and even though we might sympathise with this standpoint, to say Owen, for example, only wrote about the horrors of war is an over-simplification. The reason poems such as Dulce Et Decorum Est and Anthem for Doomed Youth are often single out is the they are rare examples of Owen’s poems that tell us how terrible war is, in a way that’s unambiguous.
David Frankel: There is a clear move away in the more highly regarded poetry of WW1 from heroism and glory, and also a change in language and structure. What were the factors that allowed poets to make this shift?
Andrew Palmer: The first thing to say is that it was a very literate war. For the first time, because of mass conscription and the nature of the conflict, far more people who might write a poem were there. So there are lots of very literate people there, many of whom are already published poets before they go. The second factor is experience. The Victorian poets that you’re thinking of, for the most part, had never been in a battle, which is not to denigrate them, that’s the way things were, but the idea of poets being amongst the conflict, was a new thing.
The third factor is modernism. There are currents flowing in creative writing across the whole of Europe and in Britain that encourage poets to think laterally about how they use language and to challenge poetic norms, sometimes in a way that seems spurious and silly, but sometimes in ways that are like an alarm call. So even though we tend not to think of Owen as a modernist (he was dead by 1918, so missed the high modernism of the 1920s) the currents are there in the literary culture, and you can see that in his poetry. Early on, he writes several neat sonnets but later he experiments with the form in the poem. In Futility the breaks are in the wrong place and the lines shorter; it looks like the right hand side of the pages has been shot off. He also experiments with rhyme. It was called by one critic, ‘damaged rhyme’. Neat structure feels wrong for the subject matter.
David Frankel: They speak with such graphic honesty, not only of things they had witnessed, but internal landscape. Was there already a tendency towards this exploration of the consciousness in modernist literature, as seen later in Woolf, for example?
Sally Minogue: Mrs Dalloway and Woolf’s portrayal of Septimus Smith and his broken consciousness is almost a prose version of what is going on in many of the poems. Several of the war poets such as Sassoon and Owen were treated for psychological trauma.
David Frankel: This must have brought them into contact with psychoanalysis? Would this have been the first contact they would have had with ideas like psychoanalysis?
Sally Minogue: Yes, it probably would have been.
Andrew Palmer: It’s interesting because we always think of modernism when we think about Woolf and Eliot and so on, and one of the main shifts of modernism is the shift from social concerns in the Victorian novel to the interior life of the modernist novels where it’s all about what’s going on inside our troubled minds, the extreme example being Septimus Smith. But I’m not sure I’d ever made this connection. In WW1 the soldiers are being psychoanalysed – they are forced to think about their internal processes. Sassoon’s therapist, W.H.R. Rivers, directly influenced his poem Repression of War Experience, which is about his thoughts as he convalesces while the battle goes on in France. There are comparisons with Septimus Smith… It ends, ‘I’m going stark, staring mad because of the guns.’ Which of course, he can’t hear.
David Frankel: Thinking about how we reflect on, or re-interpret, the language in poetry and memorials of the period, ‘the dead’ is a very powerful and loaded euphemism used in both and is still widely used…
Andrew Palmer: As a phrase, I prefer ‘the killed’ – at the other end, the most offensive, I think, is ‘the fallen’. They haven’t tripped up, they’ve been eviscerated. Calling them ‘the dead’ created the sense that there’s A GROUP of people who are dead, and they’re not a group. They don’t exist anywhere, they have no shared thoughts, no agency. They don’t see us, they don’t hear us, they don’t talk to us. ‘The dead’, to me, counteracts all those facts. It’s a comforting way of thinking that there is a body of people – a unified group. And it is very difficult to avoid thinking of them as a group – even saying ‘them’.
David Frankel: I was going to ask if you thought that poetry was in some ways the antidote to this depersonalisation, but clearly some poems make use of it…
Andrew Palmer: It’s very mixed, yes. I think poets struggle with this themselves. I think you often see in the poems a struggle between the consoling thought and the truthful thought. It’s very tempting to be drawn to the idea, for example, that if someone has been killed one can address them, as we do in funerals. A lot of poetry does this. We know it’s a fiction but it’s a consoling fiction.
When we look at rows of white crosses and the countless names listed on monuments, we can become inured to the loss. The almost unimaginable scale of the casualties in the First World War is dramatically embodied in the massive Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme; a battle in which it is said, more writers, artists and poets took part than any other battle in history. The poetry, prose and paintings left by them provide a powerful record of their authors’ experiences of war.
The great strength of art and literature is its ability to deal with conflicting feelings. The work of poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, Wilfred Owen and Ivor Gurney, not only bears witness to the horrors of war but expresses the complexity of emotions experienced by the soldier poets that wrote them, from comradeship to hatred, terror to pride, or revulsion to joy.
The First World War has become an important part of our shared cultural history, and this is in no small part due to the poets, writers and artists who created this body of work. The poetry left to us from the war reminds us of the individuals and their experiences. It makes the events real, visceral, in a way that photographs and historical accounts cannot. These poems still have the power to move us, and to shock us, and connect us to this part of our past.
About the Authors
Dr Andrew Palmer is Principal Lecturer in Modern Literature at Canterbury Christ Church University. His teaching and research are focused on the literature of war in the Twentieth Century.
Dr Sally Minogue is a retired academic. She has published The Nature of Criticism, jointly with Colin Radford (Harvester, 1981), and was contributing editor of Problems for Feminist Criticism (Routledge, 1990).
‘Remembering the Dead: Poetry and the First World War’
Cambridge University Press. First Edition May, 2018
Hardcover 244 pages
- ISBN-10: 1108428673
- ISBN-13: 978-1108428675