Poems of the British Gulag

by Alex Niven

On Sunday 11 November 2018, the centenary of the World War I armistice will be marked when a specially commissioned sonnet, ‘The Wound in Time’ by the Poet Laureate Dame Carol Ann Duffy, is read aloud by members of the public on hundreds of British beaches. Duffy’s sonnet is aesthetically dire, but its humanist sentiments are at first glance difficult to quibble with. Like Baldrick’s ‘Boom Boom Boom Boom’ poem in Blackadder Goes Forth, ‘The Wound in Time’ conveys a simplistic – but undeniably accurate – message about the ceaseless inevitability of human suffering: ’War. And after that? War. And now? War. War’.

At the very least, it is interesting to observe that 21st-century poetry tends to go in for denunciation rather than glorification of mass violence. We have, it seems, moved very far from the Victorian imperial ethic embodied in Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, which strove to make tragedy and vainglory seem noble and heroic. But what, we might ask, has replaced the overt militarism of the 19th and early 20th centuries? Poetry is in fact central to how we might go about answering this question. For though the 2018 anniversary is especially hyperbolic and indeed commercialised (Duffy, for example, has also edited an anthology of ‘war and peace’ poetry to coincide with the armistice centenary), the close equivalence of poetry and conflict has long been a central fact of modern historical memory.

This is particularly true of what used to be called the Great War. Unlike World War II, which occasioned a much more diffuse and varied range of poetic responses, World War I is famous for having produced a relatively unified body of English-language verse. Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney – the ‘War Poets’, as they are often simply known – all are dutifully wheeled out every November to play a part in memorial services, radio documentaries, news features and school assemblies.

Every year a handful of choice poems by members of this canonical grouping are sombrely intoned by actors, celebrities and the brightest kids in class, as part of a national rite that pays lip service to a sort of abstract ‘never again’ pacifism, while also somehow managing to propound the atavistic patriotism that has come to dominate Remembrance Day and its cultural backdrop. This is a quintessentially modern liberal narrative. Like the centrist dads who would never vote Tory but maintain that Churchill was A Great Wartime Leader, contemporary British liberals endorse a collective symbolism that has increasingly come to elide pathos and martial courage.

The current mainstream account of World War I hinges on Wilfred Owen’s ‘pity of War’. It focuses on the poignancy of the mass cemeteries rather than the derring-do of the Boys-Own accounts that were popular in comic books and B-movies even up to the late 20th century. However, despite the good intentions of many, there is no getting away from the fact that the Remembrance Day phenomenon revolves around an unfortunate ritualised centre: a 1918 military victory which marked the height of British imperial supremacy. This is an essential rather than an incidental fact of its existence, and means that for all the attempts at humanist sublimation, it will always also be a rallying point for those who think that choosing not to wear a poppy during a football match, or not singing the national anthem ostentatiously enough at memorial services, are borderline cases of treason (not to mention those who think that Muslims are trying to ban the whole thing).

The War Poets, and their continuing centrality in British cultural life, from GCSE syllabi to media outlets where they are often the only poetry to feature in any given year, are at the heart of a modern liberal value complex that recuperates Remembrance Day’s human factor while leaving the door open for revanchist nationalism. It is not that their poetry is bad per se – indeed Owen and Rosenberg in particular are, in their best moments, capable of truly affecting and strange writing. Yet there is something much too comfortable and comforting about their reception. The real singularity of the best World War I poetry springs from the deep realisation on the part of the soldiers in Flanders and elsewhere that they were fighting not for a tangible communal goal, like the later repulsion of Fascism in World War II, but for an obscure web of motives derived from an epochal crisis in British capitalism and imperialism.

It was the senselessness and cold shock of this fact, rather than any vague feeling about the timeless futility of violence, that led to the bitter radicalism of Owen’s and Rosenberg’s best work, and to the knotted, surrealistic modes they innovated in attempting to render the chaos of an imploding civilisation. As in so many other walks of British cultural life, it is this modernist strain in World War I poetry, and of course the actual modernist poetry of the 1910s and 1920s, that is so often occluded when it comes to appraising the crises of these decades. It is proof of the genuine iconoclasm of Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) that its wide-ranging assault on the ‘botched civilisation’ responsible for the Great War would probably still sound shocking today in the middle of a school assembly or a segment on The One Show.

This is partly, of course, because Pound’s poem is written in an abrupt, difficult modernist style. Though the much more formally conservative poetry of most of the War Poets was profoundly out of synch with its historical moment – imagine listening to Engelbert Humperdinck in 1968 while watching news footage of the Tet Offensive – it is a further sign of the continuing British need to prettify and sentimentalise the unresolved crisis of World War I that we prefer to remember the conflict by way of rounded, rhyming stanzas and rueful pastoral imagery. Perhaps more importantly, Pound’s poem hints at the social and economic causes of the war in the years leading up to 1914, rather than viewing it as a sudden moralistic tragedy – another fact that makes it hard to swallow in a culture still in thrall to nostalgia for the apparent golden age of the Victorian period.

If we want to begin facing up to the real implications of World War I, and to its still lingering aftermath, the modernism of Pound wouldn’t be a bad place to start. But even better would be a refocusing of attention away from the tragically brave ordinary lads and lasses usually celebrated in the school histories and the media accounts, and towards the darker, more deliberate forms of violence perpetrated by the martial, imperial cultures responsible for the slaughter in the trenches.

This would mean delving deeper into Irish and other colonial histories, of course. But it is also a process that should start closer to home. To take just one example, we might consider the case of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne poet Basil Bunting, a modernist and socialist who became a friend and follower of Ezra Pound in the 1920s. On his 18th birthday in 1918, Bunting was called up to fight in France, but unlike the War Poets he refused to enlist, and faced imprisonment as a conscientious objector. The account of his incarceration in Wormwood Scrubs later related to his friend Denis Goacher deserves to be quoted at length:

‘What they did was to put you in a totally darkened cell, without a window, without any heating, and no furniture whatever, no clothes whatever . . . You just had to lie, when you could sleep, on the floor, naked; and you were allowed, once a day, a bowl of water and a crust of bread. This lasted for three days and you were then examined by a doctor, to see what condition you were in. If he considered that your condition was sufficiently sound, you went back on that regime for two days. If, at the end of say five or six days, your condition had deteriorated, you were then given a minimum of clothing and a little bit more food and water. At the end of that three days, in a slightly improved condition, you were put back on the no heating, no clothes and no light whatever. . . Basil told me that this experience embittered him for life. He didn’t make any bones about it. He said it coloured all he thought about England. . .’

Over the years, the calculated atrocities of World War I and its capitalist regimes have been ameliorated, leaving behind a nostalgic imaginary that combines spasms of sentiment and anthologised pathos with the revived Britishness-Englishness of the 21st century. In recovering brutal, suppressed narratives like those of the modernist conscientious objector Basil Bunting, we come closer to remembering the really unpalatable national past that looms behind World War I and its poetry.