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Literature and the Great War : 1914-1918


Randall Stevenson


Oxford Textual Perspectives

Oxford: University Press, 2013

Paperback. xiii+262 p. ISBN 978-0199596454. £18.99


Reviewed by Josiane Paccaud-Huguet

Université Lumière-Lyon 2



In this study Randall Stevenson intends to reappraise the Great War from a twenty-first century perspective, considering that its shadow has been reshaped ‘by the changing cultural landscapes across which it has fallen’ [vii] over one century. The titles of the four chapters (‘Unspeakable War’, ‘Unaccountable War’, ‘Familiar Lines’, ‘Unforgettable War’) are suggestive of two things: the impossibility for language to account for such a shattering experience, and the persistence of its memory. The corpus is mostly British, with incursions into American and French literature for the sake of comparison. The richly documented bibliography makes room both for the Modernist canon and a less known but significant literary production.

The first chapter usefully recalls the early century’s epistemological climate marked by the loss of the ‘happy semblance’ (Henry James) and a general collapse of guarantee and reference [56]. The outbreak of the war widened the gap, both in the private and public fields: how to convey an experience beyond description to those at home without shocking or depressing them? The picture of the Field Service Postcard provided p. 14, with its minimal but functional information, appears as ‘both symptom and solution’ for such difficulties. Concerning public discourse, Stevenson discerns two directions: on the one and, the mendacious rhetoric of the press reshaping the experience of ruin and destruction into glory and myth. Incredulity about what took place at the front fostered fantasies like the Angels of Mons episode in August 1914 – ‘a kind of miracle where the Germans were said to have been halted by arrows, aimed by angels from above the battlefield’ [8]. The Propaganda Bureau went as far as recruiting writers to assist in the war propaganda for a British public first ‘convinced of the gloriousness of the struggle, the certainty of victory and the monstrosity of the enemy’ [39]. On the other hand, many writers began to show a mistrust of the ‘big words’, privileging the minimal, implicative Hemingway manner or – like Henri Barbusse’s Under Fire (1916) – the spoken word in the form of dialect or slang as a means to introduce ‘new voices, extended visions’ [54].

The demands made by this war on narrative were extreme. Georges Duhamel, then an army surgeon, records ‘the savage dispersal of human bodies’ [67] in a warfare backed by all kinds of scientific devices. Besides there was a problem of scale both in space and time since the knowledge of events on a modern battlefield is predominantly local [64]. Trench life was indifferent to the rhythms of daily life or season, or to the usual order of life and death, while months of inactivity and boredom were punctuated by moments of intense fright. One of the curious consequences was the expansion of the spiritualist movements: where the process of mourning was impossible, ‘the magical and the mythical realm flared’ as if death were just a shift in the location of existence [81]. As to the mirror held out by fiction to human nature, it had become a looking-glass with ‘a great jagged crack’ [74]. The patterns of tragedy or comedy were beside the mark, but conventional romance could still highlight the fragility of emotions and relationships, more easily conveyed in the format of the short story. It was in the ten years following the war that novels began to reach a public more receptive to the challenges to ‘genre, chronology, and individual agency’ [88]. If the war figures ‘only as a kind of black hole’ in Woolf’s Jacob’s Room (1922) and To the Lighthouse (1927), the choice to keep the unbearable at bay substantially differs from the ex-servicemen’s desire to bear witness (Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy [1927]). Autobiography seemed more fitted to authentic description and to freer arrangements of either time or voice (Wyndham Lewis’ Blasting and Bombardiering [1937]).

The brief format of poetry was more adapted since it could be read or composed anywhere by soldiers who were not confident in prospects of long life [128]. Song and recitation were part of their lives, beside the fact that poetry seemed the proper vehicle for patriotic effusions. But the familiar lines were growing unfamiliar, as the English pastoral tradition found new directions. Since it was difficult to contemplate landscapes from the trenches, the eye turned to skyscapes, unexpectedly enlarging the pastoral imagination while criticising its conventions or relevance. Wilfred Owen’s ‘À terre’ typically suggests a new bond, literal rather than metaphoric, ‘between soil and soul’. The sense of futility and dissolution here sharply contrasts with the passionate idealism of Rupert Brooke’s early war sonnets. War poets were by definition and necessity ‘occasional’, which does not diminish the significance of their work [184]. Owen developed new rhyme schemes and gave the ‘half-rhyme’ (e.g. ‘spoiled’/ ‘spilled’) an unexpected development. Even though Modernist authors were more deliberately innovative and unconventional than the war poets, they also drew upon the latter’s concerns and vigorous colloquialism, for example reflected in T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

Given the central influence of the Great War on the shaping of the modern world, the question of its memory deserves scrutiny. The War Graves commission stated in 1917 that the bodies of the dead were not to be returned to Britain even if they had been identified. Instead, War Memorials were set up in Britain and Europe, modifying profoundly the conditions of mourning. The Second World War and the Vietnam War were also influential in reshaping the memory of the previous conflict. As to the twenty-first century it tended to deconstruct the ‘mythic’ collective views of the Great War whereby a generation of idealistic young men had been ‘betrayed by their elders’ [195]. War writing itself actually provided varying insights: the recognition that there was a sombre fascination about the war, besides new versions of courage and loyalty driven by the mere sense of humanity. The war also modified gender hierarchies and class perception: even though things tended to return to their earlier state in the aftermath, new perspectives opened for women which women writers were eager to seize. The other unforgettable element about this war was that its machinery emphasised the ‘vulnerable, mutable nature of the human frame’ [214], enlarging the Modernists’ response to ‘an ever-changeful, ever expanding modernity, increasingly technological, industrialized, and reifying’ [220]. Yet, Stevenson suggests, if it continues to haunt the later ages, this may be because of the truly traumatic nature of events that went ‘too far beyond the destructiveness even of the earlier conflicts – ever to have been fully contained in mind or conscience’.

The series in which this book is published, ‘Oxford textual perspectives’, aims at providing informative and provocative studies based on the interpretation of both canonical and less known works. The goal has been reached since the reader is rewarded with fresh insights and information on the subject, equally stimulating for the specialist and accessible to the non-specialised reader.


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