The Literary War from Patriotism to Cynicism

By Martin, Sandra | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Literary War from Patriotism to Cynicism


Martin, Sandra, Queen's Quarterly


When Rupert Brooke set sail for North America in May 1913, few realized that the world was about to be embroiled in a brutal conflagration. Ten million people died in combat; seven million civilians perished, and 50 to 100 million others died in the influenza epidemic that began to spread around the globe even before the Armistice was signed.

The Great War began in a world where values, class, gender, and racial distinctions were clear, stable, and accepted. By its end, that old order was destroyed, and political grievances were established that continue to plague us. As the late Paul Fussell, that erudite hater of war and lover of irony, points out in The Great War and Modern Memory, "Everyone knew what Glory was, and what Honour meant. The war blasted those ideals and certainties to bits." More than a decade after the Armistice, Ernest Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms that "Abstract words such as glory, honour, courage ... were obscene beside the concrete names of villages ... the numbers of regiments and the dates."

The First World War is often called the literary war because of the flood of poetry, memoirs, and novels that it has engendered-both then and now. Why did that happen, and how did the writing change so radically from patriotism to cynicism? The answers lie in cataclysmic upheavals in society and in the horrific experiences of soldiers in the trenches on both sides of the conflict, traumas that continue to haunt and inspire writers today.

Before his Canadian sojourn, Brooke, that heart-throbbingly beautiful graduate of Rugby and Cambridge, was best known as the author of nostalgic lines about his university days. "Stands the Church clock at ten to three?/And is there honey still for tea?" he asked wistfully about the nearby village of Grantchester.

At the time he was more interested in recouping his stamina after a series of emotional breakdowns than in writing poetry. Canada was meant to toughen him up. And it did, as he travelled from east to west recording his impressions in articles for the left-leaning Westminster Gazette.

Inevitably, international and military affairs intruded upon his trip. He came with a letter of introduction to Sir Wilfrif Laurier, then Leader of the Opposition. They had lunch in Ottawa and talked about the naval question, the arms race that had preoccupied Britain and Germany, its chief imperial rival, for more than a decade.

Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wanted Canada to supply money to build massive battleships called dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy; Laurier wanted to create a Canadian Navy that in wartime would come to the aid of the Imperial fleet. When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada was automatically part of the Imperial initiative, contributing an expeditionary force that eventually numbered more than 600,000 out of a population of 8 million people.

Two years after Brooke's Canadian tour, he was famous because of five patriotic war sonnets, especially "The Soldier," which he wrote late in 1914, after he had enlisted in the Royal Naval Division. His lines, "If I should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England ..." helped to rouse public sentiment for the war. When Brooke died several months later of septicemia from an infected mosquito bite, he was en route to the Dardanelles in an ill-fated campaign against the Turks at Gallipoli-one of the worst Allied defeats in WWI. Churchill himself wrote Brooke's obituary, declaring him to be "joyous, fearless, versatile," and with "classic symmetry of mind and body."

For weeks thereafter, Brooke's name was heard from pulpits, spoken in the streets, and paraded in newspapers and magazines. Byron and Shelley suddenly had company; the poet soldier would remain the dominant impression of Brooke until the end of the war. One soldier dead, in a war that claimed millions, and from an insect bite rather than enemy fire, is not the stuff of myth. …

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