‘Every war is ironic,’ says Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, ‘because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends.’ Still, if all wars are ironic to some extent, World War One, Fussell insists, was ironic to a new intensity and degree: the first massive, industrialised, global war, a wholly new mode of social-existential trauma. This brute fact of it, combined with other factors such as the ‘ridiculous proximity of the trenches to home’ meant that ‘the Great War was more ironic than any before or since’. Fussell's study explores how various people (all men, all soldiers) responded to this hideousness, and then considers how its particular irony went on to affect language, culture and art since.
We can trace the ironizing of, say, the poetic idiom. Start with Rupert Brooke's ‘The Soldier’ (1914), which is various things, but not ironic. On the contrary, it's almost strenuously genuine: not so much heartfelt as heartgripped, earnestly patriotic in its performative will-to-self-sacrifice:
If I should die, think only this of me:It's an imperialist poem in several senses. For one, its understanding of war has been shaped by Britain's centuries of expanding empire, when soldiers were people who went to foreign lands to kill foreign people and sometimes died themselves there. There's no sense in this poem that Brooke, signing-up to fight Germany, might end up doing so on invaded English territory. I suppose we'd call that confidence, just as the planted patch of ‘English dust’ in line 4 has, magically, blossomed by the poem's last line to turn the entire overarching sky imperial pink. The central conceit of this poem reaches a long way back into English martial history: it relates in some turned-about way to what King Harold supposedly replied to Harald Hardrada when the invading Viking demanded to know how much land the king was prepared to cede to avert war. Harold replied that he would give Hardrada seven feet of English soil ‘as he is taller than most men’. This intertext interests me, actually. I suppose it glancingly suggests that Brooke's soldier will be as mighty and terrifying a warrior as the Vikings were, for all that he might die. Yet King Harold, heroic and brave and most of all doomed, is a fatalistic sort of patron-saint to hover of this poem's ‘if’. In the event, as we all know, Brooke himself died, on a ship in the Mediterranean, of an infected mosquito bite, before he ever saw action.
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
It's a strangely pastoral poem, really, given that it was written at the start of, and directly refers to, the world's first large-scale industrial war, but Brooke wasn't to know that conflict was about to be dehumanised and mechanised on an unprecedented scale. But most of all it's a genuine poem, from the heart; and it was enormously popular in its day, a popularity that depended upon the authenticity of its feeling. Hard to fake, that.
Still, what I'm interested in here is the way that mode of patriotic ingenuousness is overwritten by a modes of irony. There's the place where ironic distance and disillusion shade into simple sarcasm, as is often the case in Sassoon's poems. Here's ‘The General’ (from Counter-Attack and Other Poems 1918):
‘GOOD-MORNING; good-morning!’ the General saidThat's pointed, and laconic, enough for its satiric point; even if the line of little dots before the punchline rather betrays the fact that line seven is a punchline. More supple in its ironic apprehension of the battlefield is Ivor Gurney's often-anthologised ‘Strange Hells’:
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
There are strange hells within the minds war madeThe Gloucesters were Gurney's regiment, and the irony here is that, hellish though it was, fighting alongside his singing comrades was not so terrible for Gurney as the stranger, more hellish post-war alienation of the unemployee, the shop-worker, the houseless beggar. It's ironic, then, in suggesting that not-war might be a stranger hell than war, and it generates its cleverly dislocating memorableness by positioning itself against the obvious ways in which war is much, much worse than not-war. In part this is because Gurney was a regular soldier. As Donald Davie notes ‘Gurney’s is the war of the private infantryman, as against the subalterns’ war of Owen or Grenfell, Sassoon or Blunden or Graves. Because he is not of the officer class, he feels no responsibility for the horror, hence no guilt about it, and so his revulsion from it is manageable’. Part of the irony, then, is that this is a poem pulling in unepected ways against our idea of what a First World War poem ought to be.
Not so often, not so humiliatingly afraid
As one would have expected—the racket and fear guns made.
One hell the Gloucester soldiers they quite put out;
Their first bombardment, when in combined black shout
Of fury, guns aligned, they ducked low their heads
And sang with diaphragms fixed beyond all dreads,
That tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune;
“Apres la guerre fini” till hell all had come down,
Twelve-inch, six-inch, and eighteen pounders hammering hell’s thunders.
Where are they now on state-doles, or showing shop patterns
Or walking town to town sore in borrowed tatterns
Or begged. Some civic routine one never learns.
The heart burns—but has to keep out of the face how heart burns.
Before he was a lunatic (spending the last 15 years of his life in an insane asylum) Gurney was a poet and composer, but before he was a poet, he was a composer. Music, his first love, manifests in this poem in the war is rendered almost wholly in terms of its sonic lineaments: the singing of the Gloucesters, the furious percussion of the drums, the gorgeous glissando of ‘that tin and stretched-wire tinkle, that blither of tune’—nobody but Gurney could write a line like that. It's almost as if the war itself is a blind arena (that stage direction from Lear comes to mind: Gloucesters Eye Put Out). Only in the poem's last four lines does sight comes to define the landscape, the ragged clothing, the blush of the suffering ex-serviceman, in silence. Few things are as resonantly silent as a blush, after all. “Apres la guerre fini” sing the battlefield soldiers but, ironically, after the war is over the hell gets stranger rather than less hellish. The irony is counterpointed by the fact that Gurney here has pared his original draft down (you can see one early, longer and less effective version of the poem in MS at the head of this post) into a sonnet. The Brooke poem is a sonnet too, but that's only form fitting message, the love-letter to Englishness, to rose-tinted sacrifice. Gurney's sonnet is a sort of twisted lovesong to the harmonious belonging and avant-garde musical universe he inhabited during the war, which makes it a kind of lovesong to war (a lovesong to hell) The broken-down syntax, and stumbling monosyllabic exhaustion of the poem's last line is the first time burning, that traditional attribute of Hell, appears in the poem.
Paul Fussell thinks this Isaac Rosenberg poem the single best of the war:
The darkness crumbles away.Poppies grow best out of shade, and so prosper in territory where the trees have all been explosively cleared away and the soil churned up and fertilized by dead bodies. They've been a symbol of war remembrance since Napoleonic times, but (of course) it was the First World War that established them as the symbols of military mourning, celerating not victory but loss, or perhaps celebratig the way loss contaminates victory. A deftly rendered ambuguousness of tone is one facet of this poem's complex irony: Rosenberg is on duty as dawn breaks. The sly panegyric to the rat he encounters is his way of insinuating the extent of his disaffection with the war: fraternising with the enemy was a court martial offence after all. Rosenberg won't go so far as that, but the rat becomes his vehicle—like the flea in Donne's famous poem, with which Rosenberg's is clearly in dialogue. Donne's flea bites him, and then hops across to bite the object of Donne's affections; inside the insect their two bloods mingle. ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ magnifies the image and so grotesquifies it (bringing, as it happens, into focus the fact that Donne's poem only works as a love poem because of the microscopic dimensions of its object). The rat ‘brushes’ Rosenberg's hand and will do the same to a German; but these battlefield rats have grown fat not by brushing against live soldiers but by devouring dead ones, British and German both. Why, after all, ‘Druid time’ to describe the red skies of the dawn? It intimates something ancient, yes, and something mystic perhaps too; but surely it also imports something of the old druidic reputation for human sacrifice into the flavour of the poem. The red sky segues into the red poppy, and the fact that the poem nowhere uses the word red inflects both images more effectively as ways of talking about spilt human blood. Instead of red we get the green of No Man's Land, and the white dust that transforms Rosenberg's poppy almost (‘just a little’) into the white feather of cowardice. It's very elegantly done, I think. The speaker in this poem is not a coward; he is staying at his post rather than deserting; but he understands the (rational, after all) appeal of cowardice, and the desire to chuck it all in. It is a poem interested in the way habit, duty, a kind of wry work-ethic define the soldier's lot much more than ‘heroism’ or ‘bravery’. It is a poem that says soldiers are neither lions nor donkeys, but rattī. Ironic enough, I suppose, howsoever nimbly Rosenberk works semantically with the beauty of inflections rather than the hammer-strike of Sassoonian satirical outrage.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.
One of those inflections, of course, is Semitic, or more to the point anti-Semitic. Rosenberg was only too well aware of the way his Jewishness excluded him, in the eyes of many, from the ‘true’ Britishness he was literally risking his life to defend, the pervasive, toxic and demeaning context of British anti-Semitism. His short poem ‘The Jew’ invokes Moses ‘from whose loins I sprung’ to note that it is the ten commandments, lit as they are ‘by a lamp in his blood’, that govern his fellow-soldiers ‘mutable lampless men/the blonde, the bronze, the ruddy’ before concluding: ‘then why do they sneer at me?’ That sneer has been manifest in critical responses to Rosenberg's poetic achievement too. In 1935, T S Eliot declared that ‘the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg does not only owe its distinction to being Hebraic’ before adding: ‘for a Jewish poet to be able to write like a Jew, in western Europe and in a western European language, is almost a miracle’. Write like a Jew means—what, exactly? Something other than ‘write like a western European’ it seems. Eliot might have thought his comment unobjectionable because he is, after all, praising Rosenberg's talent; but it is sneery nonetheless and doubly so when we consider that Rosenberg was very particularly a soldier-poet (his death in 1918 prevented him from becoming any other kind of poet). As Gurney's poem shows, the strength of a soldier is in comradeship, in being part of a squad, a platoon, a battalion, a regiment, an army. It is belonging, and even at its (for want of a better word) mildest anti-Semtism is the manifestation of a refusal to allow the Jew to belong. Rosenberg is positioned in this poem as a solitary figure, alone in his trench, rather than as one of a group of brothers-in-arms. The subtle dynamic of his identification with the rat enables him to repurpose the ghastly anti-Semitic libels: that Jews are vermin to be eradicated rather than human beings with whom to stand in solidarity: that the Jew is ‘queer’, ‘sardonic’, ‘cosmopolitan’, a figure without the loyalty to a land or a people, a bloodsucker like the poppy in the poem's final image, one for whom the world is a city ghetto (cosmos, polis) rather than the pastoral countryside of Rupert Brooke. I rehearse these various slurs not (of course) to endorse them but to register how expressively Rosenberg's sensibility has intertwined the othering discourse of this mode of racism into a poem otherwise mimetically evocative of a soldier's life, by way of an unusually subtle irony of expression.
It's the poem itself, but it's also this rather odd logic by which Jews are not seen as warriors. Given how much of the Old Testament is dedicated to stories of the military triumphs of Jewish armies this is, perhaps, odd; or perhaps it only seems odd from a 21st-century perspective, after the creation of the modern state of Israel and the IDF's subsequent reputation for military success and ruthlessness. But in 1914? Actually, scrub that: never mind 1914. Here's Lionel Trilling, writing as late as 1972:
Not all cultures develop the idea of the heroic. I once had occasion to observe in connection with Wordsworth that in the Rabbinical literature there is no touch of the heroic idea. The Rabbis, in speaking of virtue, never mention the virtue of courage, which Aristotle regarded as basic to the heroic character. The indifference of the Rabbis to the idea of courage is the more remarkable in that they knew many of their number would die for their faith. What is especially to our point is that, as ethical beings, the Rabbis never see themselves—it is as if the commandment which forbade the making of images extended to their wat of conceiving the personal moral existence as well. They imagine no struggles, no dilemmas, no hard choices, no ironies, no destinies, nothing interesting; they have no thought of morality as drama. [Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (1972]What? We might say, I suppose, that Rosenberg was no Rabbi; and Trilling isn't talkng about First World War poetry here. But even so this strikes a very strange note. It depends on Trilling's unexamined assumption that heroism and courage are iterations of authenticity when the truth, I'd suggest, is that the bravest soldiers are those whose determination to persevere is grounded in a more ironic comprehension of the situation in which they find themselves. They're less likely to crack suddenly, more likely to slog on. Rosenberg himself certainly fought bravely until, after night patrol, as dawn broke on April Fool's Day (of all days) 1918, he and ten other men of the King's Own Royal Regiment were intercepted on their way back to their trenches and killed, a little way north-east of the town of Arras.