Following on from the theme of yesterday, I began having a think about the First World War, and the implications it had culturally for England and Europe more widely. The poetry that emerged from this cataclysmic event shaped my own perception of “great” poetry; it was not complex in the same way as the modernists were, such as Eliot, and nor was it especially experimental, in the same way as Woolf. What it was, and remains to be, is simple and beautiful in its own way, something I think largely owed to the proficiency of its structure and the almost divine beauty of the metaphor and imagery used. Nothing so profoundly shocking had before been made so beautiful; consider the early murder ballads, and the unrestrained violence and depravity. It is shocking, but it is not made beautiful by the poetic forms imposed upon it.
Wilfred Owen was responsible for the war poem that perhaps epitomised the war for all: Dulce et Decorum Est. This poem was fundamentally an assassination of the meta-narrative that was behind the war, and the blind pursuit of false glory is striking when the imagery falls into place. And all of a sudden it is strikingly obvious that the life of a soldier ended, all too often, face down in a shell mutilated field somewhere in northern Europe. To a modern-day reader, it seems absurd, horrific even, that no one seems to have realised before it was too late, the total futility of the fight; perhaps however it was not futile. It’s result, when considered on a global events scales, was to create the Treaty of Versailles, which led to the gargantuan German resentment of Europe, and thus began to grow, from this political arsenic, Nazism.
That is not to say however that the individuals who fought nobly and honestly should be discredited; they succeeded in winning the war. It’s consequence is irrelevant when examining this from a short-term point of view. It is often forgotten that each individual person who died there had a family, was loved by somebody. They were not statistics. This I think is forgotten, in the same way that we attach very little individualization to the victims of genocide as a whole; they become statistics and examples, however not real lives that were lived. They are remembered as numbers as opposed to people. This is possibly what makes Owen’s poetry (and others, such as Sassoon’s) so poignant; it attached, and still does attach, a very real experience to those soldiers and avoids the broad and sweeping statements. The dead poet, who died on the fourth of November, 1918, precisely a week before the armistice was signed, allowed others just like him a voice. His voice became in many ways their voice, essentially because he was one of them.
The Great War, and the subsequent Second World War, had a rather profound and unexpected effect on society; they created “the bright young things”; people who felt as though they had been incapacitated by their lack of fathers, brothers, and uncles and instead became part of the high society whirlwind; they sought to be superficial, and extravagant in the wake of wartime severity and rationing. Religion began to fail people; Nietzsche declared that “God is dead”. And thus an almost pivotal change occurred. Consider works such as The Great Gatsby again; an immortal example of this superfluous society that lacked the artistic and moral depth of its predecessor, however made way for a new movement, in modernism and subsequent postmodernism, which really sought to prove the superficiality of the world, and to continue this premise of a lack of truth and absolute reality; without this, one’s actions can be justified regardless of what they are, and as such, lacking philosophical meaning simply means that you seek pleasure at face value, and nothing more. Nothing could stray further from the reality of Wilfred Owen.
If you haven’t had a chance thus far to have a look at Owen’s work, there is an excellent website with all his work on. Reading them really does alter one’s perception of the experiences of the war, and of a lost generation as a whole; all remaining veterans of the First World War are now sadly deceased. The Somme itself, as well as Ypres, and other memorial sites are very moving; the images don’t do them justice.