Notes on Voices of WWI
On World War I poetry generally, see Paul Fussel’s book ‘‘The Great War and Modern Memory.’’ Introduction—why WWI poets as modernists? Well, they write of ghastly contexts that outside audiences can’t or won’t understand. So the WWI poets adopt a defiant stance, trying both to remain true to their experience and insight while at the same time realizing that experience is already subject to discursive construction and ideology. Simply conveying “experience” is not simple. Unpleasant reality doesn’t necessarily sell, especially if it runs counter to people’s strong need to see anything but “the way it really is.”
The WWI poets found themselves stripped of the old illusions about war and about civilization as a necessary and inevitable movement from the low to the high, the barbaric to the sophisticated. It isn’t easy to see how we can “let the ape and tiger die” when we—people from the same European background—are stabbing and gassing one another by the millions. So the WWI authors sometimes alienate their audiences, defy them. A great burden is on the reader, as in much modern art. Then, too, WWI authors find that they themselves must deploy the metaphor and myth of older times to describe present horrors, knowing the risk of complicity they run. One cannot simply leave the linguistic and cultural past behind, and yet one cannot simply accept it, either. They want to validate their intense individual experience, claim poetic authority on that basis, but the experiences themselves don’t necessarily allow them to offer up a usable past or present, an intelligible pattern to live by.
Eerie changes in perspective—disorientation, deprivation, vague shapes and cracked mirrors: a world Sassoon struggles to represent. The speaker strives to keep moving forwards, up, out, anywhere. All is ghostly, like the dead solider, humanity can’t “keep up,” can’t adapt. Evolution doesn’t make us passionless moles in a few years. Sassoon deals with the increasing, and already deep, disjunction between military technology and strategy (mass movement, mechanized war, with consequent death of the heroic ideals of war) and the human psyche and body. The Allies won, but at great cost and without assurance that anything would change in future. A peaceful order did not emerge from this first world conflagration, and in fact perhaps even that title is misleading, since the Napoleonic Wars were similarly grand in scope.
Another problem comes with trench stalemate: this introduces a need to ideologize and aestheticize violence. The military must lie to people, heroize a struggle that actual participants see as nothing but inane butchery. Glorifying wartime violence makes us forget that it amounts to a collective human failure. After all, was war ever purely heroic? Many vets point out that jingoism is a mistake—see, for example, Studs Terkel’s ‘‘The Good War’’ or Paul Fussell’s ‘‘The Great War and Modern Memory.” The latter (himself a veteran of WWII) says the problem isn’t that we can’t describe wartime violence at all; it’s that people don’t want to hear it as it is. Voltaire’s quotation comes to mind: it goes something like, “Murder is always severely punished—unless it is committed in vast numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
The brass and the enlisted men don’t operate at the same level; bureaucracy seeps in. Patton is good example from WWII: he supposedly wanted to relive Hannibal’s strategy in crossing the Alps, at considerable cost to the grunts on the ground. Alexander and Caesar were in the fight with the soldiers (even if their doubles rode about attracting attention away from them); war was not so technologized then.
“Glory of Women”
Gendered perceptions are at play here. Sassoon’s speaker is bitter at Victorian “Angels of the Hearth.” Gender construction correlates with war ideology, and there’s a feminine jingoism to go along with machismo on the homefront. Sassoon brings up the threat of emasculation—something ignored by both feminine and masculine rhetoric about war.
This poem is about the Armistice, but almost has the flavor of a fictional event, after all that’s happened, and given Sassoon’s attitude about war generally. The poem seems to describe a moment of spiritual epiphany collectively accomplished. But does the speaker imagine that he shouldn’t overplay the optimistic narrative here?
Words here function as “forgetting” devices. As Nietzsche says, much of civilization thrives on cruel forgetting. Sassoon’s speaker condemns memorialization. At Menin Gate the problem seems to be civilian willingness to reduce everything to a simple lesson. The names have been lifted from one institutional moment (birth) to another (death in war), effacing the humanity of the dead. We have gone from baptism, the giving of identity, to a simultaneous transformation and stripping of that rooted human identity, a turning of it into martial shadow for propaganda.
Who are “they”? Ideologues treat soldiers en masse, but people experience war as individuals. They are dutiful and follow conventions, but are also scared, angry, confused, horrified, bored, intensely alive. See Tim O’Brien’s ‘‘The Things They Carried,” which explores this issue about individual perception and experience. Isn’t “experience” already a reflection and subject to reconstruction, falsification, etc? Experience is not a real-time or given event. We can’t know its significance real-time; it is discursive, ‘‘ex post facto.’’
War poems question definitions as well as the relation between individual and conventions or types. Aristotle defined courage as a mean between recklessness and cowardice. Many WWI vets thought their losses pointless. But bravery is no less worthy when based on adherence to conventional notions of the “war hero.” One can inhabit roles genuinely. (A modern journalist says that military bravado is a mask—yes, but there’s truth in masks, as Wilde says.) That’s why Sassoon and Owen can expose the absurdity of militarism while not putting down the common soldier, who has little choice but to bear up.
Sassoon points out here the mind-over-body assumptions made during war, the ideological “aestheticization” and spiritualization of violence.
Notes on Wilfred Owen
“Apologia Pro Poemate Meo”
War forges another language, another kind of experience—at least in part. The poet’s words can’t, or won’t, fully translate that experience. The risk Owen explores here is that war poetry is solipsistic, bound to mislead, but also that those who hear his insights are not worthy of them: the poet wants to be a prophet and sage, a diviner of sublimity and ultimate meanings. Owen’s poem may remind us that the WWI poet feels kindred anxiety to what the romantics felt for the burden they placed upon language as a conveyer of divine inspiration, an asserter of human community. Here we are dealing with an awful kind of experience that may not be intelligible to anyone but the person who experiences it. Owen separates his speaker from the civilian audience, and claims that he at least has drawn beauty from battlefield experiences and relationships. But the final stanza’s question has to do with whether or not his transcendental rhetoric—“I saw God through mud”—is as satisfying to him as others might think. With what insight has he emerged from hell, Dante-like? The poet’s lived experience must be conveyed in an almost private language—the aesthetic terms have been transformed and revalued by the experience itself, and this transformation can’t be passed on to us.
Similar to Sassoon’s “Rear-Guard.” Brute labor, by a process of forgetting, seems magically to generate a finely lit, civilized world. And that fine world has long been our dream: to rise from our materiality, letting “the ape and tiger in us die.” But somebody has to do the dirty work—coal-mining, war, etc.
“Dulce et Decorum Est”
This poem seems straightforward enough; but let’s ask here how directly this poem conveys experience. It’s a nightmare vision even at the most direct level—he sees the “drowning” man through a glass darkly—his gas mask’s glass, that is. And then he relives this dim vision in his dreams again and again. This is a decidedly anti-heroic poem. It is one of Owen’s modes to convey grim battle realities in the direct language of disease and disfigurement. Here he resents most of all the civilians’ tidy and rhetorical way of describing such experiences, as we may gather from the Horatian line “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori….” (“Sweet and right it is to die for one’s country.”)
It’s been said that Owen sometimes clings to the beautification of war. I hardly think so—he’s struggling with a problem I’ve already described: namely, we cannot simply dismiss all previous notions. War may “strip away the film of familiarity” in a shocking manner, but we must cover the abyss with language we know to be inadequate. That’s part of being human. That we know we engage in illusion-making doesn’t mean we can stop doing so altogether. So Owen is wrestling with the difficult relationship between his poetic language—eloquent stuff, not the sometimes strident tones of Siegfried Sassoon—and his raw experience.
What is he doing to that experience in trying to convey it, as of course he must? So here he invents a dream like the reality of war, lending the former equal status for the time being. And he forces himself to confront the man he has killed, not accepting the obvious excuse that he has been commanded to kill. After all, it is wartime. And the dead German speaks to him—what is Owen accomplishing here? Is his language expiatory? Cathartic? Can we guess the speaker’s attitude towards these questions?
All language falsifies what it describes, but how, if at all, may we falsify in good faith? Myth, aesthetic dreams, even cast as confrontations, may deepen the speaker’s complicity in the act he has already committed. Owen won’t excuse his own poetry, won’t take flight in gritty realism or shrill declamation, a refusal I find decent in him.
Notes on William Butler Yeats
Yeats was a poet of many phases, not as clearly marked as critics imply: romanticism and symbolism, Irish politics and folklore, aristocratic values, Modernist stylistic compression and an interest in poetic texts as containing entire symbolic systems. But he never left behind his early phases even after moving on from them. Yeats was always concerned with the power of art in relation to other areas of life, with poetry’s status as expression, with its approximation to religion and the stability and ultimate insight religions offer. His poetry becomes more and more complex in its investigation of all these matters. A Vision is his prose attempt to create, in the manner of Blake and Swedenborg, an integral system, a mystic yet accurate way of dealing with change in individual identity, the collective unconscious, and world history. Whether all his talk of “gyres,” “will/body of fate,” “creative mind / mask,” and so forth makes a theosophic system is beside the point: the whole affair is a vehicle for his poetry. His complex mature period blends with the Anglo-American Modernism of Eliot and Pound, among others. Take the Symbolist insistence that art constitutes a higher reality all its own, add the allusiveness and integrative power of myth, the spiritual imperatives of mysticism, a paradoxical yet genuine engagement with politics, and a willingness to question his broadest claims for poetry’s truth-status and relevance—and you get Yeats the High Modernist. There is a certain aloofness in Yeats’ manner, an aristocratic contempt for those who want nothing but pleasure from art, as if, to borrow from Bentham, pushpin were as good as poetry.
Like most Modernists, Yeats despises middle-class materialism, preferring the genuineness of the poor and the nobility alike. This carries forth a long romantic and Victorian tradition—recall Carlyle’s thundering at “Bobuses” who think of nothing but upward mobility and their stomachs.
But then, the argument over whether art should simply please us or improve us into the bargain is an ancient one; most critics and artists, even the most defiantly aloof among them, have implied that it should be a force both for social cohesion and for spiritual realization and transcendence. The Russian Formalists’ watchword “make it new” isn’t so new, and Modernists believe that art is a powerful shaping force over the spirit and intellect, even if they don’t trust themselves entirely when they say such things. The notion that Modernism doesn’t trust itself calls for an explanation: Yeats, with his occult and elitist tendencies, knows the risk he runs of his art collapsing into aestheticism or romantic solipsism. He’s fashioning a holy book out of his own semi-private symbolic language, a Book that promises special insight to the initiated. Even his use of the past’s myths and history throws down the interpretive gauntlet to us as readers—Yeats is a difficult poet who demands that we turn away from ordinary notions, step out of our individual selves, and understand him on his own terms. The self and the ordinary are cast as barriers to understanding and connection with others.
Yeats’ hero Blake wrote about religion’s tendency to become the province of an evil priesthood, a cynical hieratic class that feeds on the mysteries it propagates and guards. Mystery at its best—even the kind of manufactured mystery we see in the Victorian sages—can flow from genuine wonder at the complexity of humanity and the cosmos; but it can also take its origin from fear, ignorance, and misinterpretation, with consequent need for priestly elites. Modernist myth-making could easily amount to ideology in the service of somebody’s politics. Anglo-American Modernists seem to know this, and yet they find it necessary to offer us a religion of art. Yeats is a man of dilemmas—he’s all for universal myths, yet remains an Irish nationalist; he’s deeply personal and subjective, yet breaks down the barriers of selfhood. And above all, the phrase applied to Tennyson in the nineteenth century—“Lord of Language”—is just as appropriate to Yeats among his twentieth-century peers.
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
An early poem, symbolist. The speaker will remove himself from the everyday world and hear what the “deep heart’s core” has to say; this alternative reality will have an order and a peace all its own. The poem has the force of a decision: “I will go to the place that’s calling to me.” He hasn’t done it yet, and the chant itself is part of the process whereby he will convince himself to go. There’s some genuine pastoral imagery, a touch of romanticism’s descriptions of beautiful things in nature. Innisfree is symbolic—it is at least as much a state of mind as a real place, perhaps more so. The poem speaks the reality that calls the poet forth, so language participates in the making of something real, whether a state of mind or an actual place.
Yeats here treats an act of Irish nationalism and martyrdom as a work of art, something that transfigures even those participants he didn’t get along with. But in the final stanza, doesn’t Yeats also bring up the dangers of nationalism? See his line, “Too long a sacrifice…” Nationalism is a temporary tactic; Yeats never supported violent revolution, and shows a preference for art and myth as shaping and continuity-providing influences in collective life.
“The Second Coming”
The Russian Revolution occurred in 1917; a new world is being born, and it seems neither rational nor predictable. The Sphinx Riddle, at its core, concerns human nature, and the Oedipus myth turns on a series of outrages against a civic order taken as natural or in alliance with nature. Oedipus commits the scandal of incest (incest is both a universal taboo and yet a local violation, so it is scandalously natural and cultural—see Claude Lévi-Strauss). Will this new world be like the one ruled by Shelley’s cruel Pharaoh Ozymandias, whose image remains to glare at us as a recurring possibility even though the artist mocked him? An Egyptian tyranny? Yeats is drawing upon his own and on the collective European symbolic system to describe the birth throes of a new age. In uttering his prophecy, he rejects optimistic C19 narratives about progress and the upward march of the spirit. Change is inevitable, but not necessarily change for the better. The “rough beast” stalks obscenely into the world, its crude sexuality reminding us that we haven’t left behind the worst in ourselves or in history. History has been called “the pain of our ancestors,” and here is some new monstrosity shaping up. Yeats’ imagery comes from ancient myth and religion; history is disjunctive. It proceeds by terrible leaps and thunderclaps. So we need the artist as a wielder of myths new and old to make the world intelligible again, to whatever degree possible. This is a claim that High Modernists have adapted from romantic poet-prophets like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Blake.
What is intelligible may not comfort us, but we are responsible for confronting it in any case. Yeats had read Nietzsche on eternal recurrence—can one face all but unbearable realizations, yet remain willing to do it all again? Here we are confronted with our own recurrent power to tyrannize, setting up fear and dread abstraction as our gods (recall Blake’s “hapless soldier’s sigh” that “runs in blood down palace walls” in the poem “London”). And his ideas resemble Jung’s notion that there’s a collective unconscious—Jung was going beyond Freud’s psychology, which was centered on the bourgeois individual. Yeats’ accomplishment is to wield Jung-like collective myths with the fiery individualism of Blake: “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another’s!” Not that his is a narrowly self-based poetics; Yeats isn’t a romantic creator pure and simple—notice that he often writes as if he were being dictated to by a medium, an automatic writing that wells up from the collective unconscious, an archetypal image bank that comes from the Spiritus Mundi. Neither does he try to play the stage father with the meaning of his poems—he respects their status as words to be interpreted. His emphasis on the subjective side of existence is characteristically Modernist: they privilege impressions, subjective responses.
“Sailing to Byzantium”
How to cross over into what lasts? Yeats’ speaker explains why he has come to Byzantium, abandoning the boundaries of his ego and traveling to a region where he hopes to metamorphose into an eternal life in artistic form. This is truly a religion of art. Yeats refashions ancient symbols, grants us a vision of the Holy City, which is not Jerusalem in this poem but rather a decadent-phase Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The poem alludes to the poetic process itself, the magical hammering out of a world of eternal aesthetic artifacts. Like a Byzantine goldsmith’s handiwork, the poet’s sacred chant and symbolic system spanning many texts would fashion this world by what Shelley calls “the incantation of this verse.” But I’m not sure such claims for an eternal unchanging state of things suits Yeats’ theosophy in A Vision, as it emerges later. It seems to me that everything is dynamic in that explanation—Yeats, after all, borrows from the Pre-Socratics who are always talking about change as the only constant.
Stanza One: A personal poem about growing old and facing up to what one’s art has meant to oneself. The claim is that art transcends the “mire” of the material realm and human desire without simply rejecting them. Well, the first stanza rules out remaining in the world of natural generation, void of subjectivity. This kind of harmony and music doesn’t satisfy the self-conscious speaker about to pass on. Nature is “careful of the type, careless of the individual life,” as Tennyson writes in In Memoriam A.H.H.
Stanza Two: Notice the incantatory power here, the ordering power of rhythm: song of a different sort overcomes the mortal decay implied by the first stanza. Byzantium is in its decadent phase, a self-referential city wrapped up in artistic processiveness, in aestheticism. But Yeats is drawn to this beautiful solipsism, a place for intense concentration on what is eternal. This is not irresponsibility, I believe, but honesty—the speaker is old. Therefore, not having found his answer in physical nature, he has crossed waters, symbolizing creative power and life, and has come to this holy city. An old man must escape his dying self and enter into a different creative process—art.
Stanza Three: This stanza shows a turning away from the body and towards the forms of the sages on the Ravenna frieze mentioned in the Norton Anthology note. He prays to the sages, who have themselves been transformed into a work of art. He wants to be in the phase of existence they have reached, not remain where he is. His prayer is itself an outflowing of the phase in which he now finds himself.
Stanza Four: Once he has made the transition to a new world free of dying nature and the body, the artist will be wrought into his own artifice and become eternal. This poem confronts mortality, but not by reaffirming selfhood—instead, he confronts it on the grounds of his symbols and artifice, measuring his own endurance by their lasting power. A wish to merge with them. But will that be granted?
“Leda and the Swan”
Here the speaker handles poetic insight into history as a violent and dangerous gift. The rape of Leda engendered Helen, the Trojan War, and European history. What price insight? Many of the ancient prophets—Tiresias, Cassandra, Orpheus, gained their powers as compensation for terrible loss, or suffered for what they had been granted. Poetry is not merely pretty words. It is allied with prophecy and divination, and has been at the heart of civilization as a human task and process. The Modernists often describe poetry as an inseminative, male power. But is Zeus the only poet here, or is Leda also inspired? Does myth or poetic insight allow us to control such a process, or only describe it and face up to it spiritually? Coming to terms with the violent but necessary transitions from one epoch to the next seems to be the current poem’s task. This demands that we not dismiss the violent past, but try to make our knowledge of it worth something in the present—if that’s possible. Nietzsche says in “Homer’s Contest” that if we understood the Greeks “in Greek,” we would shudder—certainly Yeats’ choice of myths here doesn’t place him among the calm C19 Hellenizers. He says that the politics went out of the poem when he began to write it, but it still asks about the relationship between art and a given political order, indeed any political order. To what extent is poetic insight and language complicit in the violent events and transitions it presents? Leda and other myths, after all, were how the Greeks understood their own history and culture—at least early in their history, until C6-5 BCE, they lived within the framework of their myths. It is only with the pre-Socratic that they begin trying to explain natural phenomena in scientific terms. Different cultures will read the same myth differently; the myths recur but are subject to reinterpretation.
“Among School Children”
Here “the child is father of the man,” as Wordsworth wrote. But Yeats may not draw as much consolation as Wordsworth did in his “Immortality Ode.” The romantic poem cheered up the speaker, but Yeats’ speaker tries to reassure children that he’s not such a frightening schoolmaster or old scarecrow. His smile is a mask, like a Gno-mask, a conventional role. Hollow, he wants to fulfill his public office, which entails one generation’s responsibility towards another.
Stanza 5: Refers to the ancient myth of metempsychosis, as in Wordsworth’s line “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting.” See also Plato’s Symposium and Phaedrus. Is the pain worth it?
Stanza 6: What is real? Philosophers sought abstract wisdom, and can’t tell. They propagate Bacon’s “Idols of the Theater”—the strange errors that come with the territory of philosophers bent upon explaining the world with the help of huge thought-systems. Yeats’ autobiography A Vision shows his dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy. Much philosophy is an attempt to capture the relationship between self and world, to build up a vast framework for arriving at what is ultimately intelligible and enduring. It comes to seem a vain and self-isolating endeavor. I think Yeats is making the traditional complaint that philosophical explanations don’t move us, don’t make us able to act in the world and bear up under its stresses as they occur.
Stanza 7: Here a different relationship between thought and object emerges: images that move us.
Stanza 8: The reference to the chestnut tree is pure romantic organic metaphor—you can’t dissect a living thing without killing it. The whole is more than the sum of the parts, and you can’t divide up a person easily into the Seven Ages of Man. Neither can we “know the dancer from the dance.” This is a complex metaphor—the point in reference to Yeats’ theories in A Vision that states of mind, acts of will, etc., are not separable from the particular phase in which a person currently is. So the Yeats-like speaker is an older man, still somewhat wrapped up in his own subjectivity. He does not see the huge and luminous world of the more objective-phase child. So his poem is a product of where he is in terms of spiritual phase. His final words may seem like romantic poetry in the optative mode, as in “if winter comes, can spring be far behind?” But the trouble is that he isn’t dancing, that he cannot reenter the thoughts and dreams of childhood. He can only reflect upon his past, but the activity is not necessarily a comfort or a useful thing to him—he’s trying to come full circle, reflect back on his childhood and draw sustenance for his old age, wrap his mind around his life as a whole. But that kind of reflection is in itself Hamlet-like, and leads to further alienation, not to recuperation of the past. And so he remains distant from the children even in the midst of them.
What’s happening in Byzantium once the pilgrim arrives? We find spiritual transcendence being wrought from matter, from Roman “mire” and centuries of more vital history. Art and death have come together productively. Byzantium, in Yeats’ description, has become a place of transcendence, not the practical, political world of the Roman Empire.
Stanza 1: What has been made by human hands withdraws, disdains its makers and their mixture of mud and spirit. The domes and cathedrals are pure, illumined with celestial, not human, light.
Stanza 2: Mummy-cloth… is the winding path death? Is that the way out of mire?
Final Stanzas: Yeats was never satisfied with nature as an answer to the problems of self-conscious humans. You can see from “The Wilde Swans of Coole” that he aspires to a higher vision than nature could ever afford us. So here we find images begetting images, generating an alternative world, or a state that differs greatly from the unhappy one in which the speaker apparently finds himself.