Monday, April 24, 2006

Week 13, WWI Voices, Housman

Notes on A.E. Housman

“Chestnut, Loveliest of Trees”

Contrast this poem with Tennyson’s agonized longing for non-sentient endurance of the kind possessed by the Yew tree. The Yew is one of Wordsworth’s “beautiful and permanent forms of nature,” an eternal type. The speaker in Housman’s poem is an ‘‘observer.’’ Nature isn’t fully redemptive or a staging ground for ascending acts of consciousness. He knows his limits—he’s done the math—and concludes that nature is a sight to see for all one’s seasons. The speaker is young in years, but prematurely old in mindset—he already looks towards the end of life. The speaker has the sharp observational powers of a Paterian impressionist, but not the intensity—see 1643-44. He is wistful, distant from or bemused by his own feelings, his own doubts about his significance. Can youth typify its experiences appropriately, or is that in fact a callow thing to do, and not something young people can take to heart? Can a young person be as truly detached as this speaker? Well, I don’t know—Housman is trying to get at what it’s like to grow up in his time, around WWI.

“To an Athlete Dying Young”

The poem echoes Pindar the classical Greek poet’s praise of fame, the runner’s good report when the final race has been run. Greek shades melt into modern doubt of metaphysical truths. Here the athlete enters the world of Keats’ Grecian Urn, leaving behind “all breathing human passion” (852). Is it art that is long here, and life short, as Horace says? Sports offer temporary but near-total immersion in life, sans melancholy or alienation. See also Rene Girard on mimetic desire—we desire to do what others do.

“On Wenlock Edge”

The speaker reflects on the past, as something universal. He takes the uniformitarian view of human nature, to borrow from Lyell’s geology. This perspective comes from Housman’s own Arnoldian classicism (1512), his propensity to gaze upon past events and literary works with a steady eye. Matthew Arnold wasn’t arguing that the ancients were better than we are, and probably Housman isn’t doing that either. The point of classicism isn’t to imitate or accept the past’s values blindly; rather, it is to help us render the present intelligible. But Arnold spoke of the need for a poetry of event, of Aristotelian action rather than passive suffering. This call to action is well conveyed in Housman’s poem “To an Athlete Dying Young.” But “On Wenlock Edge” is more about mind than body.

Typifying oneself is a comfort, but also hardly a romantic gesture. The past is our “nature,” our source for inspiration. Can you lead a life of quiet inspiration instead of quiet desperation? “Wenlock” asks about the relationship between convention and expression or originality. Others have done and thought the same things as we have or will. Well, so what? One still must ask the Paterian impressionist question: what is this experience to me? Yet even this style implies distance, an effort to remain above the Heraclitean flux, not being immersed in life. The vita activa/contemplativa comparison is an old question, one addressed indirectly here, and in the following form: to what extent does contemplation sustain us through life’s events? That is a question that “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” answers in the form of the comparison between poetry and small doses of poison to build up one’s immunity to life’s travails.

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.

Siegfried Sassoon


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 General”

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.

“Everyone Sang”

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?

“Menin Gate”

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.”)

“Strange Meeting”

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.

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