Revisiting: “Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Robert Nichols, a fellow English war poet, wrote an introduction to Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems that is reprinted in my Dover Edition of the War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Nichols recounts a conversation he once had with Sassoon, on the topic of “certain exalté poems in [Nichols’s] Ardours and Endeavours.” Sassoon likes the poems, and says:

“War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever litlte may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.”

I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.

“Let no one ever,” he continued, “from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”

War poems are, in some sense, a kind of Remembrance. Many are about individual fallen comrades; many more refer to the unnamed dead. Ghosts are everywhere, and dying men are everywhere, suffering and taking their last breaths. The poems are a record of horror and calamity, and many are also accusations.

How then

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Revisiting: “What silly beggars they are to blunder in/And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame”

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

On Tuesday, one of the poems I wrote about, “To Any Dead Officer,” ends very bluntly, as I noted: “I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” This kind of bluntness is characteristic, especially as a sort of epigrammatic last line to Sassoon’s poems. “Trench Duty” ends, “I’m wide awake; and some chap’s dead.” “The General,” one of Sassoon’s turns at the vulgarly humorous side of war poetry, finishes abruptly and unfunnily for our two comic actors: “But he did for them both by his plan of attack.” “The One Legged Man” last “thought: ‘Thank God they had to amputate!’”

One of the most powerful uses of this blunt instrument is in “Repressions of War Experience,” a poem about a demobbed soldier who is badly shell-shocked. The poem is off-putting in many ways. Sassoon abandons his usual clear if somewhat irregular stanzas for a more open form, and the narrator seems to drift through this open form just as his consciousness, troubled as it is, drifts illogically from one topic to the next (“And you’re right as rain…./Why won’t it rain?…”) Like “To Any Dead Officer,” this poem deals with Sassoon’s view of the afterlife, and like many of his war poems has a strong hint of nature about it.

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,— Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,— But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls, Who wore their bodies out

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Revisiting: More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Yesterday I ended with a question about Sassoon’s bitterness. Today I want to discuss a theme in many of Sassoon’s poems that is often treated more sweetly than you might expect: death. I mean here the state of death, the afterlife in the most literal sense possible—what happens after life ends.

Sassoon speculates often on what death is like, and though he has several reuseable phrases at hand to euphemise it—“gone out patrolling in the dark”, “beyond the wire”, “gone West”—even these are poignant and not (yet?) cliché. Sassoon’s attitute toward death is one of curiosity and interest; that curiosity may be tinged with sadness but it’s motivated by the care and love he feels for his dead comrades. Here, in “To Any Dead Officer,” he begins:

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say, Because I’d like to know that you’re all right. Tell me, have you found everlasting day, Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

Elsewhere these attitudes toward death verge on the playful. In “The Investitute,” a soldier makes his way through the pearly gates, where “God says something kind because you’re dead,/And homesick, discontented with your fate.”

If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls; Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old. But you’re alone; and solitude annuls Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.

These lines, like the ones

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“Robert Ross was no Hitler. That was his problem.”

Rohan noted in a comment the other day that The Wars is sometimes a little pat—but still affecting. This was my exact experience of the book. I’ll admit it was a bit strange.

The most “pat” parts are, I think, in the framing story. It’s the present day (i.e., somewhere around 1977, when the novel was published), and two old ladies are the ones to pronounce on all the poor, nice young men whose lives they saw go by. The first is Marian Turner, “a nurse in the Great World War [who] remembered Robert vividly”—for you see, the frame is a setup to tell Robert Ross’s story. Marian Turner “has given (on tape) the only first-hand account of him we have aside from that of Lady Juliet d’Orsey.”

Miss Turner veers from gushing about Robert, to lamenting the war, to relating a fact here and there.

My opinion was—he was a hero. …You see, he did the thing that no one else would even dare to think of doing. And that to me’s as good a definition of ‘hero’ as you’ll get. Even when the thing that’s done is something of which you disapprove. …Well. It was the war that was crazy, I guess. Not Robert Ross or what he did. You’ll say that’s trite, of course. But is it? Looking back, I hardly believe what happened.

She emphasizes that, living through so much of “this extraordinary century,” she’s learned that it’s the ordinary people who really make history: “[m]onstrous, complacent, and mad.”

Remember that. Even if I do sound a moralizing fool, I’ll risk it. After all—I’m pretty old. (LAUGHTER) I could be gone tomorrow! There may not be anybody else who’ll say this to you. Everyone’s so sophisticated these days they can’t stand the hot lights.

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“Robert could hardly move in his panic but he knew that he had to show his nerve and his ability as an officer.”

The Wars is, briefly, the story of 19-year-old Robert Ross, Canadian artillery officer on his way to, and at, the Ypres Salient in 1915–1916.

That was briefer than I expected, and accurate. Especially the “on his way to”—a significant part of the novel occurs before Ross arrives in Europe, and even more before he arrives in France. One of the major Great War tropes of The Wars (there’s more, after all, than just mud) is that of the Unprepared Officer, Sensitive Young Man edition. Ross is unprepared in some practical ways, as well; his parents have sent him with a revolver instead of a semiautomatic pistol as his sidearm. But the extent to which he is out of his depth is perhaps further than for other stories I’ve read, and becomes apparent on the ship over from Canada.

After a fellow officer, Harris, falls ill with pneumonia, Ross is assigned to take care of the horses travelling in the troop ship. This is not, apparently, normal—“’Those damn beasts shouldn’t even be on this ship!’ [the Battalion C.O.] wheezed. …’And when we get to England—I mean to have my say about that. Transporting men and animals in the same vessel! Barbarous! Barbarous!’” But Ross takes to it, despite the filth and the flies. And just outside Plymouth harbor, his trusty Battalion Sergeant-Major (another important trope: the Competent Noncom) has some very bad news: one of the horses has broken its leg. Ross must go shoot it—the officers “were the only ones with guns.”

The B.S.M. waited at attention while Robert went to the bathroom. The door had no lock and it banged and banged and banged all the time Robert was in there. His mind took up its rhythm: stop, stop—forward&mash;stop. He had never squeezed a trigger against a living

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Revisiting: “The Kiss” by (and more on) Siegfried Sassoon

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Why not have a week on Siegfried Sassoon? I mean to say, on his war poems. I can name a few good reasons: I’m not even really supposed to have read them yet; I probably ought to be writing about a lot of other things first; should one shortish book of poetry really make up a week? But as Tom suggested, these war poets make good guinea pigs for poetry-blogging, and Sassoon seems a good place to start.

Anthony recently posted on one of the problems with reading and writing history, quoting a review in the TLS by Joanna Bourke that states that ”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence.”

Geoff Dyer is fairly quick to point this out in The Missing of the Somme.

For all their abhorrence of war the poets of protest like Owen, Sassoon and Graves continued—for very different reasons—to wage it. Dominic Hibberd has pointed out how the official citation for Owen’s Military Cross refers to his having ‘personally manipulated a captured enemy M[achine] G[un]…and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy'; in the Collected Letters Owen’s family offer a milder rewrite of the citation, in which he ‘personally captured an enemy Machine Gun…and took a number of prisoners’. Sassoon seems to have oscillated between bouts of frenzied violence and bitter loathing of the war that unleased this strain in him. Graves recalls that he ‘had never

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“All the great armies of modern history have passed this way and through this mud.”

In the Wall Street Journal article I mentioned Monday (found!), “Publishing’s Battle to Win the Great War” even a Real Historian laments. “‘The American public has very little understanding or knowledge of WWI,’ says historian David McCullough, the author of ‘John Adams’ and ‘1776.’ ‘When I talk at colleges and universities, many of them have no idea when it happened, and know nothing about it, and seem to have very little interest in it.’”

And who am I to argue? I’m sure he is right. I’m 30 now, so get off my lawn, you kids, and listen: “David Reynolds, professor of international history at Cambridge University, says World War I lays the groundwork for America’s later role as a superpower. …Mr. Reynolds calls WWI ‘the forgotten conflict of America’s war-torn 20th century. Forgotten yet also essential.’” The war “‘helped “define the country’s self-image across the whole twentieth century.’”

But wait, who cares about all that anyway? Sure, the article may be about the US publishing industry, but this blog isn’t. Complaints about how difficult it is to slap an evocative cover on a book about a war that killed millions of people and basically created modernity slash set the stage for the other war, the one you are somehow able to evoke with magical effectiveness, do not impress me all that much.

And why do I care about a centenary anyway? Well, because it led to that daft article (and a whole raft of others I’ve read since then), and I like reading books about the Great War, and I think it’s a shame—just a sad state of affairs—that a woman who wrote a book about the war could say, “‘Quite often it is simplified to the horror of the trenches and going over the top and

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The marvelous misadventures of the good soldier Švejk

The Good Soldier Švejk is a picaresque novel of The Great War. Its title character is a Czech everyman, slow-witted, cunning, or most likely some combination of both, who wends his way very slowly from a Vienna bar to the Eastern Front, taking turns as the batman for a few people slightly more important than himself, and in prison for various misdemeanors and misunderstandings (and often for some combination of both). In episode after episode, nothing can really touch Švejk, though he rarely ends up any better off, either.

I tend to have what seems like more tolerance than average for picaresques; I rarely care too much about plot anyway, and my favorite picaresques have an overarching structure to their episodes that gives them form without subjecting them to many of the conventions of a more traditional novel-length plot. Švejk may be missing such a structure because it is unfinished, but in fact the way the episodes bounce around chaotically also serves one of the novels most important themes: the absurdity of pretty much everything. The war, certainly; also the Austro-Hungarian Empire; also its army and perhaps all armies; certainly the law and bureaucracy.

And the episodes tend in themselves toward the abusrd—especially when Švejk does have his run-ins with the law. Almost inevitably, Švejk displays to the authorities “the godlike composure of an innocent child,” “radiat[ing]” “unconcern and innocence…from the whole of his being”—and putting them right off their game. As Cecil Parrott notes in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition:

He is a complete match for any of the soldiers or N.C.O.s who are unlucky enogh to be his escorts. He is capable of reducing Lieutenant Dub to a state of speechlessness. At the same time he has a disarming way of attracting the admiration

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Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish

As much as I always love New Directions, it’s rare for me to actually read three of their titles in a row, as happened quite by chance with Robinson, Alphabetical Africa, and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. Though I’d call B.S. Johnson’s novel the most avant-garde in the bunch, Abish is no stylistic slouch, and Alphabetical Africa is, say, the most Oulipian.

The formal conceit of the novel is that the first chapter contains only words beginning in ‘a’, the second only words beginning in ‘a’ or ‘b’, and so n, until the middle of the book, when all words are available, and then, chapter-by-chapter, begin disappearing from its lexicon in the reverse of the order they entered it (FILO, for the geeks out there).

Even for those willing to accept the premise that one can write a reasonable novel omitting the more common letter in the language (c.f., Georges Perec, La Disparition), this probably seems like it must inevitably seem nonnaturalistic and extremely formal. There’s no doubt that Alphabetical Africa isn’t a typical novel, but it is a novel—it distinctly tells a story, and fairly clearly—and the strategies Abish uses to fulfill his constraints are varied and successful. It opens thus:

Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement…anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Are ants Ameisen?

“Ameisen” is the German for “ants.” While far from natural speech, this is also impressively well put together considering the words all start with one letter,

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Robinson by Muriel Spark

I’m aiming to do a few “quick hit” type posts this week, both to help get back into the swing and to put off writing about The Good Soldier Švejk for a while (though I should be writing about Švejk immediately after my other war post, sigh).

Today’s I’ve got Robinson, Muriel Spark’s second novel, on the menu. It’s the story of a mid-twentieth-century plane crash of which there are three survivors, stranded on a desert island. Scratch that—the island is not desert, but inhabited by on Robinson (and named after him). Robinson is a man of some independent means who has chosen, for apparently religious reasons, to live basically as a hermit.

The narrator of the novel, January Marlow, is, like a major character in The Comforters, a convert to Catholicism, and though pragmatic is quite serious about the faith. There are Catholic, and specifically Catholic-among-the-English, subtexts to much of the novel. This is a feature of Spark’s writing I’m curious to see develop further as I go further into her novels chronologically, and I don’t have much to say about it at this point other than that Spark seems to me to be an overlooked “Catholic writer,” especially “Anglo-Catholic writer.” I don’t think many put her in the same camp as an Evelyn Waugh or a Graham Greene or a T.S. Eliot (or a Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy) in this respect, and I’ve been wondering more and more whether they shoud.

As for Robinson itself, it’s an exploration of the bounds of civil society and of trust, of religion and reasonableness, of coping mechanisms for both being alone and being among people, and of the changing behavior and even nature of human beings as they shift from a modern-sized society to a small—perhaps

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