Before I turn to modern fiction and music, I want to write something more about the impact of World War One on modern literature, and particularly poetry. Of course, Eliot’s work – not least “The Wasteland” – and Yeats’ works resonate with the effect of the war and the effort to understand its impact: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; / …The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,” and “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” The writers who fought or served at the front in the Great War – “the War Poets” – focus much of their work on it. Their writing testifies to their contact with the immense wave of the violence which swept across their lives, for some to end them. These writers include Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg, all of whom died in the war, and those who survived: Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney, and David Jones (among others - for example, Hemingway and Cummings). Conventions of ancient classical lyrics are adopted by some of them – paeans to the heroic dead, for example in Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (written in the first months of the war), or acknowledgements of the equality of suffering in both opposing armies, for example in Wilfred Owens’ “Strange Meeting” (written later in the war), or bitterly realistic evocations of slaughter, for example in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Attack.” The adoption of partly Homeric gestures gives form to the soldier-poets’ sensation that they were experiencing something ancient akin to the origins of human combat, a sort of primal violence and contact with death. [As we'll see in a later post, some modern novels create characters which present an image of and contact with that primal violence.]
Wilfred Owen’s poems present the reader with just that sensation, and frequently they do so by explicitly evoking the ancient world. The Old Testament’s story of the sacrifice of Isaac becomes the premise of “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young,” at the end of which “Abram…slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” implores the reader to reject the ancient Roman tag: “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori” – it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. The rest of the poem renders with blunt, modernist immediacy the viewpoint of the soldier in the trenches: the desperate provisional community (“Gas! Gas! Quick, Boys!”), the dream-like disorientation (“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning. // In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning”), and the raw confrontation of the reader to make him or her “see” and hear (“If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood / Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, / Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud / Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues”), leading to the critical indictment of the Latin cliché. (There is Jon Silkin’s fine anthology of these poets: THE PENGUIN BOOK OF FIRST WORLD WAR POETRY ( Penguin Modern Classics ).
That Latin cliché also appears in Ezra Pound’s equally bitter fourth poem in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” but the stamp of rhymed iambic pentameter has practically vanished here, for Pound’s pithy, flexible line has no need for the sort of control that a front-line soldier might rely on to be able to speak at all. That desperately maintained balance has been replaced by Pound’s outpouring of incantatory repetition and fragmenting rage: “Dies some, pro patria, / non “dulce” non “et décor” . . . / walked eye-deep in hell / believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving / came home, home to a lie / home to many deceits, / home to old lies and new infamy; / usury age-old and age-thick / and liars in public places.” Pound’s poetry develops the modern qualities evident already in Owen’s further in the direction of experiment, but he accompanies his fine ear for allusion and his insightful eye with a ranting invective, a release from reason, which makes Pound an ambassador from the zone of modern, unleashed chaos.
Two works portray the experience and achievement of the War Poets with particular brilliance. One is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, with its acuity about their poetic achievements and its depth of understanding about their war experience and the process of finding language in the face of those experiences. The other book is a powerful novel by Pat Barker, Regeneration, the first novel of a trilogy. Barker imagines the struggle of a gifted and ethically questioning psychiatrist, Dr. William Rivers (himself a historical figure), who was assigned to treat Sassoon, Owen, and others in order to return them to the front lines (there is by the way an adequate and well-acted film version of the novel, Behind the Lines).
I’ll be turning soon to modern fiction, though Acts of Terror and Contrition, my novella/nuclear fable about Israel, is about to be released by Amazon.com’s publishing arm, so my next post will attempt to present that novel to you.
About the arts and ideas - on my novels and literature, music, and art
A new book about Beethoven gathers together (and completely rewrites and supplements) my blog posts on Beethoven into a short introduction to the composer, Ways of Hearing Beethoven, which I hope to see published. My novel The Fall of the Berlin Wall, completed a year ago, is about musicians and particularly the intense, irrepressible daughter of the legendary pianist featured in my previous novel Hungry Generations, now fifteen years after those events. Five years ago, my 2015 novel, The Ash Tree, was published by West of West Books in conjunction with the April 24, 2015 centenary of the Armenian genocide; it's about an Armenian-American family and the sweep of their history in the twentieth century - particularly from the points of view of two women in the family.
There are three other novels of mine, which I would love to see published. One is Pathological States, about a physician's family in L.A. in 1962. Another is Hungry Generations, about a young composer's friendship in L.A. with the family of a virtuoso pianist, published on demand by iUniverse, which I think would be of value to a conventional publisher. A Burnt Offering - a fable (a full rewriting and expansion of my earlier Acts of Terror and Contrition - a nuclear fable) is my political novella about Israel and its reactions to the possibility of a war with Iran (with the fear that it will be a nuclear war).
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]
[My blog posts are, of course, copyrighted.]