Writing the War to End the War: Literary Modernism and WWI

In conjunction with the Harold B. Lee Library exhibit entitled “A Centennial Remembrance,” Professor Jarica Watts discussed the modernist literary movement during and after World War I.

PROVO, Utah (February 12, 2015)—“On or about December 1910, human character changed,” or so claimed Virginia Woolf in her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” But, if it wasn’t then as Woolf asserted, human character “would have changed on June 28, 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated at Sarajevo,” English professor Jarica Watts said.

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The assassination of the archduke launched Europe into the Great War. “Most sincerely believed it would be quick and glorious,” Watts said. Although it was a popular war at the beginning, as the years peeled away and the death toll mounted, “bitterness and disillusionment set in.”

Watts showed footage of the war and quoted an excerpt from the 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran of the Great War.

“I am young, I am twenty years old; yet I know nothing of life but despair, death, fear, and fatuous superficiality cast over an abyss of sorrow. What do they expect of us if time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years, our business has been killing. It was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards, and what shall come out of us?”

Watts honed in on the final question of this passage: what shall happen afterwards, when, throughout the years killing has been our business? “[This] speaks to the reality of what it was like to return home to a land which knew nothing of the battlefield, into a general citizenry that could never comprehend the horror of trench warfare,” Watts said. “As Philip Larkin writes, these men, and really the world at large, would never know such innocence again.”

Though the initial vision of the war was great patriotism, honor and glory to country was soon consumed by sorrow, pity and cruelty. Watts addressed another domain drastically transformed during and after the war: Western literature.

“Because old heroic, valour-laden assumptions about the past no longer coincided with the wartime reality,” Watts said, “the soldiers of World War I struggled to find new ideologies about the world ­- new ideologies about human nature. This then gave way to what I’m calling a subgenre of British Modernism.”

War poetry began to emerge from the frontline. According to Watts, we see that later soldier poets, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, considered it their duty to warn the British public of the horrors of war, as well as to ask why the world’s political leaders allowed such mass destruction to continue for so long.

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“Sassoon was one of the first poets to describe wounded, disabled soldiers who were unable to return to their previous lives,” Watts said. “His language is deliberately anti-romantic in its rejection of conventional poetic diction, in favor of sharp and biting colloquialism.”

In one of Sassoon’s poems, “Suicide in the Trenches,” Sassoon described a lad who once “whistled early with the lark,” who, in winter trenches, became “cowed and glum, / With crumps and lice and lack of rum.”

Watts described the horrors of the trench: rotting horse flesh, mud, poor food, weapons that would not fire, poison gas and the sheer terror of waiting for death. “These were the images of experience of the Great War,” she said. “There was no tangible enemy except the ones that the popular press could fashion. Think about it—think about the insanity of it all.”

And yet, she described, there was a strange camaraderie between soldiers on the front—seemingly regardless of which side they were fighting for. “It’s a camaraderie that existed out of an ideology, out of an understanding that they were the only ones who could really understand what this moment actually meant.”

Poet Wilfred Owen wrote most explicitly about trench warfare and the gassing that was taking place among the soldiers. “He has a very realistic view of war, and this resulted in kind of a disillusionment,” Watts said, “and caused him a great bitterness and cynicism toward anything connected with military glory.”

The famous Latin line “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” in English meaning “It is sweet and right to die for one’s country,” is exposed as the old lie – the ultimate lie – passed on to both soldiers and citizens. “Soon the soldiers began to despise the citizenry back home,” Watts said. “They had no idea what the war was like; they knitted socks and sang patriotic songs.”

The soldiers felt contempt for those at home who had sent them off to kill each other. “The war was full of horror,” Watts said “The romance of war had been taken out of warfare forever.”

All of these things caused an epidemic across Europe, which Paul Valéry would later characterize as a “crisis of the mind.”

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“War changed the form and the content of literary texts in English,” Watts said. “For American expatriates like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, their discussions moved from concerns about aestheticism to the nature of civilization – the preservation of which the war was meant to ensure.”

Virginia Woolf’s diaries reveal that after World War I, there was much sorrow in Europe. This “crisis of the mind”—deep disappointment, uncertainty and confusion about how to heal and mourn—penetrated Europe after World War I. Writing in the 1920s proved a stark shift from the 19th century’s security to the 20th century world of change and loss.

Virginia Woolf’s writing particularly reflects this. “As one of the most prominent modernist writers, it is so obvious that Woolf was profoundly affected by the destructive power of the war and reflected the cold face of the war in her fiction.”

Just as the war had a profound effect on the entire world, we see traces of the war in modernist literature. “Woolf, like so many others of the new post-war generation, believed that there was only one way left, and it was to turn to the inner self.” Themes such as human relationships, loneliness, isolation, death and the questioning of life versus death made what Watts called “a counter point in literary modernism more broadly.”

Watts described this movement as writers abandoning tradition, experimenting with the unknown, changing the rules, daring to be different, innovating and, above all, exposing the sham of Western civilization, “a civilization whose entire system of values was now perceived to be one without justification.”

“This was Modernism,” Watts said, “a reaction against the conventions of liberal, bourgeois, material, decadent, Western civilization. It’s what we might call the avant-garde, or bohemian or abstract today. But for the lost generation of post-war Europe, it seemed to be the only way out of either depression or suicide. In a world now proven to be without values, what else was left but experimentation—to try, by putting the pen to the page, what had not yet been accomplished before.”

—Danielle Chelom Leavitt (B.A. Russian, ’15)

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