Global war is one of the defining features of twentieth-century experience, and the first global war is the subject of one of this period’s topics, “Representing the Great War.” Masses of dead bodies strewn upon the ground, plumes of poison gas drifting through the air, hundreds of miles of trenches infested with rats—these are but some of the indelible images that have come to be associated with World War I (1914-18). It was a war that unleashed death, loss, and suffering on an unprecedented scale. How did recruiting posters, paintings, memoirs, and memorials represent the war? Was it a heroic occasion, comparable to a sporting event, eliciting displays of manly valor and courage? Or was it an ignominious waste of human life, with little gain to show on either side of the conflict, deserving bitterly ironic treatment? What were the differences between how civilians and soldiers, men and women, painters and poets represented the war? How effective or inadequate were memorials, poems, or memoirs in conveying the enormous scale and horror of the war? These are among the issues explored in this topic about the challenge to writers and artists of representing the unrepresentable.
Another of the twentieth century’s defining features is radical artistic experiment. The boundary-breaking art, literature, and music of the first decades of the century are the subject of the topic “Modernist Experiment.” Among the leading aesthetic innovators of this era were the composer Igor Stravinsky, the cubist Pablo Picasso, and the futurist F. T. Marinetti. The waves of artistic energy in the avant-garde European arts soon crossed the English Channel, as instanced by the abstraction and dynamism of Red Stone Dancer (1913-14) by the London-based vorticist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Other vorticists and modernists include such English-language writers as Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Mina Loy, who also responded to the stimulus and challenge of the European avant-garde with manifestos, poems, plays, and other writings. This topic explores the links between Continental experiment and the modernist innovations of English-language poets and writers during a period of extraordinary ferment in literature and the arts.
Another of the defining features of the twentieth century was the emergence of new nations out of European colonial rule. Among these nations, Ireland was the oldest of Britain’s colonies and the first in modern times to fight for independence. The topic “Imagining Ireland” explores how twentieth-century Irish writers fashioned new ideas about the Irish nation. It focuses on two periods of crisis, when the violent struggle for independence put the greatest pressure on literary attempts to imagine the nation: in the aftermath of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the later outbreaks of sectarian violence from 1969 (known as the Troubles) in Northern Ireland. How do poems, plays, memoirs, short stories, and other literary works represent the bloodshed and yet the potential benefits of these violent political upheavals? Do they honor or lament, idealize or criticize, these political acts? And how do these literary representations compare with political speeches and treaties that bear on these defining moments in modern Irish history? “Imagining Ireland” considers these and other questions about literature and the making of Irish nationality, which continue to preoccupy contemporary writers of Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Irish diaspora.
Representing the great wars by by Jahan Ramazani and Jason Coats
Today we know it as World War I, but those who lived through it called it the Great War. At first, the war was predicted to last only a few months and to result in a resounding success for the British Empire and its allies. But as the years passed and the casualties mounted into the millions, it became clear that this conflict was quite different from its predecessors. With nearly nine million soldiers killed (one in five of those who fought) and survivors afflicted with prolonged physical and mental suffering, the war marked a sea-change in the course of military and political history. It also represented a challenge to anyone wishing to give meaning to the enormity of the death toll and the futility of trench warfare. Soldiers living in rat-infested and water-saturated trenches fired machine-guns at unseen soldiers in other trenches; when they went “over the top” into no-man’s-land, they became completely vulnerable. The use of the term “Great War” suggests the challenge of representing something so new and awful, so vast and traumatic.
Once it became clear that both sides had settled into their trenches, which stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea, people naturally wondered what had gone wrong. Patriotic poems and songs from previous wars, such as Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada” (1897-98), linked the British soldier’s fighting prowess with his moral superiority, fairness, and skill. World War I also elicited representations that blurred the line between war and athletics, such as Jessie Pope’s jingoistic poem “The Call” (1915) and the recruiting poster “The Army Isn’t All Work.” But as soldiers’ expectations of a just, valorous, sporting war gave way to hideous, anonymous carnage, characteristic expressions of irony emerged. For soldier poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, irony proved a useful means of representing the gulf between expectation and reality, the murderous war and the unsuspecting nation, the soldier’s comrades in the trenches and the unseen enemy across no-man’s-land. Bitterly ironic statements such as Siegfried Sassoon’s “A Soldier’s Declaration” helped call attention to the rage and bewilderment of the trench soldier; but their chilly reception by an equally bewildered reading public reinforced cultural divisions. Some readers at home condemned the war poets’ attacks as unpatriotic, and opinion remained divided between those who had fought and knew, and those who preferred not to know.
Some poets also disliked the soldier poets’ graphic and caustically ironic depictions of the war. In the words of W. B. Yeats in his 1936 preface to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, the bitterness of war poets was an unconstructive “passive suffering.” Yeats refused to include in his anthology combatant poets such as Owen and Sassoon. He preferred in poetry a more active heroism, such as that he invented for the speaker of “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.”
As casualties from both the Allied and Central Powers ran into the millions, military tactics became increasingly desperate. These included the deployment of mustard gas, submarine attacks on shipping lines, and howitzer shelling and zeppelin bombings of cities miles behind the front lines. Such tactics signaled a breakdown of the rules of warfare in favor of indiscriminate killing of both the soldiers and the civilians they protected. Civilian artists now found they had an authentic, lived experience of war they could express. The involvement of millions of women in the war effort, such as those depicted in the poster “We Need you, Redcross,” eroded the distinction between civilian women and the men who went off to save the country. Munitions, factory, and textile jobs were vacated by enlistees and quickly filled by women for whom the war represented an economic opportunity. Although recruiting posters such as “Women of Britain say—GO!” associated women with the English countryside that valiant soldiers ought to defend, poems such as Jessie Pope’s “War Girls” represent women as empowered by the challenge of their wartime jobs. Frustrated by the war’s length and carnage, some poets, such as Sassoon and Ezra Pound, allude disparagingly to the women and the civilization soldiers were supposedly protecting. Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, for example, refers to Britain as “an old bitch gone in the teeth.”
Because of its massive scale and controversial impetus, monuments to the war often indicate the difficulty of representing it. Commemorative physical structures tend to look like a mixture of massiveness and stripped-down, minimalist gestures, as if trying to speak volumes and remain silent at the same time. The Menin Gate and the Cenotaph of Whitehall both stand in mute remembrance of a massive loss that can barely be imagined, much less represented. The spareness of the Cenotaph, meanwhile, allowed two contemporaries to draw different conclusions about its significance: Henry Morton’s Heart of London records his impression of the monument as a symbol of unity and communal reverence, while Charlotte Mew cannot help but notice, in her poem “Cenotaph,” how incongruous this great static symbol of grief appears in the middle of a degraded mercantile hub. Like the divergences between jingoists and satirists, soldiers and civilians, feminists and antifeminists, these differences over war memorials reflect competing views over how to represent a war that ultimately defies representation.
Sir Henry Newbolt, “Vitaï Lampada” (1897-98)
Sir Henry Newbolt, a childhood friend of Douglas Haig (later to command World War I’s British Expeditionary Force), wrote the following poem, which became popular early in World War I, in the late nineteenth century. Its equation of warfare with cricket, of valor with sportsmanship, represented an ideal of rugged bravery and an expectation that wars could follow game rules that many British soldiers and generals followed. These expectations proved completely inadequate to the realities of trench warfare. The poem’s title, which means “The Torch of Life,” is taken from the Latin poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) by Lucretius, where it refers to a torch handed off in a relay race.
There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night—
Ten to make and the match to win—
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote—
“Play up! play up! and play the game!'”
The sand of the desert is sodden red,—
Red with the wreck of a square that broke;—
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! play up! and play the game!'”
This is the word that year by year,
While in her place the School is set,
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind—
“Play up! play up! and play the game!'”
Jessie Pope, “The Call” (1915)
The following poem is perhaps the best-known example of Jessie Pope’s jingoistic war poems, exhorting young men to enlist and save England, or be labeled cowards. Her reputation was such that Wilfred Owen originally entitled “Dulce et Decorum Est” as “To Jessie Pope.”
Who’s for the trench—
Are you, my laddie?
Who’ll follow French—
Will you, my laddie?
Who’s fretting to begin,
Who’s going out to win?
And who wants to save his skin—
Do you, my laddie?
Who’s for the khaki suit—
Are you, my laddie?
Who longs to charge and shoot—
Do you, my laddie?
Who’s keen on getting fit,
Who means to show his grit,
And who’d rather wait a bit—
Would you, my laddie?
Who’ll earn the Empire’s thanks—
Will you, my laddie?
Who’ll swell the victor’s ranks—
Will you, my laddie?
When that procession comes,
Banners and rolling drums—
Who’ll stand and bite his thumbs—
Will you, my laddie?
Jessie Pope, “War Girls” (1916)
Like her poem “The Call,” Jessie Pope’s “War Girls” gives voice to jingoistic patriotism. But the language and action of the poem also revel in the opportunities for empowerment that the war has created for women: they are “no longer caged and penned up,” but tackling “jobs with energy and knack.”
There’s the girl who clips your ticket for the train,
And the girl who speeds the lift from floor to floor,
There’s the girl who does a milk-round in the rain,
And the girl who calls for orders at your door.
Strong, sensible, and fit,
They’re out to show their grit,
And tackle jobs with energy and knack.
No longer caged and penned up,
They’re going to keep their end up
Till the khaki boys come marching back.
There’s the motor girl who drives a heavy van,
There’s the butcher girl who brings your joint of meat,
There’s the girl who cries ‘All fares, please!’ like a man,
And the girl who whistles taxis up the street.
Beneath each uniform
Beats a heart that’s soft and warm,
Though of canny mother-wit they show no lack;
But a solemn statement this is,
They’ve no time for love and kisses
Till the khaki soldier boys come marching home.
W. B. Yeats, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”
The Irish airman in this poem is Major Robert Gregory (1881-1918), only child of Yeats’s friend Lady Augusta Gregory. He was killed on the Italian front. In elegizing him, Yeats focuses on the “lonely impulse of delight” that drove him to enlist in the British Royal Flying Corps and distinguishes his heroic solitude from patriotic duty and other common motivations.
“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balance all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
W. B. Yeats, from Preface to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936)
In 1936, as editor of a leading poetry anthology, Yeats made the controversial choice of excluding all of the World War I combatant poets, even though he had set himself the goal of including “all good poets who have lived or died from three years before the death of Tennyson  to the present moment.” The following is his explanation.
I have a distaste for certain poems written in the midst of the great war; they are in all the anthologies, but I have substituted Herbert Read’s End of a War written long after. The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity, one a man constantly selected for dangerous work, all, I think, had the Military Cross; their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy—for all skill is joyful—but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation; passive suffering is not a theme for poetry. In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced. When man has withdrawn into the quicksilver at the back of the mirror no great event becomes luminous in his mind; it is no longer possible to write The Persians, Agincourt, Chevy Chase: some blunderer has driven his car on to the wrong side of the road—that is all.
If the war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell, or as we forget the worst moments of more painful disease. Florence Farr returning third class from Ireland found herself among Connaught Rangers just returned from the Boer War who described an incident over and over, and always with loud laughter: an unpopular sergeant struck by a shell turned round and round like a dancer wound in his own entrails. That too may be a right way of seeing war, if war is necessary; the way of the Cockney slums, of Patrick Street, of the Kilmainham Minut, of Johnny I hardly knew ye, of the medieval Dance of Death.
Siegfried Sassoon, “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration”
Siegfried Sassoon’s declaration of war against the war appeared in the Bradford Pioneer on July 27, 1917. In disgust with the war, he threw the ribbon of his Military Cross into the sea. Thanks to the help of his friend Robert Graves, Sassoon was declared to have shell shock instead of being court-martialed. The British army placed him in a hospital at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, for the duration of the war.
(This statement was made to his commanding officer by Second-Lieutenant S. L. Sassoon, Military Cross, recommended for D.S.O., Third Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, as explaining his grounds for refusing to serve further in the army. He enlisted on 3rd August 1914, showed distinguished valour in France, was badly wounded, and would have been kept on home service if he had stayed in the army.)
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.
I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.
I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust.
I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insecurities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.
On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize.
July, 1917. S. Sassoon.
Ezra Pound, from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920, 1921)
During World War I, Ezra Pound was an American émigré in London and the impresario behind imagism and vorticism in England. After many of his friends were killed in the trenches, including the poet-philosopher T. E. Hulme and the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, he described his postwar activities in the following terms: “1918 began investigation of causes of war, to oppose same.” Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, from which the following two excerpts are taken, is one result of Pound’s war-guilt investigations.
These fought in any case,
and some believing, pro domo, in any case. . .
Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later . . .
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;
Died some, pro patria, non dulce non et decor . . .
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.
Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;
Fortitude as never before
Frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,
Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,
For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.
Charlotte Mew, “The Cenotaph (September 1919)”
Charlotte Mew supported herself during World War I by publishing poems and stories in London periodicals. The following poem appeared shortly after the unveiling of the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;
There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,
Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.
But here, where the watchers by lonely hearths from the thrust of an inward sword have more
We shall build the Cenotaph: Victory, winged, with Peace, winged too, at the column’s head.
And over the stairway, at the foot—oh! here, leave desolate, passionate hands to spread
Violets, roses, and laurel, with the small, sweet, tinkling country things
Speaking so wistfully of other Springs,
From the little gardens of little places where son or sweetheart was born and bred.
In splendid sleep, with a thousand brothers
To lovers—to mothers
Here, too, lies he:
Under the purple, the green, the red,
It is all young life: it must break some women's hearts to see
Such a brave, gay coverlet to such a bed!
Only, when all is done and said,
God is not mocked and neither are the dead
For this will stand in our Marketplace—
Who’ll sell, who’ll buy
(Will you or I
Lie each to each with the better grace)?
While looking into every busy whore’s and huckster’s face
As they drive their bargains, is the Face
Of God: and some young, piteous, murdered face.
H. V. Morton, from The Heart of London (1925)
Henry Morton began work as a journalist and descriptive writer of vignettes for the Daily Express after reporting the discovery of Egyptian king Tutankhamen’s tomb in the 1920s. The following passage displays several of Morton’s impressions of the Cenotaph.
TEN-THIRTY A.M. in Whitehall on a cold, grey February morning.
There is expectancy at the Horse Guards, where two living statues draped in scarlet cloaks sit their patient chargers. A group of sightseers waits at the gate for the high note of a silver cavalry trumpet, for the click of hoofs on the cobbles and a shining cavalcade beneath an arch: the pageantry that precedes that silent ceremony of changing a guard that ‘turns out’ for no man but the King.
Laden omnibuses go down to Westminster or up to Charing Cross, and, as they pass, every passenger looks at the two Life Guards in their scarlet glory, for they are one of the sights of London that never grows stale. Taxicabs and limousines spin smoothly left and right, men and women enter and leave Government offices: a Whitehall morning is moving easily, leisurely, elegantly, if you like, towards noon.
And I walk on to Westminster, and, in the centre of the road, cream-coloured, dominant, stands the Cenotaph.
More than six years ago the last shot was fired. Six years. It is long enough for a heart to become convalescent. Sharp agonies which at the time of their happening seem incapable of healing have a merciful habit of mending in six years. A broken love-affair that turned the world into a pointless waste of Time has ended in a happy marriage of six years. A death that left so much unspoken, so much regret, so much to atone for, falls in six years into its pathetic perspective a little nearer Nineveh and Tyre.
I look up at the Cenotaph. A parcels delivery boy riding a tricycle van takes off his worn cap. An omnibus goes by. The men lift their hats. Men passing with papers and documents under their arms, attache and despatch cases in their hands—all the business of life—bare their heads as they hurry by.
Six years have made no difference here. The Cenotaph—that mass of national emotion frozen in stone—is holy to this generation. Although I have seen it so many times on that day once a year when it comes alive to an accompaniment of pomp as simple and as beautiful as church ritual, I think that I like it best just standing here in a grey morning, with its feet in flowers and ordinary folk going by, remembering.
Westminster Abbey 1920
I look up to Charing Cross and down to Westminster. On one side Whitehall narrows to a slit, against which rises the thin, black pencil of the Nelson column; on the other Westminster Abbey, grey and devoid of detail, seems etched in smoke against the sky, rising up like a mirage from the silhouette of bare trees.
The wind comes down Whitehall and pulls the flags, exposing a little more of their red, white, and blue, as if invisible fingers were playing with them. The plinth is vacant. The constant changing trickle of a crowd that later in the day will stand here for a few moments has not arrived. There is no one here.
No one? I look, but not with my eyes, and I see that the Empire is here: England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India . . . here—springing in glory from our London soil.
In a dream I see those old mad days ten years ago. How the wind fingers the flags. . . .
I remember how, only a few weeks ago, as a train thundered through France, a woman sitting opposite to me in the dining car said, ‘The English!’ I looked through the window over the green fields, and saw row on row, sharply white against the green, rising with the hill and dropping again into the hollows—keeping a firm line as they had been taught to do—a battalion on its last parade.
The Cenotaph and no one there? That can never be.
War Office 1922
Look! Near the mottled white and black of the War Office far up Whitehall a platoon of Guardsmen come marching. They swing their arms and stride out, carrying their rifles at a perfect ‘slope.’ They are young, the ‘eighteen-year-olds’ we used to call them in 1918 when they were called up to form the ‘young soldiers’ battalions. I remember how frightened some of them were at this thing that had happened to them, and how often, when one was orderly officer padding round at night, a boy soldier would be crying like a child in the darkness at some harshness, or, in a wave of homesickness.
The old recipe has worked with the Guards! On they come, a platoon of tough Irish soldiers, their solemn faces grim and set under their peaked caps, their belts snow white with pipeclay.
They approach the Cenotaph:
‘Platoon!’ roars the sergeant. ‘Eyes—right!’
He slaps his rifle butt, and the heads swing round.
The Cenotaph stands there with a wind pulling . . . pulling like fingers touching the Flag.
1. War has often been described in metaphors drawn from games, and during World War I British troops sometimes even kicked a ball to the opposing side as they launched an attack. But for many World War I soldiers, these metaphors seemed to distort the futility, anonymity, and mass death of modern combat. Compare the view of war as sporting event in Henry Newbolt’s “Vitaï Lampada,” Jessie Pope’s “The Call,” and the recruiting poster “The Army Isn’t All Work” with the skeptical critique of such representations in Wilfred Owen’s poem “Disabled” (NAEL 8, 2.1977).
2. Recruiting posters represented the war as public duty and patriotic defense, as does a poem such as Jessie Pope’s “The Call.” But compare Pope’s poem and World War I recruiting posters with Wilfred Owen’s poems “Dulce Et Decorum Est” (NAEL 8, 2.1974), which addresses Pope toward its end, and “Disabled” (NAEL 8, 2. 1977), which echoes in its last lines a 1914 recruiting poster that asked, “Will they never come?”
3. In his preface to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse and in his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” Yeats represents war as potentially heroic and ennobling. Contrast this view of war with depictions of the war’s fruitless waste and suffering in Siegfried Sassoon’s “A Soldier’s Declaration” and Wilfred Owen’s “S.I.W.” (NAEL 8, 2.1976). How do you explain these differences?
4. The Great War offered many new job opportunities for women that had long been denied them. According to Jessie Pope’s poem “War Girls” and the recruiting poster “We Need You, Redcross,” what forms of empowerment does the war afford women? Contrast the role women play in these works with the association of women with the defended nation in the poster “Women of Britain say—GO!” and Siegfried Sassoon’s “Glory of Women” (NAEL 8, 2.1962).
5. Artists, photographers, and writers attempted to convey the horror of trench warfare. Compare the trenches as seen in this topic’s paintings and photographs. What are the advantages and limitations of each medium? Compare, in turn, these visual representations of the trenches with a poem, such as Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” (NAEL 8, 2.1967), Sassoon’s “The Rear-Guard” (NAEL 8, 2.1961), or Owen’s “Strange Meeting” (NAEL 8, 2.1975–76). What can the written work convey that the visual representation cannot, and vice-versa?
6. “Modernism” is the term many scholars now give to the artistic movement dominant from just before World War I to the outbreak of World War II.
a. Compare the pre-war Imagist poems of H. D., T. E. Hulme, and Ezra Pound to the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, and Siegfried Sassoon. What differences do you notice in form and content? How would you explain these differences?
b. To what extent can we see the impact of the war and its aftermath in modernist works such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, especially sections I and III, or Ezra Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, in particular parts IV and V?
The war as seen on the “home front” and on the battlefront was quite different. What contrasts can you find between how the war is represented by soldiers and by civilians? Concentrate on one or two of the soldiers in the NAEL section “Voices from World War I,” such as Owen, Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Robert Graves, and David Jones, and one or two of the civilians who wrote about the war, such as May Wedderburn Cannan, Pope, Charlotte Mew, Yeats, or Pound. How might you also complicate these distinctions?
Once the scale of the Great War’s casualties became clear, many writers sought to assign blame for the tremendous loss of life. They attributed responsibility for the war to politicians, religious authorities, fathers, women, and a bankrupt civilization. Examine who is blamed for the war and why, in various works, including Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Sassoon’s “‘They’” (NAEL 8, 2.1960) and “Glory of Women” (NAEL 8, 2.1962), and Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” (NAEL 8, 2.1974) and “S.I.W.” (NAEL 8, 2.1976). How do these works attack, ironize, question, or taunt the people and institutions seen as guilty for the war?
Public memorials and national monuments serve as focal points of public mourning, and often create controversy both because of what they represent and what they omit. The Whitehall Cenotaph in London was designed by Sir Edward Lutyens in 1919 as a simple, temporary structure, but when public demand proved overwhelming, it was recast in Portland marble and made permanent in 1920. “Cenotaph” means “empty tomb,” and Remembrance Day in England is still celebrated around the Whitehall Cenotaph. Over time, this official monument has come to symbolize all those who died during the war, not just those whose bodies were never identified.
a. Read Charlotte Mew’s poem “Cenotaph” and Henry Morton’s journalistic account. In what ways do these two texts differ in their attempts to represent the memorial and to interpret its significance?
b. Like literary texts, public monuments provide meaning for events, and they create cultural memories that may or may not be accurate historical representations. Compare the illustrations of the cenotaph with the pictures of the Menin Gate, which is located near the cemeteries for the Battle of Passchendaele and bears the names of over 54,000 British soldiers killed in trenches nearby. What does each monument represent and how does it do so? Also compare Sassoon’s poem “On Passing the New Menin Gate” (NAEL 8, 2.1963). What differences do you see between the memories created by the Menin Gate, the cenotaph, and Sassoon’s poem?
2. Women writers represented the war in ways that were sometimes jingoistic and patriotic, sometimes conflicted and discordant.
a. Reread the last six lines of Charlotte Mew’s “Cenotaph” and consider how Mew’s poem ends with a series of discordant images. Describe the poem’s tone and its effect on Mew’s representation of the cenotaph. Contrast Mew’s poem with Pope’s “The Call.”
b. How and why are women blamed for the war in poems such as Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Sassoon’s “Glory of Women” (NAEL 8, 2.1962)?
Modernist information by Jahan Ramazani and Mogan Myers
The early part of the twentieth century saw massive changes in the everyday life of people in cities. The recent inventions of the automobile, airplane, and telephone shrank distances around the world and sped up the pace of life. Freud’s theory of the unconscious and infantile sexuality radically altered the popular understanding of the mind and identity, and the late-nineteenth-century thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche in different ways undermined traditional notions of truth, certainty, and morality. Theoretical science, meanwhile, was rapidly shifting from two-hundred-year-old Newtonian models to Einstein’s theory of relativity and finally to quantum mechanics.
At least partly in response to this acceleration of life and thought, a wave of aggressively experimental movements, sometimes collectively termed “modernist” because of their emphasis on radical innovation, swept through Europe. In Paris, the Spanish expatriate painter Pablo Picasso and the Frenchman Georges Braque developed cubism, a style of painting that abandoned realism and traditional perspective to fragment space and explode form. In Italy, the spokesperson for futurism, F. T. Marinetti, led an artistic movement that touched on everything from painting to poetry to cooking and encouraged an escape from the past into the rapid, energetic, mechanical world of the automobile, the airplane, and Marinetti’s own “aeropoetics.” Dadaists such as the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp, author of the ready-made Fountain (1917), a urinal, began a guerilla campaign against established notions of sense and the boundaries of what could be called art. In music, meanwhile, composers such as the Frenchman Claude Debussy and Russian-born Igor Stravinsky were beginning experiments with rhythm and harmony that would soon culminate in the outright atonality of composers such as the Austrians Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg.
In England, this outbreak of modernist experiment influenced a loosely interrelated network of groups and individuals, many of them based in London. In anglophone literature, “modernism” more nearly describes an era than a unitary movement. But what connects the modernist writers—aside from a rich web of personal and professional connections—is a shared desire to break with established forms and subjects in art and literature. Influenced by European art movements, many modernist writers rejected realistic representation and traditional formal expectations. In the novel, they explored the Freudian depths of their characters’ psyches through stream of consciousness and interior monologue. In poetry, they mixed slang with elevated language, experimented with free verse, and often studded their works with difficult allusions and disconnected images. Ironically, the success of modernism’s initially radical techniques eventually transformed them into the established norms that would be resisted by later generations.
Among the earliest groups to shape English-language modernism were the imagists, a circle of poets led initially by the Englishman T. E. Hulme and the American Ezra Pound, in the early 1910s. Imagist poetic doctrine included the use of plain speech, the preference for free verse over closed forms, and above all the creation of the vivid, hard-edged image. The first two of these tenets in particular helped to shape later modernism and have had a far-reaching impact on poetic practice in English. Shaped by Asian forms such as the haiku, the imagist poem tended to be brief and ephemeral, presenting a single striking image or metaphor (see “An Imagist Cluster” in NAEL). Pound soon dissociated himself from the movement, and the imagists—including the poets H. D., Richard Aldington, and John Gould Fletcher—continued to publish their annual anthology under the leadership of the American poet Amy Lowell.
Pound, meanwhile, went on to become a literary proponent of vorticism, an English movement in the visual arts led by the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis. The vorticists championed energy and life over what they saw as the turpitude of European society and sought to tap into or create the concentration of energies they dubbed a “vortex.” After having published only one issue of their now notorious journal Blast, the vorticists suddenly found their often violent rhetoric and their ambivalence about English national identity at odds with the real violence of World War I and the wartime climate of patriotism. The second issue of Blast—published behind schedule and dubbed a “war number”—declared the vorticists’ loyalty to England in the fight against German fascism on aesthetic grounds. It also announced the death in the trenches of one of the movement’s leading lights, the French-born sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. This loss and the general dispersal of the vorticists mark a major turning point for English modernism.
As modernism developed, the flashy, aggressive polemics of Lewis and Pound were replaced by the more reasoned, essayistic criticism of Pound’s friend and collaborator T. S. Eliot. Eliot’s Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses were technically innovative and initially controversial (Ulysses was banned in the United States and Great Britain), but their eventual acceptance as literary landmarks helped to bring modernism into the canon of English literature. In the decades to come, the massive influence of Eliot as a critic would transform the image of modernism into what Eliot himself called classicism, a position deeply rooted in a sense of the literary past and emphasizing the impersonality of the work of art.
In the post-World War II period, modernism became the institutionally approved norm against which later poetic movements, from the “Movement” of Philip Larkin to avant-garde Language Poetry, reacted. Nonetheless, the influence of modernism, both on those artists who have repudiated it and on those who have followed its direction, was pervasive. Joyce, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and other modernists provided compositional strategies still central to literature. Writers as diverse as W. H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott, and Salman Rushdie have all, in one way or another, continued to extend the discoveries of the modernist experiment—adapting modernist techniques to new political climates marked by the Cold War and its aftermath, as well as to the very different histories of formerly colonized nations. Like the early twentieth-century avant-garde in European art and music, meanwhile, literary modernism has continued to shape a sense of art as a form of cultural revolution that must break with established history, constantly pushing out the boundaries of artistic practice.
F. T. Marinetti, MANIFESTO OF FUTURISM
Let's Murder the Moonshine: Selected Writings, translated by R. W. Flint and Arthur A. Coppotelli (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Classics, 1991).
Italian poet and propagandist F. T. Marinetti wrote and published his manifesto, ironically, before any such futurist art existed, and his manifesto remains one of futurism’s most important and enduring works. In it, Marinetti calls for the destruction of the past as entombed in museums and celebrates the speed of modern technology.
- We intend to sing the love of danger, the habit of energy and fearlessness.
- Courage, audacity, and revolt will be essential elements of our poetry.
- Up to now literature has exalted a pensive immobility, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt aggressive action, a feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the punch and the slap.
- We affirm that the world’s magnificence has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes, like serpents of explosive breath - a roaring car that seems to ride on grapeshot is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace. >> note 1
- We want to hymn the man at the wheel, who hurls the lance of his spirit across the Earth, along the circle of its orbit.
- The poet must spend himself with ardour, splendour, and generosity, to swell the enthusiastic fervour of the primordial elements.
- Except in struggle, there is no more beauty. No work without an aggressive character can be a masterpiece. Poetry must be conceived as a violent attack on unknown forces, to reduce and prostrate them before man.
- We stand on the last promontory of the centuries!... Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We already live in the absolute, because we have created eternal, omnipresent speed.
- We will glorify war - the world’s only hygiene - militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.
- We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind, will fight moralism, feminism, every opportunistic or utilitarian cowardice.
- We will sing of great crowds excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multicoloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the vibrant nightly fervour of arsenals and shipyards blazing with violent electric moons; greedy railway stations that devour smoke-plumed serpents; factories hung on clouds by the crooked lines of their smoke; bridges that stride the rivers like giant gymnasts, flashing in the sun with a glitter of knives; adventurous steamers that sniff the horizon; deep-chested locomotives whose wheels paw the tracks like the hooves of enormous steel horses bridled by tubing; and the sleek flight of planes whose propellers chatter in the wind like banners and seem to cheer like an enthusiastic crowd.
It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting incendiary manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism, because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni and antiquarians. For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.
Museums: cemeteries!... Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurd abattoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously slaughtering each other with color-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls!
That one should make an annual pilgrimage, just as one goes to the graveyard on All Souls’ Day - that I grant. That once a year one should leave a floral tribute beneath the Gioconda >> note 2, I grant you that... But I don’t admit that our sorrows, our fragile courage, our morbid restlessness should be given a daily conducted tour through the museums. Why poison ourselves? Why rot?
And what is there to see in an old picture except the laborious contortions of an artist throwing himself against the barriers that thwart his desire to express his dream completely?... Admiring an old picture is the same as pouring our sensibility into a funerary urn instead of hurtling it far off, in violent spasms of action and creation.
Do you, then, wish to waste all your best powers in this eternal and futile worship of the past, from which you emerge fatally exhausted, shrunken, beaten down?
In truth I tell you that daily visits to museums, libraries, and academies (cemeteries of empty exertion, Calvaries of crucified dreams, registries of aborted beginnings!) are, for artists, as damaging as the prolonged supervision by parents of certain young people drunk with their talent and their ambitious wills. When the future is barred to them, the admirable past may be a solace for the ills of the moribund, the sickly, the prisoner... But we want no part of it, the past, we the young and strong Futurists!
So let them come, the gay incendiaries with charred fingers! Here they are! Here they are!... Come on! set fire to the library shelves! Turn aside the canals to flood the museums!... Oh, the joy of seeing the glorious old canvases bobbing adrift on those waters, discoloured and shredded!... Take up your pickaxes, your axes and hammers and wreck, wreck the venerable cities, pitilessly!
The oldest of us is thirty: so we have at least a decade for finishing our work. When we are forty, other younger and stronger men will probably throw us in the wastebasket like useless manuscripts - we want it to happen!
They will come against us, our successors, will come from far away, from every quarter, dancing to the winged cadence of their first songs, flexing the hooked claws of predators, sniffing doglike at the academy doors the strong odor of our decaying minds, which will have already been promised to the literary catacombs.
But we won’t be there... At last they’ll find us - one winter’s night - in open country, beneath a sad roof drummed by a monotonous rain. They’ll see us crouched beside our trembling aeroplanes in the act of warming our hands at the poor little blaze that our books of today will give out when they take fire from the flight of our images.
They’ll storm around us, panting with scorn and anguish, and all of them, exasperated by our proud daring, will hurtle to kill us, driven by a hatred the more implacable the more their hearts will be drunk with love and admiration for us.
Injustice, strong and sane, will break out radiantly in their eyes.
Art, in fact, can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice.
The oldest of us is thirty: even so we have already scattered treasures, a thousand treasures of force, love, courage, astuteness, and raw will-power; have thrown them impatiently away, with fury, carelessly, unhesitatingly, breathless, and unresting... Look at us! We are still untired! Our hearts know no weariness because they are fed with fire, hatred, and speed!... Does that amaze you? It should, because you can never remember having lived! Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl our defiance at the stars!
You have objections? - Enough! Enough! We know them... We’ve understood!... Our fine deceitful intelligence tells us that we are the revival and extension of our ancestors - Perhaps!... If only it were so! - But who cares? We don’t want to understand!... Woe to anyone who says those infamous words to us again!
Lift up your heads! Erect on the summit of the world, once again we hurl defiance to the stars!
Published in July of 1914, the first issue of Blast began with a lengthy, two-part manifesto signed by members of the vorticist group. It was drafted by Wyndham Lewis with help from Ezra Pound and involved the collaborative work of other members of the group. The manifesto stakes out the vorticist position through a series of aphoristic statements of principle, along with lists of people and things to be either “blasted” or “blessed.” The manifesto’s extravagant typography, influenced both by the futurists and by contemporary advertising, is one of its most striking features.
Wyndham Lewis, The Cubist Room
The English painter and writer Wyndham Lewis uses a review of a 1914 exhibit of contemporary art for the journal The Egoist as an opportunity to lay out a brief manifesto of modern English painting, namely vorticism, and to define the competing movements, cubism and futurism, for an English audience still becoming acquainted with them.
Futurism, one of the alternative terms for modern painting, was patented in Milan. It means the Present with the Past rigidly excluded, and flavoured strongly with H. G. Wells’ dreams of the dance of monstrous and arrogant Machinery, >> note 1 to the frenzied clapping of men’s hands. But futurism will never mean anything else, in painting, than the Art practised by the five or six Italian painters grouped beneath Marinetti’s influence. Gino Severini, >> note 2 the foremost of them, has for subject matter the night resorts of Paris. This, as subject matter, is obviously not of the future. For we all foresee in a century or so everybody being put to bed at 7 o’clock in the evening by a State Nurse. Therefore the Pan Pan at the Monaco will be, for Ginos of the Future, an archaistic experience.
Cubism means, chiefly, the art, superbly severe and so far morose, of those who have taken the genius of Cézanne as a starting point, and organised the character of the works he threw up in his indiscriminate and grand labour. It is the reconstruction of a simpler earth, left as choked and muddy fragments by him. Cubism includes much more than this, but the “cube” is implicit in that master’s painting.
To be done with terms and tags, post impressionism is an insipid and pointless name invented by a journalist, which has been naturally ousted by the better word “Futurism” in public debate on modern art.
This room is chiefly composed of works by a group of painters, consisting of Frederick Etchells, Cuthbert Hamilton, Edward Wadsworth, C. R. W. Levinson, and the writer of this foreword. These painters are not accidentally associated here, but form a vertigineous but not exotic island, in the placid and respectable archipelago of English art. This formation is undeniably of volcanic matter, and even origin; for it appeared suddenly above the waves following certain seismic shakings beneath the surface. It is very closely-knit and admirably adapted to withstand the imperturbable Britannic breakers which roll pleasantly against its sides.
Beneath the Past and the Future the most sanguine would hardly expect a more different skeleton to exist than that respectively of ape and man. Man with an aeroplane is still merely a bad bird. But a man who passes his days amid the rigid lines of houses, a plague of cheap ornamentation, noisy street locomotion, the Bedlam of the press, will evidently possess a different habit of vision to a man living amongst the lines of a landscape. As to turning the back, most wise men, Egyptians, Chinese or what not, have remained where they found themselves, their appetite for life sufficient to reconcile them, and allow them to create significant things. Suicide is the obvious course for the dreamer, who is a man without an anchor of sufficient weight.
The work of this group of artists for the most part underlines such geometric bases and structure of life, and they would spend their energies rather in showing a different skeleton and abstraction than formerly could exist than a different degree of hairiness or dress. All revolutionary painting to-day has in common the rigid reflections of steel and stone in the spirit of the artist; that desire for stability as though a machine were being built to fly or kill with; an alienation from the traditional photographer’s trade and realisation of the value of colour and form as such independently of what recognisable form it covers or encloses. People are invited, in short, to change entirely their idea of the painter’s mission, and penetrate, deferentially, with him into a transposed universe as abstract as, though different from, the musician’s.
I will not describe individually the works of my colleagues. In No. 165 of Edward D. Wadsworth; No. 161 of Cuthbert Hamilton; Nos. 169 and 181, of Etchells; No. 174 of Nevinson, they are probably best represented.
Hung in this room as well are three drawings by Jacob Epstein, the only great sculptor at present working in England. He finds in the machinery of procreation a dynamo to work the deep atavism of his spirit. Symbolically strident above his work, or in the midst of it, is, like the Pathe cock, a new-born baby, with a mystic but puissant crow. His latest work opens up a region of great possibilities, and new creation—David Bomberg’s painting of a platform, announces a colourist’s temperament, something between the cold blond of Severini’s earlier paintings and Vallotton. >> note 3 The form and subject matter are academic but the structure of the crisscross pattern new and extremely interesting.
Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, “Vortex Gaudier-Brzeska”
The sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was one of the most promising members of the vorticist group. Written from the trenches of France during World War I, his contribution to the second issue of Blast was tragically published alongside a notice of his death in combat. In his “vortex,” he continues to champion vorticist ideas of vitality and abstraction in spite of the violence of war around him.
(written from the trenches)
Note.—The Sculptor writes from the French trenches, having been in the firing line since early in the war.
In September he was one of a patrolling party of twelve, seven of his companions fell in the fight over a roadway.
In November he was nominated for sergeancy and has been since slightly wounded, but expects to return to the trenches.
He has been consistently employed in couting and patrolling and in the construction of wire entanglements in close contact with the Boches.
Mina Loy, “Brancusi’s Golden Bird”
The English-born poet and artist Mina Loy became involved with nearly every important avant-garde movement of the early part of the twentieth century—from surrealism and Dada to futurism—as she moved between the metropolitan centers of London, Paris, Florence, and New York. In the following poem, she describes a work by Constantin Brancusi, the Romanian-born French sculptor who was one of the pioneers of abstract art. The poem was published facing a picture of Brancusi’s sculpture in the same issue of the literary journal The Dial that also published T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.
- Poem: "Brancusi's Golden Bird" (PDF - 24k)
- Golden Bird, 1919/1920, Constantin Brancusi
- To learn more about the sculpture, visit this Art Institute of Chicago page.
1. Compare the fractured shapes and distorted perspectives of Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (NAEL plate C-17) with an anglo-modernist text, such as T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (NAEL 8, 2.2295) or James Joyce’s Ulysses (NAEL 8, 2.2200-39). What does modernist writing have in common with the visual arts of the time?
2. Compare the formal experimentation undertaken in Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) with that pursued by Picasso or Eliot. In his review of Stravinsky’s piece, Eliot calls Stravinsky “the greatest success since Picasso” and describes Le Sacre as fusing the modern and the prehistoric: it “seems to transform” primitive rhythms “into the scream of the motor horn, the rattle of machinery, the grind of wheels, the beating of iron and steel, the roar of the underground railway, and the other barbaric cries of modern life; and to transform these despairing noises into music.” Is this strategy similar to or different from the ones pursued by Picasso and Eliot in The Waste Land and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon?
3. The Blast manifesto instances some of the contradictory impulses of modernism: it is populist yet elitist, collective yet individualist, nationalist yet anti-nationalist, authoritarian yet progressive. Explore these and other tensions in the manifesto.
4. Compare the fin-de-siècle advertisements available in the Web Resources section with the visual style of Blast. How does a concern with self-promotion influence both the rhetoric and the style of this manifesto? Why would such self-promotion be important to a movement like vorticism?
5. Much of Blast enumerates various things, people, and ideas that the vorticists bless and blast. Compose your own version of Blast: What would you bless, and what would you blast? What do you learn from this experiment in updating the Blast manifesto?
6. Futurism influenced the vorticists, but the vorticists also declared their difference. Compare the vorticists’ stated aesthetic principles, particularly in Blast, with F. T. Marinetti’s futurist manifesto. Compare also the work of vorticist artists, such as Wyndham Lewis, Edward Wadsworth, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, with that of the continental futurists, such as Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini. What are the differences and similarities between the two movements? Why do you think the vorticists were so eager to distinguish themselves from the futurists?
7. One way in which the vorticists tried to distinguish themselves from the futurists was by criticizing the futurists’ rejection of the past; yet modernist declarations such as Blast often called for as radical a break with the past as did F. T. Marinetti’s futurist manifesto. Modernist works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land have extraordinarily complex relationships to the European literary tradition. In what ways do writers like Joyce and Eliot break with traditional literature? In what ways do they make use of or pay homage to it?
8. In his “Vortex. Gaudier-Brzeska,” how does Gaudier-Brzeska attempt to reconcile vorticist principles initially meant to shake up complacency during a time of peace to the very different situation of warfare? How does he use vorticist aesthetics to explain the violence of war, as well as his own reactions to the objects around him?
9. Modernist poetry drew inspiration from contemporaneous movements in the visual arts such as cubism and futurism. The creative use of typography, as well as the emphasis on the image, accentuated the visual element of poetry. At the same time, Ezra Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste” (NAEL 8, 2.2003) emphasizes the musical qualities of free verse and famously calls for composition “in the sequence of a musical phrase, not in the sequence of a metronome.” Such analogies both to painting and to music proliferate in modernist theories and descriptions of poetry. How do imagist poets such as T. E. Hulme, Pound, and H. D. reconcile these competing demands—the demand for the painterly image, on the one hand, and for the musical cadence, on the other? Does an imagist poem, such as Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (NAEL 8, 2.2008) or H. D.’s “Oread” (NAEL 8, 2.2008), appeal more to the ear or to the eye?
10. Mina Loy’s poem “Brancusi’s Golden Bird” offers a striking example of the interrelations between avant-garde visual art and modernist literature. Compare Loy’s poem with Brancusi’s bird sculpture. How does she approximate the abstraction and other qualities of Brancusi’s work in her poem? Are there notable differences as well between these visual and poetic works of art?
11. Despite the importance of women such as H. D., Amy Lowell, Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein to modernist literature, women writers in English produced few manifestos of the kind that drove movements like futurism and vorticism. In fact, these avant-garde manifestos were sometimes misogynistic; F. T. Marinetti’s futurist manifesto directly scorns feminism. How does Mina Loy attempt to adapt a futurist-style rhetoric to a pro-feminist program for social change in her “Feminist Manifesto” (in NAEL 8, 2.2015)? How do her social goals connect with and break from those outlined by Marinetti? How does her manifesto differ from the Blast manifesto?
Imaging Ireland by Jahan Ramazani and Omaar Hena
Easter 1916 to the Troubles
Europe’s former colonies struggled often violently for political sovereignty as nation-states. Ireland, Britain’s oldest former colony, was one of the first to fight for its independence in the first half of the twentieth century. In addition to the creation of a new government, Ireland’s struggle for independence entailed creating new ideas about Irish national identity through literature and the arts. This Norton Online Topic explores how twentieth-century Irish writers attempted to re-imagine Ireland, particularly during two periods of crisis: in the aftermath of the Easter Rebellion in 1916 and the later outbreaks of sectarian violence from 1969 (known as the Troubles) in Northern Ireland.
The 1916 Easter Rising grew out of Irish political and cultural nationalism and the desire for political sovereignty in Ireland. The growing resentment over the British control of Ireland led a secret revolutionary group known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) to plan to take over Dublin on Easter Sunday, April 23, 1916.
On the day after Easter, Monday, April 24, 1916, a group of Irish leaders (including Thomas Clarke, Padraic Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, and James Connolly) and about 1,600 Irish rebels, both men and women, took over several buildings and streets in the center of Dublin. On the steps of the General Post Office in Dublin, Pearse issued a Proclamation of Ireland’s independence from British rule, announcing the birth of the Republic of Ireland and the institution of a provisional government. Five days later, with much of Dublin’s city-center in ruins and aflame, the leaders were forced to surrender to a much larger British military force. In the ensuing weeks, fifteen of the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed by firing squad. At the time of the Easter Rising many Irish people were skeptical of the rebels’ efforts to force the British Empire from Ireland. But after the swift execution and mass imprisonment of the Irish rebels, the public became more fervently nationalist, opposing the British presence in Ireland. As a result, the leaders of the Rising became martyrs within the public imagination.
The Easter Rising challenged modern Irish writers to re-imagine the Irish nation and national identity. Irish writers criticized the tyranny of British colonialism and shared the hope for an independent Ireland. Yet they also depicted the dangers of Irish nationalism, including its connections with armed violence, with cultural exclusion and racism, and, especially, with the ethic of blood sacrifice. In different ways, both W. B. Yeats’s poem “Easter, 1916” and Sean O’Casey’s play The Plough and the Stars ask skeptical questions about a violent Irish nationalism, even as they imagine an Ireland free from colonial rule.
Many Irish writers have figured the Irish nation as a woman to be fought for, as in the Easter 1916 Proclamation: “Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for her freedom.” Since the rise of feminism in the 1960s, contemporary Irish women writers such as Eavan Boland (NAEL) have attempted to revise this image of Ireland as woman—both to bear witness to real Irish women’s oppression and to criticize how the long history of British colonialism has limited Irish conceptions of gender and nationality.
Though Ireland gained national independence in 1922, the island of Ireland is not politically united. The twenty-six counties that comprise most of the island form the Republic of Ireland; the largely Catholic Republic (called only “Ireland”) is fully independent from British rule. The six counties forming Northern Ireland are still under British control, and they constitute a separate political entity. Northern Ireland is also religiously divided between a Roman Catholic minority and an Ulster Protestant majority, and Ulster Protestants have historically had more political and economic power than Northern Irish Catholics. The combination of political and economic inequality and religious differences between these two groups has contributed to the waves of political and sectarian violence, or Troubles, since the late 1960s.
The Troubles began when civil rights marches by Northern Irish Catholics for equal housing, voting, and economic rights were forcibly broken up by the Northern Irish police, or Royal Ulster Constabulary. On Sunday, January 30, 1972, during a demonstration against the unlawful imprisonment of Catholics, British soldiers fatally shot thirteen unarmed demonstrators and wounded another fourteen. “Bloody Sunday” inflamed Northern Irish Catholics and led in the 1970s and ‘80s to increased armed conflict between Catholic and Protestant paramilitary groups, frequent bombings, the deployment of more British troops and tanks to the streets of Northern Ireland, and the illegal internment of Catholics suspected of paramilitary ties. By the 1990s, however, political leaders from both sides (including Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein and John Hume of the Social Democratic and Labour Party) began a series of talks to end the conflict in Northern Ireland. With the help of other Northern Irish leaders, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and U.S. President Bill Clinton, these talks culminated in the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998. This document effectively gives Northern Irish people the power to implement and run their own government apart from Westminster, London. The following month, the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly passed by referendum the Good Friday Agreement. Despite the passing of the Agreement and the IRA announcement of a ceasefire in 1994, the political climate in Northern Ireland remains tense.
Like earlier modern Irish writers, contemporary Northern Irish writers have also felt compelled to respond to the Troubles in order to re-imagine Northern Ireland. The frequency and intensity of the Troubles have placed new pressures and raised new questions for Northern Irish writers. How, for instance, can a Northern Irish writer illustrate the disturbing nature of political violence without sensationalizing it? Can literature effectively offer consolation in the face of such atrocities? How can national unity and inclusiveness be imagined amidst ongoing cultural, political, and religious divisions? In works that range from elegy to farce, these are among the questions grappled with by writers of different political and religious communities, including Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon, Michael Longley, Fiona Barr, and a London-born writer of Irish parentage, Martin McDonagh.
The bloody events of the 1916 Easter Rising and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, both historical outgrowths of British colonialism, have had a lasting impact on how Irish and Northern Irish writers imagine the nation. Irish writers such as Yeats, James Joyce, and O’Casey were among the century’s earliest postcolonial subjects to forge, question, and critique the meaning of the Irish nation and national identity. Yeats and Joyce have influenced postcolonial writers from countries that gained independence later in the century, such as Salman Rushdie (India), Derek Walcott (St. Lucia), and Chinua Achebe (Nigeria). Contemporary Irish, Northern Irish, and Irish diaspora writers such as Heaney, Longley, Muldoon, Boland, Barr, and McDonagh continue to make sense of the still-present history of British colonialism, the fact and meaning of sectarian and political violence, and they sometimes even glimpse hope for peace and reconciliation.
“Easter 1916 Proclamation of an Irish Republic”
In 1916, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (forerunners of the Irish Republican Army) decided they would wait no longer for long-delayed British legislation to grant Ireland Home Rule. A force of about 1,600 rebels mounted what would come to be known as the Easter Rising. They took over key buildings, centered on the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, Dublin. On Easter Monday, Padraic Pearse, head of a Provisional Government of the Irish Republic, read from the steps of the General Post Office the following proclamation that he and his colleagues had written.
The proclamation, a revolutionary political document for its time, announces the birth of a sovereign, self-determined Irish Republic based on the ideals of liberty and equality for all Irish people, both men and women. It also invokes the rebel-leaders’ ethic of blood sacrifice.
Easter 1916 Proclamation of an Irish Republic
Poblacht Na h-Eireann
The Provisional Government
To the People of Ireland
IRISHMEN AND IRISHWOMEN: In the name of God and of the dead generations from which she receives her old tradition of nationhood, Ireland, through us, summons her children to her ﬂag and strikes for her freedom.
Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionaryorganisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, and through her open militaryorganisations, the Irish Volunteers and the Irish Citizen Army, having patientlyperfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to revealitself, she now seizes that moment, and supported by her exiled children inAmerica and by gallant allies in Europe, >> note 1 but relying in the ﬁrst on her ownstrength, she strikes in full conﬁdence of victory.
We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and tothe unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible. Thelong usurpation of that right by a foreign people and government has notextinguished the right, nor can it ever be extinguished except by the destructionof the Irish people. In every generation the Irish people have asserted their rightto national freedom and sovereignty; six times during the past three hundredyears they have asserted it in arms. Standing on that fundamental right andagain asserting it in arms in the face of the world, we hereby proclaim the IrishRepublic as a Sovereign Independent State, and we pledge our lives and thelives of our comrades in arms to the cause of its freedom, of its welfare, and ofits exaltation among the nations.
The Irish Republic is entitled to, and hereby claims, the allegiance of everyIrishman and Irishwoman. The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty,equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve topursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts,cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of thedifferences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided aminority from the majority in the past.
Until our arms have brought the opportune moment for the establishment of apermanent National Government, representative of the whole people of Irelandand elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, the ProvisionalGovernment, hereby constituted, will administer the civil and military affairs ofthe Republic in trust for the people.
We place the cause of the Irish Republic under the protection of the Most HighGod, Whose blessing we invoke upon our arms, and we pray that no one whoserves that cause will dishonour it by cowardice, inhumanity, or rapine. In thissupreme hour the Irish nation must, by its valour and discipline, and by thereadiness of its children to sacriﬁce themselves for the common good, proveitself worthy of the august destiny to which it is called.
Michael Longley, “Ceasefire”
Northern Irish poet Michael Longley, born in Belfast in 1939 to a Protestant family, first published “Ceasefire” in an Irish newspaper just a day before the 1994 IRA ceasefire. Longley distances the immediacy of the Troubles in this poem by imagining a scene from Homer’s Iliad, particularly the moment of reconciliation between Agamemnon and Achilles after the slaying of Hector.
Ceaseﬁre >> note 1
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness ﬁlled the building.
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’
“Declaration of Support” from “The Good Friday Agreement”
“The Good Friday Agreement” was signed by most of Northern Ireland’s political parties in Belfast on April 10, 1998 and passed by referendum by voters in Ireland and Northern Ireland in May. “The Declaration of Support” (the first page of the Agreement) announces a “new beginning” for Northern Ireland by establishing the commitment by both political groups (British Unionist and Irish Nationalist) to self-governance and to resolving political and cultural differences by “exclusively democratic and peaceful means.” John Hume and David Trimble, two principle creators of “The Agreement,” both won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998.
DECLARATION OF SUPPORT
1. We, the participants in the multi-party negotiations, believe that the agreement we have negotiated offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning.
2. The tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. We must never forget those who have died or been injured, and their families. But we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all.
3. We are committed to partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.
4. We reaffirm our total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise.
5. We acknowledge the substantial differences between our continuing, and equally legitimate, political aspirations. However, we will endeavour to strive in every practical way towards reconciliation and rapprochement within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements. We pledge that we will, in good faith, work to ensure the success of each and every one of the arrangements to be established under this agreement. It is accepted that all of the institutional and constitutional arrangements - an Assembly in Northern Ireland, a North/South Ministerial Council, implementation bodies, a British-Irish Council and a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and any amendments to British Acts of Parliament and the Constitution of Ireland - are interlocking and interdependent and that in particular the functioning of the Assembly and the North/South Council are so closely inter-related that the success of each depends on that of the other.
6. Accordingly, in a spirit of concord, we strongly commend this agreement to the people, North and South, for their approval.
1. Compare the Easter 1916 Proclamation with Yeats’s poem about the Easter Rising, “Easter, 1916” (NAEL 8, 2.2031). What are the differences between how the two texts represent the Irish nationalist struggle? What is the significance of these differences? Are there similarities as well?
2. Modern Irish writers supported Irish political independence but asked whether it should come at the price of Irish lives. How does Sean O’Casey represent Padraic Pearse’s call for blood sacrifice? Compare the excerpt from the second act of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars with the Easter 1916 Proclamation’s injunction that the Irish must “sacrifice themselves for the common good.” How does O’Casey contextualize Pearse’s fiery rhetoric? Is there a relationship, for example, between the prostitute Rosie’s approach to the Covey and the effect of Pearse’s oratory on Peter and Fluther?
3. The rise of Irish nationalism after the Easter Rising placed considerable demands on Irish writers to produce works that remember the Rising as heroic and that support the cause of Irish independence. How do Yeats in “Easter, 1916” (NAEL 8, 2.2031) and Sean O’Casey in The Plough and the Stars remember the Rising? How do they negotiate the demands of Irish nationalism and their own skepticism? What evidence can you find that they perceived Irish nationalism as liberating, constraining, or both?
4. The immediacy and frequency of violence throughout the Troubles have forced Northern Irish writers to ask how to respond to such violence. Is a writer’s role to offer explanation and reportage, consolatory language and expressions of grief, or further questions? Should the violence be represented directly or indirectly, as heroic or wasteful, as necessary or arbitrary? Consider how Northern Irish poets, in particular, respond to the Troubles: see Seamus Heaney’s “The Grauballe Man,” “Punishment,” and “Casualty” (NAEL 8, 2.2825–30), and Paul Muldoon’s “Meeting the British” and “Gathering Mushrooms” (NAEL 8, 2.2869–71). If you were a writer living in the midst of political violence, how would you respond?
5. A visitor to Northern Ireland might notice how much the history of the Troubles is on display through murals on city streets. The protagonist of Fiona Barr’s short story “The Wall-Reader” is fascinated by the murals. But she learns, as have many Northern Irish people, that speaking to people on the other side of the Protestant/Catholic divide can be dangerous. How does Barr suggest both the longing for uninhibited communication and the dangers of speech amid the political turmoil of the North? What is the role of language in both crossing sectarian divisions and in reinforcing them?
6. Martin McDonagh’s play The Lieutenant of Inishmore uses humor in representing the violence of the conflict in Northern Ireland. In the first scenes of the play, how does McDonagh use humorous juxtapositions to draw out the absurdities of fanatical devotion to a political cause? How, why, and to what effect does he include comedy in his representation of torture and strife in the North?
7. Compare how early-twentieth Irish writers, such as Yeats and O’Casey, represent the Easter Rising, with how later twentieth-century writers, such as Heaney or Muldoon, Barr or McDonagh, represent the Troubles. Are there significant continuities and contrasts? What do you make of these?
8. Many Irish and Northern Irish writers have felt a deep responsibility to represent the nation. Sometimes, though, two different kinds of “representation”—political and imaginative—are at odds with one another for Irish writers. On the one hand, Irish writers speak for the nation through their texts, and critics sometimes read their words as political speech. On the other hand, these texts are artistic creations and imaginative representations, which may not correspond to popular Irish political opinions. Consider how the texts by any of the writers featured here join together, separate, or negotiate their political and imaginative representations of Ireland.
9. The creation and passage of “The Good Friday Agreement” by Irish and Northern Irish people represented a turning point in the history of the Troubles. Northern Irish writers have also worked artistically to aid the peace process. Compare how Michael Longley’s “Ceasefire” and “The Declaration of Support” from “The Good Friday Agreement” imagine and hope for eventual peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.