20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 2: The 30s

 
     
     

 

 

 

CONTENTS
Introduction
  the first world war
  the 1930s
This Excellent Machine 
Port Bou  GO
Newsreel  GO
Here War Is Simple  GO
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voices


This Excellent Machine by John Lehmann

This excellent machine is neatly planned.
A child, a half-wit would not feel perplexed:
No chance to err, you simply press the button -
At once each cog in motion moves the next,
The whole revolves, and anything that lives
Is quickly sucked towards the running band,
Where, shot between the automatic knives,
It's guaranteed to finish dead as mutton.

This excellent machine will illustrate
The modern world divided into nations:
So neatly planned, that if you merely tap it
The armaments will start their devastations,
And though we're for it, though we're all convinced
Some fool will press the button soon or late,
We stand and stare, expecting to be minced -
And very few are asking 'Why not scrap it?'



   

INFORMATION

   


'excellent machine': it's probably not important to know more than that it is automatic and lethal (and 'excellent' is used ironically)
'half-wit': a person with learning difficulties (the word is no longer used)
'running band': conveyor belt
'for it': in the sense of 'doomed to die' (though the sense 'in favour of it' lurks beneath: the machine is a man-made invention which someone had approved)

   

HISTORY

   


In Europe it was clear by the early 1930s (this poem was published in 1932) that the First World War was not going to be 'the war to end war' after all. The treaty that had ended it had created problems, not solved them, and there was friction between many nations. John Lehmann, a writer who went on to become a publisher of other modern writers, was in a good position to sense the mood of the times in Britain and Europe: his home was in London and in the early 1930s he also spent a lot of time in the capital of Austria, Vienna. He was familiar with a growing sense of doom expressed by many writers - such as Louis MacNeice in 1934:

Having bitten on life like a sharp apple
Or, playing it like a fish, been happy,

Having felt with fingers that the sky is blue,
What have we after that to look forward to?

Not the twilight of the gods but a precise dawn
Of sallow and grey bricks, and newsboys crying war.

Other features of the 1930s:
- world wide economic crises, increase in number of unemployed, and widening of the gap between rich and poor
- in Europe, strong commitment to extreme political groups (socialist, communist, fascist) in the hope that they would improve the situation
- increasing breakdowns in international relations, from Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the start of the second World War
- new growth of the peace movement
- rearmament and renewed technological development of weapons of war

   

IDEAS

 

 

 

The war machine is, of course, the subject of this poem, and the poet chose a direct, casual, black-humorous manner to point out a bitter truth: we had created a killing machine that could and would kill us. War could now be waged on a huge scale, making full use of new technology. War had become an industry (and the powerful managers of industry relied on it for their profits). Poets now needed metaphors not only for war but for the organisation, efficiency and inventiveness now being devoted to it. John Lehmann also wanted to show how the war machine was so little in people's control that they felt incapable of getting it dismantled. He was writing 70 years ago; has anything changed?

It's interesting that the poet imagined a 'fool' starting up the machine! The people who have the power to do so are usually the leaders of government or commanders of armed forces, and the tone of the poem suggests such people may well be fools. But the machine can be set in motion by other individuals too. How responsible for war was the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914? Or any terrorist, armed activist or suicide bomber today? And how should we tackle the inhumanity that leads some people to think of efficient methods of mass destruction as 'excellent'?

 
            
     

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