20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 3: The Second World War

 
     
     

 

 

 

CONTENTS
Introduction
  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
Judging Distances  GO
How to Kill  GO
A Front  GO
Cleator Moor  GO
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voices

Introduction

'The two world wars were destructive beyond measure, and they spread right across the globe.... Future historians must look back on the 3 decades between August 1914 and May 1945 as the era when Europe took leave of its senses. Totalitarian horrors and the horrors of total war created an unequalled sum of death, misery and degradation. When choosing the symbols to represent the human experience of those years, one can hardly choose anything other than the agents of 20th century death: the tank, the bomber, the gas canister, the trenches, the tombs of unknown soldiers, the death camps, and the mass graves.' (historian Norman Davies)

'Before the war I was an engineer on the design team for a new bomber. I heard about pacifism and I saw straight away that it was right. So I set about thinking what I should do. I wanted to help ordinary people, so I became a chiropractor. I changed my profession from bombers to bodies, you might say - from potential destructive power to the power of healing.... The idea of refusing to fight must be kept alive.' (conscientious objector Ronald Rice) [Link to Conscientious Objection]

'You can say the words "death and destruction" and they don't mean anything. But they're awful words when you are looking at what they mean... All around was the usual riffraff: papers, tin cans, cartridge belts, helmets, an odd shoe. There were also, ignored and unhuman, the hard-frozen corpses of Germans. Then a clump of houses, burned and gutted, and around them the enormous bloated bodies of cattle....You've seen places like this in the newsreels. They're spread over Europe and one forgets the human misery and fear and despair that they represent.' (journalist Martha Gellhorn)

'I was never a soldier, only a civilian in uniform...Death always had to be heroic, for a great cause and founded in belief. And what is it really? It means to perish like cattle from cold and starvation - just another biological process. Mutilated men are dying here like flies, and no-one even takes the trouble to bury them. Someone ought to film it, just to discredit the "Noblest Form of Death". It's a filthy way of dying - and doubtless it will be glorified on granite pedestals in the shape of dying warriors with their heads in bandages and their arms in slings.' (From a letter written by a German conscript trapped in the siege of Stalingrad) [link to Memorials]

In the end it is stories of individual experience that convey most to a reader, and the poets of the time knew that, as the poems that follow demonstrate. Henry Reed wrote about his own military training, and reveals how war kills the spirit. Keith Douglas wrote about his own experience of killing - one of the first poems of its kind - and shows how war kills conscience. Randall Jarrell wrote about his experience in the US Air Force, and sadly highlights the wastefulness of war. Norman Nicholson wrote about his own neighbourhood in wartime, and the way war draws people into its deadly service.

As WW2 got under way the newspapers asked 'Where are the war poets?' Most of those who gave the papers what they wanted (poems like 'For the Fallen' - see Part 1) sank without trace after 1945, and many never wrote again. The war, said C Day Lewis (see Part 2), was 'no subject for immortal verse'. Most of the serious poetry of the time attended to other things, but did not exclude the images and details of war: black-out curtains, barrage balloons, 'the patch you sewed on my old battledress', newsboys delivering, to 'peaceful steps, reports of last night's battles', the army tent, the letter from home, 'the tense eye and the tired mind'. What's also noticeable in poems written during the war are words of exhausted numbness and detachment. A man whose son has just been killed in the Blitz looks with 'an indifferent eye', hears bomb-thuds 'impassively'. Another, stuck in an army encampment waiting for rain to stop, tells how the men think of 'the loud celebrities exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees' but think of them
...'as indifferently
As of ourselves or those whom we
For years have loved, and will again
Tomorrow maybe love; but now it is the rain
Possesses us entirely.'
Keith Douglas said, grimly, 'To be sentimental or emotional now is dangerous to oneself and others'. War kills more than bodies.

And now, in the 21st century? Most of Norman Davies' ominous symbols of 20th century human experience are still with us, still potent; and what other menacing ones have been added to the list since 1945?

            
     

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