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date: 30 July 2021


Abstract and Keywords

This chapter introduces war poetry, which has internal tensions that are usually overlooked. It shows that this activity suggests both destruction (war) and creation (writing a poem) and contains binary oppositions, especially life and death. The chapter also examines the claims and thoughts of Theodor Adorno, Louis MacNeice, and Ivor Gurney with regards to war poetry and art.

Keywords: war poetry, internal tensions, binary oppositions, Theodor Adorno, Louis MacNeice, Ivor Gurney

The term ‘war poetry’ has become so familiar that its internal tensions often go unnoticed. Yet it seems hard to imagine two human activities more unlike each other than experiencing a war and writing a poem. One suggests destruction, the other creation; one chaos, the other order; one pain, the other pleasure. War poetry accommodates binary oppositions, most notably life and death: if poetry is, as Louis MacNeice claims, ‘always positive’, so that even ‘a poem in praise of suicide is an act of homage to life’,1 then a war poem must be at war with itself, its affirming flame illuminating a dark subject-matter. Some critics, such as John Lyon in this present volume, consider the mismatch to be fatal: better to fall silent than to write a poem which, by making formal sense out of war's violent nonsense, betrays the facts. Truth is a weapon to which soldier-poets during the twentieth century often lay claim. Nevertheless, according to its detractors, war poetry may be true neither to war nor to poetry.

Theodor Adorno, the modern philosopher most often associated with these debates (and not merely because of what he is supposed to have said about poetry after Auschwitz), raises a similar concern in relation to Holocaust art: ‘The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it.’2 Adorno's mistake is to idealize art: his ‘so-called’ has already judged the case, disqualifying as unworthy of the name any art which refuses to behave as decorously as he would wish. Adorno ignores the horrific possibility that delight (p. 2) is an essential component of sympathy. But the best war poets always know that they involve themselves in a monstrous negotiation between artistic pleasure and human suffering, and that there is readerly enjoyment to be elicited from a choking gas-victim or a three-week-dead enemy corpse. War poetry is attracted to pain, and makes artistic capital out of it; after all, as David Bromwich pithily argues, ‘what is simply repellent simply repels’.3 Small wonder that so much war poetry should be guilt-ridden. When a distraught fellow soldier tells Ivor Gurney how he had heard in the distance the ‘infernal, silly’ call of a cuckoo as he held a dying friend in his arms, the poet finally repents of having sensed an opportunity: ‘I became aware of shame at the unholy joy that had filled my artist's mind.’4 Gurney's awareness is conspicuous because, for once, the shame seems to have won out. A war poem represents the partial victory of unholy joy over shame.

MacNeice's grandiose (and, it ought to be confessed, almost meaningless) claim that art is necessarily a homage to life therefore requires careful revision. The war poem pays homage only to the impulse which, against all odds and at whatever cost, produced it. During the First World War, Owen, Gurney, and Sassoon wrote poems explicitly stating the need to forget events on which the poems themselves dwell: ‘I try not to remember these things now,’5 Owen states in ‘The Sentry’, having just lingered lovingly over them. He writes the poem as if against his own volition, not only to create a drama of self-sacrifice, but because he wants to distance himself from unholy motives: like the Ancient Mariner, he is (apparently) compelled to repeat a story from which he wishes to be freed. He cannot be seen to profit, and must even suffer for his art. Yet, although a war poem may seek to justify itself as a warning, or a bearing witness, or an act of compassion or catharsis or redress, its primary motivation is to celebrate (even, as in Owen's case, at the expense of healing) its own achievement.

Gurney's ‘unholy joy’ is especially apt to describe the war poet's enterprise, because, like ‘war poetry’ itself, it verges on the oxymoronic, oxymoron being the natural figure for a poetry which binds opposites. This understanding is not confined to the soldier-poets. Yeats's refrain in ‘Easter, 1916’—‘A terrible beauty is born’6 —comments on the changed world of Irish politics, but it is also self-reflexive: the poem is the terrible beauty, born out of the suppression of the Easter Rising. War poetry, like Holocaust art of the kind Adorno attacks, beautifies the terrible. One may cavil at Yeats's deliberate provocation, in an essay on J. M. Synge, (p. 3) that ‘All noble things are the result of warfare’,7 but the essays in this Handbook offer eloquent testimony to the extent to which modern poetry (and art more widely) is indebted to war. This may be ‘terrible’ to accept; yet, when Seamus Heaney quotes Coventry Patmore's belief that ‘The end of art is peace’,8 such an admirable vision does not seem altogether enticing. For who, among the many poets studied by the contributors to this collection of essays, would ever want art to end? (p. 4)


(1) Louis MacNeice, ‘Broken Windows or Thinking Aloud’, in Selected Prose of Louis MacNeice, ed. Alan Heuser (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 138.

(2) Theodor Adorno, ‘Commitment’, trans. Francis McDonagh, in Ernst Bloch et al., Aesthetics and Politics (London: NLB, 1977), 189.

(3) David Bromwich, ‘How Moral Is Taste?’, in Skeptical Music: Essays on Modern Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), 240.

(4) Ivor Gurney to Catherine Abercrombie, ? June 1916, in Collected Letters, ed. R. K. R. Thornton (Ashington and Manchester: MidNag/Carcanet, 1991), 91.

(5) Wilfred Owen, ‘The Sentry’, in The Complete Poems and Fragments, i: The Poems, ed. Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto & Windus, Hogarth Press, and Oxford University Press, 1983), 188.

(6) William Butler Yeats, ‘Easter, 1916’, in The Poems, ed. Daniel Albright (London: Dent, 1990), 228–30.

(7) Yeats, ‘J. M. Synge and the Ireland of His Time’, in Essays and Introductions (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1961), 321.

(8) Seamus Heaney, ‘The Harvest Bow’, in Opened Ground: Poems 1966–1996 (London: Faber, 1998), 184.