Literary Modernism In The Literature Of The First World War

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“Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected,” Paul Fussell wrote in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” his classic study of the English literature of the First World War. “But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since.” The ancient verities of honor and glory were still standing in 1914 when England’s soldier-poets marched off to fight in France. Those young men became modern through the experience of trench warfare, if not in the forms they used to describe it. It was Yeats, Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Lawrence who invented literary modernism while sitting out the war. Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden, Isaac Rosenberg, and Wilfred Owen—who all fought in the trenches and, in the last two cases, died there—remained tied to the conventions of the nineteenth century while trying to convey the unprecedented horror of industrial warfare, a condition of existence so murderous and absurd that a romantic or heroic attitude became impossible. The essence of modern understanding is irony, Fussell argued, and it was born on the Western Front.

Fussell wasn’t wrong about the Great War, but, in his insistence on its newness, he underestimated the staying power of military myths for each generation. Fussell cited a newspaper story about a London man who killed himself out of concern that he might not be accepted for service in the Great War, and noted, “How can we forbear condescending to the eager lines at the recruiting stations or smiling at
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