The first World War: “Never such innocence again”
The Great War transformed our understanding of war, forcing writers to describe the world in new ways, and in a new language
WB Yeats – “I think it better that in times like these/ A poet’s mouth be silent ...”
“Never such innocence again”
In his poem “MCMXIV”, looking back on the first World War two decades later, Philip Larkin writes of it as the destruction of innocence and illusions and, in essence, the passage from one era to another. This was so not only in the sense of a transformation of our understanding of the nature of war and of the horrors that man could inflict on man in the first war of industrial killing, nor in the sense of the lifting of the veil on the nature of empires and ruling classes and the ideas that sustained them. As Robert Graves wrote in “Recalling War”:
War was return of earth to ugly earth,
War was foundering of sublimities,
Extinction of each happy art and faith
By which the world has still kept head in air
The banishing of innocence was also epitomised in once arch-imperialist Rudyard Kipling’s bitter, belated reflection:
If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
But it was also reflected in new ways of describing the world, writing in a new way, in a new language. The revolutions in social and gender relations, and the national uprisings that this extraordinary decade ushered in were echoed in the world of thinking, art, science, and of writing, both in its content and form. The war was an opening of a window, a catalyst and tipping point.
This supplement is the seventh in our commemorative “Century” series. It celebrates that tipping point in literature, as we have marked other turning points in the decade that shaped modern Ireland, by looking at how our unique historical circumstances, not least our own looming revolution, shaped artistic responses here both to the War and to the international literary currents. And, as Suzanne Lynch writes, specifically in the form of modernism, and our own James Joyce, bringing the ultimate reshaping of the written word.
Fintan O’Toole and Gerald Dawe acknowledge how some of our most important writers and poets responded by writing about the war – or avoiding writing about the war – with an uncomfortable ambivalence that clearly reflected the national unease about our participation. Yeats’s dismissive
I think it better that in times like these
A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right [.]
was surely a harbinger of the collective national amnesia and reproach that many veterans would find on their return and which would see such works as O’Casey’s The Silver Tassie eclipsed, or writers like Graves and CS Lewis dismissed as British. “The war didn’t just disappear from Irish writing – it was repressed,” O’Toole argues.
Writers who went to fight and grappled with the reality of war, like Francis Ledwidge – as Gerard Smyth records – and “navy poet” Patrick MacGill in recent years have seen their proper place in the canon restored. “Ireland, poetry and the first World War,” Dawe writes, “is a story of contradictions, of contrasts and, a century later, of reconciliation.”
That doubt about the political and moral purpose of the war, and the sense of apartness many nationalists who enlisted would later feel, is movingly reflected in Tom Kettle’s “To my daughter Betty”:
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor king, nor emperor . . .
The “fools” would wait for generations until the new State and its people found the confidence to acknowledge their honourable place in our country’s story and to see, as Lord Dunsany had foreseen, “Due honours paid to you by juster men”. Writers have in recent years, as Eileen Battersby explores, played an important part in that disinterring of their forgotten and untold story.
Battersby and Lara Marlowe also reflect on two first World War writers, Erich Maria Remarque and Guillaume Apollinaire, who have a particular meaning to them, while Ronan McGreevy hums a few unforgettable songs. Patrick Smyth