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Modernism as a literary genre began sometime before the First World War. It was, however, in the fires of this great conflict that the genre was forged and adopted its characteristics of disorientation and disconnection. The development of modernism can be traced in the poetry written during The Great War and the short story of “The Prussian Officer” written sometime afterwards.
England entered World War I on August 4, 1914, with a sense of optimism and pride (Worldwar-1.net). With “altruistic notions of gallantry and fair play,” an entire generation of men took to the battlefields of Europe in what they thought would be a war of only a few weeks (Damrosch 1996). John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” is a traditional poem that reflects this pomp and optimism felt at the onset of the First World War. Despite morbid images of graves and an invocation of the voices of the dead, the speaker encourages the living soldiers who survive him to carry on the torch of the war and to never “break faith” with the soldiers who died in the fight.
Though the poem falls into the “modernist” era, McCrae uses a more traditional poetic form and has little in common with the WWI-era authors who came after him. “In Flanders Fields” uses a common rhyme scheme and is organized in a traditional manner without much experimentation with form or style. Likewise, primary aspects of modernist writing such as disorientation and disconnection are not present in the poem. As the war stretches on and the horrors of modern war are realized, however, we begin to find these characteristics reflected in contemporary writing.
Just as soldiers fighting in the trenches became witnesses to the awesome destruction of modern warfare, so too did their poetry lose the optimism and enthusiasm of pre-war society. This is best exemplified in Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” which instills within the reader a sense of horror and disorientation. The first stanza describes the wretched conditions of the soldiers marching through a nightmarish landscape. They are hags wandering asleep, bootless, lame, and blind. In the second stanza, Owen creates a scene reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the speaker describes being lost “under a green sea,” watching in terror as one of his comrades drowns in the poisonous gas. After a couplet describing the nightmares the speaker has from the vision in the second stanza, Owen uses the final stanza of the poem to prove false “The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est / Pro patria mori.” He says that if you, the reader, were to see and hear the afflicted soldier as he died, then you would never speak of the glory of war.
It is easier to categorize this poem into the genre of modernism than it is “In Flanders Fields.” As mentioned before, Owen describing the soldiers being lost in the gas cloud is reminiscent of Marlow in The Heart of Darkness being lost in the mist of the river. This image of confusion and disorientation is a major conceit of modernist writing. Likewise, the poem itself is divided into stanzas of varying lengths — the first being eight lines, the second six lines, the third two lines, and the fourth 12 lines — though it does follow a more traditional rhyme scheme (abab cdcd, etc.). Just as disorientation and a slight experimentation in form began to appear in poetry, another aspect of modernist writing — disconnection — was utilized by other poets of the time.
Just like Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg was a poet who possessed nothing but contempt for the “patriotic sentiments” felt by most people before and during the early stages of the war (Damrosch 2192). Though his poem “Break of Day in the Trenches” does not directly address this sentiment as Owen’s did, it in no way describes war as a glorious or heroic affair. The poem begins with an allusion to pagan religion while pointing out the repetitive nature of time, invoking the images of sacrifice, godlessness, and the repetition of history and war. It then continues on to describe a rat that the speaker is watching while he sits in the trenches. He contemplates the rat’s ability to move between the German and British trenches and he imagines that the rat is mocking the soldiers taking part in the battle. The author then presents the image of poppy roots on the battlefield dropping through the earth and correlates that image to the dropping of a soldier’s blood on the battlefield. The poem ends with the speaking soldier commenting on how safe, albeit dusty, the little poppy behind his ear is.
The author’s decision to end the poem on this strange sentiment — after describing the chaotic battlefield of France, the “shrieking iron and flame” being fired through the sky, and alluding to all of the blood being spilled on the battlefield — creates a very eerie feeling for the reader and a feeling of detachment for the speaker. This aspect is another characteristic of modernist literature. Despite all of the chaos and death surrounding the soldier in the poem, he is only concerned with the little poppy in his ear and the rat he sees in the trenches, going outside of himself in wondering what the rat is thinking at the time.
The form of this poem is also different from the other two presented thus far. “Break of Day in the Trenches” does not adhere to a certain rhyme scheme, nor is it organized into different stanzas; it is simply one long block of varying lines with little organization. Modernist writers are known for experimenting with the traditional modes of storytelling and writing. Though it is difficult to see this characteristic in WWI poetry, as the century progressed, authors like D.H. Lawrence begin to implement this concept into their writing.
D.H. Lawrence’s 1929 short story “The Prussian Officer” is a prime example of a modernist writer experimenting with storytelling by altering time and space. The story begins with a young soldier marching with his unit while experiencing pain from his injuries, though it is unclear to the reader how he sustained those injuries. The story then leaves the marching soldier as it describes his relationship with his master, the Prussian officer. Eventually, the reader finds himself viewing the abusive interactions between the two characters. The officer brutally beats his young orderly (the soldier) one night, and then the story jumps to the next morning as the soldier has to leave his bed in immense pain to begin his day. This begins the second chapter of the story, but as the chapter progresses, it becomes clear that time has warped back to the march described at the beginning of the story; at some point during the first chapter, the story flashed back to an event that took place before the opening scene. This confusing warp in the chronology of the story is a prime example of a modernist author experimenting with storytelling, while simultaneously adding to the feeling of disorientation.
All throughout the story, the Prussian officer continually struggles with the emotions he feels toward the orderly. After beating the soldier, the officer “[stands] there for an hour, motionless, a chaos of sensations, but rigid with a will to keep blank his consciousness, to prevent his mind from grasping” (13). He wishes to be outside of himself and not fully comprehend what is happening in the real world. The soldier, however, has an even greater issue with accepting the abuse from the officer and handling his emotions.
More so than the officer, the soldier fights with a desire to be outside of himself and outside of reality. Because of the abuse that he receives from his master, he constantly seeks to disconnect himself from reality with the hope of filtering out the pain he feels. After being mercilessly beaten by the officer, the young soldier drinks a little bit of beer, but “the alcohol made his feeling come back, and he could not bear it. He was dulled, as if nine-tenths of the ordinary man in him were inert” (14). The author goes on to describe the soldier as “bewildered… lost, and dazed, and helpless” (15). As the story progresses, these feelings get stronger. As he marches the following day, “it was as if he was disemboweled, made empty, like an empty shell. He felt himself as nothing, a shadow creeping under the sunshine” (17). After he murders the officer, he wanders about the countryside, lost both inside of himself and in the actual world. He passes out in the woods and is unable to orient himself with his surroundings and the confusing knocking that he hears (27). When he comes to a town in the countryside, it seems as though he has lost all logical perception of himself and reality, saying that “he had got beyond himself… He was by himself. They were in a big, bright place, those others and he was outside. The town, all the country, a big bright place of light: and he was outside” (29). He remains delirious and lost up until the moment he loses consciousness. As Moses says, “the experience of darkness, of radical alienation, of psychological vertigo and emotional disorientation becomes a topos of modernist narrative” (Began 44), and this image of the lone soldier stumbling lost through the countryside is the epitome of the modernist author creating disorientation and disconnection.
The environment created by the First World War was one in which the modernist sentiments of disorientation and disconnection were bound to flourish. The differences between the poetry written at the outset of the Great War to the short story of “The Prussian Officer” written in the year 1929 shows the development of the modernist school of writing in the face of a calamity that society was not ready to face.
Began, Richard. Valdez Moses, Michael (Ed). “Modernism and Colonialism.” British and Irish Literature, 1899-1939. Dushaue and London 2007.
Damrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. New York: Longman, 2003. Print.
“World War 1 – 1914 Timeline – Worldwar-1.net.” World War 1 Timeline 1914-1919 – Worldwar-1.net. Web. 17 May 2010. <http://www.worldwar-1.net/world-war-1- timelines/world-war-1-1914/world-war-1-1914-index.htm>.
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