William Golding on War Poets and Georgians

In 1975 William Golding wrote a review of Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory for The Guardian. It’s a very perceptive review (noting something I’ve noticed, that in Fussell’s treatment of his authors ‘a note that can only be called patronising creeps in’; Fussell doesn’t trust his authors to tell the whole truth about the War, which is why he brings in those jarring sections about American absurdists).
This paragraph of the review, about the war poets, is striking, though I don’t agree with it:

On the Western Front, these by no means major poets experienced so violent, indded so literally explosive, a dissociation of all the elements of normal living that they passed their time, emotionally speaking, in a kind of white-hot plasma. There, the satiny irrelevance of the Georgian poetasters was burned away and the forked creatures screamed the unspeakable. The age of irony had begun.

I’m currently reading Merryn Williams’s new anthology The Georgians 1901-1930. I’m writing a review of it that will appear elsewhere, so won’t say much about it here, except that one of the things the anthology does brilliantly is show how the best war poetry grew out of the Georgian method (intelligibility, avoidance of archaism, traditional form). Hardy’s example inspired the Georgians, and it was Hardy that Sassoon read voraciously while in the trenches.
Merryn Williams’s selection goes beyond the poets included in Marsh’s anthologies to claim other good poets for the Georgian tradition – notably Charlotte Mew, Wilfred Owen and Ivor Gurney. The latter two dominate the last third of the anthology, and show that far from being irrelevant, it was Georgian poetry that gave them the language and techniques through which the War could be described.


  1. Posted November 29, 2009 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting post, and I look forward to your review. Both Golding and Larkin were tough on Fussell, and in each case I can’t help but wonder whether there was some patriotic hostility to a young American scholar telling us Brits about our war and our war writers.

    As for the Georgian anthology, I’m not sure that Williams was entitled to claim Mew, or post-war Gurney. Mew, for example, isn’t a Georgian, unless the term is stretched so far as to include any poet unclaimed by Modernism. Still, it makes for a stronger book to have her there.

  2. Posted November 29, 2009 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    Were Golding and Larkin tough on Fussell? I think they both paid him the compliment of taking his book seriously and responding to it intelligently. (Either of their reviews would make one want to read the book, I think.)
    I agree Charlotte Mew isn’t really a Georgian – but the selection in Williams’s anthology shows her as coming from the same place as some of the better Georgians. The remarkable poem about Nunhead Cemetery, for example, seems to have Hardy behind it, as do many of the good poems by ‘proper’ Georgians.

  3. Roger
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Fussell is patronising to the authors he wrote about; rather, he claimed that their cultural and literary background meant that they were unable to respond directly to their experiences and they used irony as a way to deal with both the experiences and that fact. Bliss’s Morning Heroes and Vaughan William’s Pastoral Symphony may be similar responses.
    Incidentally, there’s an interesting passage in John Connell’s biography of W.E.Henley where Connell compares Henley’s experiences being treated for T.B. of the bone to the trench poets of W.W.I. as responsses to previously unimaginable experiences.

    Mew was not a Georgian formally, but she was certainly Georgian-ish in that her greatest influence- Hardy- was one she had in common with the Georgians and many of her themes were very similar.

    • Posted November 30, 2009 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      I think he’s a bit patronising to the war poets when he writes:‘Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, Pound, Yeats were not at the front to induct them into new idioms which might have done the job better.’
      Interestingly, Fussell has little to say about the wartime writing of the most notable British modernist to go to war – Wyndham Lewis. Maybe because Lewis’s writing doesn’t support his thesis very well?

  4. Roger
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 8:35 pm | Permalink

    I’d agree that Lewis’s absence is significant, though I don’t think Fussell meant his thesis to apply to all war writers. David Jones was surely a modernist too- a very odd modernist, even by the standards of modernists, but a modernist, and Fussell pays a lot of attention to him. Richard Aldington was a renegade modernist, but certainly a modernist at first.
    Perhaps absolute modernists also had problems adapting to the reality of war: Nevinson, the most well-known vorticist painter besides Lewis, began by portraying war as a brutal cleansing and then left modernism. Italy- where inhuman or antihuman modernism had most influence- seems to have gone to war almost in the Futurist belief that it was a necessary national purgation and the Italian army’s tactics and strategy- if those are the words- were based on the virtues of supreme and futile sacrifice, going by The White War, a recent book on the subject.

  5. Posted November 30, 2009 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Nevinson is an artist who interests me. Before the War he was at the heart of the whole Futurist/Vorticist thing, and his earlier war pictures were jagged and sharp, and (it seems to me) in love with the cruel power of weapons. As he saw more of the War, he gradually rejected the spiky stylisations, and his art became less modernist, more humane – which seems to me something of a moral triumph.

  6. Posted December 1, 2009 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Fussell has a serious problem with David Jones, because In Parenthesis so completely refutes Fussell’s argument that the Great War was a war like no other, without historical precedent and (therefore) outside the traditions of war writing. Jones shows at every point that (as John Lee has shown) ‘to be reminded of Shakespeare is to explore the nature of the Great War’. Fussell’s way of dealing with In Parenthesis is to reject it as an ‘honourable miscarriage’. The masterpiece won’t fit the theory, so the masterpiece must be dismissed.

  7. Posted December 1, 2009 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    Is there a link to Golding’s review of Fussell’s book?

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