The Old Paradigm

I’m reading (for review elsewhere) Elizabeth Vandiver’s excellent book on the influence of the Classics on First World War poetry, Stand in the Trench, Achilles. Vandiver is a writer who has done her homework. Not only does she draw attention to writers who do not usually figure in accounts of the War’s poetry (I want to find out more about Alec de Candole, for instance), but her deep knowledge of classical texts illuminates poems that one thought one knew – see her account of Homeric echoes in Julian Grenfell’s “Into Battle”, for example.
Mind you, I warmed immediately to her book because of the introduction, which explains the need to read the poetry of the War without preconceptions. She is particularly good on the way that assumptions about the futility of the War can lead to misreadings, as later ideas are projected onto the poems of writers whose world-view was notably different. Rather optimistically, she uses the phrase “the old paradigm”  to describe the interpretation of the War’s literary history that you find in, for instance, Brian Gardner’s anthology, Up the Line to Death – that young men went to fightbecause their heads were filled with unrealistic idealism until they encountered the horror of the Somme, at which all became disillusioned, realising that the War was pointless and purposeless. There is often an implied contrast with the Second World War, which is held to have been worth fighting.

Vandiver  calls this  an  “old paradigm” because it does not square with the judgments of recent historians who know their stuff.  Well, it may be old, but this reading of the War  still seems to have legs – mark A-Level papers, and you’ll find it repeated endlessly by earnest students who have never heard of any other possible interpretation of the conflict. And here in today’s Daily Telegraph there is an article by Alistair Sooke, who is preparing a TV show about the visual art of the  Second World War.  Mr Sooke gives us the Old Paradigm, intact:

Although it is best known for its poetry, the First World War produced a number of modernist masterpieces […] characterised by an awareness of the futility of the new era of mechanised conflict, which pulverised so many for seemingly little purpose. By 1939, however, artists in Britain faced different challenges. First, the new hostilities were motivated by an important goal: to thwart the rise of fascism…

So getting the Kaiser’s troops out of Belgium and France wasn’t an important goal? Lots of people thought it was at the time…

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