Bourke, Auden, War

Belatedly, a nod to a review article by Joanna Bourke in the Times Literary Supplement a couple of weeks back. She is considering books about the two World Wars, and her remarks ring true.

Peter Englund’s The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of the First World War aims to show “what it was like”, and to examine the impact on “its smallest, most basic component – the individual”. Bourke’s is concerned that this reduces the history of war to “the history of affect”, so that:

Readers end up knowing what certain events meant to specific people, rather than how these events acquired their meaning.

Arguing against writers whose idea of war writing is the stirring up of obvious outrage, she refers to Auden’s Squares and Oblongs. As I think more and more about War literature, the greater my respect for Auden becomes. Here is part of what he wrote:

If one reads through the mass of versified trash inspired, for example, by the Lidice Massacre, one cannot avoid the conclusion that what was really bothering the versifiers was a feeling of guilt at not feeling horrorstruck enough. Could a good poem have been written on such a subject? Possibly. One that revealed this lack of feeling, that told how when he read the news, the poet, like you and I, dear reader, went on thinking about his fame or his lunch, and was glad that he was not one of the victims.



  1. Silvia Mergenthal
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Bourke’s comments on the Englund book are fair enough. Even so, what the book achieves, and very movingly in parts, is to enlarge the scope of what one generally thinks of as THE war experience (the trenches on the Western Front and all that): he includes protagonists from both sides of the conflict, and from the so-called minor theatres of war such as, for instance, Armenia, Mesopotamia, East Africa and so on.

    • Posted December 14, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for this. The book certainly sounds worth reading.
      I think Bourke’s criticism defines a general tendency in war writing – and this book is probably one of the better examples.

  2. Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    Jennings’ The Silent Village, mentioned by Bourke, is a little masterpiece, perhaps because the forced anglicisation of parts of Wales is a valid- if much smaller- equivalent for what happened at Lidice that echoes for the viewers and so it was and is harder to evade the issue.

  3. Posted December 26, 2011 at 2:50 am | Permalink

    Was Geoffrey Hill influenced by Auden’s Squares and Oblongs when he wrote his September Song and Ovid in the Third Reich? Auden almost prescribed the techique of the poems years.

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