Friday, January 17, 2014

The literature of war

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Wilfred Own, Anthem for Doomed Youth, 1920

Rupert Brooke
I think of World War I as the war of the poets and World War II as the war of the novelists. I don't mean just that poets and novelists were fighting, although plenty of them were, but that each war produced a different kind of literature.

Literature changed significantly in the two decades between the wars. During the first war, young men of a literary bent who went to war read poetry, and when they wrote about their wartime experiences, they tended to write in verse. Sure some novels came out of the war, most notably All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, but mostly veterans of the war expressed themselves in poetry.

James Jones
Among the dozens of published poets who fought in the war were Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, Herbert Asquith, Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, Walter Lyon, Herbert Read and Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. Many of the poets, including Sassoon, Brooke and Lyon, died in that war. Many others were injured. C.S. is not highly regarded today for his poetry, but after he was badly injured at the front, he thought of himself as a poet until he later discovered his true gifts.

By the time World War II started barely 20 years later, fewer young men read or wrote poetry. Fiction was king in the literary world. Veterans of this war expressed themselves in prose. The best of these included Norman Mailer, James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Herman Wouk, Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, to name only the Americans, but there were many others.

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