From Glory to Gangrene: A Shift in Rhetoric in the Great War


A generation of poets greeted the Great War with many fine words, most of them capitalized: Honor, Glory, and England!  This capitalization, and all it implied, would not survive the trenches.

Modern progress had been disorienting up to that point, with its rapid industrialization, changes in science, shifts in philosophy and nearly incomprehensible art, but there was still the feeling, before the war, that civilization was marching onward and upward.  The word “progress” itself implies such an upward movement, and few, if any, questioned progress.  That idealistic view of technological advance was gassed in the fox holes.

At least, that is the myth of the war, the story that we have come to know. But myth or not, the war changed reality.  Idealism did not die, but its rhetoric changed forever, the way we write about war, the way we write about most things.  In England, Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen typify this shift in rhetoric.

Many English people would look back to the time before the war as a peaceful, uncomplicated Edwardian daydream, the equivalent of the French Belle Epoque.  The perceived change was so sudden and absolute “as to make the years after the war seem discontinuous from the years before, and that discontinuity became a part of English imaginations” (Hynes xi).  Something essential, something of great importance had been irretrievably lost on August 4, 1914.  But what exactly had changed?  The explanation of what had ended varied greatly.  Traditional, Christian values were not the only ideals mourned: “Even the experiments of the avant-garde movements themselves seemed later to have been signs of optimism that the war destroyed” (Lewis 109).

In his book A War Imagined, Samuel Hynes called this sense of radical discontinuity with the past “the Myth of the War,” explaining, “I use that phrase in this book to mean not a falsification of reality, but an imaginative version of it, the story of the war that has evolved, and has come to be accepted as true.” (Hynes xi).  In other words, the myth was not false; according to Hynes, it was an interpretation of events, an interpretation that began developing in the war, gathering ideas and events that supported it, passing over others that did not:

“A brief sketch of that collective narrative of significance would go something like this: a generation of innocent young men, their heads full of high abstractions like Honour, Glory, and England, went off to war to make the world safe for democracy.  They were slaughtered in stupid battles planned by stupid generals.  Those who survived were shocked, disillusioned and embittered by their war experiences, and saw that their real enemies were not the Germans, but the old men at home who had lied to them.  They rejected the values of the society that had sent them to war, and in doing so separated their own generation from the past and from their cultural inheritance” (Hynes xii).

Before the war began, there had been a different version of the war.  Most everyone expected and intended the war to change the world.  In fact, changing the world was the primary justification offered for war on both sides.  “Each side believed they were waging war because it would bring a new and radiant world in the future, a purified world rid of its central flaw: war. . . . There was a genuine eschatology of peace, of triumph at long last of redeemed humanity over the forces of evil” (Audoin-Rozeau 159).

The war to end all war announced itself in chivalric terms as a crusade to save civilization from the forces that threatened it.  “Civilization . . . is a word that appears again and again in responses to the beginning of the war.  One finds it in Parliamentary debates, in newspapers, in private diaries and letters, in reported conversations.  Civilization is threatened, is toppling, is mutilated or destroyed” (Hynes 4).  This pervasive attitude that civilization was in serious danger belies the post-war view of simplicity and peace.  In Great Britain, the suffragettes were fighting a sex war; the labor unions were waging a class war; the Irish were threatening a civil war.  Most everyone was fighting cultural wars of one kind or another.

The art world was the front where many of these internal battles were fought.  W. R. Colton, a sculptor, wrote: “As far as Art is concerned it was high time that war should come with its purifying fire.  In some fifty years so-called Art had grown in Europe like unto a puffed-out and unhealthy fungus of enormous size, without beauty, without delicacy, and without health.  A wave of diseased degeneracy had submerged Philosophy, Music, Literature, and Art . . . We find, perhaps, in the German philosophers and musicians the first crystallised expression of this viciousness, but unfortunately we, with all other nations of Europe, cannot pretend that we are exempt. . . . We have Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, and others.  The futurists, the cubists, the whole school of decadent novelists” (quoted in Hynes 58).  Here Colton identifies Germany as the original source of this unhealthy degeneracy infecting England: modernism.  Traditional Culture was seen as fighting a war against Kultur.  Someone added to a placard announcing a modernist exhibit in London the words, “Made in Germany.”

This foreignness, this modernism, however, had also sprouted like a foul weed in Great Britain’s own garden in the form of Oscar Wilde and “his type.”  Many felt that war could be the only cure for this foreign effeminacy, this homosexuality, that they had not noticed in Britain before.  W. J. Locke said, “The war’s tremendous tempest of elementals should cleanse the sex problem from all the accretions of decadent sophistry of the last thirty years” (quoted in Hynes 60).  The War became more than a war against a foreign country; it was a ward against England, against modernism, homosexuality, the women’s movement, the labor movement, anything that defied traditional English values.

Many poets, who also felt they and their country needed the purifying fire of war, rallied to the cause, enlisting, volunteering, and marshalling their artistic skills.  The initial poetry they produced followed traditional poetic forms and themes, thereby establishing itself in distinct opposition to modernism.  “Englishmen had gone to the war with a traditional rhetoric, a set of abstractions that expressed traditional martial and patriotic values, and made the war seem familiar and invested with meaning.  One reason for the popularity of Rupert Brooke’s war sonnets is that he got all the abstractions into seventy lines of verse: Holiness, Love, Pain, Honour, Nobleness, Glory, Heroism, Sacrifice, England — they’re all there” (Hynes 109).  Rupert Brooke quickly became the first myth of the war, the poet soldier and martyr, who sacrificed all for love of country and for a grave in “some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England” (from his poem “The Soldier”).

Had Brooke always been such an idealistic patriot?  “Prior to 1914 Brooke had been a savage critic of the British middle class, a Fabian and opposed to any Establishment.  Brooke was not a simple man.” (Stephen 79).  The Fabians were a group, founded in Britain 1884, in favor of gradual socialist change, a fact that may have surprised many of Brooke’s admirers.

The War seemed to offer Brooke the simplicity he lacked.  Ironically, his own personal motives might have echoed those who saw the war as way of purging homosexuality with the hardy masculinity of war.  Before the war, Brooke had been caught up in the “tortured choice between homosexuality and heterosexuality.”  Stephen explains, “Brooke was a confused and perhaps deeply unhappy man in 1914.  The war offered him simplicity and certainty.  It offered him a cause which demanded total obedience and absorbed his whole being. . . . The impression given by reading Brooke’s letters is that the war allowed him to take a holiday from thought” (Stephen 80).  Brooke believed in the cleansing powers of war for both himself and for his country.  It is this idea which is expressed most vividly here in the line “swimmers into cleanness leaping” in his first sonnet from the 1914 series:

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!” (Hynes 13).

The war here is as a blessing from God who should “be thanked” for matching the youth of England “with His hour,” a challenge that sounds almost sporty.  The following images are of waking a sleeping youth, who dives into clear water to wash away oldness and weariness of those who had lost their honour, those who would not enlist.  The last two lines remind us of the sexual cleansing Brooke was hoping for in the references to “their dirty songs” and “the little emptiness of love.”  In 1914 when Brooke wrote his sonnets, it was still possible in all seriousness to write such a sonnet; now such abstractions praising the curative powers of war are unimaginable.  There are still war poems, of course, but none of them begin by saying, “Thank God for war!”

Critics have often accused Brooke of glossing over the realities of the war.  Brooke’s biographer John Lehmann suggested, as others have, that “had Brooke only lived to witness the later years of the war, his poetry would have been significantly different: ‘It was one of Rupert’s many misfortunes at this time to die before the appalling carnage on the Western Front utterly changed the mood in which the young soldiers could write of the war'” (Crawford 41).  Lehmann is basically saying here, “It’s too bad he died before he experienced the real horrors of the war.  That would have improved his poetry.”  Strange that his biographer calls it a misfortune to miss the miseries of the trenches, the slaughter under machine gun, the chlorine gas attacks.  Such a suggestion that it would have improved his poetry is not only callous and masochistic, it is also most likely untrue.

In a letter to Leonard Bacon on November 11, 1914, Brooke “reported enough to belie the common assumption that Brooke had seen nothing of the horrors of modern warfare.”  The idea of Brooke as an inexperienced idealist is part of the myth of the war.  In spite of the horrors he witnessed, he did not lose his idealism.  “Brooke responded to the war by resolving to oppose the instigators of such suffering.  Far from shaking his convictions, his observations confirmed his belief that England had to oppose the Germans” (Crawford 41-42).  Understanding that Brooke’s sonnets did not arise from lack of experience and that a good part of their intent was that of consolation makes them more forgivable from a post-war perspective.

Brooke did not die gloriously in battle; he died from an infection caused by an insect bite.  In spite of this unheroic ending, he became an almost mythical figure, “the Young Apollo sacrificed for King and Country” (Stephen xii).  Many other poets of lesser talent rushed in to fill the gap left by the fallen soldier-poet.  “More than three thousand volumes of war poetry were published in the first three years of the war, and much of this poetic outpouring consisted of pale imitation of Brooke” (Lewis 109).  These imitations echoed and expanded on the message of Brooke’s sonnets with loud proclamations of a just cause, high expressions of hope for the future, impassioned prayers to God, and angry protests of German savagery.


The Brooke myth and its many variations never completely vanished, of course, but they were nearly eclipsed by the myths created by other soldier-poets, like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.  What had changed?  “The optimistic vision of the war promoted by . . . Brooke met its end in the filth and suffering of trench warfare and the mass deaths enabled by the machine gun” (Lewis 109).  Technology, instead of allowing greater control over nature, a mastery of the elements, an end of disease, had unleashed unprecedented levels of violence among soldiers, prisoners and, for the first time, against civilians.

The chivalric tradition of warfare would seem “‘infinitely remote from the real world of mud, blood, boredom, fear, endurance, carnage, and mutilation’ in the trenches” (Crawford 51).  Traditional rules and limits for combat were quickly discarded and it became clear very soon that this war would not be fought according long-accepted rules of war.  At first these atrocities were presented as German and became further justification of the war, but the “crumbling of the barriers customarily thrown up against certain war excesses” was not limited to Germany.  “No invading army was exempt from it . . . The French committed astonishing acts of brutality on soil that was supposedly ‘theirs’, the section of Alsace” (Audoin-Rouzeau 34). Of course, the British and the Americans were equally guilty.

Poetry did not change its tone at once.  The alteration in how war was viewed and how it was written about began in letters and diaries of soldiers.  These descriptions varied greatly, yet

the reality that they recorded, and their manners of recording it, are very similar.  The accounts are composed mainly of things — shells, pieces of equipment, mounds of torn earth, disfigured and fragmented human bodies — all rather small-scale, all randomly disposed, and all rendered without judgement or expressed emotion, as though boot, helmet and human face, heaped earth and bodies, telephones and decapitated heads and tinned horsemeat were all morally equal parts of one chaos.  There is no attempt at a Big Picture, no inferred order in terms of which those fragmented particulars might have meaning.  The accounts are descriptive rather than narrative: like the war itself they do not move in any direction, or reach any objective — they are simply there.  The passages are not without feeling, but they are empty of the abstractions that name the big emotions of war, all those capitalized nouns of the high tradition (Hynes 116).

These soldiers began to lose their high rhetoric in the piss, blood and lice of the trenches; they began to use new vocabulary and syntax instead to describe a situation that was indescribable in traditional terms.  First in letters and journals, a new rhetoric was developed: descriptions of things, banal and horrific, mixed almost casually together as if the numbed sensibility of the writer could only record without trying to comprehend, without any attempt to glorify or redeem.  Soldier-poets like Siegfried Sassoon put this new raw diction into their writing, and rats entered English poetry.

However, these “realists” did not portray all the horrors of the trenches.  There is much talk of killing, but not about who was doing the killing; such poetry does not speak of the thrill of killing many men experienced, recorded in journals and letters home, nor of the common reaction to absolute terror which is an emptying of the bowels, nor of the situational homosexuality that was undoubtedly taking place.  There is no doubt that the Great War occassioned a shift to a more realistic style of writing, but it would be a mistake to assume that such writing was not in itself a rhetoric, incorporating some things and leaving others out.

Wilfred Owen began with much of the same early idealism of others who enlisted.  His first letter was full of excitement, “This morning I was hit! We were bombing and a fragment from somewhere hit my thumb knuckle.  I coaxed out 1 drop of blood.  Alas!  No more!!”  (Ramazani 525).  His attitude began to change rapidly.  The weather was quite cold and the fighting intense.  After only two weeks, he wrote, “I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days.  I have suffered seventh hell” (quoted in Crawford 175).

Suffering from shell shock a few months later, he was sent back to England to recover.  In a hospital in Edinburgh, he met Sassoon, and they became friends.  “Sassoon provided Owen with significant insights into the relationship of poetry and war, and he showed Owen drafts of poems which would appear in Sassoon’s Counter-Attack. For a brief time, Owen imitated Sassoon” (Crawford 176).  The cynicism of Sassoon’s poetry helped to counteract the wild romanticisms of Owen’s early poetry, and Owen admitted writing in his shadow for several months.

Owen, however, soon found his own voice and began to create a startlingly simple poetry with an emotional impact that has rarely been matched in poetry.  One of the fundamental changes that took place in his poetry was the loss of faith in the power of poetry to console.  Although he used the form of the elegy, whose primary purpose has always been that of consolation, his poetry did not pretend to make everything better with a bandaid and a kiss. In the preface Owen wrote for his planned book of poems, he wrote that “these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory.  They may be to the next.  All a poet can do is warn.  That is why the true Poets must be truthful” (quoted in Crawford 177).  Here Owen describes the purpose of his poetry as one of warning, which, he explains, is why a poet must be truthful.  The truth he is speaking of is the type of plain description of things mentioned above, the new rhetoric of the war.  It would be easy to say that all idealism had drained from his poetry, yet Owen still believed in the power of poetry to tell the truth, as suggested by “true Poets.”

Maintaining traditional forms while undercutting traditional assumptions gave his poetry a shocking power that made it at once familiar and strange.  “The medium of lyrical poetry, still usually associated with pleasant, dreamy experiences, was used to describe such scenes of utter horror, without any meditative elements whatsoever included by way of mitigation or consolation” (Backman 64).  He had learned to adapt what he had learned from nineteenth-century poets and the Georgian movement (with which he identified himself) and altered these forms radically, “by transforming or inverting some of their stock themes and devices, or by alluding to them, without transmutation, in order to bring out the jarring contrast between their experiences and his own” (Backman 65-66).  “Anthem for Doomed Youth” uses pastoral elegy, but describes weapons, instead of peaceful, healing bucolic scene. “Futility” inverts elegy by turning the redemptive into “fatuous sunbeams.”  “Mental Cases” evokes Dante’s Hell, but the hell is that of shell shock victims.

Owen’s ability to adapt poetic devices was perhaps only possible through a rejection of Poetry, as traditionally motivated.  In the same preface mentioned above, he declared that he was above all “not concerned with Poetry.”  Owen wrote, “The Poetry is in the pity.”  Arthur Waugh wrote, “It would seem to be not so much a fact that war has made poetry, as that poetry has, now for the first time, made War — made it in its own image, with all the tinsel and gaud of tradition stripped away from it; and so made it perhaps that no sincere artist will ever venture again to represent War in those delusive colours with which Art has been too often content to disguise it in the past” (Crawford 24).

In fact, heroic calls to arms are now extremely rare in public speeches and totally inexistent in poetry printed in literary magazines and anthologies.  Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” put an end to such loud glorification of war.  No one with enough literary knowlege to quote Horace would ever think of putting his famous quote to use, as it was was used before the war, to call men to a sweet death for their country.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (Ramazani 528).

Owen died on November 4, 1918, just one week short of the armistice, and so became part of the myth of the war, no, the very embodiment of that myth.  His influence on English literature was immediate: W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice and C. Day Lewis.  His influence affected later poets such as Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, and Seamus Heaney.  He was even an influence on the high modernists, thought to be of an entirely different school, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (as Sasi Bhusan Das carefully traces in his book Wilfred Owen’s Influence on Three Generations of Poets).

Old Myth, New Rhetoric

Society’s vision of the war was determined by the literature which came out of it, and it is the vision of later war poets which has established “the popular image of what that war was to those who fought in it and lived through it” (Stephen xii).  How accurate is this picture of the war?  One old soldier wrote, “I never meet an ‘old sweat’ . . . who accepts or enjoys the figure in which we are now presented . . . agonised and woebegone, trudging from disaster to disaster, knee-deep in moral as well as physical mud, hesitant about your purpose, submissive to a harsh, irrelevant discipline, mistrustful of your commanders.  Is it any use to assert that I was not like that, and my dead friends were not like that, and the old cronies that I meet at reunions are not like that?” (Stephen 78).

The record shows in many cases that the fighting men did not lose their idealism.  Writing about R. H. Tawney, a distinguished economic historian who was wounded in the war, Hynes writes, “Men at the Front continued to believe in the ideals for which they had enlisted, because only if those ideals were valid could their sufferings be justified; it was the people at home who abandoned them.  The ideals that Tawney clung to were not Rupert Brooke’s resonant words, but other, plainer values . . . These were the ideals that the politicians, the patriots, and the profiteers had betrayed; but they survived on the Western Front” (Hynes 119).  In other words, idealism did not die in World War I, but it was altered and humbled.  The high ideals of Brooke written in capital letters, such as Honour and Glory, were traded for simple words like that of “pity.”

Myths are as difficult to kill as ideals.  In fact they never really seem to die; they adapt instead, as the myth of the war adapted from one to motivate the troops into the one which took hold of our imaginations after the war, the one that has become such a part of our intellectual landscape, the myth that changed history.  What changed was the rhetoric of how we write about war and how we write about the world.

Works Cited

Backman, Sven. Tradition Transformed: Studies in the Poetry of Wilfred Owen. Lund: C W K Gleerup, 1979.

Bradbury, Malcolm and James McFarlane, ed. Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930. New York: Penguin Books, 1976, 1991.

Bull, Stephen. Trench Warfare. New York: PRC Publishing Limited, 2003.

Crawford, Fred D. British Poets of the Great War. London, Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1988.

Das, Sasi Bhusan. Wilfred Owen’s Influence on Three Generations of Poets. Calcutta: Temple
Press, 1982.

Hynes, Samuel. A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. New York: Collier, 1992.

Lewis, Pericles. The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. New York, London: W. W. Norton, 2003, 1988, 1973.

Stephen, Martin. The Price of Pity: Poetry, History and Myth in the Great War. London: Leo Cooper, 1996.

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