Saturday, 11 October 2014

War in Words

On 2nd October the UK held its annual National Poetry Day. This made me think of the war poets of almost a century ago. The First World War wasn’t the first to be written about in poetry, but it produced the most well-known war poets.

In today’s article I look at some of these war poets, and have a little look on either side of the First World War to other conflicts that have inspired lgbt writers to express their feelings about war.

There are several categories into which war poetry and literature can fall. The first is the heroic poetry of Ancient Greece as seen in “The Iliad”. Queer poets have often written works that come under a second category, that of homoerotic encounters within the field of war. A third category, and one which may cross over into the second, is the war poetry of lgbt writers such as Siegfried Sassoon. This category includes elegies and memorial poetry. A fourth category which I’ll leave for another time is literature by lgbt writers who use war as a background to their work rather than as a result or commentary on it.

One of the less well-known collections of war poetry, called “Drum Taps”, is by Walt Whitman (1819-1892), whose experience working with the wounded of the American Civil War produced works expressing the loss of a loved one during conflict. This is a loss experienced by all, but Whitman’s “Drum Taps” places his own attraction to wounded soldiers into a sense of personal loss.

This sense of loss continues in the literature of the First World War, but it is also often accompanied by a sense of injustice and the feeling of the futility of war. This was brought into sharp focus in the life of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918).

Owen served as an officer in the British army. He suffered from shellshock, and in 1917 whilst recuperating in Edinburgh met Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967). Sassoon introduced Owen to the Greek elegies which were to influence his work. Owen’s elegies were not merely recounting heroism and valour but also includes, through his own personal experiences, the harsh reality of trench warfare.

It is Owen’s own death on the battle front, just a week before the Armistice was signed in 1918, that provided an added level of injustice to his poems.

Siegfried Sassoon is, perhaps, the most well-known of the war poets from the First World War. At first he was a willing fighter but later, after the death of his lover at Gallipoli and experiencing the horrors of war, he began to express views against the British government’s conduct of the war. It was at this time that he met Wilfred wen and, like Owen, returned to the war in France. Unlike Owen Sassoon survived the war and lived through World War II.

The traditional elegy and the platonic homoeroticism that marked the war poetry of the First World War was carried into the 1920s and 30s by Sassoon and other writers such as Stephen Spender (1909-1995). Spender worked as a journalist in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

By the outbreak of World War II in 1939 there was a shift in society’s attitude to homoeroticism in war literature. “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, an account of the Arab conflict around the time of the end of the First World War by T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) wasn’t published until 1935, the year of his untimely death. It’s more explicit portrayal of homosexuality was seen as “acceptable” because it was centred mainly on the actions of his captors. Lawrence’s own genuine homosexual desires were played down.

World War II produced very little in the way of the war poetry that equalled the power and legacy of the First World War. In contradiction to my intention not to include later works that use the war as a background one major work which was written in the late 1970s has played a major role in revealing a little-known aspect of World War II. It is a play calledBent”. Unlike the writers already mentioned there was no personal experience upon which to base the play, only accounts from others. “Bent” revealed the persecution of gay men living in Nazi Germany.

While it cannot be classed as war literature in the true sense of the term “Bent” should not be overlooked in any literary overview of the war. Its influence has led to an increased knowledge of the horrors of war, and the creation of memorials to lgbt victims from the Holocaust.

The war poetry of the First World War was just one of the many influences in the way we see warfare today. Criticism of the injustices are not seen as cowardly, as they might have done before when going to war was seen as heroic and good. Since the First World War more visual images have become more prevalent than the written word through photographs, films and news reels. Today new war literature is a very small part of the public’s awareness of war, and the image has become more powerful than the word.

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