Friday, 8 March 2013

What larks? Birdsong, the Great War and cultural memory

Apologies that this blog is longer than usual.  It is the first in what is likely to become an intermittent series of posts about the literature of the Great War, leading up to next year’s centenary of the outbreak of war in 1914.

We are walking with Dash on Leckhampton Hill, on one of the first really bright days of the year. The Vale of Gloucester is in haze below us: no chance of seeing the Malvern Hills today. I have written about Dash, the springer spaniel, once before in A Blog on the Og. She’s somewhat older now, and scampers more sedately, no longer chasing everything that moves. Just as well, for on top of a low tree, well within barking range, a young thrush is singing its heart out – ‘the throstle with her note so pure’, according to Bottom the Weaver. We pause to enjoy her song, for thrushes are less common these days, before heading on up towards the Devil’s Chimney and the Iron-Age camp at the top of the hill.

And now the song of the solitary thrush is replaced by a different singing, a shrill rustling sound from many birds – but where are they? A beech tree on the edge of a field seems the most likely place, but there is nothing to be seen on its bare branches except the tenacious dead leaves from last year. The sound is extraordinary: a massed choir singing at speed and from time to time abruptly cutting itself off in full flow. Absolute precision: song, then silence, then song again.

Then a different sound, as the dead leaves on the tree turn into tiny birds that lift off singing as they shoot upwards– an exaltation of larks in the literal as well as the collective sense. We watch them, entranced, ‘music showering on our upturned listening faces’ as Isaac Rosenberg puts it in ‘Returning, We Hear the Larks’. I suppose Rosenberg’s poem is, of all WW1 poems, the one that most closely links the trenches with the idea of birdsong:

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped …


War poetry has been much on my mind recently, and will remain there for the foreseeable future for three reasons. First, I’m helping to organize an international conference on British Poetry of the First World War, to be hosted by the English Association at Wadham College, Oxford, in September 2014. Second, this time next year, I shall be guest-editing a special edition of The Use of English, which will focus on the literature of the Great War. Third, and more immediately, two weeks ago I took part in a fascinating two-day ‘Teacher-Academic Exchange’ at the Institute of Historical Studies in London on ‘The First World War in the Classroom’.  

This workshop was a forum for debate between teachers of History and English in Secondary and Higher Education. How differently do English and History teachers approach the First World War as a subject? How do these approaches differ in the school classroom and in the university lecture theatre? Now that the Great War has slipped from personal memory (with the deaths of the last veterans) into cultural memory, should teaching the First World War in schools be made to reflect recent academic research into the subject?

These were some of the central questions we debated for two days, led on our way by a challenging keynote speech from Professor Dan Todman. Writing for a BBC blog, Dan Todman has in the past pointed his accusing finger directly at English – war poets, teachers, academics, recent novelists – both for mythologizing the Great War in the first place and then for misrepresenting the reality of the war by exploiting readers’ misconceptions for their own ends:

Sassoon and Wilfred Owen could be used to evoke an emotional reaction against war which engaged students and satisfied teachers, but which utterly misrepresented the feelings of most Britons who lived through the war years…. Although works like Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’ are fiction, audiences often believed that they communicated ‘deeper truths’ about the war, because they reflected their own misconceptions. []
I think what worries historians of the Great War most is cultural memory. They see it deriving from a mythologized past, not from historical research. Books such as Samuel Hynes’ A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory and Jay Winter’s Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning make them uncomfortable. Indeed, last autumn in Oxford at a Study Day on War Memorials and Memorialization, I heard a distinguished military historian declare, ‘When I hear the name Jay Winter, I want to reach for my gun.’ Seriously, he said that.

Myths, mythology: misrepresentation, misconceptions. Here is a representative passage from Birdsong of the kind I suppose some historians distrust. It comes from a conversation between the central character, Stephen Wraysford, and a frightened fellow officer, Weir, while they are sheltering from a heavy bombardment:

   The dugout shook with the reverberations of a huge shell. The lantern swung on the beam, the glasses jumped on the table, and bits of earth fell from the ceiling. Weir gripped Stephen’s wrist.
   ‘Talk to me, Wraysford,’ he said. ‘Talk to me about anything you like.’
   ‘All right. I’ll tell you something.’ Stephen blew out a trail of cigarette smoke. ‘I’m curious to see what’s going to happen. There are your sewer rats in their holes three feet wide crawling underground [Weir was in charge of miners conscripted to dig tunnels under German lines]. There are my men going mad under shells. We hear nothing from our commanding officer. I sit here, I talk to men, I go on patrol and lie in the mud with machine gun bullets grazing my neck. No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded. I am deeply curious to see how much further it can be taken; I want to know. (Birdsong: Vintage 1994, p.122)

For myself, I want to know in what particulars this passage presents an unreliable picture, historically or psychologically, of front-line life and attitudes in the immediate run-up to the Battle of the Somme. And should I accept the contention that ‘audiences often believed that [works of fiction like] Birdsong communicated ‘deeper truths’ about the war, because they reflected their own misconceptions’? Significantly, this statement misrepresents readers of fiction as ‘audiences’, as if reflective reading of a novel like Birdsong were a passive shared activity like watching a film.

Still, I’m quite happy to agree with Dan Todman in insisting on a balanced assessment of the War at the time of the Armistice:

Notwithstanding the enormous casualty lists, in 1918 many Britons thought they had achieved a miraculous deliverance from an evil enemy. They celebrated a remarkable military victory and national survival. For those who had served in the trenches, and for those left at home, the war experience encompassed not only horror, frustration and sorrow, but also triumph, pride, camaraderie and even enjoyment, as well as boredom and apathy.

Indeed, but I don’t think the surviving war poets themselves would have disagreed that this was what ‘many Britons thought’. Read, for instance, what Edmund Blunden wrote to introduce a revised edition of his Undertones of War (1928):

This book, which was written with no grander ambition than to preserve some of a multitude of impressions, and admirations, is a sketch of a happy battalion – happy in spite of terrible tasks and daily destruction. I have been blamed for casting a romantic light on such a damnable subject as real war. But I did no more than put on paper what most of my companions felt too.

This surely chimes uncannily with Dan Todman’s description of what ‘the war experience’ encompassed: ‘camaraderie and even enjoyment’. But notice how Blunden is careful not to claim to be providing an historical record of the war, or writing from an historian’s point of view. His book will consist of ‘impressions’, it is to be a ‘sketch’. It is based on memory (and was in fact written in Japan, where Blunden had almost no access to his own written records – as he is at pains to explain.)

Much of the mischief, it seems to me, comes from treating the literary writing of and about the Great War as bad history and the writers as unreliable witnesses, not as poets or novelists. The war poets saw themselves and their poetry looking forwards, not back. Isaac Rosenberg wrote to Laurence Binyon in 1916:

I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right. I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the new and strange conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.

 And Sassoon, writing a Foreword to the Complete Poems of Isaac Rosenberg (1937), saw in poems such as ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ and the poem with which I began, ‘Returning we Hear the Larks’

the poems that he might have written after the war, and the life he might have lived when life began again beyond and behind those trenches which were the limbo of all sane humanity and world-improving imagination. For the spirit of poetry looks beyond life’s trench-lines.

The wartime section of Birdsong itself, we should not forget, ends optimistically. As Stephen Wraysford emerges from the tunnels, the war is over and his life has been saved, thanks to the German soldiers with whom he had been trapped underground. It’s an ironic take on Wilfred Owen’s iconic line from ‘Strange Meeting’: ‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend.’  Birdsong is of course a book steeped in the poetry of the Great War – as is Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting, as is Pat Barker’s Regeneration – and so it is no surprise that, as Stephen picked his way back towards the British lines, Sebastian Faulks adds the final necessary detail:

A lark was singing in the unharmed air above him.

Too obvious? A clich√© image? Almost, but rescued by that resonant adjective ‘unharmed’.

Adrian Barlow

I have written much more fully about the myths and mythologizing of World War 1 in my book The Great War in British Literature (C.U.P. 2000)

Previous posts of mine relating to the Great War include:

Close Reading:war memorials

Edmund Blunden today

Edward Thomas at Buchy


  1. I enjoyed reading this very much-it is fascinating to find an accessible discussion of contemporary ideas about poetry from the First World War. I would love to hear more about the Teacher-Academic Exchange and the ideas that were discussed there. I am reading a book of modern war poetry, mostly by soldiers, interestingly entitled 'Heroes', containing many poems set in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are the same dichotomies you talk about above in it- pride, camaraderie etc v. horror and anger. Thank you for such an interesting blog, Lottie Blunden

    1. Lottie, many thanks for this comment: I am very pleased that you enjoyed the blog: you are quite right that there are similar dichotomies to be found in the representation of other conflicts - both earlier and later. Indeed, they could certainly be traced back as far as the Trojan War. You mention the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan: only last month, the Islamic militants who captured the hostages in the N. African desert referred to the Europeans they were holding as ‘crusaders’ - and they were not using the term romantically or as a compliment.

      I shall be following up some of the themes in ‘What Larks?’ in my next post in a week or so.

      There will be a full report on the Teacher-Academic Exchange and on subsequent activity stemming from it in 'The Use of English' (March 2014)

  2. So the debate about authenticity between historians and novelists continues! It is interesting and valuable to know what the contemporary response to great events, such as war, was like. But there are two challenges here, it seems to me. First, I don't suppose there was, at the time, a "de facto" response to the Great War, or any other conflict for that matter. War is deeply resisted as much as championed as a defence of certain values at the time it takes place.

    Secondly, the cultural perspective on war today cannot be ignored or denied. In this highly stimulating blog you pose the question "should teaching the first world war be made to reflect recent academic research into the subject"?

    I assume the only alternative is to ignore such research, and that it seems to me would betray a wilful desire to ignore contemporary thinking on something like war. Historians who read the literature widely will quickly learn that there is no literary "plot" to bias personal perspectives on conflict. Readers may respond more fully to the way literature, uniquely, focuses on the individual experience of war, which often accumulates its power when the human spirit is most tested. No writer, critic or reader believes this is the only way individuals respond to critical situations, but perhaps what really irk historians is that fictionalized characters embody the experience of real situations more powerfully than any other medium, hence the wide appeal of literature to individual readers.

  3. I'm reminded of a conversation between C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien (reported in Humphrey Carpenter's biography) in which Tolkien made the point that a myth is not the same thing as a lie! A myth dramatises a truth, and sets out in some way to explain the importance of that truth, and its impact upon human beings. Theologians have to be able to grasp that idea, and one would hope that at least some academic historians can do the same: war literature (from Troy onwards) may be a "myth" in that sense, without having to be viewed as an enemy of history.

  4. Meg, I fully agree with you. Many thanks for posting this comment. Adrian