Everything to Nothing: The Poetry of the Great War, Revolution and the Transformation of Europe, by Geert Buelens, translated by David McKay (Verso, 392 pp., $34.95)
The fall of 2016 marks the midway point of the World War I centennial. The British just commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Somme, with its 58,000 British casualties, a battle that still haunts the collective national memory. Britain looks back on the First World War with a mournfulness and intensity not matched by its memories of World War II. For a century, the work of British “trench poets” such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon stood as the most recognizable literary responses to the war in the English-speaking world. Now, a professor of modern Dutch literature at Utrecht University has written a cultural history that expands our understanding of the war’s poetic legacy. Pan-European in scope, Geert Buelens’s Everything to Nothing makes clear that other nations suffered their own disasters, often on a scale comparable with the Somme, but that literary responses to the conflict were much more varied than the conventional wisdom would have it.
Though a poet himself, Buelens shows little interest in aesthetics; readers expecting extensive literary analysis will be disappointed. He scatters learned and interesting—but brief—discussions of Apollinaire, Anna Akhmatova, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Charles Peguy, Fernando Pessoa, and others throughout his narrative to illustrate thematic or historical points. The author is more interested in analyzing the political and cultural context. What role did poets play in reflecting or shaping the emotional and intellectual currents sweeping their nations toward war? What public roles did poets, many of whom were active combatants, play? Did their attitudes change over the course of the war? The answers to these questions are wide-ranging, reminding us that generalizations about the war can be made only with great care.
The “trench-poet” understanding of World War I has been long established in the West. Its themes include the loss of innocence; intergenerational conflict; an ignorant and deluded citizenry; callous and incompetent leadership; mud, blood, and useless suffering, followed by nightmare, despair, and betrayal. The trouble with this story is not that it is false but that it is partial and oversimplified. Buelens’s detailed study shows that many other perspectives exist. Countless high school and college students in the West have read All Quiet on the Western Front, but that famous novel was written in 1927 by a pacifistic author living in a defeated, floundering country. Likewise, in Britain, the trench poets command a central role in secondary school literary curricula. The best produced some of the finest poetry of the war, and their testimony deserves respect. But it shouldn’t be mistaken for objective history, much less accepted as the defining account of the war experience. Buelens’s book offers a wider optic.
Even so, Buelens’s approach has problems of its own. He cites a claim that, in Germany alone, 50,000 poems a day were produced in the early weeks of the war, but he confines himself to a discussion of leading literary figures. It could be argued that leading lights carry more weight in their societies and therefore merit examination, while forgotten doggerel should remain forgotten. But many of these prominent poets didn’t make a name for themselves until after the war, more than a few posthumously. Moreover, if Buelens wishes to widen his lens, why not examine newspaper ephemera, which may have moved millions at the time, while the esoteric pamphlets of the avant-garde artist only reached a select few? Buelens seems to assume that, even on a sociological level, serious literary efforts are the only works that matter.
Buelens shows how the poets presented themselves in different ways at various stages of the war. Some acted as gung-ho propagandists. The Italian Futurists, for example, thought that the war would purge their fellow citizens of attachments to the past and propel their nation into the speed-driven, mechanized tomorrow for which they longed. The war was to be welcomed, in the words of Filippo Marinetti, as “the world’s only hygiene.” The frequently appalling conduct of the war, its grand-scale disasters, and the slaughter of so many Italians didn’t change the Futurists’ minds. Even as the war ground on, they maintained “their love of showy patriotism and muscular action,” forming a political party that would eventually play an instrumental role in the Fiume League for Oppressed Nations, a postwar counterblast to Versailles, with its Wilsonian visions of European community.
The Futurists’ jingoistic cheerleading will surprise many contemporary readers brought up to think that the angry and sorrowful trench poets expressed the universal public attitude toward the war. Yet, the Futurists were not alone in their hopes and desires, especially early on. Italy in 1914 was technologically backward, and welcoming war as a boost to modernization, while morally distasteful, was not as crazy as it may sound to us today. Leading literary figures and artists from other small nations commonly expressed similar hopes that the war would foster their independence and provide them with the respect that they sought on the international stage.
And even powerhouse states had poets advocating for war. Britain furnished, on the one hand, Sir Henry Newbolt’s traditionalist patriotic and soldierly poems, familiar to Edwardian schoolboys and newspaper readers alike, and, on the other, the outrageous “blasts” of avant-gardists such as Wyndham Lewis, leader of the Vorticist movement, who praised the expansion of the empire and preached a “plan of war” against the forces of cultural complacency. Other great powers had comparable figures. While Lewis’s audience was likely small and select, the Russian masses found expression for their war fever in the voices of their leading poets, many of whom urged the unity of Slavic brethren and the punishment of grasping, aggressive Germany. It is not merely that poets, too, succumbed to war fever; in many instances, they helped whip it up.
As for the war as “hygiene,” in Marinetti’s phrase, Buelens isn’t the first to observe that the 1914 generation commonly believed that they were living in decadent, self-indulgent times, and were in need of a worthy cause that would provide a moral crucible and an opportunity to create a worthier state and a more elevated culture. In his famous sonnet sequence, the English golden boy and patriot Rupert Brooke used the imagery of bathing and swimming to indicate the cleansing powers that the war would bring. War would wash away a generation’s sins.
Similarly, Buelens notes that “in the harvest season of 1914, reaping and sowing took on an entirely new meaning.” The war began in late summer, and that autumn furnished ready metaphors of poets and soldiers shedding blood for the sake of their motherland, whose replenished fields would bring forth a new harvest. Right- and left-leaning publications alike joined in the general feeling that “the war was transcendent, lifting everything to a higher plane: politics, emotions and all of human life.”
Such nationalistic mysticism may seem like a thing of the past, but the poets and thinkers of 100 years ago were grappling with issues familiar to readers today. To what degree can Europe become a single entity? Must each nation first develop a strong sense of itself in order to ensure a peaceful and cosmopolitan Europe, or is the abandonment of nationalism the surest route to that goal? What of peoples who feel themselves a nation but have never been granted the right to live as one? Are alliances and cooperatives guarantors of peace, or do they sweep smoldering resentments under the rug, where they will eventually ignite? All these questions were present in 1914; in the summer of Brexit and resurgent nationalism, they are with us again.
Photo by State Library of New South Wales