Monday, 26 January 2009

Winn's The Poetry of War

I have been reading James Anderson Winn's The Poetry of War, which was published last year by Cambridge University Press. The book is nothing if not panoramic: with chapter titles like 'Honor and Memory' and 'Shame and Slaughter', it draws on examples from Homer to Bruce Springsteen. This creates opportunities and dangers. Winn brings into startling relation texts which are centuries and cultures apart; few scholars have written so elegantly about the connections between the classical and the modern traditions of war writing. But in displaying such extraordinary breadth of knowledge Winn necessarily sacrifices depth. The book shifts dizzyingly from example to example, rarely dwelling long enough on any given poem or author. This is not the book to read if you want to find out about, say, Wilfred Owen, or Walt Whitman, or even Homer; but if you are interested in the ways in which their works speak to each other, The Poetry of War is essential reading.

Winn's need for speed means that occasionally his statements seem like provocations, which he does not stay to justify. So, for example, he calls 'To His Love' Ivor Gurney's 'finest poem'. As this is the only poem by Gurney which he mentions, it is impossible to know whether he has a strong antipathy to the rest of Gurney's work or simply hasn't read it. Winn also claims that 'Strange Meeting' is Owen's 'most radical' poem, mainly on account of its humanizing of the enemy and its belief that war is anti-progressive. But by 1917-1918, such views were shared by many soldiers and most surviving soldier-poets. Isaac Rosenberg, who does not warrant so much as a name-check in Winn's book, was appalled by war from the start, claiming that it went against all his principles of justice; and his 'Break of Day in the Trenches' (described by Fussell as the finest poem of the war) wryly remarks on the rat's cosmopolitan sympathies as it scuttles between the trenches.

Winn's broad brush also risks obscuring highly nuanced poems such as 'Easter 1916', in which Yeats is credited with showing his 'love' for the Irish rebels. Well, yes... and no. Winn goes on: 'When Yeats writes of the "terrible beauty" of the Easter Rising, he may be thinking of the way the English put down the revolution by indiscriminately shelling the center of Dublin, starting fires that burned much of the city. In acknowledging the beauty inherent in fire and destruction, Yeats participates in a long tradition stretching back to Homer.' Winn's sympathies are a lot easier to determine than Yeats's. What began as wild surmise (Yeats 'may be thinking of') becomes established fact in the following sentence.

The Poetry of War concludes by pointing out that 'poets as a group have no special claim to the moral high ground'. The same is true of their readers. Acknowledging the 'contradictory emotions that war calls forth in all of us', Winn's book tests our assumptions about war and war poetry even while it sometimes fails to test its own assumptions as thoroughly as it ought.

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