Currently on display in Mirror of the World is a selection of books by the ‘War Poets’, part of the Library’s commemoration of the centenary of World War I. For many readers both then and now, the lives and works of the war poets epitomise the tragedy of modern warfare.
Wilfred Owen (1893–1918)
The ‘Great War’ (1914–18) changed the physical, political and cultural landscapes of the countries involved, and left indelible marks of trauma on individual combatants and civilians alike. It was one of the most deadly conflicts in world history, with an estimated 37 million casualties, both military and civilian. Those combatants who survived were frequently permanently damaged, psychologically and physically.
The works of artists and writers, many of whom were actively involved as soldiers, preserve first-hand views of the war. Many of the poets whose work is included in this display (including Englishmen Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves) had volunteered for service and been awarded medals for bravery, but gradually came to see the conflict as a futile sacrifice of young men to the political war machine.
An important Australian writer of this period, Sydney-born Frederic Manning, moved to London at 21 to pursue a literary career, where he fell in with Ezra Pound, Max Beerbohm and other rising stars of the avant-garde arts scene. Manning enlisted when war broke out. He survived the trenches of the Somme, but drank increasingly heavily and finally resigned his commission in 1918. Public appetite for soldiers’ memoirs increased throughout the decade, and in 1929 Manning anonymously published a fictionalised account of his war experience, The Middle Parts of Fortune. He was relatively quickly identified as the author of a book hailed as a masterpiece of its genre. It was then published as Her Privates We under Manning’s own name.
Both versions of the work’s title are drawn from ribald word-play in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bemoan that they live in the ‘private, middle parts’ of Lady Fortune; that is, somewhere in between the good and bad luck personified by her head and feet, respectively. Written in soldiers’ vernacular, the novel’s realism subverts society’s narrative of the ‘heroic warrior’, emphasising the crude horror of war.
The intersection of post-modern artistic impulses with industrialised warfare gave rise to forms and groups unimaginable before 1914. In that first year of the War, the poet Ezra Pound and the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis established Blast magazine, launching the short-lived Vorticist movement. Influenced by the abstraction of Cubism, the Vorticists opposed the sentimentality of Victorian art and championed the energy of the machine age. The war proved fatal to Vorticism – literally, as several of its key members were killed at the front, including sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, as announced in the second and final issue of Blast. Philosophically, the mass destruction of the mechanised war caused surviving Vorticists to lose faith in modernity, and return to representational art.
Blast sets out to be a venue for all those vivid and violent ideas that could reach the Public in no other way.
(Henri Gaudier Brzeska)
These books will be on display until October 2015.