An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016


Here is a poem that you probably will not like very much:


Half a league, half a league,

Half a league onward,

All in the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

5 ’Forward, the Light Brigade!

Charge for the guns!’ he said:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.


’Forward, the Light Brigade!’

10 Was there a man dismayed?

Not though the soldier knew

Some one had blundered:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

15 Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to the right of them,

Cannon to the left of them,

20 Cannon in front of them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

25 Into the mouths of hell

Rode the six hundred.


Flashed all their sabres bare,

Flashed as they turned in air

Sabring the gunner there,

30 Charging an army, while

All the world wondered:

Plunged in the battery-smoke

Right through the line they broke;

Cossack and Russian

35 Reeled from the sabre-stroke

Shattered and sundered.

Then they rode back, but not

Not the six hundred.


Cannon to the right of them,

40 Cannon to the left of them,

Cannon behind them

Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

While horse and hero fell,

45 They that had fought so well

Came through the jaws of Death

Back from the mouth of hell,

All that was left of them,

Left of the six hundred.


50 When can their glory fade?

O the wild charge they made!

All the world wondered.

Honour the charge they made!

Honour the Light Brigade,

55 Noble six hundred!

The poem recounts an incident from the Crimean War (1854—6): after a ’blunder’ by an officer, 673 lightly armed British cavalrymen charged the Russian artillery, resulting in about 400 British casualties. ’The Charge of the Light Brigade’ was written on 2 December 1854 by Alfred Tennyson, the poet laureate — ’in a few minutes’, he says, after reading a report of the incident in the Times newspaper. It is a famous poem that is invariably included in anthologies, so you’ll probably know it or know of it. If you had gone to an English school in the early twentieth century you might well have been made to memorize and recite it. But what is it about the poem that you (probably) don’t like and indeed that you may disapprove of? We suppose there might be two things in particular. First, there are the poem’s militaristic repetitions and rhythms. This means that, despite its intricately varied form, the poem can seem somewhat crude or unsophisticated. And the formal, public nature of the poem might seem a little dated as well — just the kind of thing you might expect of a nineteenth-century poet laureate. Second, there is the sentiment that underlies the poem: it seems unreservedly to celebrate warfare, heroism, and perhaps above all an unthinking and unquestioning adherence to one’s duty. Tennyson’s poem seems to glorify the actions of those compatriots who fight and die in war, even — or especially — in the context of a futile, misguided, suicidal military manoeuvre. Someone has blundered, but the poem is not particularly interested in who that might be, or in holding anyone responsible for the error. Instead, Tennyson simply seeks to praise the soldierly virtues of those who carried out orders. For these reasons, the poem has come to seem (as one critic puts it) ’mildly ludicrous, slightly contemptible’ (McGann 1985, 190—1).

We think that you might like Wilfred Owen’s ’Futility’ rather more:

Move him into the sun —

Gently its touch awoke him once,

At home, whispering of fields half-sown.

Always it woke him, even in France,

5 Until this morning and this snow.

If anything might rouse him now

The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds —

Woke once the clays of a cold star.

10 Are limbs, so dear achieved, are sides

Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

— O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

This two-part sonnet was written in May 1918 and was published in The Nation the following month — one of only five poems that Owen published in his lifetime. Taken in the context of Owen’s life (he was a soldier who saw action in 1917 and returned to France to fight in August 1918 before being killed in battle in November) and in the context of his other poems written during this period, the poem can clearly be seen as a ’war poem’. It gradually becomes clear that the ’him’ of the first line is a dead soldier. Like Tennyson’s poem, Owen’s is well known, and like Tennyson’s it focuses on a futile death. Like Tennyson’s, Owen’s is a poem of commemoration or mourning. In other respects, however, ’Futility’ seems very different. It takes the form of an intimately personal, even private lyric, expressing the sadness of an individual (a soldier, rather than a civilian newspaper reader, we might surmise from the intimacy and directness of the poem). This contrasts with Tennyson’s more detached, formal and public expression of pride, a kind of triumphant mourning. For Owen, as he famously said in a planned Preface to his poems, the poetry ’is in the pity’ (Owen 1983, 2:535). In its own way, Owen’s poem is just as much a piece of propaganda as Tennyson’s jingoistic ballad. It is a matter of anti-war propaganda in this case — though it has been read by some critics as being, in its nostalgic evocation of ’home’, a kind of pro-British propaganda (see, for example, Pittock 2001). ’Futility’ works as public propaganda through its very privateness. It works as propaganda by appearing not to. Only at the very end of the poem does it become evident why it is called ’Futility’. The poem entails an almost abstract meditation on the futility of war, moving from the expression of mourning for an individual soldier to the question of the futility of human life. It shifts from curiously muted imperatives (’move him’, ’Think how’) to a series of plangently rhetorical questions. There is no narrative beyond this movement of the speaker’s thoughts and we know next to nothing about the individual who died, an individual who in fact seems to stand (in a kind of synecdoche) for the many others, many British at least, who died in the First World War. The poem’s sonnet form itself disavows any suggestion of militarism or of the celebration of battle: the subtly varied rhymes and half-rhymes (’sun’, ’once’, ’half-sown’, ’France’, ’snow’, ’now’, ’know’) and the gently tripping rhythm (’Think how it wakes the seeds — / Woke once the clays of a cold star’) themselves abrogate the strident uniformity of militarism. Even nationalism is subdued to a longing simply for home. The poem won’t march in step, so to speak.

We think you’ll like Owen’s poem more than Tennyson’s (although we might be wrong, of course, especially if you have the military in mind as a career option). In other words, we imagine you will be more inclined to assent to Owen’s understated critique of war and militarism. It is easier to identify with the quiet, meditative, lyric poise of its individualized elegiac voice, its anti-militaristic rhythms. Such a preference would be in keeping with a more general change in literary and cultural taste over the last 150 years, especially in the wake of two world wars, the American trauma of Vietnam, what many see as the disasters of the US and British invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, together with the seemingly endless and gruesome civil wars in (as of 2015) Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria and elsewhere. The public, nationalistic celebration of military heroism of the nineteenth century has given way to a more contemporary appreciation of the significance of private sorrow and a resistance to the futility of war, any war, all war.

But things were not always so. Literature begins with war, with the rage of war. Menis: wrath, fury, rage. The first word of the first great poem in the Western literary tradition, Homer’s Iliad (c. 700 BC), declares its topic: menis, the rage of Achilles. The Western tradition, in other words, starts up in rage and blood, the rage for war, the rage for rage — godlike, swift-footed, murderous Achilles’ rage:

Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,

hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,

great fighters’ souls, but made the bodies carrion,

feasts for the dogs and birds,

and the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.

Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,

Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

(Homer 1990: Book 1, lines 1—8)

What is striking about such a beginning, and about Homer’s poem as a whole, is its keen enthusiasm for war, a celebration of war that is joined with loud regret for its murderous, bloody losses. The poet calls on the goddess, his muse, to ’sing the rage’ of Achilles, attempting to summon up poetry that will itself be warrior-like, belligerent. Homer’s narrative is driven by its tale of war, just as its readers are, and at the same time it is sickened by its own violence, just as its readers are. The language itself, in Robert Fagles’s evocative translation, has a belligerence that is at once appalling, and appalled. Here, even at the very start of the Western literary tradition, there is a sense that war is all, that war is total and never ending. The Iliad is thoroughly immersed in warfare, with up to half of its 17,000 lines concerned with battles. Its set-piece battle-scenes and intricate, bloody evocations of hand-to-hand fighting make the Iliad seem like a multiplex conflation of Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan and The Hurt Locker — but in the hexameters of Homeric Greek verse rather than as a Dolby-enhanced cinematic experience. The opening to the Iliad takes place in the tenth year of the Achaean siege of Troy, and the sense that the war might never end is voiced early on by Agamemnon: ’We are still fighting it, / no end in sight’ (Book 2, lines 142—3). Indeed, the end of Homer’s poem is not the end of the war: victory and defeat are still looming. We leave, we are left, at the end of the Iliad, with the death of Hector, the Trojan leader. ’The Iliad is a poem that lives and moves and has its being in war’, comments the classical scholar Bernard Knox, ’in that world of organized violence in which a man justifies his existence most clearly by killing others’ (Homer 1990, 35). This war, Homer’s war, is a war without end.

Amazingly, for much of the twentieth century the Iliad was read as anything but a war poem (see Tatum 2003, 49—50). In his classic study of the poem Tradition and Design in the ’Iliad’ (1930), for example, Maurice Bowra analyses it as a ’profoundly moral story’ that is ’tragic in character’ (26). Why is it that a poem about a war has systematically been read differently, as if it was ’really’ about something else, not about war at all? It may be that the answer has to do with the poem’s obsessive focus on the very stuff of war, on rage, violence, blood and bodies in pieces, and with our desire to think of poetry in other terms, as celebrating other virtues, less polemical kinds of thinking. It may at least partly be explained, in other words, by the delight that the poem takes in gore, savagery, rage, violence. Here are some samples from Book 16, if you can stomach them:

Brave Patroclus first —

just as Areilycus swerved in sudden flight

he gored him in the hip with a slashing spear

and the bronze lancehead hammered through his flesh,

the shaft splintering bone as he pitched face-first,

pounding the ground —

And the veteran Menelaus wounded Thoas,

raking his chest where the shield-rim left it bare,

and loosed his limbs —

And Amphiclus went for Meges

but Meges saw him coming and got in first by far,

spearing him up the thigh where it joins the body,

the point where a man’s muscle bunches thickest:

the tough sinews shredded around the weapon’s point

as the dark swirled down his eyes —


Idomeneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth,

the merciless brazen spearpoint raking through,

up under the brain to split his glistening skull —

teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids

with a gush of blood and both nostrils spurting,

mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood

and death’s dark cloud closed down around his corpse.

(Homer 1990, Book 16, lines 362—74, 407—13)

In this respect, Homer’s poem is the equivalent not of the sanitized violence of a Hollywood war movie, nor even of the discreetly edited images from ’war torn’ countries that are beamed into your sitting room by CNN or the BBC, but of Goya’s shocking images of the Spanish War of Independence in Disasters of War (1810—14): bodies in pieces, bodies hacked, sliced, torn apart, decapitated, dismembered, disembowelled. Homer’s words, like Goya’s pictures, are grotesque in their realism, appalling in their unflinching, even zealous, recording of human suffering, in their representation of people violently objectified as violated, hacked and pierced bodies.

So what is a war poem presenting us with? What are Homer, Tennyson and Owen commemorating? To what are they testifying or bearing witness? The question of commemoration and testimony, of poetry as bearing witness and the associated questions of trauma and trauma theory (see Chapter 15), have become important dimensions of literary studies in the past decade or so, both in relation to cultural representations of war and, more especially, in relation to Holocaust studies. ’How is the act of writing tied up with the act of bearing witness?’ asks Shoshana Felman in Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (1992). ’Is the act of reading literary texts itself inherently related to the act of facing horror?’ she ponders (2). Writing of Claude Lanzmann’s film Shoah (1985), a film of first-hand testimonies by witnesses of — mostly victims of — the Holocaust, Felman defines our era as an ’age of testimony’, one in which witnessing itself ’has undergone a major trauma’. Lanzmann’s film, Felman argues, presents ’a historical crisis of witnessing’ out of which witnessing becomes ’in all senses of the word, a critical activity’ (Felman 1992, 206). For Felman, this ’crisis’ involves the sense that bearing witness to something of such unimaginable horror as the Holocaust puts the act of witnessing itself under extreme pressure. Susan Gubar expresses at least part of the difficulty in the subtitle to her recent book Poetry After Auschwitz: Remembering What One Never Knew (2003): the problem of testimony in the context of the Holocaust has to do with the difficulty of fully or properly ’knowing’ what has been witnessed, even by those most directly involved as victims — or indeed as persecutors.

But the crisis of witnessing also involves the idea that, as Jacques Derrida puts it, testimony ’always goes hand in hand with at least the possibility of fiction, perjury, lie’ (Derrida 2000, 27). As Derrida makes clear, this is not to say that all testimony is fiction, perjury, lie, not to dissolve the crucial distinction between truth and lie, truth and fiction, but to suggest nevertheless that they are inextricably linked. This is evident, not least, from the writings of the Holocaust, writings by victims and witnesses such as Primo Levi, who themselves struggle to make sense, to form narratives, out of their experiences, to piece their experiences together into coherent shapes. Levi’s If This Is A Man (published in the USA as Survival in Auschwitz) (1958) is an extraordinary account of his time in Auschwitz — ’Auschwitz, anus mundi, ultimate drainage site of the German universe’, as he calls it (Levi 1989, 65). Explaining the ’fragmentary character’ of the book, Levi recounts that, at the time, the need to tell his story involved ’an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with … other elementary needs’. The shaping of these fragments into a book only occurred later. The book could only retrospectively lend coherence to what took place in the arsehole of the world (Levi 1987, 15—16). Levi even proposes, in his later meditation on witnessing the Holocaust The Drowned and the Saved (1986), that the witnesses to the full horror of Auschwitz are precisely those who can never bear witness, since they are those who went under, who ’drowned’, who were killed. As Paul Celan writes, in what is perhaps the most succinct but inexhaustibly provoking remark on this topic: ’No one / bears witness for / the witness’ (Celan 1971, 241). The witness is always, in some sense, deprived. There is something eerie and ghostly about the solitude of bearing witness.

Derrida adds another perception to our thinking of testimony, however, a perception that is fundamental to the question of the Shoah, the destruction or burning, the Holocaust of the Second World War in particular, but that will also take us back to the question of war literature, and to the poems of Tennyson, Owen and Homer. As Derrida argues, testimony involves a ’universalizable singularity’ (Derrida 2000, 94). A testimony must in the first place be singular, unique:

I am the only one to have seen this unique thing [the witness says], the only one to have heard or to have been put in the presence of this or that, at a determinate, indivisible instant; and you must believe me because you must believe me — this is the difference, essential to testimony, between belief and proof — you must believe me because I am irreplaceable. (40)

But at the same time, this singularity, this irreplaceability of testimony, of the witness, must also be ’exemplary’, must also stand as an example. The witness implicitly announces:

I swear to tell the truth, where I have been the only one to see or hear and where I am the only one who can attest to it, this is true to the extent that anyone in my place, at that instant, would have seen or heard or touched the same thing and could repeat exemplarily, universally, the truth of my testimony. The exemplarity of the ’instant’, that which makes it an ’instance’, if you like, is that it is singular, singular and universal, singular and universalizable. The singular must be universalizable; this is the testimonial condition. (41; translation modified)

Let us return to our three war poems and briefly consider how each is caught up in its own way with problems of testimony and exemplarity. The force of Homer’s narration of violent hackings and gory deaths involves the specificity of those violations, the uniqueness of each slash, each stab. But the force also inheres in the exemplarity of these actions and these scenes, which means that one stab or slash has to take the place of thousands (just as in Hollywood movies, for different, for financial reasons, a handful of soldiers must take the place of thousands). The emotional, visceral effect on us as readers is surely to make us imagine what it would be like to receive or to deliver such violations of the body. And it is the terrible specificity, the graphic violence of the images that gives them their sense of authenticity, even as we understand that these acts take place in the realm of myth, that ’Homer’ (whoever he was or they were) is not a witness, that ’Homer’ is part of the myth. Part of what is remarkable about these scenes, perhaps, is our uncertainty about their undecidably mythic status (remembering that, as such critics as Paul Veyne have argued, in Ancient Greek culture myths were at the same time believed in and not believed in, seen as both true and not true (see Veyne 1988)). By contrast, through the intimacy of his language, his touching lyricism, Owen evokes a sense that this one man’s death stands for the deaths of thousands of others and that the speaker’s authentically personal witnessing of this death can stand as a wider argument about the futility of war. The ’Futility’ of the title is not just of this death but of all war deaths. But in this case, it is on account of the ’authenticity effect’ (as we might call it), the sense that the speaker has been a witness to this particular individual death, that he can speak with authority about war. Finally, Tennyson makes the opposite argument, an argument for war or at least for its heroism, when he witnesses, as a newspaper reader, the heroism of soldiers even in the face of blundering officers. And it is precisely because his witnessing is not unique and indeed not direct that his poem may seem to those living in the contemporary ’age of testimony’ to be false, phoney, unconvincing, crass.

The different testamentary structures of the poems of Tennyson, Owen and Homer open up another question, the question of the ’aesthetic’ pleasure that we might take from scenes of death, sacrifice, savagery. Why do we like to read and imagine such scenes? What is it about such scenes that is so compelling, even as they repel? It is in dealing with paradoxical questions such as these that psychoanalysis can be especially helpful. Freud’s ’Psychopathic Characters on the Stage’ (1904), for example, offers a rich exploration of drama and agon (or conflict), and of the reader’s or speaker’s suffering as a form of ’compensation’ (Freud 1985h, 123). In fact, war haunts the work of Sigmund Freud. There are writings that specifically focus on its meanings and psychological effects, such as ’Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915), ’On Transience’ (1916), ’Mourning and Melancholia’ (1917), and ’Why War?’ (1933). But war is in fact everywhere in Freud’s thinking. Freud is a great theorist of war and of agon more generally. Amongst his most remarkable, devastating essays in this context is ’Civilization and Its Discontents’ (1930). Here he offers a compelling explanation for our delight in — and, to use Seamus Heaney’s phrase from ’Punishment’ (1975), our ’civilized outrage’ at — images of war. Freud argues that aggression goes deep but that it conflicts with our sense of ’civilization’, our sense of ourselves as civilized, cultured, rational and reasonable beings. In ’Civilization and Its Discontents’, he argues that human beings are driven by what he calls the ’pleasure principle’ but that the ’programme of becoming happy … cannot be fulfilled’, and indeed that ’what we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery’ (Freud 1985e, 271, 274). Freud suggests that there is a fundamental conflict or contradiction between our primitive instincts — in particular our aggressiveness — and our desire or need for civilization (by which he means both what he calls ’Eros’, the ’instinct’ of love, fellowship, community, and the need for security). Rather than simply being ’gentle creatures who want to be loved’, Freud tells us, human beings are, ’on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness’ (302). It is ’not easy for men to give up the satisfaction of this inclination to aggression’, Freud argues, and they ’do not feel comfortable without it’ (304—5). The reason for our unhappiness, Freud suggests, is that ’civilization’ demands that we forgo our ’natural aggressive instinct, the hostility of each against all and of all against each’ (313). ’The price we pay for our advance in civilization’, he declares, ’is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt’ (327). In so-called ’civilized’ society, our instinctual aggression is turned inward, it becomes that kind of psychic violence of the ’conscience’ experienced as feelings of ’guilt’. Freud’s analysis of human aggression and its conflict with the social or ’civilized’ might help us to understand something of the problem of the literature of war, and our ambivalence in reading it.

Freud helps us to think differently about literature and war — more polemically, perhaps (’polemic’ comes from the Greek polemos, war). In particular, his work serves to challenge two perhaps rather naive, sentimental or unhistorical conceptions about war literature. In the first place it allows us to question the assumption that war is the opposite of peace and that peace is the natural or normal condition of society. ’War and Peace’: Leo Tolstoy’s title can easily be read as articulating a contrast, an opposition. But it can also, and perhaps more productively, be construed as a conjunction, a joining up. We might thus start to explore the idea that there is no literature that is not war literature. War in the Iliad, remember, never ends. And war in ’post-war’ Europe and beyond has never stopped — in colonial, neocolonial and postcolonial arenas; as the ’cold war’ (in which ’real’ war was displaced to other, mostly developing, countries); in tribal conflicts, civil wars and inter-ethnic killings in Europe and across the globe; and as the so-called ’war against terror’, our twenty-first-century war of religion. Second, Freud’s work encourages us to question the assumption that the literature of war is, or should be, somehow ’naturally’ or normally against war, anti-war, pacifist or non-combatant. In fact, something of the opposite is true: the history of Western literature is a history of warfare and belligerence, of agon and polemos. From Homer’s Iliad to Virgil’s Aeneid to Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to Milton’s Paradise Lost, the epic tradition in particular, that most elevated of genres, has celebrated the heroes of warfare and celebrated the victory of the mighty. And traces of war are found in more recent epics even when they appear to be about other things than war. We could consider, for example, William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (with its turning point of the French Revolution), Keats’s Hyperion (a poem on the war of the gods), Byron’s Don Juan (with its fascination with the Napoleonic Wars), Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (which according to Whitman himself ’revolves around’ the American Civil War (quoted in), Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (which spans two world wars), or David Jones’s In Parenthesis (recounting the poet’s experience as a soldier in the First World War).

We might remember Doris Lessing’s remark that it is ’sentimental to discuss the subject of war, or peace, without acknowledging that a great many people enjoy war — not only the idea of it, but the fighting itself’ and that this is true ’even of people whose experiences in war were terrible, and which ruined their lives’ (quoted in Tatum 2003, 116). That certainly seems to have been the case in the early twentieth century, at the beginning of its first ’great’ war: Bertrand Russell expresses pacifist horror at finding in 1914 that ’the anticipation of carnage was delightful to something like ninety per cent of the population’ (Russell 1968, 2:17). It is for this reason, perhaps, that literature is not simply against war, the poetry is not only in the ’pity’. And an understanding of this fact will perhaps better help us to understand the strange double-talk and double-dealings of literature, and to appreciate the deep, troubled and incessant conjunction of literature and war.

Further reading

For fascinating recent work on literature and the Holocaust, see Geoffrey Hartman’s Scars of the Spirit (2002), Daniel Schwartz’s Imagining the Holocaust (1999), Susan Gubar’s Poetry After Auschwitz (2003) and Robert Eaglestone, The Holocaust and the Postmodern (2004). For a psycho-analytic approach to the question of aggression and war, see the title essay in Jacqueline Rose’s Why War? (1993). James Tatum’s excellent study of the culture of war in The Mourner’s Song (2003) focuses in particular on Homer and the Vietnam war and touches on a number of points raised in this chapter; James Winn’s The Poetics of War (2008) is a very readable book on what he calls ’the terrible beauty of war’. There are very many interesting and valuable studies of literature and the First World War in particular: see, for example, Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975),Samuel Hynes’s A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (1990), Allyson Booth’s Postcards from the Trenches (1996), Vincent Sherry, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War (2005), Santanu Das, The Cambridge Companion to Poetry of the First World War (2014), John Phillips and Ryan Bishop, Modernist Avant-Garde Aesthetics and Contemporary Military Technology (2010), and more generally Tim Kendall, ed., The Oxford Companion to British and Irish War Poetry (2007).