The Great War and the Language of Modernism
World War I and the Breakdown of Language
A review by Dominic Hibberd
The Great War and the Language of Modernism is a deeply pondered and (Vincent
Sherry approves of serious puns) ponderous book. Nevertheless its thesis, a fascinating
one, is not difficult. In Gladstone's day and for decades afterwards, the language
of English Liberalism was firmly rational and committed to civilized values. It
took no account of Freud or new studies of crowd psychology and the power of unreason.
In 1914, a Liberal Government and its supporters found themselves -- through their
own fault, Sherry believes -- having to present the Great War as a war for civilization.
They continued to write and speak in their usual measured, elegant way, with the
result that their words became divorced from meaning. Fine arguments that bore
no relation to actual events were rehearsed with sonorous reasonableness. Sherry
quotes some striking examples, such as Havelock
Ellis defending the war in 1917 because it was "the triumphant affirmation
. . . of all that the Pacifists have ever asserted". This wartime separation between
rational statement and reality gave Modernist writers their opportunity: they
could use it to reach into the currents of feeling and attitude that lie hidden
beneath logical discourse.
Apart from a chapter on wartime language and two "interchapters" on Gertrude
Stein and Ford
Madox Ford, Sherry limits his study to three writers, Ezra
S. Eliot and Virginia
Woolf. He claims that his book is the first to consider the relationship
between their work and the language of what he regularly calls "the Liberal
war". Previous critics, he maintains, have lacked a "historically informed view".
Prevailing notions have been Leavisite: Eliot was a poet of "Reason", and the
First World War scarcely interrupted the steady onward flow of English literature.
The American New Critics thought much the same, although there was more excuse
for them because they had no direct experience of war. Even recent commentators
have missed the trail: the line of approach in The
Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell results in a discussion that
can only take in writers whom Fussell himself regards as second-rank, while
Jay Winter's Sites
of Memory, Sites of Mourning concludes that the true response to the war
was traditional and even romantic.
Sherry discovers a few people who saw through Liberal rhetoric as early as
1914. "The verbal virtue begins where the living strength ends", Dora Marsden
said prophetically on August 1 of that year, and in September, "'Mumbo-jumbo,
Law and Mesopotamia' can always be relied on to work all the tricks, and cloak
all the spoof". (Not much changes: "Mumbo-jumbo, Mesopotamia and weapons of
mass destruction" might be today's version.) Marsden was writing in the Egoist,
of course, where Sherry perhaps began picking up clues. Another important source
of clues is the Cambridge Magazine, where C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards
were debating language at the same time that the magazine was questioning government
pronouncements and giving coverage to E. D. Morel's exposure of the secret treaties.
Later, in The Meaning of Meaning (1924), Ogden and Richards protested
at a current mode of language that was mere "musical discourse" devoid of rational
meaning, "a veritable orgy of verbomania". Sherry detects in that comment a
hint of reluctant pleasure: "ver-ver" -- the two critics, especially Richards
as it turns out, are attracted in spite of themselves to "that rustle of respondent
syllables". So Richards goes on alone in Science and Poetry (1926) to
develop a theory of "pseudostatement": the poet works at the emotional, not
the intellectual level of language, though using intellectual patterns to satisfy
the reader's need for such things as grammar and narrative. Poets may thus make
statements -- pseudostatements -- that are rationally false yet emotionally
true. This theory, according to Sherry, derives from the failure of rational
language during "the Liberal war".
Sherry makes a dazzling case. But after a while, doubts begin to stir. Science
and Poetry apparently makes no overt reference to the war, and Richards
may not even have realized where his theory came from -- but that, Sherry unhesitatingly
concludes, is "testament, all in all, to the daunting force of its origins".
When Sherry returns to Richards many pages later, he seems to say that Richards
had in fact been explicitly discussing "the discourses of the Liberal war".
An essay by Pound is said to refer "silently but unmistakably to the Liberal
Word at war". The evidence can be heard "once it is listened for". Similarly,
Sherry damns "the psychopompery of the Liberal logos" so often as "inanity",
"perfidy" and "folly" that by sheer dint of repetition he can eventually describe
it as "now-legendary folly". Rather too much of his argument seems to depend
on this kind of proof by cumulative assertion -- just the sort of "trickery"
that he condemns.
It is still all too rare for critics to read Modernist literature in the context
of its historical period, and Sherry's work in that direction is to be
warmly welcomed. However, he remains a literary critic at heart, and he gives
himself an awkward balancing act between the two disciplines. On the one hand,
he offers large notions of "the Liberal Word" and "the Liberal
war", illustrated by selective quotations from the public media. On the
other, he presents -- at considerable length -- close analysis of a
handful of sometimes arcane works by two poets and a novelist. The history in
his book is noticeably thinner than the criticism. The evidence for Liberal
perfidy, for instance, is said
to be the secret treaties, and Sherry accepts Morel's view of them without
question, disposing of them in a single page. He gives the same amount of space
to Pound's having once put the word "reasonable" into inverted
commas. The circumstances of the Liberal Government's going to war were
complex and are still controversial, but one would scarcely guess that from
the way they are dealt with here. Sherry also seems unfamiliar with English
details: Lady Ottoline Morrell would never have put Garsington Manor into inverted
commas, for example; its garden was not her "ancestral demesne"; and
the people who gathered there were hardly typical "representatives and
attendants" of English Liberalism.
Sherry reaches safer ground when he turns to discussing his three writers.
His literary criticism is often illuminating, although some of it is for adepts
only. Outsiders may have difficulty in sharing his admiration for Pound's genius
in repeating the syllable "gen" at least five times in "Homage to Sextus Propertius"
(a longish poem, after all) or for Pound's introducing his own name into the
same poem ("expound" -- "ex-pound", Sherry glosses, a "prodigious vacancy").
And it is not always easy to see how this kind of analysis relates to "the Liberal
war". The speaker of Eliot's "Gerontion" may well be one of the "old men" who
were so often reviled by young writers in the Cambridge Magazine and
elsewhere during the war, but the "White feathers on the snow" at the end of
the poem seem unlikely to represent wartime white feathers, which were never
given to "little old men". Nevertheless, Sherry is on the whole persuasive in
insisting that for his three Modernists in the early 1920s the failure of "the
Liberal logos" was significant; indeed he claims it to have been the "most important
memory from recent history", giving their work its "specific resonance and ultimate
And again one hesitates. "Ultimate import"? The portentous style of
this book draws attention to itself. Some of it is just academic Americanese,
with its fondness for archaic words (clerisy, contumely, limns), common words
used in specialized senses (inscribes, signature), nouns used as verbs ("he
critiques", "he tropes himself") and classical words used as
though they were standard English (res, cultus, doxa). But Sherry's language
is far from being mere jargon or a professional necessity. He delights in it.
Adjectives and adverbs proliferate. He loves to use words in pairs, often alliterating:
"receive and renew", "progressive and providential", "exaggerates
and reduces, replicates and ridicules", "his target and urge, his
animus and provocation", "their one climax and only climacteric, their
ongoing apocalypse and sustained revelation", "To that antique repository,
the antic riposte . . .", "The forcing of the political logic will
slide easily . . . into the farcing of the artistic logos". The "rustle
of respondent syllables" swells sometimes to a distracting roar. What are
we to make of this? Is Sherry giving clues that he is using pseudostatement
for critical purposes, appealing to something deeper than reason? Or has he
strayed unawares into something strangely akin to the "musical" rhetoric
that he deplores in those Liberals of long ago?
Perhaps only an American could answer such questions. For this is very much
an American book. Sherry's chapter on Woolf is one of his best, probing and
perceptive (the habit is catching), but had it been omitted the other chapters
would have needed little alteration to cover the scar. The discussion centres
on the two Americans, Pound and Eliot, and on their role in the aftermath of
what Sherry calls "the end-game of an entire civilisation". He takes his contemporary
bearings from two other Americans, Fussell and Winter, and he does the right
things for an American audience, carefully explaining his two poets' attitudes
to Jews and Irishmen as "mimicry" of the English, a necessary part of getting
established in London. His photographs, which would have been better omitted,
are in some cases blatantly propagandist. And his version of England (he never
calls it Britain) has a faint but detectable flavour of Hollywood's: an England
of ancestral lawns and political intrigue, where most of the authorities are
either fools or imperialist villains. He is writing about that crucial moment
in American history -- and myth -- when the young country's cultural independence,
as well as its military supremacy, was finally made secure, when, as in some
twentieth-century Hamlet, the American Fortinbras entered through the unbarred
door, glanced at the corpse-littered stage with a sigh and perhaps a half-hidden
smile, and took over the kingdom. So Wilfred
Owen and Isaac
Rosenberg are mentioned only once, in an endnote. Credit is given in passing
to a few Modernists, but essentially it is Pound and Eliot alone who triumph
over the entire "ruined clerisy" of Liberal England. But one is left wondering
about Vincent Sherry's rustling syllables and methods of proof: what might they
portend for today's American clerisy?