Poetry Madness

Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, January 18th, 2004


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 Pound, T. 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 import".

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?

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