The Edinburgh Companion to 20th Century British and American War Literature

For such a substantial and outwardly formidable collection of essays that explore Anglophone creative, literary and innovative reactions to the various conflicts of the twentieth century, each essay is in itself incisive, scrupulously researched, nuanced and above all highly accessible. Adam Piette reminds us twice that this volume is ‘exemplary rather than comprehensive’, aiming ‘to inspire new directions’ and ‘roads that might be taken in the future’. One of its strengths is this awareness that it is not the definitive document on war and literature in the twentieth century, as the impression it leaves is of much more room and scope for further research. For instance, while the direful image of the concentration camps and their correspondent literatures are discussed here, it leaves the question of the unique strand of literature that came from P.O.W. camps, such as Robert Garioch’s Two Men in a Blanket.

This is certainly not a criticism, as the feeling one gets is not of a missed opportunity, but a trading of specialties and knowledge so that the reader can point out areas that have been overlooked while simultaneously finding out about aspects of war and literature they knew nothing or little about beforehand. There was plenty of work here that appealed to my research purview of World War Two poetry.

In addition I was also fascinated to discover more about the roles of technologies and spaces in terms of the psycho-geography of war. The final article, Nick Mansfield’s ‘Thinking War’ puts all that comes before it within a convincing theoretical framework where ‘peace’ and ‘war’ become more than interdependent concepts, their usefulness as terms for academic study of war brought into question. I am in agreement with literary critic Peter Nicholls, that the overall effect of the book is to show war as a continuous and pervasive ‘lived reality’ rather than a concatenation of historical aberrations.

Jane Lewty’s piece on the relationships between radio, poetry and séance during World War One draws out some important observations, particularly about the distortion of voice in relation to George Bernard Shaw and Ezra Pound’s ill-advised political broadcasts where the aural quality of the voice was brought into question as much as the views being expounded. Allyson Booth writes compellingly about life and literature from the trenches, claiming that even when soldiers were finally allowed to leave this muddy, Hadean maze ‘the instinct to escape persists’. Another important chapter is Petra Rau’s ‘Reflections on the enemy’ where we see many poets of World War Two devoted, however unconsciously, to a process of de-Vansittartism, an undoing of the handbook take on the ‘enemy’.

Peter Robinson’s ‘Desert and Jungle War Poems’ offers a new take on the poetry of Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis as works of ‘evasive consciousness’ which are a corollary of the ‘alienation’ they felt in such unfamiliar surroundings. Robinson mentions Hamish Henderson’s ‘Fort Capuzzo’ as a poem where ‘sympathy with the enemy dead has the paradoxical effect of depoliticising the meaning of the war at the point when political advantage is gained’ – this is not a criticism of Henderson’s war poetry, but an enunciation of its humanist strength, showing us how much further the poetry of World War Two goes beyond the aesthetic and intellectual expectations placed on it because of the poetry of World War One. This is also one of the main points of Jonathan Bolton’s article on the poetry of World War Two, that the work which will endure is that which offers something new or progressive, although Bolton’s selected poets are somewhat predictably Auden, Fuller, Day Lewis and Douglas.

It might be unreasonable to expect that a volume that spans a century and looks at the work of multiple wars should examine in depth the Scottish poets and writers of World War Two. However, there are points where the absence seems more than accidental oversight. Jane Potter, in her ‘English Poetry of the Great War’, criticises the received view of the authenticity and primacy of English war poetry:

Our cultural DNA is not naturally inherited but artificially infused, vaccinating us against other voices, as if they could infect the ‘true’ vision of war laid down by the ‘lost generation’. (27)

However, one of the strengths of Scottish World War Two poetry is its belief in polyphony, in many and sometimes disagreeing voices and languages. For instance, when James Fountain, in his ‘Poetry of the Spanish Civil War’, writes about Roy Campbell’s notorious pro-Franco poem Flowering Rifle, it seems hard to believe Hugh MacDiarmid’s riposte The Battle Continues is not at least mentioned. Similarly, when Fountain writes about Yeats’ struggle between love and political commitment, the poet and the man of action, a discussion of Sorley MacLean’s poetry of the period seems necessary, but lacking. Yeats writes ‘how can I, that girl standing there / my attention fix / on Roman or on Russian / or on Spanish politics?’ while MacLean writes, in Dain do Eimhir, ‘Girl of the yellow, heavy-yellow, gold-yellow hair…/ would your song and splendid beauty take / from me the dead loathsomeness of these ways / the brute and the brigand at the head of Europe’.

This feeling, that an awareness of the Scottish poetic achievement during World War Two would not go amiss in some of these articles, crops up repeatedly. In Ian Patterson’s article on pacifism and conscientious objection, the names of Norman MacCaig and Douglas Young are not mentioned, but their unique cases show that the reasons for refusal of conscription were much more complicated, and indeed interesting, in Scotland although Patterson does mention in passing Edwin Morgan and Fred Urqhuart. However, the fact that my reading has located occasional critical blind-spots is not a stumbling block of the collection as a whole, which while it actively aims to stimulate further discussions between art and war by not being ‘comprehensive’, will certainly become one of the key texts in modern war literature scholarship for many years to come.

While there are aspects to The Edinburgh Companion to Twentieth Century British and American War Literature that I think are occasionally neglectful, it is a volume that will certainly show the reader something new or something they have themselves neglected. As such, this volume is an essential aid in the field.

The Edinburgh Companion to 20th Century British and American War Literature edited by Adam Piette and Mark Rawlinson is published by Edinburgh University Press ISBN 978074863874