The Impact of World War I on Modernist Writers

‘We have all had a tremendous jolt; . . . we are far more conscious of our condition than we were, and far less disposed to submit to it’ (Bernard Shaw).

According to Mr Lewis in his Cambridge Introduction to Modernism, it was said that when one certain intellectual was asked why he was not fighting to save civilization, he answered that he was the civilization for which men were fighting. Pompous as that might sound to 21st century ears, there is an element of truth in the comment and in Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf explores this in some detail; civilization – or as Mr Shaw puts it, our ‘condition’ – as was known pre and post war was decidedly different – but whether there was anything worth saving – anything worth ‘submitting to’ in the words of Mr Shaw – from the earlier period was for the modernist writers, a point of conjecture.

Mrs DallowayThe novel is framed around its heroine, Clarissa Dalloway’s, day in London as she prepares for the party she is giving that evening. The novels develops around two seemingly unrelated plots – the shell shock and eventual suicide of Septimus, a veteran of the First World War and the fifty-two year old Clarissa’s social calendar, complete with significant reminiscences of jolly pre-war house parties when she was but eighteen years old – ‘hollyhocks, dahlias – all sorts of flowers swimming together with their heads cut off’ – the effect was extraordinary ‘coming in to dinner at sunset’ – then those glorious kisses of Sally Seton whilst ‘star-gazing’ and Clarissa had been ‘wearing pink gauze’ – ‘was that possible’?

Clarissa’s party was to be no less splendid than those pre-war parties – populated as it would be with all those characters from the past – the once young men and women who were now the ‘old guard’ – the very people that postwar society was holding responsible for the war. The two different plots in Mrs Dalloway do not come together until the very end of the novel when Clarissa hears of the suicide of Septimus, a man she had never known. It seems that this knowledge has prevented Clarissa from also committing suicide although why she would want to do that – so privileged she was such – is not completely clear. If, as she believed, her life was a failure then more had to be wrong than that she had not been invited along with her husband, Peter, to lunch with Lady Bruton that day.

According to Mr Lewis, Woolf called this novel a elegy – a ‘lament for the ‘dead’ – but was it a lament only those that had physically died like Septimus, as the result of the war or was it also a lament for the death of the pre-war civilisation of which, according to her own memoirs in Moments of Being, Woolf too had been a privileged member?Mrs Dalloway

In his landmark poem, The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot also addresses the trajectory of civilizsation but seems to take a different tact than Woolf. The civilisation he appears to favour is that of the classical world of ancient Greece along with lofty personages like Tiresias – who as punishment from the goddess Hera, had witnessed life as both a man and a woman. In his notes to the poem, Eliot admits that although not a character per se, Tiresias is the ‘most important personage’ in the poem. But is this solely because Tiresias is able to provide a unisex description of the sad love tryst in The Fire Sermon between the ‘bored and tired typist’ and her ‘young man carbuncular’?

I think not. I would suggest that is only part of the picture Eliot paints. Another part of that picture is rather like that presented by Woolf in Mrs Dalloway – questioning whether perseveration of pre-war civilisation – however defined – was really worth all that civilisation has paid for it. Eliot suggests that as was the case with the ancient Battle Mylae in 260 BC when Carthage was lost, the ‘corpses’ that had ‘begun to sprout’ as the result of the First World War is an equally extortionate price and worse, in What the Thunder Said we learn from the poem’s speaker that regardless of that extortionate price already paid, the break with the past is firm and complete anyway – the ‘lands’ will be ‘unable to be set in order’ because ‘London bridge is falling down’. All that is left to do now is to gather up those ‘fragments’ from the past and ‘shore’ them up ‘against my ruins.’

In summary, as Mr Shaw points out the First War World gave everyone a tremendous jolt and made them more than aware of their ‘condition’ – the reality of their civilisation – and the question of whether the price paid for trying to preserve had been too high. Woolf seems to suggest that her civilisation was worth preserving  at any price;  certainly Clarissa and her friends in Mrs Dalloway were not about to throw away the prestige and power they had accumulated over the years. The suicide of Septimus might have dampened the mood of Clarissa’s party but at the end of the novel we have been given no reason to expect that next year Clarissa would not be giving the same party all over again. In The Waste Land, Eliot seems to be suggesting that the pre-war civilisation had deeper roots than those recognised in Mrs Dalloway and that whilst it might be a good deal harder to dig out those roots, it was well worth doing.

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