Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Charlie Chaplin …. a catalogue of names that bring many different responses to war into focus. Rupert Brooke, who never actually saw battle, became the poetic spokesperson for England at the outbreak of war. His sentiments and language are strongly in harmony with the Georgian poets who were aiming to “wall in the garden of English poetry against the disruptive forces of modern civilization” (Norton, Vol F, 2017). Edward Thomas, on the other hand, did not fall into jingoistic sentiments, but quietly savouring the English landscape he loved, he spoke with deep feeling about the life that he believed he would soon leave behind. As he writes at the end of “As the Team’s Head Brass”:
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.
There is a valuation of stillness in Edward Thomas that links him in my mind to those moments in All Quiet on the Western Front in which Paul Bäumer, between bouts of fighting on the Western Front, deeply savours the stillness and freshness of the life in his body and around him.
It is with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen that the tables are turned most fiercely against the war machine. Their writing, powerfully onomatopoeic, creates horrific images of the actual events on the battle-field. Their writing pushes aside completely the sentiments that Rupert Brooke was holding up to a society that thought war was a noble endeavour:
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
In this poem – “Futility”- he looks at the fighting all around him (it is an observation that applies as much right now as it did back in 1918) and asks the legitimate question: what was the point of all the sun’s huge creative effort in creating life out of inanimate matter if the beings so created mercilessly, brutally, horrifically insist on destroying one another- in the name of nation or religion.
The man who brought his huge creative gifts to bear on the innate destructiveness of human beings was Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin was born on April 16th 1889. Adolf Hitler was born on April 20th 1889. Both Chaplin and Hitler had creative aspirations, but on being rejected from Art School in Vienna Hitler put all his energies into a vision of global supremacy and the destruction of anything or anyone who opposed him. His book Mein Kampf (My Fight/ War) is an expression of this lust for destruction. Chaplin felt impelled in one of his biggest motion pictures to confront Hitler. Hitler it is known did indeed watch this film when it came out in 1940. Chaplin mimicked Hitler, made a fool of him, tried to expose the savage humour in this maniac, more than this, Chaplin overlaid Hitler’s message of hate with one of the most powerful expressions of love in modern cinema. This is the closing scene of the film (click here for the film clip).
So what might take your fancy for blog topics this week:
1/ Write a letter to Charlie Chaplin telling him why you think his speech needs to be heard by everyone.
2/ Take a single line from any one of the poets we have studied this week and use this line as the starting point for your own poem.
3/ In a short paragraph express your own personal sense of how the study of war writing in the last two weeks has impacted on your view of the world.
4/ Share your own digital discoveries on war and war poets in the form of a digital kit that can intelligently guide your readers to some valuable insights.
5/ Create your own topic, maybe drawing on family experiences of war.