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Creating a History: The Case for Lawrence as a Civilian War Writer

Carl Krockel
p. 187-205

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1One of the legacies of our last, violent century is how our reading of the literature of its formative period, the First World War and the rise of Modernism, is split between history and aesthetics, the “Georgian” war writers on one side and the Modernists on the other.

2As the “Men of 1914” the Modernists both emerged and were obliterated on the first year of war. Wyndham Lewis recalled how “It was, after all, a new civilisation that I—and a few other people—was making the blueprints for: these things never being more than that. […] Then the war came, and that ended chapter i of my career as a writer and artist with an unceremonious abruptness” (125-26). Lewis went to war, Hulme was killed in 1916, Eliot struggled to financially support himself and his wife, Pound tried to continue to foster literary production, despite conceding in 1916 that he was “the only person of interest left in the world of art, London” (Hynes 1990, 101).

  • 1 See Bradbury, The Modern British Novel, 153-59.

3Immediately after the war Pound emigrated to Paris, and indeed, when Modernist culture revived around the figures of Eliot and the members of Bloomsbury it became part of an exclusive cultural alliance with France, rooted in the late nineteenth century. As editor Eliot valued The Egoist as “practically the only publication […] which makes no reference to politics or the war, […] it can keep on its own way determined to assert the perpetual importance of other things” (199). This quality was crucial to his whole notion of Modernism which excluded the war poets; “Tradition and the Individual Talent” supplanted immediate historical conditions with the tradition of great writers from Homer onwards. Through its construction of an entire universe within itself, out of the transformed material of history, Joyce’s Ulysses came to be regarded as vindicating the idea of the novel as a self-creating artefact, renewing the tradition of literary self-consciousness from Henry James.1

  • 2 See James Campbell, “Interpreting the War” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the Firs (...)

4When the “Modernist experiment” of the early Twenties was overshadowed by the “war boom” of memoirs at the end of the decade, Eliot would dismiss this war writing as symptomatic of the rising tide of military aggression in Europe. Yeats, too, famously excluded Owen from the Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1935; however, Louis MacNeice countered this by stating that “the nineteen-thirty school of English poets […] derives largely from Owen” (Sherry 2005, 81). After the Second World War critical accounts of the period inherited the division between war and Modernist poetry. Critics such as Bernard Bergonzi and Jon Silkin privileged the immediate eyewitness poetry of Owen and Sassoon in their canon of war literature. Tacitly, their approach refuted formalist assumptions about poetry, and represented a turning away from New Critical principles which had established the pre-eminence of Modernist poetry.2

5The figure of Lawrence, however, has remained stuck between these apparently polarised sides because his life and works cannot be fitted exclusively into either. He suffered traumatic symptoms during the war and made it the prime concern of his writing despite moving as far away from it as possible, to Cornwall. While developing a radically Modernist style he was anthologised alongside Graves and Sassoon in Georgian poetry anthologies. Here we shall compare Lawrence as a civilian to the war writers, in order to locate his position in the culture of this period.

The authority of experience

6This division between Modernists and war writers is not an arbitrary consequence of external cultural trends, but is rooted in the conditions of war itself. Just after the outbreak of war, Henry James wrote: “The subject-matter of one’s effort […] has become itself utterly treacherous and false—its relation to reality utterly given away and smashed” (462). On the side of poetry, Wyndham Lewis analysed the problem of representation in the following terms: “Like the multitudes of drab and colourless uniforms—these in their turn covered with still more characterless mud—there is no room, in praising the soldiers, for anything but an abstract hymn. These battles are more like ant–fights than anything we have done in this way up to now.” (Blast 25) Meanwhile, the force of his Blast was dwarfed by events on the battlefield.

7Ironically, more poetry was being composed at this time than perhaps at any other in British history - however, in lauding the heroism of the troops for King and country its significance lay most, perhaps, in how it inspired others to write in opposition to it. These poets whom we identify with the war—Sassoon, Owen, Graves—took on the responsibility of communicating the conditions of war to civilians. Vivian de Sola Pinto, Sassoon’s second-in-command, described how the civilian and military sides formed “Two Nations” (142). Sassoon later explained that “the essence of my war poems was fellow feeling for the troops, whose sufferings were so remote from the comprehension of many civilians” (Wilson 402); Owen returned to the front in 1918 “in order to help these boys […] indirectly, by watching their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can” (Hibberd 352). A classic example of the poetry which sought to counter this split is Sassoon’s “Remorse”:

Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,—each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
“Could anything be worse than this?”—he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs … “O hell!”
He thought—“there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.” (57)

8Sassoon asserted that “the essential quality” of his poetry lay in his being “true to what I experienced. All the best ones are truly experienced and therefore authentic in expression” (Roberts 139), which runs counter to the Modernist aesthetic of impersonality.

9Instead of bringing the “two nations” together, this poetry demonstrated an unbridgeable gulf between them, and subsequently established the divide between war poets and Modernists that has been handed down to the present. However, the divide is an extremely problematic one which follows the outdated lines between the genre of realism as an unmediated reflection of experience, in contrast to the stylistic experimentation of Modernism. After all, James’s lament on the outbreak of war reflected how realism as genre, with its focus on the individual shaping and being shaped by society, could not account for the advent of war. In a similar vein, Lewis observed that the poet could not do justice to the experience of large-scale war by describing the actions of individuals. It is most problematic in the sense that the extreme conditions of the reality of war demanded new techniques to represent it. Graves, for instance, recalled the first time he saw brains when a man’s scalp was shot off; he “somehow regarded them as a poetical figment.” Despite being angered by the Londoners’ indifference to war in 1915, then the “war-madness” of the following years in which “everyone talked a foreign language; it was newspaper language,” Graves conceded the difficulty of comprehending and describing encounters on the field: “All we heard back there in the sidings was a distant cheer, confused crackle of rifle-fire, yells, heavy shelling on our front line, more shouts and yells and a continuous rattle of machine-guns (155, 187, 196, 283). Even Sassoon himself conceded in his fictional Memoirs that his outlook on the war was limited to his battalion, and that despite his arrogance about the ignorance of people at home, the war was too large for him to understand. Perhaps the most comprehensive expression of war experience that he witnessed was in the screams of a delirious man in hospital: “All the horror of the Somme attacks was in that raving” (Memoirs 372, 421, 366).

10A telling example of this problem of truth value lies in “Remorse” itself. Intended as a demonstration of the unbridgeable gap between soldier and civilian, its shocking effect relies on the presentation of a personalised form of war recognisable to the civilian, the hand-to-hand combat of the bayonet. And yet, combat by bayonet had all but disappeared in the conditions of large-scale war. In Blasting and Bombardiering Lewis reports that “Sixty per cent of the casualties on the Western Front were caused by shell-fire, forty per cent by bullets. (Bayonet wounds were so rare that they do not enter into the statistics.)” (145) In Disenchantment C.F. Montague comments that “the bayonet’s thrust is more of a gesture: a cogent appeal, like the urgent “How’s that?” from the whole of the field when a batsman is almost certainly out” (157). In Death of a Hero Aldington notes that “it was a war of missiles, murderous and soul-shaking explosives, not a war of hand-weapons” (292). The historian Denis Winter confirms these observations: “No man in the Great War was ever killed by a bayonet, claimed one soldier, ‘unless he had his hands up first’. […] Then as now the bayonet’s function was symbolic and ornamental: without them the sculptures’ internal dynamic is thrown irremediably out of kilter” (110).

11The bayonet, then, as a link between modern industrial warfare and a traditional war of individual swordsmanship was only symbolic: its only personal function lay in confirming that the enemy had already died of shell or machine-gun fire. In Owen’s “Arms and the Boy” the bayonet has a self-conscious literary function in alluding to Shelley’s “Mask of Anarchy.”

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman’s flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh. (Owen 97)

Let the fixèd bayonet
Gleam with sharp desire to wet
Its bright point in English blood
Looking keen as one for food. (Shelley 309)

12Shelley was describing the soldiers at the Peterloo massacre of 1817, and through the allusion Owen makes the point of how the army, which is supposed to safeguard its inhabitants, has become perverted by a futile lust to kill indiscriminately. The political point is well made by Owen—however, accuracy regarding the conditions of modern war is sacrificed for it.

13Most pertinent to my argument here regarding the representation of the war, though, is how Lawrence, unlike Sassoon and Owen, managed to register this fact in the revision of his short story “England, My England”. Aside from Lawrence’s accurate knowledge of the operations of shellfire from having observed its practice in Germany before the war, in the 1915 version Evelyn’s death is described in terms of how an uninformed civilian could imagine the reality of war:

For one moment he felt the searing of steel, another final agony of suffocating darkness.
The German cut and mutilated the face of the dead man as if he must obliterate it. He slashed it across, as if it must not be a face any more; it must be removed. (EmyE 232)

14In the 1919 version Lawrence excludes the protagonist’s death by bayonet: “The Germans heard a slight noise, and started. Then, in the glare of the light-bomb, by the side of the heap of earth thrown up by the shell, they saw the dead face.” (EmyE 33)

15The crucial point indicated by this difference between Sassoon and Lawrence is that writing of the war is suffused by a rhetoric which sacrifices the accuracy of its description. War poetry is in dialogue with its civilian readers, presenting the battlefield as an alien environment. However, the poetry is arguing against political and journalistic rhetoric. It inverts the images of propaganda, replacing heroism with horror—but still in a personalised form. This quality most often occurs in the description of death, which is both the defining cost of war, and which absolutely resists representation. Dennis Welland notes in his critical study of Owen that “a reliable guide to war poetry could be written in terms of changes in poetic attitudes to death.” Bergonzi lists the range from the uninformed acceptance of Brooke to Sassoon’s angry rejection and Owen’s burning pity (Bergonzi, 52). When Owen and Sassoon describe the death of a soldier, it becomes suffused in rhetoric, for instance in the concluding part of “Counter-attack”, “Down, and down, and down, he sank and drowned, / Bleeding to death. The counter-attack had failed” (13). This part was tagged onto the preceding description of the battle scene composed while Sassoon was at the front, to criticise the commanding officers’ ineptitude. Owen also does this in the description of the gassed soldier’s “froth-corrupted lungs” to force home the irony of “Dulce et decorum est” (79). By contrast, in describing his own situation of being declared dead, Graves could only mention the anecdote that a letter of condolence was written to his mother.

16As in Sassoon and Owen, in the 1915 version of “England, My England” Evelyn’s death is the culmination of his nullified existence which drove him to war; the whole story is presented through his consciousness at the point of death. Hence the significance of how the German kills him, personally with a bayonet, while trying to obliterate his impersonal expression, a product of his immersion in mechanised warfare. Lawrence is making a different point to Sassoon and Owen, not the horror of warfare, but of what one becomes through participating in it. Yet crucially, he shares with them a didactic rhetoric which overrides an accurate depiction of the battlefield. In the 1919 version, though, the rhetorical point is not focused upon Egbert’s death, but in the description of his civilian existence which impelled him to war. His battlefield experiences are dismissed, perhaps with self conscious irony on Lawrence’s part, as “small, unimportant action” (EmyE, 30). Consequently, though, Lawrence’s descriptions of the battlefield become more factual; shellfire is not an “instantaneous conflagration of life and eternity, then a profound weight of darkness” (EmyE, 228), as in the 1915 version, but more literally described as “a noise and a darkness and a moment’s flaring agony and horror” (EmyE, 32).

Breaching the Divide

17Since the seventies the debate on war literature and Modernism has become more complex. In The Great War and Modern Memory Paul Fussell directly contradicted Bergonzi that the best literature of the war was demythologising: “No: almost the opposite. In one sense the movement was towards myth, towards a revival of the cultic, the mystical, the sacrificial, the prophetic, the sacramental, and the universally significant. In short, towards fiction” (131). Having distinguished truth value from factuality, Fussell took the debate in two new directions by relating the war to modern culture, and by opening up the theme of sexuality. Criticism has since followed these directions, extending the theme of sexuality to women’s experience of the war, revising the relationship between soldiers and civilians, especially Modernist civilians.

  • 3 See Introduction to Vincent Sherry, The Great War and the Language of Modernism.

18However, Fussell still maintained the divide between front line experience and civilian ignorance, excluding the Modernists in what Vincent Sherry calls “a kind of ‘combat gnosticism’” (7). Sherry’s The Great War and the Language of Modernism represents the most significant attempt to redress this. It argues that the language of Anglo-American Modernism in the Twenties formed a critique of the rhetoric of liberalism during the war. The politically dominant Liberals had tried to square their values of enlightened democracy which was pacifist with the imperialist defence of Britain’s economic resources. According to Sherry, Modernists such as Eliot and Pound deconstructed the platitudes of liberalism by exposing the contradictions of its logic, and developing a language which located a reality in the objective expression of feeling.3 See Introduction to Vincent Sherry, The Great War and the Language of Modernism.

19One of the most striking aspects of this book, though, is how Sherry excludes Lawrence from what is otherwise a comprehensive survey of Modernists. After all, Lawrence had been most directly affected by the war in having his work banned, and suffering persecution by the authorities as a suspected spy. Given the direct effect of war on Lawrence, the exclusion of him reflects how Sherry is maintaining the divide between war writers and civilian Modernists who reacted to the war’s ideological consequences, not directly to its violence. Sherry’s attitude also points to the much larger issue of how a “subjective” Lawrence is often considered a peripheral figure in an impersonal and detached Modernism. With Lawrence, the issue of the relation between Modernists and war writers becomes much larger, an issue about how we characterise Modernism itself.

20To relate Sherry’s otherwise powerful theory to Lawrence, one needs to change its points of emphasis. Sherry regards the language of Modernism as an ideological critique of the liberal consensus among the Allies that justified their continuation of the war. The great dilemma among all the artists had been the inadequacy of their art in doing justice to the unprecedented slaughter taking place, and the moral imperative to make their art relevant to this. This dilemma had resulted in a comprehensive silence of artists from about 1916 onwards. Meanwhile, of course, the politicians, and journalists supporting their policies, had articulated their relation to events in a language of liberalism. Sherry analyses the revival of Modernist literature as a reaction against this language. But Lawrence’s case foregrounds how these artists struggled to overcome their inability to position themselves in relation to the unprecedented historical circumstances of the war. And the answer lies simply in surviving, not overcoming it. A crisis in language could become expressive of their psychological crisis in being unable to comprehend the war, and their place in history. Sherry appeals to the Modernists’ attempt to “recover the memory, and the shock” (17) of the ideological crisis of liberalism; however the shock and memory are much deeper and broader than this for Lawrence, reaching to the actual question of personal survival. Consequently, where Sherry’s focal points are linguistic and political, in the case of Lawrence one should add the biographical and psychological.

Lawrence writing the war

21The Rainbow represents Lawrence’s early response to the war; he wrote it from 1913 onwards, but redrafted it completely from late 1914 to 1915. In particular, he introduced the character of Anton Skrebensky as lover to Ursula Brangwen. As a member of the cavalry, and the modern Royal Engineers, Skrebensky represents the two ideological sides of the army, and of Britain’s imperial policy: as representing traditional values and modern progress. Lawrence, then, provided a critique of the values of the ruling class in their prosecution of the First World War. Here he corresponds to what Sherry has identified as the political programme of the Modernists. Lawrence’s linguistic alternative to liberalism is in his alternative war between Ursula and Skrebensky, in which she vanquishes him through the power of her female sexuality, affirming the body over political imperatives. In The Rainbow Lawrence was already turning towards the Modernist stronghold of feeling, yet in an alternative discourse of war between individuals, which was still tied to the values of the warring nations. The crisis in language had not yet emerged, and Lawrence was yet to be forced into creating a Modernist linguistic response to the war.

22The great change came in 1916. This is the year of Verdun and the Somme, when the war developed its distinctive character of large-scale industrial slaughter as we recognise it today. This is the year in which the artistic community was silenced by these events, and pre-war Modernism effectively put to the sword. However, it is also the year in which Lawrence wrote the first version of what is probably his greatest novel, Women in Love. Previously, this novel has been placed at 1922 on the calendar of Modernism, on the tail of Ulysses and The Waste Land in 1921. However, Lawrence’s version of 1916 does not differ greatly from the final one, and constitutes a completed form of the novel which changes our history of Anglo-American Modernism in relation to the war. Instead of the first Modernist reaction to war being articulated from 1919 onwards in Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley and Eliot’s The Waste Land, we can place Lawrence’s First “Women in Love” alongside the efforts of Sassoon and Graves in 1916.

23The novel represents the first Modernist articulation of the experience of war in its fully developed state. It was written when the scale and nature of the war were not apparent to civilians, when there were no alternatives available to the renditions played out by the press. Consequently the “truth of war” does not emerge from a clearer-sighted vision of events than in their description in newspaper reports. Instead, one can argue that its truth value is a product of Lawrence’s experience of symptoms in his psychic life that are common to those of soldiers on the front.

24As a diagnosed condition “shell shock” emerged from late 1915 onwards. At first it was believed that symptoms were caused by the physical impact of heavy artillery upon soldiers, but it soon emerged that victims were not affected by any particular, local events, but from a continuous effort to survive in a hostile environment. Analogies can be drawn between the soldiers’ front-line existence and Lawrence’s. Shell shock emerged in an environment of threats to the soldiers’ survival from indeterminate origins, which they could not objectify or respond to. Day by day the soldiers would listen for the sound of an approaching shell to gauge whether it would kill them or not; they were impotent in defending themselves against shellfire. W. H. R. Rivers, who treated Sassoon at Craiglockhart stressed the significance of immobility: “Observers were much more vulnerable to neurosis” (Leed 182). Correspondingly, for Lawrence England became an environment of dangers against which he was powerless to defend himself. He wrote The Rainbow as a counter-attack against those who supported the war, with the result of it being banned and his career in Britain being ruined. From the outbreak of war he made various attempts to escape to America, eventually withdrawing to Zennor on the coast of Cornwall, where he was hounded by the authorities. The soldier’s reaction against his own hostile circumstances lay in psychologically withdrawing into himself, and Lawrence too experienced this forced indifference towards events around him.

25The crucial thing that links Lawrence to the soldier on the front, though, is his neurasthenic symptoms that correspond to shell shock. In January 1916, in the depths of depression, he suffered from an almost fatal case of pneumonia. His symptoms included the consecutive paralysis of both sides of his body, and this in particular links him to the traumatised soldier. Physical paralysis represented the culmination of the soldier’s bodily expression of powerlessness, and it is this powerlessness that links Lawrence to him. Lawrence was even treated by an army doctor, Maitland Radford, who diagnosed his symptoms as a reaction to the war.

26From examining Lawrence’s psychological experience of the war, then, one can identify a more immediate Modernist response to the war. It does not lie in a triumph over history through the construction of the world in language, which Eliot and Joyce came to represent in the Twenties. Rather, it expresses the individual’s submission to history, and acceptance of defeat rather than attempt to master history through representation. So, the psychological structures of trauma inform the aesthetic structures of Modernist writing in response to the war. The crucial element lies in how experience is not rationalised in the process of its representing, but its resistance to any meaning as consolation is preserved. Traumatic testimony expresses this condition through its failure to provide a rationalised or coherent depiction of the original event, which lies outside the subject’s consciousness.

27The First “Women in Love” gives testimony to the irrationality of the war, as it inflicts unassimilated shocks upon the reader. Temporality is displaced, since events do not follow any chronological order. The only order lies in repetition, where the traumatised characters are haunted by events, compulsively repeating them in a belated attempt to grasp them consciously. The novel’s hero Gerald Crich repeats his destructive encounters with Gudrun Brangwen, trying to grasp the original traumatic event, probably the shooting of his brother as a child. Gerald tries to order his psyche through the economic ordering of the mines, but his obsession with them becomes only another symptom of his condition. More importantly, though, traumatic displacement and repetition do not merely determine the protagonist’s actions, but the form of the novel itself. Historically its relation to the war is uncertain: references suggest that it is set during the war, but the characters express anxiety about the possibility of future war. The linguistic repetitions in the novel also indicate that Lawrence was not merely describing the traumatised condition of his characters, but was directly expressing his own traumatised subjectivity.

Lawrence as civilian, casualty and witness?

28The argument that I have outlined above has serious possible implications for how we read the literature of Modernism and the First World War. One is that civilian Modernists such as Lawrence can provide a depiction of war that is at least as accurate as by soldiers on the front. A further, and even more radical implication is that these civilians’ experience of war was just as direct and life endangering it was for the soldiers.

29This, certainly, is as far as one can go, and one instinctively steps back from it, as if from a precipice. It is an irresolvable problem since, as we have seen, so many arguments and counterarguments are involved. Perhaps the most satisfying exploration of this issue by a single writer is offered by Samuel Hynes, because he has written two books on the subject—which directly contradict each other. As a combatant in Okinawa during the Second World War and a critic for over half a century thereafter, he personally shared the perspective of the soldier and civilian. His study of 1990, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture, makes the most convincing link between the war writers and Modernists in a shared aesthetic that communicates direct experience—that Sassoon and Owen forged a kind of “objective correlative” from enduring trench warfare. He dismisses their division between combatant and non-combatant experience as a “myth” and as “a curious kind of elitism, not unlike the avant-garde artist towards bourgeois society, but set in terms of war.” In this perspective Hynes argues that Women in Love, “like the war itself, seems caught in a process of annihilation that has lost direction and meaning, and cannot be completed or resolved by an act of imagination” (158-59, 167, 136). Six years later, however, in The Soldier’s Tale Hynes reverses his position, arguing that war writing does not follow a literary tradition because it is confined to experience, to “make war actual.” He describes it as a form of ultra-realism which comes “as close as language can to rendering the things of the material world as they are.” He gives it the name of “Battlefield Gothic,” ironically after the genre of writing that was most alien to the realism of the nineteenth-century English novel (4, 12, 30, 25-26).

30I do not draw attention to Hynes’ radical contradictions to undermine his interpretation of the relationship between war and literature, but rather to present it as a model we might emulate. We can only acknowledge the contradictions that beset our understanding of the formative period of literature in the last century, between soldier and civilian, direct and indirect experience, entrapment inside and outside historical events, realism and experimentation, physical and psychological trauma.

31Lawrence is perhaps the figure through whom we can explore these contradictions most deeply. He was not threatened by shellfire, but by a society fixated upon war. He was helpless to participate in events which were remote from him, but so was the soldier helpless while caught up in them. Lawrence could not represent war realistically because he had not witnessed it, but realism is an inadequate technique for representing what is too extreme and immense to be grasped by an individual subject. His lack of physical injury is a consequence of his distance from the violence, but his condition mirrors that of the traumatised soldier, who could not locate his wounds externally and was victim to an injury inside his mind.

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1 See Bradbury, The Modern British Novel, 153-59.

2 See James Campbell, “Interpreting the War” in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War for a useful summary of the critical reception of war writers, to which I am indebted here.

3 See Introduction to Vincent Sherry, The Great War and the Language of Modernism.

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Carl Krockel, « Creating a History: The Case for Lawrence as a Civilian War Writer », Études Lawrenciennes, 41 | 2010, 187-205.

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Carl Krockel, « Creating a History: The Case for Lawrence as a Civilian War Writer », Études Lawrenciennes [En ligne], 41 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 janvier 2014, consulté le 18 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lawrence.157

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Carl Krockel

Carl Krockel, Visiting Lecturer of English Language and Literature at Seoul National University, South Korea, has published The Politics of influence: Lawrence and German Culture, and is working on a second book, War Trauma and Modernism: D.H Lawrence and T.S. Eliot.

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