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Maria Flora Luísa, Michaela Schwarz S.G. Henriques and Randall Stevenson, eds. In Remembrance of the Great War: Re-Working Myths, Anglo Saxonica. Series III 16

Lisbon: U. of Lisbon Centre for English Studies, 2018, 194 p.
Katia Marcellin
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Maria Flora, Luísa, Michaela Schwarz S.G. Henriques, and Randall Stevenson, eds. In Remembrance of the Great War: Re-Working Myths, Anglo Saxonica. Series III 16. Lisbon: U. of Lisbon Centre for English Studies, 2018, 194 p.

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1This special issue of the journal Anglo Saxonica, guest-edited by Luísa Maria Flora, Michaela Schwarz S.G. Henriques and Randall Stevenson, and entitled In Remembrance of the Great War: Re-Working Myths, brings together six essays, followed by an interview with Daniel Leighton, the nephew of First World War poet Roland Leighton. These essays stem from papers first presented during an International Conference hosted by the School of Arts and Humanities of the University of Lisbon in October 2016. In the context of the First World War Centenary, the aim of the organisers of the Conference and editors of this volume was not only to reflect on the ways in which this hundred-years old conflict is remembered today but to look at how the memory of the Great War has evolved throughout that period. As ‘an event that determined the course of the twentieth century’ (17), the Great War has been the object of constantly renewed assessments and re-assessments, from the first-hand accounts of its eyewitnesses to their great-grandchildren, whose grasp of the actual World War One experiences is necessarily tenuous. However, each narrative, discourse, work of art has contributed to the elaboration of our understanding of an event that we still seem unable to grasp in its entirety, from the way it unfolded to its lasting, societal and individual, repercussions. As much as the Great War has shaped cultural and artistic production, its various re-interpretations and the myths created or debunked over the years have been the reflection of evolving historical, political or social concerns. Through a wide range of artistic productions, the articles in this volume explore the lasting impact and transformative nature of the memory of the Great War. Through a diachronic and transnational approach, they offer a dynamic reflexion on the acts of remembering and commemorating World War One. Re-working and questioning these myths, therefore, is in itself a form of commemoration, one that seeks faithfulness, not only to those who have lived through the war but also to the following generations who grew up surrounded by the historical trauma of that unfathomable event.

2In the first essay of the volume, Luísa Maria Flora (U. of Lisbon) tackles those very questions in relation to Julian Barnes’s short story ‘Evermore’. Referring to Jay Winter’s analysis of the ‘sites of memory’ of the Great War, she observes how this short story addresses central issues regarding remembrance and commemoration. The protagonist’s fears of seeing World War One soldiers fall into oblivion is ultimately contradicted, she argues, by the short story itself. By shedding light on the trauma and pain of those who lost loved ones in the war, it—and more generally, literature—becomes ‘an ultimate site of memory’ (27). The first part of the essay offers a very useful overview of the evolution of World War One literary criticism and historiography in the course of the last century. Focusing first on Jay Winter’s analysis of the centrality of public, official commemorations, Luísa Maria Flora goes on to discuss how World War One literary productions and debates among critics have contributed to the idea that ‘[t]he Great War was a literary war’ (35). By opposing the ‘commonality of grief’ (39) to individual, private mourning, ‘Evermore’ is an example of the ways in which contemporary writers have appropriated Great War myths and re-worked them, but the text also performs, she shows, a re-actualisation of the war and revives its memory.

3The second essay attempts to recapture the authenticity of World War One soldiers’ language, often made inaccessible by the use of censorship at the time. Randall Stevenson (U. of Edinburgh) highlights the crucial importance of slang and swear words in so far as they represent the most direct, unfiltered expression of the war experience and its violence. He thus shows how the soldiers’ linguistic creations were a necessary corollary to the unprecedented events they were going through. The injunction to use ‘proper language’ only reinforced the ‘cognitive gap’ (57) these men experienced with the home front as, even when they tried to speak in their own voice against the newspapers and propaganda depictions of the war, they could not use the adequate words. Stevenson further underlines the importance of swearing in the fields of psychology and neurosciences: it allows the mind to cope with violent and traumatic experiences. Silencing these ‘hoarse oaths’ (62), he argues, thus implies not only a loss of authenticity but gives us an erroneous vision of the Great War, over-estimating the soldiers’ courage, as if they had ‘fought without helmets, rifles, or uniforms’ (62). Attributing the modernist defiance with language to ‘the disillusioning, linguistically-challenging experience of the Great War’ (67), the essay concludes with a reflection on the readers’ capacities to recover the soldiers’ language through imagination. Thus, this becomes an ethical gesture to grasp some of the reality of the Great War.

4In ‘Bliss and Britten: Building up Wilfred Owen as Myth’, Gilles Couderc (U. of Caen Normandie) analyses the intersections between different forms of art in two musical works featuring Wilfred Owen’s poems: Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes (1930) and War Requiem by Benjamin Britten (1962). Through this diachronic analysis, Gilles Couderc shows how the composers’ lives and political leanings, as well as the historical and cultural contexts, have contributed to making Owen an iconic figure of the Great War, even if each work presents the poet in a different light. Starting with the two composers’ ‘contrasting inspirations’—Bliss wanted to commemorate his brother and comrades who had died in the war while Britten, who was a pacifist, had a more political agenda—, the essay discusses their composition and staging choices as well as the place given to Owen’s poems in each work. The essay then discusses the ‘mystic method’ (in reference to T.S. Eliot) used in both works in relation to intertextuality. Thus, Iliad references in Bliss’s work make his heroes, including Owen, ‘worthy of Homeric fame and universal homage’ (87), whereas Britten’s use of religious intertext serves the purpose of making Owen the symbol of ‘the generation either willingly sacrificed or driven to despair and blasphemy by its elders’ (89).

5The following essay is devoted to John McCrae’s poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, the central role it came to occupy in World War One commemorations and its lasting influence on Canadian literature. Teresa Gibert (UNED, Madrid) retraces the genealogy of the poem and shows how the number of literary responses it received made it a symbol of the ‘Lest we forget’ imperative in the aftermath of the Great War. Discussing the ambiguous lines 10–12 of McCrae’s poem, Teresa Gibert explores its complex legacy: in spite of being ‘an extremely popular war poem’ (102) and such a landmark of Canadian national memory, ‘In Flanders Fields’ has also spurred criticism for being used as ‘a pro-war propaganda tool’ (102). The intertextual presence of McCrae’s poems in a great number of Canadian literary productions testifies to its lasting impact on younger generations, but also to these writers’ awareness of the necessity to question the poem’s ambivalent message. The essay ends with a compelling analysis of Margaret Atwood’s numerous and echoing reinterpretations of ‘In Flanders Fields’ and of the all-too iconic image of Remembrance Day poppies in her work. The many re-visitations of McCrae’s poem have thus given it a palimpsestic dimension that allows for the emergence of discordant voices reassessing our memory of the Great War.

6The fifth essay of the volume focuses on two feminine pacifist figures: Vera Brittain and Dora Russell. Michaela Schwarz S.G. Henriques (U. of Lisbon) studies the life of these two women, and especially how they write about it in their respective memoirs: the three volumes of The Tamarisk Tree (1975–1985) by Russell, and Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), Testament of Friendship (1940) and Testament of Experience (1957). These two women seemed to have much in common: they were the same age, both attended university, and both identified the Great War as a turning point in their lives that led them to fight for women’s rights and peace. However, in spite of their shared ideals, these women followed quite different paths which, as Henriques argues, might testify to the ‘difficulty inherent in organizing educated individuals for global causes’ (125). By retracing the steps these women took throughout their lives, this essay identifies the differences between Brittain and Russell, especially in their respective experiences of the Great War. Yet, the essay concludes, as educated women engaged in politics, Russell and Brittain maybe shared some deeper similarities: both set their life experiences down on paper as means to help others, and both had to suffer certain sacrifices to remain truthful to their ideals.

7The final essay deals with film representations of the Great War. More specifically, Anthony Barker (U. of Aveiro) identifies four movies produced during, or near, the 1960s: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), Joseph Losey’s King and Country (1964), Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969) and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1971). These works, made by leftist or communist sympathizers, in a context where openly voicing such political ideas was risky, revisit the Great War ‘as the place where the west’s iniquitous behaviour could be laid bare’ (155). Barker analyses first the differential treatment of the themes of cowardice and mutiny in Kubrick’s and Losey’s films. While both underline the arbitrariness of such trials, their views are slightly different: Kubrick’s depiction of the officers underlines the class conflict between a power-hungry elite and the soldiers it victimizes, whereas Losey’s approach is more concerned with the psychological elements that might lead one to ‘cowardice’. Barker then discusses the ways in which the musical Oh What a Lovely War! lost most of its subversive bite when it became a movie. Yet, the author argues, Attenborough’s film illustrates a ‘shift to the carnivalesque in anti-war plays and films of the 60s [which] is the result of the failure of reason to explain what had happened’ (164). This phenomenon culminates in Trumbo’s movie adaptation of his novel, which clearly condemns the Vietnam War. The development of such anti-war themes in these movies thus raises the questions of whether ‘the counter-culture’s view of the First World War then became the hegemonic one’ and of the ways in which it could be re-assessed.

8The volume ends with an interview of David Leighton conducted by Paula Campos Fernández, the nephew of World War One poet Roland Leighton. This interview comes as a fitting conclusion to a volume devoted to the various dynamics that underlie the ways in which we commemorate the Great War, whether we try to recapture the authenticity of war experience or revisit it in light of contemporary concerns. By offering a reflexion on the ways in which the Great War has been remembered throughout the last century and on how it has permeated countless artistic and cultural productions, this issue of Anglo Saxonica will benefit researchers working on a very wide range of topics. Published at the close of World War One centenary commemorations, this volume testifies to the diversity and dynamism of current research on the Great War and opens lines of enquiry into issues such as the transmission of traumas or the potential for reinterpretation that derives from the palimpsestic nature of Great War narratives.

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Katia Marcellin, « Maria Flora Luísa, Michaela Schwarz S.G. Henriques and Randall Stevenson, eds. In Remembrance of the Great War: Re-Working Myths, Anglo Saxonica. Series III 16 »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 59 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2020, consulté le 24 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Katia Marcellin

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3, EMMA EA741, F34000, Montpellier, France

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