War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Silence and War (Dissertation from the U.K.)

the young author of this dissertation contacted me this year and sent me his dissertation on silence and WWI poetry. he received a 1st class on his paper and his degree. I am pleased that my work is being studied in the U.K. For You at the Shura, and *Golden were part of a Master’s level English Lit. course in the U.K. as well.

*“I have no words to speak of war”: The Problem of Silence in the Soldier Poetry of the First World War and the Present Day*

by Alex Cadby (University of Exeter)

My thanks to Tim Kendall and the University of Exeter English Department for their assistance and supervision, and to Suzanne Steele for taking such an interest.

Table of Contents

Introduction ………………………………………………………………………………………………………….. 4

Chapter I: Silence and Noise …………………………………………………………………………………… 7

Chapter II: Communication Breakdown and the Threat of Verbal Silence ………………….. 16

Chapter III: Silence and the Poet …………………………………………………………………………… 25

Conclusion …………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 33

Appendixes…………………………………………………………………………………………………………. 34


The First World War has long held an association with silence which persists even to this very day. Perhaps the first thing one notices when looking at archival video footage of the war, for example, is that the images dance across the screen eerily shrouded in silence. The best known appropriation of silence by the First World War, however, continues to be commemorated annually on the Sunday closest to the eleventh of November and is observed nationwide by the British public, “a silence which [is] almost pain … And the spirit of memory brood[ing] over it all” (Manchester Guardian, Nov. 11th 1919).

However, as Hayden Carruth posits, “there are kinds of silence. […] The silence of wonder, for example, is not the silence of defeat. And both are very different from the silence we actually discover in poetry, which is not true silence at all” (465). Both Chris Agee and George Steiner make a point to obliquely recognise the Great War’s significance to poetic silence, a theme which grew in significance as the later horrors of the century unfolded: though referencing the Holocaust and ‘the Bomb’ directly, in talking of “the literally unspeakable realities of the century’s history” Agee deliberately ensures the inclusion of the Great War in such a category, whilst Steiner similarly asserts that “The possibility that the political inhumanity of the twentieth century […] [has] done injury to language is the underlying theme of this book”, even giving the date at which such an “impulse” toward poetic silence became valid as “dating from c.1914” (88; 69). Yet, in spite of the Great War’s seeming relevance to the problem of poetic silence and the phenomenon of silence as a whole, there is a distinct lack of commentary on the subject which is at odds with the frequent recurrence of the term in the soldier poetry and non-fictional testimonies which the conflict produced.

In the following pages I will address this anomaly somewhat by examining the various “kinds of silence” which met the combatants of the First World War and, in using the rather critically underappreciated soldier poetry of the present day as a secondary point of comparison, will show that silence is, and continues to be, “as much a part of history as noise” (Picard, 83). To show that silence is a widespread phenomenon, and not simply an occurrence limited to the odd individual, I will look at a broad range of Great War poets and poems rather than focusing on single figures. The present day poets will supplement the main analysis of the Great War, and as such I will be focusing on two of these, Brian Turner and Suzanne Steele, to demonstrate the continued importance of certain themes in the poetry that is being written today. The nature of the ‘soldier poetry’ distinction of the title carries the implication that I will be focussing primarily on those men who were a physical presence in the heat of battle and witnessed the atrocities of war first hand, the exception being Steele, who in her attachment to a division of the Canadian infantry witnesses the same events as her soldiers but is not a participant in combat.

The subject of silence in the poetry of the First World War, and its continued appropriation by the poets writing from the midst of war today, are both topics undeserving of the critical silence with which they have been met thus far. To this end, my first chapter will look at the presentation of noise primarily in the former conflict, and how its continual and overwhelming presence leads to a curious polarisation of silence both as something to be welcomed and something to be feared, whilst the second chapter examines the many ways that the theatre of war naturally demands verbal silence from its participants. The third chapter will analyse the effects of this atmosphere of silence on the poet, the difficulties inherent in putting war’s unspeakable truths into words, and the anxiety which attends the potential loss of their own poetic voice in an effort to finally determine to what extent silence can truly be considered an integral aspect of the Great War, and war in general.

Chapter I
‘When mere noise numbs/ The sense of being’: Silence and Noise

The auditory landscape of the Great War, and its relationship to the poetry written during that conflict, has received surprisingly scarce critical consideration. Santanu Das and Eric Leed, in their works Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature and No-Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I both briefly address the subject within their own studies, but these are far from being comprehensive assessments: as Das himself says, the sensory world in general “by contrast [to the worlds of gender and modernism], has received little attention” in the study of the conflict (29). This is especially odd when we consider that the First World War was a conflict unquestionably characterised by noise, more so than any before or since. Be it the “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” of Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, or the “clamour of shells […]/ Spouting dark earth and wire with gusts from hell” in Sassoon’s ‘Counter-Attack’, the din of battle saturates the works of its poets (76; 68).

It is David Jones’s In Parenthesis, however, which perhaps offers us the most frightening, all-encompassing description of war noise, and its immobilising capability on his protagonist John Ball:
Out of the vortex, rifling the air it came – bright, brass-shod, Pandoran; with all-filling screaming, the howling crescendo’s up-piling snapt. The universal world, breath held, one half second, a bludgeoned stillness. Then the pent violence released a consummation of all burstings out; all sudden up-rendings and rivings through – all taking out of vents – all barrier-breaking – all unmaking. Pernitric begetting – the dissolving and splitting of solid things. In which unearthing aftermath, John Ball picked up his mess-tin and hurried within; ashen, huddled, waited in the dismal straw. (24)

Jones’s onslaught of caesura throughout this extract, relentless as the clamour of the barrage, alongside his staccato syntax and the questionable validity of a number of his words and phrases, the indefinable ‘pernitric’ among them, brilliantly communicates the omnipotent, earth-shattering and even language-shattering atmosphere which was so much a part of daily experience of the front line for these men. Indeed, the unyielding, almost solid nature of trench noise is a frequent subject of post-war recollections by the common infantryman and poets alike: Fred Ball describes how the noise on the Somme was “like a wall of roaring sound before us” which well complements A. McKee’s feeling that “if I lifted a finger I should touch a solid ceiling of sound” (Lewis, 85; qtd. in Das, 79). Robert Graves, meanwhile, in a 1971 interview with Leslie Smith, significantly remarked how the noise “never stopped for one moment – ever” (qtd. in Leed, 126).

The noise of the guns was the “keynote”, as Paul Rodaway would have it, of the First World War: the “recurring, generally repetitive background sounds against which other sounds in a soundscape may be heard” (87). Graves’s account suggests authoritatively that silence had no place in such an environment, yet from its prevalence in the literature of the soldier poets we know this to be an exaggeration. For many, in an environment where noise was never-ending and all-consuming, when silence came it was accompanied by feelings of profound relief, alleviation of anxiety and, above all, safety. “How fair this cool deep silence to a wanderer/ Deaf with the roar of winds along the open skies!” wrote Rupert Brooke in a pre-war poem that carries surprising prophetic resonance with the plight of the soldiers of the Western Front in the following years (23). Ivor Gurney is “grateful for silence […] after hell’s hammering and clamouring”, and in ‘De Profundis’ laments its being ‘spoiled’ by the more conventional and usual soundtrack of artillery: “But here the peace is shattered all day by the devil’s will,/ And the guns bark night-long to spoil the velvet silence deep” (142; 27). His use of ‘peace’, a recurrent element in Gurney, possesses obvious connotations in the wartime climate: the noise of the guns is so central to the conflict that its ceasing is tantamount to the ending of the War, an assertion that is echoed by Sassoon in ‘A Letter Home’: “Wondering when we’ll ever end it,/ Back to Hell with Kaiser send it,/ Gag the noise, pack up and go,/ Clockwork soldiers in a row” (40-41).

As Max Picard posits in The World of Silence, “There is more help and healing in silence than in all the “useful things” […] It makes things whole again, by taking them back from the world of dissipation into the world of wholeness” (19). In Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘A Death Bed’ the calming, even healing effect of silence on the wearied minds of the soldiers who are constantly exposed to the roar of artillery is explored by the poet, who perhaps even offers death as a more attractive alternative than returning to the front lines, saturated with sound. Even from the first line its pervasion throughout the poem is made explicit:

He drowsed and was aware of silence heaped Round him, unshaken as the steadfast walls; […]Silence and safety; […] […] But death replied ‘I choose him’. So he went, And there was silence in the summer night; Silence and safety; and the veils of sleep. Then, far away, the thudding of the guns. (34-35)

The repeated phrase ‘Silence and safety’, each time standing alone and highlighted through Sassoon’s caesura, brackets the entirety of the poem and emulates the ‘steadfast walls’ of the second line, as does the reliable pentameter of each line which rarely deviates; the poem, as the room, is secured in silence. Even lost in his fevered reminiscences, the subject of Sassoon’s poem, on his eponymous death-bed, is enclosed, be it in “a sky-lit alley for his boat” or “bordered with reflected flowers”. The silence of ‘The Death Bed’ is personal, internal, night itself being “in the ward” and rain only heard, not seen, elements serving to emphasise the subjectivity of the dying soldier: his entire sphere of experience is enclosed, safe from noise, within the four walls of the ward. The pastoral dream scene, interwoven with the natural imagery before the break, emphasises the rejuvenative, healing qualities of the silence which fills the poem, and implies that silence itself is nursing him, “gather[ed] round his bed” and “holding water to his mouth”. Even when death comes to claim him, it is not spoken of negatively, aside from a lamentation at the soldier’s age in the penultimate stanza; instead Sassoon, in juxtaposing death’s own “Silence and safety” with the ominous “thudding of the guns” which come omnipotently back into focus, seems to offer death as the preferable alternative to continued existence under the war’s clamorous canopy. At the poem’s close, it is noise that rages on, endures, as “far away”, external and impersonal as the war which it exemplifies.

It is all too easy, however, to simply dismiss the aural sensation of silence as being a simple antithesis to the continuous grinding of the barrage, universally welcomed by the men: This never ending noise […]comes to impress man by its very continuity and matter-of-course-ness as something natural, like the never-ending murmuring of water and the wind – just as natural and inevitable as that. The opposite of the natural […] is able to appear as natural as the sounds of nature herself! (Picard, 200)
One need only take note of the many instances in First World War poetry wherein noise is described in natural terms, such as its relatively common comparison with thunder, to see how familiar a relation it carries to the soldier. In a world where noise is a natural presence, a signature presence, its absence can be considered unfamiliar and even uncanny, an eventuality which Picard overlooks in his study. J. Willey, writing from the H.M.S. Fox stationed off the Belgian coast, remarks on the noise of the guns that it “was more or less used to, so when I say the silence seemed uncanny, I will not be misunderstood”, whilst W.R. Dick, in La Vacquerie in the later months of 1917, describes the “uncanny quiet” which “pervades the enemy trenches” (Lewis, 393; 170).

This notion of silence as dangerous, as something to be feared, is bound up irrefutably with the greater importance of the sense of hearing to these men, in a new and heavily technological kind of conflict: Hearing became much more important than vision as an index of what was real and threatening. Kreisler reports that his musical training certainly contributed to his survival, for he was able, by ear alone, to single out the shells that were coming closest, gauge their trajectory, calibre, and speed. He tells with some pride that his trained ear was also used as an offensive weapon when he aided his artillery in locating the position of a particularly effective enemy battery. (Leed, 124).
Das, similarly, asserts that “Some soldiers, in their diaries or memoirs, point to the development of ‘shell sense’, a new cognitive category that seems to combine perception of sound, danger and space” (83). The aural sense represents the soldier’s first line of defence against incoming threats, an observation which Das overlooks in his haste to single out touch, effectively the soldier’s last line of defence, as the most vital sense to fighting men. Silence here, then, is a problem, yet it becomes still more of a problem when considering the time period within which soldiers in the trenches were most active: “By day, a deserted landscape; by night, frenzied activity everywhere” (Fussell, 81). The total darkness offered by night, illuminated sporadically by machine-gun fire or artillery, provided an opportunity to move above ground without, on the whole, being seen; however, it also robbed men of their own sight and caused further reliance on the aural sense for navigation and survival.

Even during daylight, the visual field was broadened to such a degree as to render it next to useless. In speaking of how the Inuit defines his space through sound rather than sight, Rodaway expands: “The visual space of the wide, arctic plains – especially in the winter darkness and ice – is almost featureless and lacking in perspective” (110). For the soldier of the First World War, and particularly those in the trenches at the Somme or Passchendaele, the “featureless” landscape was all too familiar. “All around was the most desolate landscape of shell-harrowed land” writes P. Hoole Jackson from Ypres, whilst George F. Wear lists the sights which were notably absent from a typical battleground at Passchendaele: “There were no trees, no houses, no countryside, no shelter, no sun” (Lewis, 142; 105).

“The tensioned silence afterwards” thus represents a significant detriment to the health and safety of the soldiers by effectively obliterating a sense which they have come to completely rely on for their survival (Jones, 86). The level of apprehension becomes unbearable, as combatants find themselves uneasily awaiting the next barrage; as George Brame recalls, he “had often heard it said that the shell which was meant for you always went about it quietly” (Lewis, 145). B. Neyland, too, is acutely aware of the foreboding power of silence: “the silence remained tense, more awful than ever” he recounts, and later “as the time went on the strange quietude became ghastly” (109; 111). Alfred Wilcox, again borrowing from the imagery of the natural world, puts forward that “It seemed like the calm that comes before the thunderstorm”, whilst Capt. S. J. Worsley goes as far as to state that “[…] in some ways fighting was preferable” (125; 92).

The strange binary of silence as at once a blessing and a curse did not escape the notice of the soldier poets either. Brooke’s words “[…] amid the silence unafraid […]” from the 1907 poem ‘The Song of the Pilgrims’ carry with them the unsettling implication that silence is a power worthy of his fear even before the Great War (19). Edmund Blunden’s ‘Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm’ from its very title acts as a direct counter to Sassoon’s ‘The Death Bed’, the lines “Snow or rime-frost made a solemn silence/ Bluish darkness wrapped in dangerous safety; […]” in particular being spectacularly opposed to the “Silence and Safety” offered in the latter work (115). The word “deceitful” suggests that silence is actively attempting to undo Blunden and his comrades, a thought which is echoed in his closing lines where, looking back after a decade since the end of the war, he can indeed authoritatively state that “Many of [them] soon paid for/ That false mildness”.

The men of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’ are caught up in such a silence as that laid out above: Our brains ache in the merciless iced east winds that knive us… Wearied, we keep awake because the night is silent… Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient… Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous. But nothing happens. (162)
Owen’s repeated ellipses at the end of each of the first three lines perfectly convey the anxious anticipation which the soldiers in the trenches were forced to endure in the silent moments of war, as does the shortened fifth line which spoils the otherwise secure quatrain and hangs ominously in the air: “But nothing happens”. His use of pararhyme here, and in particular the etymological proximity of the words ‘silent’ and ‘salient’, is also noteworthy and is not exclusive to Owen: such a use reoccurs in the poetry of the period and rather aptly demonstrates just how much a part of their environment silence was . Owen explicitly states that the sentries are “Worried by silence”, and this worry is further emphasised in the fourth stanza: “Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence./ Less deathly than the air that shudders black with snow […] But nothing happens”. The alliteration captures the bullets as they whizz by, yet, unlike Sassoon’s ‘The Death Bed’, Owen’s silence is the external, ubiquitous and dominating force here; the bullets are merely interruptions, which “streak” it momentarily before vanishing again, “less deathly” than the atmosphere of silence in which the soldiers are interred.

The silence in ‘Exposure’ is closely related to Picard’s silence, “an autonomous phenomenon […] an independent whole, subsisting in and through itself”; however, Owen’s silence is not one of healing and rejuvenation, but of death and pain (15). John Hull unwittingly appropriates the language of Owen in describing the experience of the blind and their reliance, shared with the First World War soldier, on the aural: “Where nothing was happening, there was silence. That little part of the world then died, disappeared” (qtd. in Rodaway, 103). In the repeated refrain “But nothing happens”, which returns to close the poem, Owen identifies the silence at the Western Front with a complete absence of life, thereby securing a signification of death which rivals that which noise holds to the soldier poet.

Noise still characterises war to this very day and, though the First World War is unique in its depiction of the sheer scale of its din, there are many parallels to be drawn with its treatment in the poetry of today’s conflicts. In one of the earliest entries on her internet blog the poet Suzanne Steele’s attention is attracted immediately to the significant level of noise, the “thud. thud. thud. ra ra ra ra ra thud thud” of the firing range (16/10/2008) . In her later poem ‘The Green Man’, a recollection of being on exercise with her battle group, she comments that “Our soundtrack, day and night/ was pounding, the whoop whoop whoop/ of helicopter blades […] the bastards cut any peacefulness we could recall”, yet even this is “nothing compared to Afghanistan […] as far as noise goes…” (13/10/2009; 30/04/2009). The importance of the aural sense persists as the similarly sparse environments demand its effective utilisation, and indeed Rosenberg’s simple characterisation of “wild dust and sounds” in ‘Home Thoughts From France’ could as easily apply to the landscape of Iraq and Afghanistan (74). In addition, through technological advancement the possibility of silent death is now an even greater reality, and snipers perhaps more of a threat than they were in 1914: “I never see/hear them” comments Steele in a poem which bears their name, and the morbid ‘joke’ among the soldiers, that “if you hear it you’re safe. if you don’t, it’s too late” in its near-perfect recall of George Brame’s aforementioned statement is evidence enough that silence is still as much of a danger in the present day theatre of war as it was for those who fought nearly a century previous (10/05/2009; 12/02/2010).

The phenomenon of silence is as much a part of the First World War experience as its counterpart, noise, and a much overlooked characteristic of all war. Be it for its peaceful calm or tensioned horror, its many references in the poetry and prose accounts of the conflict is indicative of this point, excellently illustrated by the remembrances of Private Harold Saunders of the 14th London: it is rather the “unusual silence” which is his primary recollection of a particular moment, and the most vital contribution in recreating in his mind “a nightmare scene [he] shall never forget”, than the grinding barrage which is so often depicted (Lewis, 60).
Chapter II
“Here on the edge of silence, half afraid”: Communication Breakdown and the Threat of Verbal Silence

One of the most immediate effects of the noise of war on the individual was that it made communication between the men difficult or even impossible. David Jones’s John Ball, for example, describes how his commanding officer was “shouting his encouragements, you can almost hear him, he opens his mouth so wide” (166). Private George Brame tells of a similar phenomenon: “When I was able to take my bearings, I noticed a man running towards me who seemed to be saying something, for his lips were moving as if in speech, but I could not hear a sound. The explosion had deafened me” (Lewis, 145).

The tendency of war to destroy the voice of man is a recurring trope of both First World War and present day poetry: the soldier is constantly living on the edge of being ‘silenced’, with perhaps the best known instance of the mass-silencing of the fighters of the First World War being the practice of censorship. As Susanne Christine Puissant writes in Irony and the Poetry of the First World War, censorship “suppress[ed] negative or critical voices about the war […] not only affect[ing] newspaper reports and radio broadcasting, but […] also appl[ying] to the soldier’s personal communications home via letters” (14). It is in itself a cruel irony that, despite the efficiency of the postal service in both directions, the soldiers had very little spare time for writing, and could seldom tell the truth of their experiences to friends and loved ones back home in the letters which they did find the time for; however, they seldom sought to. Paul Fussell stresses their unfortunate quandary well: “Few soldiers wrote the truth in letters home for fear of causing needless uneasiness. If they ever did write the truth, it was excised by company officers, who censored all outgoing mail” (87). Worse still: there was no guarantee that the letters which did make it past the censor would ever reach their destinations. In his final letter to his friend Robert Frost before his death, Edward Thomas begins: “Hearing that the mails have been lost several times lately at sea I thought I had better make another shot at you” (Spencer, 186). It would seem that the war is relentless in its resolution to silence its participants.

Censorship proved to be a considerable irritation for many of the war poets. P.J. Kavanagh notes of Ivor Gurney that “he had found wartime censorship more than usually cramping”, whilst Isaac Rosenberg mentions their astringent regulations many times in his letters home: “You know we mustn’t say very much now we’re over the water” he writes to Edward Marsh in 1916, and soon after that he has “too much to write about, but for obvious reasons my much must be reduced to less than your little” (Gurney, xviii; 309, 313). They rose to the occasion, however, often quite ingeniously, as “the bewildering stoppage of information would only make the trench soldier’s indignation keener” (Goldensohn, 15). Wilfred Owen, for example, overcame the enforced silence of the Field Service Postcard, and extended his communication with his mother by devising a code involving the number of lines he used to cross out certain fields; he also “delighted to parody” the postcard (Fussell, 185). Thus censorship is transformed into a game, which has the escape of silence as its objective. However, Puissant makes the disturbing point that an inevitably unquantifiable volume of work was not so lucky: “we have to assume that a great amount of poetry was lost because it was never published or did not make it beyond the front lines, but was confiscated and destroyed before reaching relatives and friends back home” (16). The full extent of the damage to letters caused by censorship, and the voices it stilled, will almost certainly never be known.

The radio, or wireless, is ironically another such source of communication breakdown. Recently introduced to the troops of the Great War (B. Neyland, a wireless operator serving at Arras, recalls that the “operators had only a vague idea of our likely duties, for the wireless section was only then becoming of use in the trenches”), and ostensibly intended to improve the conduct of operations and communications army-wide, both the Great War and present day engagements are marked by references in their literature to the failure of the radio in its task of satisfactory communication (Lewis, 107). Indeed, the radio, much like the eerie inaudibility which the guns effect on the soldier speaking in plain sight, becomes a symbol for the technological destruction of all language, either by complete silence or alteration so significant as to render human speech unrecognisable. The symbolic felling of telephone or power lines, such as that observed by Edmund Blunden in ‘Another Journey from Bethune to Cuinchy’, is symptomatic of said destruction, an effigy of lost language: The telegraph posts Have revolted at last, And old Perpendicular Leans to the blast, The rigging hangs ragging From each plunging mast. (Overtones,129)

The loss of communication at the front was a malfunction of catastrophic consequence. N. H. Bradbury, in his specific mention of “telephonic communication breaking down” prioritises the event above all other emergencies, which he dismisses simply with the collective term “other unforeseen circumstances” (Lewis, 73). The chaos engendered by such a development is in evidence everywhere, whether it be the panicked repetition the command “don’t lose connection” or the loss of control indicated by Major Knacksbull “[blaming] the unresponsive wire” in Jones’s In Parenthesis, or the complete stagnation which attends the orders related to George Brame by his Sergeant: ““There must be no running or moving until we receive orders to that effect” – a thing that was impossible, for we learnt afterwards that all lines of communication had been cut” (34; 177; Lewis, 146). It is Anthony R. Hossack, however, who best demonstrates the true significance of the felled lines in his account of April 1915: “A bunch of telephone wires falls about us. To my bemused mind this is a catastrophe in itself, and I curse a Canadian Sapper beside me for not attempting to mend them. He eyes me vacantly, for he is dead” (Lewis, 34). Hossack is another who states the ‘catastrophic’ implications of the fallen wires, but it is the association of their destruction with the silence of the dead Canadian, and the paraprosdokian revelation of his death, which most strongly reiterates, as does John Ball’s observation of “every telephonist with a dead instrument about his ears”, the disruption to speech and language which the felling symbolises (112).

Max Picard deemed the destructive implications of ‘The Radio’ important enough to devote an entire chapter to its discussion in The World of Silence, in which can be found a rather different take on the relationship between silence and the radio: Radio is a machine producing absolute verbal noise. The content hardly matters any longer; the production of noise is the main concern. It is as though words were being ground down by radio, transformed into an amorphous mass. […] words are ground down to a mere radio-noise, in which everything is present and at the same time nothing is present. (198)
If the breakdown of radio communication in the First World War engenders an ominous and deathly verbal silence, then Brian Turner’s poetry would appear to suggest that the same breakdown in the present day theatre of war is more akin to Picard’s description. In ‘Eulogy’, “voices/ Crackle over the radio in static confusion”, whilst “a crackling of radio static” and “a medevac cross[ing] the radio in static” are features of ‘Last Night’s Dream’ and ‘Tigris River Blues’ respectively (30; 65; 61). The symbolic destruction of power lines in ‘Ferris Wheel’ and the telephone lines abruptly “snapped in two, crackling” of ‘2000 lbs’ demonstrates not only that Turner harbours similar anxieties to the poets writing on the Western Front all those years before, but also further highlight his keen sensitivity to the silence resulting from the devastation which war naturally engenders (62; 53-4).

It is ‘9-Line Medevac’, though, a poetic prose piece with echoes of Jones’s In Parenthesis, which most conforms to Picard’s model however (67). Turner’s stream-of consciousness retorts to the ‘amorphous’, inhuman commands of the medevac lines aptly conveys the insufficiency of language to succinctly express his situation, whilst his words are so relentless as to risk deterioration and comparison with the ‘mere radio-noise’ that Picard laments. The fact that many of his verses are cut off abruptly with ellipses, however, as well as his description of the radio as “a soundtrack that adrenaline has/ Pushed into silence” in ‘2000 lbs’ suggest that, despite Picard’s cogitation, silence persists as a very real barrier to effective communication even to this very day.

The language barrier was yet another obstacle that the soldiers of the Great War were forced to confront on a daily basis. Foreign names, languages and speech litter the pages of both First World War and twenty-first century poetry as a testament to the confusing and disorienting experience of fighting in a land where nothing is easily understood. Bernard John Denore recounts a particularly horrifying tale of the Western Front which effectively illustrates the danger of linguistic incomprehension in war, resulting in the irreversible silence of death: “About forty-five of the company were killed or wounded, including the company officer. A voice had called out in English, “Has anybody got a map?”, and when our C.O. stood up with his map, a German walked up and shot him with a revolver. (Lewis, 3). This was a comparatively rare occurrence, however, the enemy trench being so remote and mysterious that actually to see any of its occupants is a shock”, and sightings “rare enough to record” (Fussell, 76; 77). More often, it was in fact the struggle of communication between the British and their French allies, frequently civilian, which was a greater issue, a gulf which Isaac Rosenberg felt keenly: “We all build the Tower of Babel to reach to God”, he writes, “and he has stricken us with confusion of speech who understand each other” (261). Living and fighting in a foreign environment was a strain on the men, and like Thomas Hardy’s ‘Drummer Hodge’, who did not know “The meaning of the broad Karoo,/ The Bush, the dusty loam […]”, they too repose under “strange-eyed constellations” made all the more perverse by the ridiculous proximity to the familiarity of their homeland (91).

So it is that, when Sassoon writes of the reassurance brought by “Large, friendly names, that change not with the year,/ Lung tonic, mustard, liver pills and beer” in ‘Stretcher Case’, it is the implication of the ‘unfriendly’ discourse of the French language which stands out (30). Blunden, too, in ‘Rhymes on Bethune, 1916’ recalls the lack of interpretive skill in his colleagues, “[a]t the corner of a Rue whose name/ They can’t quite get, but like quand meme;”, and himself, “A scapegrace boy whose scanty French/ Is all he brings from Auchy Trench” (Overtones, 175). This lack in an earlier poem, ‘Unlucky Allusions’, significantly results in firmly identifiable verbal silence in the ellipse of the second line: ‘There was always a crowd at the Golden Head And’ -. The lady made a face, And (wrapping the bottle) reproved him: ‘Ah; ‘On netait pas tres correct, la-bas’. (152)

Ivor Gurney even blames himself, and his limited capacity for “broken French [they] could hardly easily understand”, for the difficulty of communication between the allies, until, that is, he discourses on French literature: “of Daudet, whose book I loved/ And of Ronsard, Moliere, others […]” (‘Tobacco Plant’, 178). Indeed, there were those among the soldier poets who recognised the unifying influence of literature, and that their poetry potentially had the power to bridge this international gap of silence. John Allan Wyeth, the “missing figure in the American Literature of World War I”, is a particularly interesting case, for reasons which Dana Gioia outlines: Not only does he expertly mix meters, he also mixes languages. As French language liaison for the general staff, Wyeth crossed two linguistic communities. Both worlds meet in the poems. French vocabulary, dialogue, and quotations appear in the sonnets, usually without translation. (xi; xxiv)
Wyeth’s bilingual skills are put to principal use in two very similar sonnets, ‘Huppy: The Life of Riley’ and ‘Lempire: Entente Cordiale’. Both take the form of a conversation between individuals of the American Army and native French civilians, and detail the various attempts of each side to make themselves understood to the other, often resulting in a humorous butchering of language by both parties: […] “That’s right, you tell ‘em where, We none of us savvy their lingo.” “Voila, messieurs.” “Who paint thees card? ‘Tis ‘ow you say, a peach – de eagle shake ‘and weet de coc – C’est admirable!” (‘Entente Cordiale’, 51)

Wyeth’s interpreter ‘Joe’ is a representation of his own role, both as French language liaison and as poet traversing the linguistic boundaries of both nations, explicitly stated by his comrade in the above: ‘‘you tell ‘em where,/ We none of us savvy their lingo”. The structure is deliberately difficult to follow due to the many line breaks which introduce each new speaker, and its complex, staccato rhythm induce a struggle in reading indicative of the same struggle which the French and English-speaking nations endured in their attempts at comprehension. There is no doubting Wyeth’s success on this occasion, however, embodied in the exultant union and handshaking of the eagle and the cock, each country’s patriotic emblem, as well as the triumphant assertions of “Vive la France!”/ “Vive l’Amerique!” which close the poem. In ‘The Life of Riley’, however, Wyeth’s success is undercut by the despondency of his companion in his expression “…Aw, what’s the use”, a poignant reminder that Wyeth was a special case: without an interpreter, most of the British men in France were forced to inhabit the silence of incomprehension in their dealings with our allies over the channel (13).

The language barrier remains a pertinent obstacle in present conflicts and is dealt with on numerous occasions by Turner and Steele, comprising elements in their own forces and the enemy’s. Turner’s poetry in particular is littered with Arabic words, phrases, quotations and epigraphs acquired from his tour in Afghanistan. From the first poem of his collection, ‘A Soldier’s Arabic’, he shows a keen awareness of the problems posed by foreign language in his exploration of the Arabic convention of writing “from right/ to left, starting where we would end it/ and ending where we might begin”, with the ominous ‘might’ signalling the omnipresence of silence as a result of failed communication (11). His role here imitates that of Wyeth in his poetry, though Turner is much more of a reluctant teacher, as can be seen in ‘What Every Soldier Should Know’: “Inshallah means Allah be willing./ Listen well when it its spoken” (19). Steele, meanwhile, discovers the persistence of the view that the poet is able to transcend the language barrier: “[they] wonder who is this dark-haired woman […] then the terp tells them, poet. poet!! they nod and nod. Afghans know poets like they know mountains, orchards, deserts, wadis” (15/03/2010).

Chapter 3
“This is the thing they know and never speak”: Silence and the Poet

He knows the Qur’an and the Bible
have washed page by page to shore,
their bindings stripped loose, their ink
blurred into the sea. – Brian Turner, ‘Death from the Malaria Pills (Turner)’

Since the earliest poetry, it has been the role of the poet to speak of and for his people. “Early poetry did not voice individual emotions and convictions”, writes Denys Thompson in The uses of poetry, but rather “The poet spoke for his audience as they wanted to speak […] [his words] were characteristic of the society he belonged to” (27). So it is with the soldier poetry of the First World War: the soldier poet was the voice of and for the multitude. W. Sylvanus Lewis, a common flight-sergeant, opens his personal account of his role in the Great War by self-deprecatingly denouncing his ability to accurately convey his experiences, whilst simultaneously highlighting the importance of the poet and his craft in such an environment: “I am not what is termed a literary man, so I shall have a little difficulty in clearly expressing myself […]” (Lewis, 62). When Wilfred Owen tells that he “heard the sighs of men that have no skill/ To speak of their distress, no, nor the will!” in ‘The Calls’, or Charles Sorley, writing ‘To Poets’ from the ‘unliterary man’, that “we have an eviller spirit than you,/ We have a dumb spirit within:/ The exceeding bitter agony/ But not the exceeding bitter cry”, it is with a clear knowledge of the importance of their role and the privilege of their gift, and the duty that comes with it (139; 63).

Some speak in Shelleyan terms of the poet as a prophetic figure, who “guards and multiplies the vital form of speech” and “makes in dangerous similitude to the Gods” (Steiner, 56). Owen, for example, in the 1912 ‘Uriconium (An Ode)’ likens poet to prophet in the line “E’en blood, which makes poets sing and prophets see”, and in ‘[Stunned by their life’s explosion]’, he acknowledges “verse to be/ God’s soothest answer to all passion’s plea”(45; 96). Blunden, too, recognises the connection in ‘11th R.S.R’: “How silver clear against war’s hue and cry/ Each syllable of peace the God’s allowed!” (Overtones, 71). These attitudes persist in the poetry of the present day: Brian Turner, depicting in “the seventh century B.C.E., a poet/ [who] chisels text into stone tablets, etching/ three thousand lines and brushing them by hand”, relates his task back through centuries of history to those ancient men who ‘spoke for his audience as they wanted to speak’, as does Suzanne Steele ‘Gilgamesh in Fossil Relief’, 60). “Poets have always lived amongst us”, she says, and “have at different times been our collective memory, our futurists, our seers, our record of what it means to be human, and sometimes, they speculate on what it means to be godly” (15/02/2009). Her stated aim, too, to “give a voice to the speechless” , hearkens back to those bygone ages and also recalls the words of W. Sylvanus Lewis and his need for a ‘literary man’ (10/02/2009).

“Since recorded history, we have had songs, poems, visual art, sculpture, dance that describe war” (Steele, 15/02/2009). It is for this reason that war’s tendency towards silence, and the perceived unsuitably of language to describe its horrors, causes such anxiety in its poets: that the sanctity of the craft of the poet, in existence ‘since recorded history’, is endangered for the first time, and the silencing of the poet, who speaks for others by proxy, inevitably carries the implication of the silencing of the race as a whole. The failure of language to accurately convey the experience of the First World War is common in accounts of the period: David Phillips, for example, talks of the “horror and unspeakable realities of war”, the existence of which George F. Wear corroborates: “There are some things about the war one can never tell” he posits, as he withdraws from the front on leave, “and this is one of them” (Lewis, 47; 104). Both Phillips and Wear speak with the wise rhetoric of knowingly holding something back, a self-enforced silence, yet all the more alarming are the instances where silence seems uncontrollable. “My power of speech had left me” writes one soldier prior to the First Battle of Ypres, whilst, stark in its poignancy, Chris Knight states simply in a single paragraph that “Indescribable scenes followed” (Lewis, 18; 162).

Such difficulty of expression was perhaps unsurprising given the scale of the war. The horrors of the First World War were, for their time, unrivalled in magnitude, as Paul Fussell determines with the help of Lloyd George:
Actually, the war was much worse than any description of it possible in the twenties or thirties could suggest. Or, of course, while it was going on. Lloyd George knew this at the time. “The thing is horrible,” he said, “and beyond human nature to bear and I can’t go on any longer with the bloody business”. He was convinced that if the war could once be described in accurate language, people would insist that it be stopped. (174)

One need only look at the statistics following the Somme offensive to see George’s point: the casualties in excess of one million on both sides, the loss of over fifty-five thousand British troops either killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner on its first day, a day widely reputed as being the worst in the history of the British Army. Or the Battle of Passchendaele, with its “370,000 British dead and wounded and sick and frozen to death. Thousands literally drowned in the mud. It was a reprise of the Somme, but worse” (Fussell, 16). Long before the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust thrust notions of the possibility of silence as a legitimate poetic form uncompromisingly into the critical consciousness, and Theodor Adorno was exclaiming that “After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry”, the poets of the First World War were being forced to consider these ideas themselves in the face of ‘unspeakable horrors’ the likes of which, at that time, the world had never before seen (Schiff, xx).

The horrific realities of the First World War often manifested their effect on the troubled minds and tongues of the soldiers in the form of war neuroses, and in particular, mutism, the ultimate expression of the tendency of war to destroy the voice of man. As Eric Leed records:
Mutism and speech disorders were the most common symptoms of war neurosis, and [Ernst] Simmel argued that this was so because the soldier was required to be silent, to accept the often suicidal edicts of authority and to hold back or severely edit any expression of hostility toward those who kept him in a condition of mortal peril. Rather than cursing, striking, or shooting his superior officer, he distorted his speech or completely denied himself that faculty. (167)

Mutism can be observed many times in the work of the Great War poets as a demonstration of their anxiety over the potential loss of their poetic power. Many times does Wilfred Owen write of voices being ‘muted’ or ‘dumbed’, for example in ‘The Unreturning’, where he describes the silent dead as “gagged”, and “all too far, or dumbed, or thralled, /And never one fared back to me or spoke” (84). Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’is ostensibly a denial of the symptoms of mutism as outlined by Leed: in his recollections, Gurney is able to answer the ‘suicidal edicts’ of his superior with the simple “I’m afraid not, sir”, a luxury of which he was not capable years earlier and a reassertion of the power of his own poetic voice in the face of its potential dissolution (250). That Gurney is writing ‘The Silent One’ from the City of London Mental Hospital, however, alongside the fact that just years later he ceased to write of the war in his poetry altogether, render his victory over silence in the poem bittersweet.

Gurney’s plight highlights the toll which the events of the war could take on the individual mind, and the fact that he was eventually silenced is not insignificant. In Isaac Rosenberg’s correspondences, however, we see demonstrated irrefutably the loss of poetic voice which the soldier poets of the Great War are so anxious in avoiding. Rosenberg recognises the threat that the Great War poses to his creative mind in a 1916 letter to Laurence Binyon:
I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; […] I shall not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on […] It decides the tone of the work […] However, it is impossible now to work and difficult even to think of poetry, one is so cramped intellectually (373)

In articulating his determination to avoid such a creative decline he not only betrays his conviction that the war and its horrors are a legitimate source of mental and poetic degeneration, but also, in an ominous afterthought, that the process may already have been set in motion, a perception corroborated by Rosenberg himself: “If I was taciturn in England I am 10 times so here; our struggle to express ourselves is a fearful joke” (352).

Such thoughts begins to recur with greater regularity in his correspondence even to the point of his death on the first of April 1918. “My memory, always weak, has become worse since I’ve been out here”, he writes to Gordon Bottomley in 1917, but it is the frequency of such statements in the months leading up to his death that is most disconcerting. On the fourteenth of February of the following year he writes to his female friend Miss Seaton, and on the twenty-sixth to Bottomley, that “there is no chance whatever for seclusion or any hope of writing poetry now. Sometimes I give way and am appalled at the devastation this life seems to have made in my nature. It seems to have blunted me […] But since I left the hospital all the poetry has quite gone out of me. I seem even to forget words[…]” (378; 378). Starker still is the statement he issues to Miss Seaton just eleven days later: “I do not feel that I have much to say […]” (379). His last words of his last letter, to Edward Marsh, go as far as to use the rhetoric of starvation and illness to describe his diminished capacity for poetry. Rosenberg had already been killed at the Somme when Marsh read his words, “My vocabulary small enough before is impoverished and bare”, but from this evidence it is entirely reasonable to believe that if the war had failed to silence him through death, then it certainly was capable of doing so through other means (322).

At first glance it would appear that Edmund Blunden suffered from a similar stagnation of creative ability brought on by the events of the war. Detailed in the preface to his memoir Undertones of War (1928), itself not published until a decade after the conflict’s end, is Blunden’s admission: “I tried [to write it] once before. True, when the events were not yet ended, and I was drifted into a backwater. But when I then wrote, and little enough I completed, although in its details not much affected by the perplexities of distancing memory, was noisy with a depressing forced gaiety then very much the rage” (xi). Though he did publish some poems in this interval, Blunden dismisses these, too, as mere attempts at conveying “‘the image and horror of it’”, the Great War again seeming to evade comprehension by traditional language. (xii).

However, an analysis of a number of his poems reveals an ulterior motive for his silence, that being an anxiety for nothing less than the truth in his depiction of events and effective honouring of the memory of his fellows who perished, an anxiety which is shared by many post-Holocaust critics. As Hilda Schiff states in her Holocaust Poetry anthology, “Speechlessness alone could reflect integrity. To seek to portray reality with inadequate words would betray that reality and the voiceless dead at its core”(xxi). It is this view which Blunden is thinking through even seven years prior to the start of the Second World War in ‘November 1, 1931’: And tell me why I drove my pen so late […] Forgive me , dear, honoured and saintly friends Ingratitude suspect not; this transcends. Forgive, O sweet red-smiling love, forgive, If this is life, for your delight I live; (Overtones, 152)

Blunden effectively questions his very role as a poet here, in doubting his ability to ‘give voice to the speechless’ and honour his comrades’ memory satisfactorily. This is a concern which characterises many of his poems just prior to the Second World War; in ‘In My Time’, for example, he directly requests pardon for the occasions “that [he is] silent”, or “when a distance/Dims [his] response”, whilst the repeated “fail” of ‘Recurrence’ alongside his request to “be not dumb” shows his sorrow at his own perceived failure to adequately recollect war’s terrors (160; 165). Such an attitude also persists into the present day in the work of Suzanne Steele, who frequently agonizes that her words “might be too exploitative or vague”, or whether she is “stepping over the ethical line” (09/07/2009; 19/09/2009).

That Blunden is considering ideas which are more traditionally associated with the silence of the post-Holocaust era is conclusive proof in itself that silence in its many forms is also an integral aspect of the poetry of the Great War. However, there is another vital similarity between the poetry of the two periods which is worthy of mention. Like many poems to come out of the Holocaust, such as the anonymously-penned ‘I Believe’ which runs “I believe in God/ though he is/ silent…”, much soldier poetry of the First World War reacted to its inexpressible realities with indignation, and sought to direct this at their God directly (196). Ivor Gurney in his later years addressed God on occasion, most notably in ‘To God’, where he asks why he has “made life so intolerable”, whilst Wilfred Owen’s stark sentiment that “God hath no ears” in ‘A Tear Song’ would be quite at home in any anthology of Holocaust poetry, further evidence that the silence before appropriated solely to that catastrophic event was being considered long before (197; 119).


“Writing poems was still somehow possible” (Schiff, xxiii). This was what the world discovered in time after the Holocaust, but also what the poets of the First World War discovered after the atrocities which they witnessed, unique in their scale at the time. It is what the poets of the present day discovered after 9/11, and will discover again and again as further horrors are visited upon the world; silence will be there too. War is the perfect theatre for silence to thrive in. It is characterised by a binary of silence against noise, with little in between. Every day the soldier is challenged by silence: “Man does not put silence to the test; silence puts man to the test”, be it in the foreign language of a friend or foe, the crackling static or sunken void of the radio, or a higher power controlling what words are appropriate to utter (Picard, 17). A puzzlingly ignored area of study in the field of war poetry, silence is actually a vital aspect of war and a significant barrier to the war poet, whose voice meets its match at the very limits of language.

Works Cited
Agee, Chris. ‘Poetic Silence’. The Poetry Ireland Review, No. 40 (Winter, 1993/1994), pp. 86-89. Pub. Poetry Ireland. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25577638
Blunden, Edmund. Overtones of War: Poems of the First World War. ed. And with an Introduction by Martin Taylor. Duckworth, 1996.
—-. Undertones of War. Penguin Books, 2000.
Brooke, Rupert. The Complete Poems. London Sidgwick & Jackson, 1932 (1949).
Carruth, Hayden. ‘Fallacies of Silence’. The Hudson Review, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 462-470. Pub. The Hudson Review. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3849855
Das, Santanu. Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Goldensohn, Lorrie. Dismantling Glory: Twentieth-Century Soldier Poetry. Columbia University Press, 2003.
Gurney, Ivor. Collected Poems. (ed. P.J.Kavanagh). Carcanet Press Ltd, 2004.
Hardy, Thomas. The Complete Poems. Palgrave, 2001.
Jones, David. In Parenthesis. Faber and Faber Ltd., 1969.
Leed, Eric. No-Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I. Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Lewis, Jon. E. (ed.). True World War I Stories: Sixty Personal Narratives of the War. Robinson Publishing Ltd, 1999.
Owen, Wilfred. The Poems of Wilfred Owen. (ed. Jon Stallworthy). Chatto & Windus, 2008.
Picard, Max. The World of Silence. The Harvill Press, 1948.
Puissant, Susanne Christine. Irony and the Poetry of the First World War. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Rodaway, Paul. Sensuous Geography: Body, Sense and Space. Routledge, 2005.
Rosenberg, Isaac. The Collected Works of Isaac Rosenberg: Poetry, Prose, Letters and Some Drawings. ed. Gordon Bottomley & Denys Harding with a Foreword by Siegfried Sassoon. Chatto & Windus, 1937.
Sassoon, Siegfried. Collected Poems 1908-1956. ed. Paul Fussell, faber and faber, 1984.
Schiff, Hilda (ed.) Holocaust Poetry. Quill Press, 2001.
Sorley, C.H. Marlborough and Other Poems. Cambridge University Press, 1919.
Spencer, Matthew (ed.). Elected Friends: Robert Frost and Edward Thomas to One Another. Handsel Books, 2003.
Steele, Suzanne. ‘War Poet – A Canadian Forces Artist Project by Suzanne Steele’. http://www.warpoet.ca/. 17 Apr. 2010.
Steiner, George. Language and Silence: Essays 1958-1966. Faber and Faber, 1985.
‘The Two-Minute Silence – History’ 7.May 2010.
Thomas, Edward. The Annotated Collected Poems. ed. Edna Longley. Bloodaxe Books, 2008.
Thompson, Denys. The uses of poetry. Cambridge University Press, 1978.
Wyeth, John Allen. This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets. Ed. Dana Gioia & B.J.Omanson. The University of South Carolina Press, 2008.

Works Consulted

Bowra, C.M. Poetry and Politics: 1900 – 1960. Cambridge University Press, 1966.
Budick, Sanford and Wolfgang Iser. Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory. Columbia University Press, 1989.
Forché, Carolyn. Against Forgetting: Twentieth Century Poetry of Witness. W.W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Graves, Robert. Complete Poems Volume 1. Ed. Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward. Carcanet Press, 1995.
Hamilton, David. Manic Verse. AuthorHouse, 2007.
Kendall, Tim. Modern English War Poetry. Oxford University Press, 2006.
—. ‘War Poetry Blog: Essays, Reviews, Opinions, Poems, Links’. http://war-poets.blogspot.com/. 7. May 2010.
Noakes, Vivien. Voices of Silence: the Alternative Book of First World War Poetry. Sutton, 2006.
Read, Herbert. Collected Poems. Faber and Faber, 1952.
Swift, Todd (ed.). 100 Poets Against the War. Salt Publishing, 2003.
Times Online. ‘Poetry from the Frontline’.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/system/topicRoot/Poetry_from_the_frontline/ 7.May 2010.

About This Page

The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled Silence and War (Dissertation from the U.K.). It was posted here on July 12, 2010.


Complete diary archive