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In A Purgatorial Flame, Sebastian Knowles examines the varieties of purgatorial experience in the war-time works of seven modern British writers. The writers include major figures such as Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and, in the next generation, Evelyn Waugh; as well as the poet and memoirist Louis MacNeice; the novelists Charles Williams and J. R. R. Tolkien; and the critic and allegorist C. S. Lewis. Knowles's purpose is to show how purgatorial themes of waiting, of private experience mitigated by communal suffering, and of transformation and purification appear in the works of "seven very good writers [who] speak for the British literary experience of World War Two." This book makes a persuasive case for reading this literature as the imaginative record of men and women whose lives were "steeped in flame—often indeed a literal flame," as Lucy Redpath wrote in Dante and the Present War in 1941.
Knowles claims that Woolf, Eliot, MacNeice, Williams and the others have not been regarded as "war writers," in the sense accorded Great War combatants such as Sassoon, Owen, and Manning, but that nevertheless these seven respond in their art to the conditions of World War Two. They were among the many fighting at home, directly engaged in the war during the Blitz and afterwards, even if only Eliot (London air-raid warden) and Waugh (Royal Marines officer) actually wore uniforms. Knowles points out that in the January 1941 Horizon, in response to the misguided cry of the popular press, "Where are the war poets?," the editor, Cyril Connolly, wrote, "under your nose." Connolly's succinct comments also provide the definition of war literature assumed in this informative study: " 'For war poets are not a new kind of being, they are only peace poets who have assimilated the material of war. As the war lasts, the poetry which is written becomes war poetry, just as inevitably as the lungs of Londoners grow black with soot.' "
In an introductory chapter, Knowles discusses the political and cultural contexts wrought in England by the Munich crisis, and views the turn toward purgatorial myth during wartime as "the best expression of a world in waiting." ("Purgatory is primarily, as Ezra Pound described 'Araby,' 'a vivid waiting.' ") Agreeing with the point of view in Eliot's famous review of Ulysses in The Dial, in which Eliot articulates the need for a controlling myth to order "the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history," Knowles takes issue with the archetypal structures of Frye and Jung because "neither system allows for a historical basis for its archetypes." Rather, Knowles wants to "suggest that the return to the myth of purgatory may be directly conditioned by [End Page 786] history." He also traces the specifically literary history of the trope of the purgatorial flame in wartime writing. For example, Knowles adduces the effect of the "new availability of Dante in translation": Laurence Binyon's translation of the Purgatorio (which Pound praised and promoted) and John Sinclair's Purgatorio both appeared in 1939; Dorothy Sayers worked on her translation of Dante throughout the war.
In successive chapters, Knowles then examines Woolf's Between the Acts, MacNiece's Autumn Journal, and Eliot's Little Gidding. The discussion of Woolf's Between the Acts is based on a scrupulous comparison of the historical contexts of Woolf's earlier and later drafts, in order to show how Woolf responds to the unfolding war, especially to Hitler's invasions of the European nations. In Knowles's view, Woolf's pageant at Pointz Hall is a fictional rendering of the many popular, nostalgic stagings of historical pageants in England in 1938 and 1939, among them E. M. Forster's Abinger pageants.
The most cogent and persuasive chapters in the book examine purgatorial themes in the war writings of poets Louis MacNeice and T. S. Eliot. The careful discussion...