restricted access Gender, Poetry, & the Great War
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Gender, Poetry, & the Great War
Argha Banerjee. Poetry of the First World War 1914-1918: A Critical Evaluation. New Delhi: Atlantic, 2011. xi + 268 pp. $59.50

In the past few decades, increasing scholarly attention to the diversity of voices from the First World War has improved our understanding of the war and the cultural and artistic changes occasioned [End Page 125] by it. Since the 1980s, for example, a number of scholars have begun to recuperate the work of critically neglected women authors, thus supplementing the largely male focus of foundational criticism by Paul Fussell, Bernard Bergonzi, and Jon Silkin. Argha Banerjee's Poetry of the First World War replicates in its structure this historical enlargement of critical vision: although the book begins with commentaries on male poets, it opens out to a consideration of women's work experience and war writing, making a contribution to the growing variety of scholarship on the Great War in literature and culture.

Given the prominence of a handful of best-known writers, it may be easy for us to overlook the sheer quantity of poets and authors writing about the war. By one count, as Banerjee points out, there were some 2,225 poets published during the war years, indicating the extent to which that experience resulted in a poetic outpouring far beyond the works of those few male authors who came to be seen in the 1960s as speaking for the Great War generation. Banerjee's approach helps keep the extent of this production in view. As he sets out to "broaden the horizons" of much preceding criticism, Banerjee also aims to analyze a variety of mediums and styles—considering not only male and female authorship, then, but also highbrow and popular culture; song lyrics, parodies, and jingles; and visual and verbal art. Furthermore, for Banerjee, not only have critics unjustifiably neglected the large quantity of poems written by women, but the methods of women writers deserve attention as well. As he explains, some women poets followed formal traditions, while others fashioned a counterposing discourse as they critiqued the patriarchal ideology that organized and justified violence.

The book's comparatively brief first three chapters focus primarily on Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen. Banerjee begins by recounting Brooke's incorporation into propaganda in the war's early stages, then indicating the place of Brooke and Owen in evolving public attitudes. The second chapter deals with issues of influence, specifically what he calls "the magical impact of Keats" on male war poets (principally Owen, Edward Thomas, and Siegfried Sassoon). Banerjee reads this influence as part of "a cult of improvisation and adaptation of the traditional" in modern poetry. Next, Banerjee turns to a study of the spiritual dimension of Owen's poetry, from Owen's "deep preoccupation with the Bible" as a youth to the ways that Christlike "passive endurance" later became a poetic compensation for the (maternal) domestic comforts he had left behind, and how Owen's internalization of the Bible organized his thinking about the war. [End Page 126]

The last three chapters unfold at considerably greater length, focusing on several elements that Banerjee sees as key to poetry by women authors. In a chapter on grief, he describes the poetic expression of female mourning as the catalyst for formal experimentation. Drawing on psychoanalytic studies of mourning, he examines how elegies in verse were central not only to private grappling with loss, but also to women's opposition to the patriarchal state that sought to inculcate patriotism and regulate their expressions of grief. Hence, for example, Vera Brittain's "The German Ward," "To My Brother," and other poems document the conflicted ambiguities and complexities that she negotiated as she mourned the deaths of her brother and her fiancé, while she developed her feminist, pacifist, and internationalist positions in relation to state and society. For Rose Macaulay, according to Banerjee, Christian ritual and symbol provided the basis for mourning and protest. In the work of several women poets, it was through verse that they could formulate their replies to state-sanctioned propaganda casting women in maternal roles, and they could draw on the chivalric tradition in their responses to...