Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Pandemic, as seen from the First World War

Vincent Sherry

Endless war. I caught onto this phrase several decades ago, already several decades into my work on the literature and history of the First World War. There, as the conflict wore on, the phrase gained its own embattled place. On or about the midpoint of war, the irrepressible energy of irony and satire generated a mock political party in Britain, the Never Enders, to which, about five decades later, with my own irrepressible energy of irony and satire, I pledged my own ongoing study. Endless war, endless work. The humor weakens as the distance shrinks between history and literature, between it and me.

Our current circumstance may be the closest I’ll get to what I’ve been writing about all these years. It’s about time. Crisis time, a critical mass of time. “Four years, or for the duration”: that’s what one enlisted for. Duration. Time indefinite. We are again in suspended temporality. A now-time dilating across eternity, it seems, as we wait, day by day, for the next day of the same, of the only recently inconceivable same.

In the third year of that Great War, the feeling of endlessness turned poets like Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon away from a future they could not see and back to beginnings, to origin stories of war, to “deep time.” Near the end time of 1918, Wilfred Owen pulled a skull from a crumbling trench-side and said he felt he was standing in front of the walls of Troy. In “Break of Day in the Trenches,” Rosenberg tells the hour of dawn against a darker backward, a deeper abysm of time: “The darkness crumbles away / It is the same old Druid time as ever.” There, or then, it is the creature primeval who draws the poet’s attention: “a queer sardonic rat,” which, moving between the lines, turns the vertical of deep time into a horizontal of modern “cosmopolitan sympathies” once it has “touched this English hand / You will do the same to a German.” Emissary from a time when creatures and their germs warred with an outsized humankind, this totem animal of the trenches is indeed the fabled conveyer of plague. And in face of a danger as dimensional as the memory of that pestilence, that other mass death, Rosenberg performs his avant-garde gesture of defiance, flaunting the memorial flower of death contemporary: “Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins / Drop, and are ever dropping; / But mine in my ear is safe, / Just a little white with the dust.”

Desperate courage? If it moves me, it moves me in different times, when there’s a norm to be flaunted. There’s something else that comes from that war that reaches me, especially now. It’s not a knowledge of the atrocity of atomic scale that touches me; such statistics wash over one, the endlessly recurring decimals. What touches me is the exception, the little human acts of kindness made in defiance of the sordid, the awful: a song starting on one side on the mornings of Christmas in 1914 and 1915, at first answered irregularly from the other side and then turned, stumblingly, into the truces of 1914, 1915 (subsequently disallowed). A song traveling like Rosenberg’s rat. It’s the decency people are capable of in the face of the awful, the sordid. I saw it in New Orleans as Katrina approached, a courtliness that is easily mocked in good times but in bad times seems like a gesture of nearly redemptive grace. I have seen it in little moments here and there, here and now. What it means seems as massive as the disaster behind, against, it.

The Cambridge History of Modernism By Vincent Sherry
The Cambridge History of Modernism By Vincent Sherry

About The Author

Vincent Sherry

Vincent Sherry is Howard Nemerov Professor in the Humanities and Professor of English at Washington University in St Louis. A prominent scholar of modernism, he is the author of a ...

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