Saving Imagination: Myth and Legend in World War I Poetry

by Grace Khuri

This year marks the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War I on 11 November, 1918. Throughout the nation, memorial events—both intellectual and artistic—have been and still are taking place.

During this commemorative season, I would like to draw attention to a perhaps underappreciated aspect of World War I poets, namely the poignant deployment of myth and legend in some of their works.

In War Beyond Words, American World War I historian, Jay Winter, observes that ‘representing war is a Sisyphean task’ (2017, p. 172). But poets at the time found creative ways to circumvent the seeming impossibility of expressing the inexpressible.

One such method was to translate aspects of war experience into mythical terms. Although the then-unprecedented brutality of World War I seemed to demand accounts featuring gritty (and sometimes macabre) realism rather than escapes into fancy, some writers felt that incorporating elements of legend and myth into their writings provided an effective and meaningful way of capturing the period’s catastrophic destruction and harrowing emotional trauma.

One of the most famous writers to do so was Siegfried Sassoon, whose poem ‘Prelude: The Troops’ (1918) implicitly compares doomed British soldiers to the einherjar of Old Norse myth:

O my brave brown companions, when your souls
Flock silently away, and the eyeless dead
Shame the wild beast of battle on the ridge,
Death will stand grieving in that field of war
Since your unvanquished hardihood is spent.
And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;…

In Old Norse myth, the einherjar(sometimes translated as ‘they who fight alone’) were the most elite kings and warriors selected by Odin, chief of the gods, to fight against the giants and monsters atRagnarök, the apocalyptic last battle in which mutual destruction ends an ancient feud between the universe’s most ancient beings.

Valhalla is where all these brave men, who had died fighting in earthly battles, would feast and train for the last, cosmic confrontation. Sassoon makes the British troops heirs of this heroic, mythic tradition: they perpetuate the stubborn courage, but also face the same certain doom, of their ancient counterparts.

Another prominent instance of this mytho-poetic tendency can be found in David Jones’s In Parenthesis(1937), which uses Old Norse myth to depict the premature deaths of a generation of youth:

And the storm rises higher
and all who do their business in the valley
do it quickly
and up in the night-shades
     where death is closer packed
     in the tangled avenues
     fair Balder falleth everywhere
     and thunder-besom breakings
     bright the wood…

As Professor Heather O’Donoghue has observed in English Poetry and Old Norse Myth(2014, p.183), Jones here compares both British and German soldiers to Balder, the beautiful Norse god associated with wisdom and kindness (and typically regarded as the most noble of the often-problematic divinities).

In the mythology, Balder is assassinated by Loki, the god of mischief, who tricks a blind god into throwing a missile made of mistletoe (the only being or object in nature that had not taken a universal vow to avoid harming Balder). Jones’s association of both sides of the conflict with this tragic deity expresses sympathy for all who were caught up in the conflict, perhaps viewing the soldiers primarily as victims of the treachery or blindness of their respective governments.

Jones’s reference to Balder, like Sassoon’s to Valhalla, also alludes to the Norse apocalypse, as Balder’s death is heralded as one of the major precursors to Ragnarök. These poetic allusions articulate the extreme heroism and terror of a harsh, historical tragedy by associating them with the violent injustices and mass destruction of a primeval, cosmic world of myth.

In addition to its power to capture loss, myth could also offer comfort and a welcome escape to weary, saddened soldiers living dull lives between offensives in the trenches.  For example, Lieutenant Geoffrey Bache Smith (19th Lancashire Fusiliers) happened to be the close friend of a young J. R. R. Tolkien (also an officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers).

Before Tolkien wrote his prose epics—The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit—he was a determined poet. One of his works, ‘Kortirion among the Trees’ (1915), was a source of great solace to Smith, who said he carried Tolkien’s verses ‘about me like a treasure.’

The poem depicts a prehistoric vision of modern Warwick known as Kortirion, the last surviving, great city of ‘fading fairies’ and ‘lonely elves’ exiled from their original home. In the same letter, Smith states ‘You know as well as I do, my dear John Ronald, that I don’t care a damn if the Bosch drops half-a-dozen high explosives all around and on top of this dugout I am writing in, so long as people go on making verses about “Kortirion among the Trees” and such other topics – that indeed is why I am here, to keep them and preserve them…’

Smith’s letter emphasizes the importance of preserving the beautiful, the sentimental, and the imaginative, not only in the midst of, but also because of, the bleakest and most miserable circumstances. War, Smith suggests, must not be allowed to crush the human imagination as it has crushed men, buildings, landscapes, and hopes.

Smith fought to preserve the ideals, whimsy, and sensitivity of a past he remembered, before dreams and youth were broken on foreign battlefields. ‘That indeed is why I am here’, he reflected.

Like Sassoon’s modern battalions of Valhalla or Jones’s British and German Balders, Tolkien’s elves and fairies represent the passing of youth and the melancholy but beautiful remnants of a near-extinct culture, which managed to survive (at least for a time) in a gorgeous but fading autumnal world:

The holy fairies and immortal elves
That dance among the trees and sing themselves
A wistful song of things that were, and could be yet.
They pass and vanish in a sudden breeze,
A wave of bowing grass—and we forget
Their tender voices like wind-shaken bells…

Like Sassoon and Jones, Tolkien employs the mythic to capture the tragedy of that which is noble but ephemeral; yet here there is a whisper of hope in the song that ‘could be yet’, offering the possibility of restoration. ‘Kortirion’poignantly merges the fantastic and the elegiac, capturing the mood of the time without directly referring to the war or its sorrows.

Smith valued the way it treasured and mourned over the ancient, beautiful, and delicate things (among them, imagination itself) that were then under the double siege of changing cultural and literary tastes and the growing disquiet and despair engendered by the Great War.

So now let’s raise a glass and spare a thought for imagination, its solace in conflict, and, most of all, for the men who fought and died to preserve it in the Great War.


The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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