War and Peace in British Literature

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War and Peace in British Literature

British Literature Introduction

War and peace wrestle with one another throughout the pages of human history. If war is broadly defined as armed conflict between two conflicting factions, states, or tribes, then one would have to say that war has always been a part of human experience and is perhaps even a defining characteristic of human beings.

Many people have pointed out that peace presents special difficulties. It is harder to define than war and it is more difficult to cultivate and maintain. Aside from being the absence of war, peace is often understood to include the stable presence of law, order, and justice. Law, for instance, is the product of centuries of patient human experience gained throughout the history of a given society. Justice is the fruit of reflection on the way humans relate to one another in society. A learned sense of justice cannot be acquired overnight. Social order follows from understanding, specifically from an awareness that reliable, established patterns of behavior are useful to both individuals and societies.

British literature begins in the twelfth century and provides a telling record of England's relationship with both war and peace. Early British texts praise war and the warrior's battle prowess, citing it as an opportunity to show greatness and valor. This attitude was dominant through the late nineteenth century, when technological advances changed the way war could be conducted, and therefore, how individuals responded to war. Imperialistic struggles, the world wars, and later wars in Vietnam and Iraq further distanced British literature from its earlier romantic leanings. Questions about the causes of war, the sacrifices required, and the end result of war have replaced visions of valor, bravery, and wartime adventures. The desire for peace has become as important to British war literature as war itself.

Premodern Britain

British literature has roots in the early Middle Ages, the period between the breakdown of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. Available sources of information about this period, from the fifth century a.d. to the fifteenth century, are often hard to interpret. They are written in a premodern form of English, and the cultures represented in the works are frequently far removed from modern society.

The first major work of British literature was Beowulf. This poem is thought to have been composed in the eighth century a.d., but nothing is known of its author, and little is known about how it was written down and passed from generation to generation. The poem was probably recorded in something similar to its present form shortly after 1100 a.d.

The setting of the poem is the northern Europe of Anglo-Saxon, or pre-British, England. Warfare, especially on the sea, was a common fact of life. The feudal kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Anglo-Saxon England struggled to extend and consolidate their territories. They fought sea battle after sea battle and undertook expeditions as far as to the eastern coast of Nova Scotia in North America.

It is telling that the subject of the first piece of British literature is a warrior hero. Beowulf, with its glorification of wartime heroism, leadership, and manly courage became the template for many subsequent British war tales. Hrothgar, the king in Beowulf, faces a grotesque monster, Grendel, who is destroying houses and people. Beowulf is from a different tribal group; the poem is largely concerned with his efforts to free Hrothgar's kingdom of Grendel and defend it against Grendel's equally terrible mother. After defeating Grendel, Beowulf is celebrated as a hero; he became an example of the ideal warrior for future British tales of war: "He was adventurer most famous, far and wide through the nations, for deeds of courage … his strength and his courage."

In the middle of the tenth century, the Battle of Malden became the topic of a major Anglo-Saxon poem. This poem, like Beowulf, was saturated with military feats, and drew on inherently poetic raw material: a dramatic battle fought in 991 among the wheat fields of Essex, an English county. The attackers were led by the Viking raider Olaf Tryggvasson with some three thousand fighters. The Vikings made their camp on an island on the north side of an estuary, while the leader of the Anglo-Saxon force took a position at high tide on the south side of the estuary. A narrow causeway joined the two sides, and the Anglo-Saxons would not permit the invaders to cross to the mainland. The leader of the Anglo-Saxons eventually agreed to the Vikings' request that they be allowed to cross the causeway and fight on equal terms. A great battle ensued on level ground, and the Anglo-Saxons were defeated. Even though the Anglo-Saxons fought to the death, the Vikings triumphed.

The Battle of Malden, like the seafaring conflicts that form the backdrop to Beowulf, established a quarrelsome model for the literature of the British Isles. In this manner, British culture was formed from conflict. The decisive influence of war emerges most clearly in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, in which the early outline of modern British culture was formed. At that battle, the Norman French army, under William the Conqueror, defeated the Danish/Anglo-Saxon forces and a French king took over the rule of the British Isles. It was the last time that an enemy force would successfully invade Britain. It was also the plateau on which the classical British monarchy would establish itself, with all its dynastic struggles. From that point on, the English language would move toward its blend of French/Latin with Anglo-Saxon elements, initiating the development of what has become modern English.


Over four hundred years passed between the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the next major war-related text in British literature, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (1485). During that time, Britain was gradually moving toward the increasingly centralized rule of monarchy and church, and moving away from feudal institutions loosely scattered over the Isles, in which lords owned fiefs of land that they then loaned to vassals. Europe and England were still predominantly agricultural societies, but the outlines of seafaring commerce, the growth of small cities, the creation of larger standing armies, and dynastic turf wars were slowly making themselves felt. Such developments, along with the buildup of an increasingly homogeneous—or similar throughout—culture, transformed the rough culture of Beowulf and Malden into the more familiar world of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England.

Sir Thomas Malory's (1405–1471) Le Morte d'Arthur is a tale of medieval romance and chivalry that includes the knights of the Round Table, the search for the Holy Grail, King Arthur's wars against the Romans, and the loves and wars of all the participants. However, Le Morte d'Arthur pursues all these themes from the perspective of a later age, when the "modern world" was rapidly replacing the medieval world. The work is full of knightly combat and war, but also of romanticized events, lords and ladies, and great triumphs. Like Beowulf, King Arthur is an archetype, or model against which similar things are measured. He is a warrior hero whose feats illustrate the connection between leadership and battle prowess, a theme that was to persist in British literature for many centuries to follow.

Sir Arthur turned with his knights, and smote behind and before, and ever Sir Arthur was in the foremost press till his horse was slain underneath him…. Then he drew his sword Excalibur, but it was so bright in his enemies' eyes, that it gave light like thirty torches. And therewith he put them a-back, and slew much people.

One hundred and fifty years later, the focus of British war literature shifted from the mythical and legendary to the historical. Samuel Daniel (1562–1619) wrote in the Elizabethan England of Shakespeare's day. Daniel studied and worked as a diplomat in Europe; when his work of praise to James I, the new king, was published in 1603, he found himself drawn into court circles. He was thus a beneficiary of the noble patronage that was the chief source of revenue for aspiring writers. Among Daniel's works is a long, rhymed poem about the English Civil Wars that sprang up between two houses, The Civil Wars Between the Two Houses of Lancaster and York. These wars decisively shaped the British monarchy and helped form the culture of Elizabethan England. In 1485, as a final result of this long-lasting Civil War, Henry VII was chosen as the first Tudor King of England. In the poem, Daniel depicts the glory of battle for those destined to win: "And with a cheerful voice encouraging / His well experienc'd and adventurous band, / Brings on his army, eager unto fight; / And plac'd the same before the king in sight." It would not be unusual for an army to be "eager unto fight" if they believed they were fighting under a divinely chosen leader, and monarchs were commonly believed to have been appointed by God.

Prior to the War of the Roses, the English government was embroiled in the so-called Hundred Years' War with the French government from 1337–1451. Many of William Shakespeare's (1564–1616) historical plays focus on the dynastic struggles of the Hundred Years' War.

Henry V was first produced in 1599 at the Globe Theater in London. It completes the retelling of the Rebellion of the House of Lancaster, which was at the center of the War of the Roses. The War of the Roses had been resolved by the House of Tudor's accession to the throne in the late fifteenth century. (In 1485, Henry VII became king, to be followed by Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, who ruled until 1603). That is, the War of the Roses, and the struggles of King Henry V, King Henry VI and King Richard III, occurred almost a half century before Shakespeare's time. Shakespeare's main source of material for his historical plays was Raphael Holinshed, who was using fragmentary sources himself. The result was that Shakespeare was able to draw on history, but he also reshaped it. In Henry V, one of the greatest war plays, Shakespeare depicts Henry as an idealized king, making him masculine, generous, and visionary.

In Act Four of the play, the English army is exhausted and licking its wounds, about to encounter the robust French army. King Henry's job is to inspire his troops and to show his solidarity with them before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Like Daniel, Shakespeare describes the privilege and pride of fighting for a noble cause; in Henry's speech, participation in the war becomes a bragging right for the soldiers:

    He that shall live this day, and see old age,
    Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
    And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispin:'
    Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
    And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
    Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
    But he'll remember with advantages
    What feats he did that day

Jacobean and Cromwellian England-Seventeenth Century

In the seventeenth century, Britain entered the world of scientific investigation, colonization in America, complex conflicts within Christianity, and both urban and cosmopolitan literary cultures. Queen Elizabeth's reign ended in 1603, resulting in substantial emigration from Britain to the American colonies. As the century progressed, Britain saw the tumultuous reign of Oliver Cromwell (1653–1658) supplant the monarchy, with its persecution of Anglicans and Catholics. England would see the restoration of the monarchy in the last decades of the seventeenth century. The war literature of the century reflects these changes and upheavals.

Englishman Roger Williams (1603–1683) came to America in 1630, an ordained minister and missionary eager to join the Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, his criticism of the community's Puritan beliefs and its administration led to him being banished from the colony. He went on to found his own city, named Providence for his belief in God's care and direction, and became the governor of the colony of Rhode Island. He returned to England on a number of occasions, finding himself equally critical of religious intolerance under Oliver Cromwell's policies and laws. King Phillip's War broke out in 1676; it pitted Native Americans against settlers and left Williams discouraged.

Religion was at the core of these conflicts that Williams saw and experienced, as it has been for so many other conflicts. Williams passionately hated religious and political persecution, as one can see in the first lines of his document, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution (1644): "The blood of so many hundred thousand souls … is not required nor accepted by Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace." It is no use, he goes on to write, in taking up arms against those with differing religious beliefs, as "they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God." He argues against a state run on religious policies, saying that "an enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility, and that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh."

Though Williams's writing may seem quarrelsome, he is defending the cause of tolerance and peace. He had ample experience with war; he was in England during the bloody period when Cromwell overthrew the monarchy and in America during various Native American conflicts and King Philip's war. These experiences, combined with those of the religiously intolerant Pilgrim community of Massachusetts Bay that banished him, led Williams into his open and pacifist position.

Andrew Marvell (1621–1678) was the Assistant Latin Secretary to the Council of State, a position in which he was exposed to the operations of government at the highest level. In that position, he served as tutor to the son of one of Cromwell's generals. Due to that connection and, possibly, to genuine belief, Marvell greatly admired Cromwell. However, because of Marvell's dependency on the leader for his job, it is hard to know what his true feelings were. In "An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland" (1650), Marvell praises Cromwell's military vigor in a time when war and combat were depicted as glamorous and masculine, leaders were respected for their military prowess over their policies and laws, and peace was a time of boredom: "So restless Cromwell could not cease / In the inglorious arts of peace, / But through adventurous war / Urgèd his active star."

Thomas Hobbes's (1588–1679) Leviathan (1651) reminds readers that even philosophy has its political consequences. The origins of his book lie in what Hobbes felt he had discovered. Like the seventeenth-century French philosopher Descartes, Hobbes was certain that science and mathematics, especially geometry, were the proper tools for advancing human knowledge. Hobbes, a strong supporter of Charles I, the king who followed James I; as Hobbes worked to refine his theories, he became a victim of Oliver Cromwell's intolerance. Exiled to Holland, Hobbes went on to develop a materialistic and deterministic theory of human nature. He denied free will and the finer human emotions such as altruism; he saw self-interest as the overriding motive guiding human beings. He espoused a Roman proverb attributed to Plautus (c. 254 b.c.–184 b.c.) homo homini lupus est (man is a wolf to man). Given this view of human nature, it followed that an absolute monarch was the only appropriate ruler; only this kind of absolute power could guarantee the civility essential to society. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hobbes had much to say about war, which he thought was a natural human instinct. Peace, on the other hand, could only be achieved and maintained under the power of an absolute monarch.

Samuel Butler, in "Hudibras" (1663), wrote a savage satire on a fictional leading military figure in Cromwell's army. Living in a time when allegiances to leaders were often temporary or even deadly, Butler was eager to mock the Puritan rulers under Cromwell's reign. However, given the nation's war mentality in a time of uneasy peace, he could not write a poem critical of the reigning powers without risking his life. "Hudibras" was not published until the crown was restored and Charles II was king. This long poem reflects its author's Royalist and Anglican leanings—like those of Hobbes—and his contempt for the Cromwellians with their Presbyterian conviction of predestiny and fate. The poem is a bitter assault on Cromwell's military leadership: "[S]tyl'd of war, as well as peace. / (So some rats, of amphibious nature, / Are either for the land or water.)"

Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset (1638–1706), shared Butler's satirical spirit. After traveling in Europe for a time, he returned to England shortly before the Restoration of the monarchy with King Charles II. The Anglo-Dutch conflict mentioned in Sackville's "Song (Written at Sea in the First Dutch War, the night before an Engagement)" was a serious one for the British, involving trading priorities on the Gold Coast and in the Caribbean. While Sackville did participate in the conflict, he was more concerned that the women back home know that their sailors at sea were trying to write to them. "Then if we write not by each post, / Think not we are unkind; / Nor yet conclude our ships are lost / By Dutchmen or by wind." This concern and its show of relative vulnerability is a departure from the traditional British war literature of noble warriors focused only on the battle at hand.

One of the greatest of the British poets, John Milton (1608–1674) composed two epic poems that must be considered together, for they deal with both war and peace. The first of these poems is Paradise Lost (1667), and the second is Paradise Regained (1671). In the late 1630s, Milton traveled throughout Europe, where he met Galileo and a number of other intellectuals and writers. His interactions with these people deepened his understanding of the world and its seething conflicts, which he was coming to understand. He studied the great models of ancient Greek and Latin poetry, Homer's Iliad and Virgil's Aeneid, and in these models, Milton found visionary narratives devoted to the issues of war and peace.

Paradise Lost, as the title suggests, is about man's loss of paradise as a result of succumbing to Satan's temptation in the Garden of Eden: the age-old battle between good and evil, indulgence and restraint. At the beginning of Book II, Satan, a fallen angel, is deciding whether to wage war against Heaven. He is hopeful that this war will ultimately restore peace: "I give not Heaven for lost: from this descent / Celestial virtues rising will appear / More glorious and more dread than from no fall." As a fallen angel, he has rebelled against his creator, and taken with him into rebellion many powerful demon leaders. Though his struggle to overcome God and Heaven is doomed, a "vain war with Heaven," Satan attempts to corrupt Adam and Eve, the human creations of God. By doing so, he can still claim victory by destroying his enemy's creations, even though his attack on Heaven will fail,.

Paradise Regained (1671) concerns Christ's forty-day fast in the wilderness, and is more an interior narrative than is the action-packed Paradise Lost. Unlike Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Christ is able to resist the temptations that Satan offers during his time in the desert. As opposed to the war-like tone of Paradise Lost, this poem contains long passages praising peace in glowing terms and questioning the advantages of war: "They err who count it glorious to subdue / By conquest far and wide, to overrun / Large countries, and in field great battles to win." The poem states that war does nothing but devastate, and is critical of "those conquerors, who leave behind / Nothing but ruin wheresoe'er they rove, / And all the flourishing works of peace destroy."

In "Annus Mirabilis" (Year of Miracles) (1667), John Dryden (1631–1700) writes both about the Dutch War and the rebirth of the city of London after the disastrous fire of 1666. Dryden thanks God for the miracle of British survival and for London's triumph over terrible adversity. He echoes earlier writers such as Daniel and Marvell in his praise of war and military might, but Dryden's praise inspired a patriotism previously unseen in British war literature. After a difficult year in which most of London was affected by the Great Fire, its citizens needed encouraging words as well as a robust and able national identity. Dryden reminds readers that Britain's naval might is such that "Our trouble now is but to make them dare, / And not so great to vanquish as to find." Though domestic troubles may plague the English people, their soldiers and sailors are so feared that their enemies hardly dare to engage them in battle.

A military victory seemed to promise future wealth to the British nation. In "Annus Mirabilis," Dryden goes on to boast of Britain's trading power, writing "That those who now distain our trade to share, / Shall rob like pirates on our wealthy coast." This theme of war as the gateway to commercial development was relatively new in British war literature. The connection between commerce and imperialism will reappear as an important theme in works about Captain Cook and Vancouver at the end of the eighteenth century.

Thus far, war has been analyzed in terms of monstrous struggle (Beowulf), military prowess (Le Morte d'Arthur), exhortation and nobility of soul (Henry V), military triumph (Marvell's "An Horatian Ode"), and the fundamental battles of the human condition (Paradise Lost). In Dryden, there is the frank and rousing battle cry of commercial competition and market success.

The Earl of Clarendon (1609–1674) wrote yet another kind of war literature, a historical memoir. As an elected member of the House of Commons in 1640, Clarendon was initially a strong critic of King Charles I, but eventually changed his politics and began to support the Royalists. When Cromwell overthrew the Royalist forces in 1646, Clarendon went into exile on the island of Jersey with the king and the Royalist contingent. After the Restoration, Clarendon returned to England and served Charles II as Lord Chancellor. However, in the course of providing these services, Clarendon made the mistake of criticizing the king's extravagance, and he was exiled again. While exiled, he wrote The History of the Rebellion (published 1702–04). This book, based on conversations with participants in the Civil War, addresses the British Civil War in which Charles I was taken prisoner by Parliament and finally beheaded; it also discusses the so-called Roundheads, who inherited the government of Britain along with Cromwell.

Period of Revolutions and After: 1770–1914

The century of the British Civil War ended with revolutions across Europe and North America; of direct interest to England were the French Revolution (1789–99) and the American Revolution (1774–76). While the American Revolution affected British colonies, the British were also concerned about the French Revolution. The government feared the precedent set by the taking of the Bastille in 1789 and by the bloody persecutions that followed. The resulting massacres, widespread chaos, and dread in France led British conservatives like Edmund Burke to cry out for restraint and gradualism rather than for immediate and violent revolution. Burke articulated this view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Though conservatives criticized the revolution in France, in its earlier stages it was a source of inspiration for some British writers because of its focus on freedom and equality. However, the Reign of Terror that followed the revolution and the oppression under Napoleon caused a gradual change in literary opinion.

The poet William Blake (1757–1827) appreciated the apocalyptic power of a revolution, which overturned old values and promised new spiritual freedom to humankind. Blake was both an artist and author; he also claimed to have experienced numerous visions of the angel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, and the saints. As his poetic career unfolded, his artistic temperament made him susceptible to the French Revolution's energy and political momentum, as well as the larger promise for humankind that it represented. In this passage from "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," Blake writes about the Spirit of Revolution—often depicted as a woman—that is essential for the birth of a new world. The term "Albion" in the poem refers to England:

1. The Eternal Female groan'd! it was heard over all the Earth:

2. Albions coast is sick, silent; the American meadows faint!

3. Shadows of Prophecy shiver along by the lakes and the rivers and mutter across the ocean! France rend down thy dungeon!

Not everyone rejoiced at the prospect of war and revolution that seemed to threaten England in the wake of the French and American Revolutions. Romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Lord Byron were greatly worried about a conflict and war on British soil.

Coleridge (1772–1834), known for his criticism, his poetry, and his associations with the great figures of English Romantic poetry, was not enthusiastic about the French Revolution. In the poem "Fears in Solitude" (1798), he writes that it is easy to be a proponent of war when one is far from the actual battlefields and not feeling the repercussions: "Secure from actual warfare, we have loved / To swell the war-whoop, passionate for war! / Alas! for ages ignorant of all / Its ghastlier workings." Coleridge condems the lust for war in a people who have not yet known the suffering it will bring.

Wordsworth (1770–1850) went to France in 1792 and came to admire the French Revolution, which he saw as a force for freeing mankind from the shackles of received opinion and class hierarchies. In his long autobiographical poem, "The Prelude," which is divided into fourteen books, he devotes the earlier books to the progress and glory of freedom. By the time he reaches Book Ten, which concerns both the French Revolution and nature, he has significantly modified his earlier views. The revolution in France seemed to him to be pure danger and folly; he suggests that its proponents need of lessons from sober, persistent, and steady Nature, the foundation of all human wisdom. Wordsworth thus joins Burke in criticizing violent social change, though he does so from a very different viewpoint. In response to the Reign of Terror that followed the revolution, Wordsworth writes "Domestic carnage now filled the whole year … all perish, all, / Friends, enemies, of all parties, ages, ranks, / Head after head, and never heads enough / For those that bade them fall."

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788–1824), was the most flamboyant of the English Romantic poets and the one who exposed himself most extensively to the turbulent new world of contemporary Europe. In 1816, pursued by rumors of an incestuous relationship with his sister and an accumulation of bad debts, Byron left England for Europe; he was never to return to his native land. He had published the first part of his long poem, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," in 1812; through the protagonist of that poem he expresses and refines his own opinions and attitudes toward current affairs in Europe.

Canto 3 of "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" reveals Byron's attitude toward the Battle of Waterloo (1815), at which the British decisively beat the French, and after which Napoleon was driven into exile. In the poem, Byron refers to France as "Gaul" and wonders about the true outcome of the battle: "Fit retribution! Gaul may champ the bit / And foam in fetters;—but is Earth more free?" By the time he completed "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," Byron was a bitter opponent of war, which wiped away all achievement; still, throughout his own wanderings in Europe he delighted in striking military poses and participating in conflicts, such as the one devoted to liberating Greece from the Ottoman Turks. His relationship to war was complex; like many men, Byron was both repelled by and attracted to conflict.

As Britain developed into a colonial power around the world, British citizens occupied many areas across the globe. George Vancouver (1757–1798) joined the Royal Navy at the age of fourteen. At age fifteen, he sailed with Captain James Cook during the Captain's second and ill-fated third voyages. Vancouver's Voyage of Discovery (1798) recounts how the party of sailors reached the Hawaiian Islands. Due to some local tribal frictions and a lack of diplomacy on Cook's part, Vancouver was beaten and held captive by the islanders. This occurred only a day before Cook was speared to death after a confrontation with the islanders. Like the explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Vancouver and Cook met with resistance and violence in their encounters with native populations. After his experience on the Hawaiian Islands, Vancouver went on to further navigation and discovery, leaving his name as well as his influence on the Northwest Coast of the Americas. However, Vancouver's work serves as a reminder that the tension between explorer-settlers and native populations was not unique to North America and often resulted in bloody and violent battles.

Thomas Love Peacock's "The War Song of Dinas Vawr" (1829) was written at a time when the British Empire was beginning to consolidate its international holdings. Peacock (1785–1866) entered the service of Britain's India Company in 1819, becoming Chief Examiner of Indian Correspondence in 1836, and retiring from the company in 1856. His life experience was thus professionally bound to the administration of the British colony of India. "The War Song of Dinas Vawr" is a satirical take on the popular history ballads of the time, rhymes that glorified war and battle. In historic epic poems such as the Iliad and the Aeneid, wars are waged and sacrifices made for grand ideas, under the leadership of men who inspire. In contrast, the men in Peacock's poem have stolen a herd of sheep and proceed to slaughter anyone who opposes their theft, an absurd excuse for combat that nonetheless results in a frenzy of violence: "We there, in strife bewildering, / Spilt blood enough to swim in: / We orphan'd many children / And widow'd many women."

The poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) coincides with the Victorian age in literature, a period characterized by concern for issues such as the Darwin's evolutionary discoveries, the extension of British Imperialism, the slave trade, and the social ills generated by the growing industrialization of the British economy. Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1854) records a suicidal attack by British light cavalry over open country. Though there was no hope of victory in the attack, the soldiers charged at their leader's mistaken command, running to their certain death: "Not tho' the soldier knew / Someone had blunder'd." The charge occurred in the Battle of Balaclava, in the Ukraine, during the Crimean War (1854–56). Britain had entered that war to protect British sea routes in the Dardanelles off Turkey, joining forces with France and Turkey against Russia. The battle depicted in "The Charge of the Light Brigade" cost the lives of close to two hundred of the more than six hundred men who fought in the battle. The author's attitude toward the war and the men of the Light Brigade is ambiguous: it is difficult to tell whether he believes the men—and the war itself—to be glorious and heroic or foolish and fatal. Even if Tennyson disapproves of the war, he blames the leaders rather than the soldiers. Of the soldiers he writes, "Their's not to make reply, / Their's not to reason why, / Their's but to do and die: / Into the valley of Death"

Matthew Arnold (1822–1888) was one of the great literary and cultural critics of the Victorian era, and though he was not specifically a poet of war (or peace), he took part in many of the influential events of his time. As a distinguished Oxford professor, a well-traveled school inspector, and a frequent visitor to America and the European continent, Arnold served as a kind of social conscience of his time. His poem "Dover Beach" (1867) reflects this role.

In this poem, Arnold surveys a calm sea, seeing both peace and sadness. He reflects on the tide of religious faith, which was once full, but has now receded, leaving mortals sure of nothing except their love for one another. At the end of the poem he turns to the world, which, though it "seems / to lie before us like a world of dreams,"

    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night.

As faith recedes and uncertainty takes its place, human conflict is unchecked. In this poem, Arnold gives a general and sweeping indictment of war.

Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) is best known as a novelist, the author of books like Far from the Madding Crowd, The Return of the Native, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Jude the Obscure. He was also a poet, and expressed his view of war as it developed during the Second Boer War (1899–1902) and the World War I (1914–1918). The Boer War aimed to assure the unimpeded development of British trade in South Africa and to guarantee access to South African gold mines. Hardy's poem "Drummer Hodge" (1902) illustrates the bleak fate the Boer War delivered to British soldiers, many of whom died in a foreign country without family or friends to bury them: "They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest / Uncoffined—just as found." Though he died on lonely foreign soil, Hodge has become a part of the country he was fighting in: "Yet portion of that unknown plain / Will Hodge for ever be." There is cold comfort in the soldier's death, which Hardy seems to imply will go unnoticed and unremembered.

Not every Englishman saw the Boer War as Hardy did. Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) is best known for his Sherlock Holmes stories, but this Scottish eye doctor and spokesman for British Imperialism also devoted himself to historical and journalistic efforts. Doyle served several months as a senior physician in a field hospital during the Boer War and wrote The Great Boer War (1901), in which he defended England's policy of imperialism and colonization. In this work, Doyle trivializes the successes of the Afrikaners—the enemy—in the First Boer War, which Britain lost. Doyle refers to those battles as little more than skirmishes and claim that if Britain had won that war, these Afrikaner victories would have been forgotten.

World War I and After: 1915–1939

The Crimean War and the Boer War were consequences of British Imperialist ambition. World War I, which occurred a bit more than a decade after the Second Boer War, was a different matter. It was provoked by something that might have seemed like an isolated incident—a Serbian nationalist murdering the Austrian Archduke. However, the war gained a volatile momentum of its own. Serbia drew its ally, Russia, into the war. Austria invited Germany into an alliance and Germany quickly accepted, invading Belgium. The British entered in opposition to Germany, as England was tied to Belgium in a defensive alliance. France was bound to Russia in a mutual defense treaty, and to England in a looser pact. This sequence of rapidly moving events collided in 1914, leaving Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire fighting a world war against the Western Allies and Russia.

The first global conflict in history was the result. Military strategy and the science to support it had evolved, making this war, with its trench warfare, poison gas, and shell shock, the nastiest on record. Some of the most innovative and introspective literature about war ever written came out of World War I; the modernist movement in literature and art was a response to the devastation of World War I. The violence and inhumanity of the war penetrated throughout it and throughout the countries involved. Artists and writers felt that meaningful communication of this horror required entirely new forms of art and literature. This war generated an outburst of distinguished lyric poems, once again reminding readers of the relationship between war and creative energies.

Irishman William Butler Yeats (1865–1939) was a student of Irish folklore as well as the supernatural and the occult. He wrote poems and plays in Dublin, several of which addressed the Irish struggle for independence from Britain. He was elected to the Irish senate in 1922 and was politically active throughout most of his life. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. In his poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" (1918), Yeats articulates the horrible truth of an airman's reality, the realization that his death will do nothing for his country and is essentially a waste. This sentiment echoes the feeling of alienation and resignation in Hardy's "Drummer Hodge." Still, the airman continues on his mission: "Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love … No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before." For a brief moment he is ecstatic in pure identification with his mission, one with the air, one with the sky. In this sense, the airman meets a far more ennobling death than does Drummer Hodge.

In his poem "Easter 1916" (1916), Yeats brings his powerful poetic innovation to bear on a topic close to his heart: the struggle for Irish independence. The poem was occasioned by a small but bloody rebellion in which a gathering of Irish patriots, using weapons supplied by Germany, plotted to drive out the British occupiers. In the end, everything went wrong for the Irish rebellion: their weapon supplies were intercepted, some of their top leaders were arrested, and their military strategy proved immature. In short order the rebels surrendered, downtown Dublin suffered major damage, and the rebellion was brought to a halt. This would apparently have been the end of it, had the British handled their success carefully.

The British, however, fed the violence of resistance and the power of Yeats's poem. Many of the rebellion leaders were executed, shocking the Irish public. Yeats addresses the "terrible beauty" of this turn of events in "Easter 1916," one of literature's most compelling commentaries on power and suffering in war. After celebrating several of the beloved Irish individuals who fell victim to the rebellion, Yeats sums up the mission of his rebellion poem, and extends his praise to those who fell:

    I write it out in a verse—
    MacDonagh and MacBride
    And Connolly and Pearse
    Now and in time to be,
    Wherever green is worn,
    Are changed, changed utterly:
    A terrible beauty is born.

The "terrible beauty" is the beauty of sacrifice for the ideal of independence. As in his poem on the Irish airman, Yeats finds a kind of beauty in war, a beauty that may depend on its futility. This profound perspective does not appear in any of the other texts assembled here.

Poet Rupert Brooke (1887–1915) joined the British forces in World War I, but only served one day of limited action, during the British retreat from Antwerp in Belgium. He died in 1915 on his way to fight in the Battle of Gallipoli, not from war wounds but from blood poisoning. He was buried on the Greek Island of Skyros. In contrast to Hardy's Drummer Hodge, whose burial on foreign soil was depicted as bitter and alienating, the soldier in Brooke's "The Soldier" (1915) considers falling in a foreign country to be a point of pride; it is an honor to make such a sacrifice for his country: "If I should die, think this only of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England."

Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) was killed in action in France just seven days before the Armistice that ended World War I. His view of the war differed greatly from Brooke's and more closely echoes the worries and isolation of Yeats's Irish airman and Hardy's Drummer Hodge. Owen's poem "Anthem for Doomed Youth" (1920) speaks to the ultimate fear in the heart of a soldier: dying anonymously on a battlefield where men die "as cattle." There will be no funeral, no bell to mark his passing, "Only the monstrous anger of the guns. / Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle." None of the optimism of Brooke's poem is found here; disillusionment was becoming an increasingly common theme in British war literature at this time. Owen's words are a far cry from the praise of war and the search for valor found in Shakespeare's Henry V.

In her short novel The Return of the Soldier (1918), Rebecca West (1892–1983) writes an intimate war story that flowers into a broad commentary on World War I, featuring an interesting blend of feminism and conservatism.

In the novel, two women await Captain Chris Baldry's return from war: his wife, Kitty, and his cousin, Jenny. Jenny, living in the lovely Thames country house Chris built, yearns to see her cousin return: "[L]ike most Englishwomen of my time, I was wishing for the return of a soldier. Disregarding the national interest and everything else … I wanted to snatch my Cousin Christopher from the wars."

Chris returns from the war with amnesia. Though the year is 1916, he believes he is in the year 1901, knows nothing of his wife, and recommences wooing Margaret, a pub keeper's daughter whom he had been courting fifteen years earlier. Though Chris's ailment concerns the women, they worry that if he recovers, he will be sent right back to the battlefields. They are left to agonize over which state is better: illness and peace, or health and war. He eventually recovers and is called back to join his unit in the war, facing a brutal reality which will no doubt bereave all three of these women. West feels the world is rotting, and writes with deep sympathy for the anxiety and sadness of women waiting for soldiers to return.

David Jones (1895–1974) enlisted in the war in 1914, and served extensively in Flanders and France. From this experience, he drew his extraordinary poetic novel, In Parenthesis (1937). However, he does not limit his narrative to his personal experience. Jones draws from Welsh and Anglo-Saxon myths and legends to create this epic tale, which follows Private John Ball's company through preparations for battle, the battle itself, and on to the end of the battle, which results in the death of Ball's entire company. The use of mythological and religious sources serves to connect the characters in this war poem with the tradition of British epics such as Beowulf, Le Morte d'Arthur, and Henry V. Jones refers to the battlefield as "a place of enchantment," connecting it to Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. He writes that he called his novel In Parenthesis because he had written it in "a kind of space between … the war itself was a parenthesis—how glad we thought we were to step outside its brackets at the end of '18."

Frank O'Connor (1903–66), author of "Guests of the Nation" (1931), brings readers to the Irish civil war, the long intractable conflict between Catholic and Protestant factions on the island.

In 1918—twoyears after Yeats's "Easter 1916" poem—O'Connor joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and took part in actions designed to do away with British rule. He continued as an activist, but year by year, his commitment to writing took precedence. O'Connor was at his best in the short story form, and nowhere does he deal better with the problem of wartime conflict than in his story "Guests of the Nation."

In the story, the Irish Republican Army has taken two British military hostages. A friendship develops between the two hostages and their captors. Off in the countryside, in a secret location where the IRA keeps its prisoners, the two pairs play cards at night, talk politics, and exchange family news. Then an order comes from the IRA commandant to execute the two Englishmen. The story's real import resonates from this point, as the author takes the reader inside the emotions of the four major characters—particularly the two anguished Irishmen. This fascinating and understated tale leaves a strong impression that the ideology of war is ultimately deeply inhuman, whatever its initial purposes.

George Orwell (1903–1950) lived in the British territory of Burma from 1922 to 1927, where he worked in Police Administration. In that position, he experienced firsthand the effects of British Imperialism. Disgusted with imperialist policy, Orwell went to Spain in the 1930s to fight with the United Workers Marxist Party in their struggle against the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Franco was a ruthless Spanish ruler who espoused the same fascist ideology that was sweeping Germany and Italy at the time. Orwell was wounded in the neck while fighting. During his recuperation, he discovered that he did not believe in Marxism, a political belief that the workers of a country should reclaim the wealth that they have created for the ruling class. Instead, Orwell embraced the milder forms of British socialism, a political ideology aimed at creating a classless society, but determined to overthrow the status quo. Orwell's book Homage Catalonia (1952) grew from these experiences.

The book describes the northern Spanish city of Barcelona saturated with the ugly atmosphere of war, yet full of hope for a coming revolution. From this revolution, people expect a new sense of freedom and equality among human beings. This book, unlike any other surveyed in this essay, is written as the creation of an intellectual, one testing out ideas, acting through an ideology. The reader follows the course of a man's search for answers about how to organize society, deliberations carried out in the heat of a battle that engaged many Western intellectuals during the period of Franco's regime in Spain. Orwell also shows that war never serves the ideals of any system of thought, instead imposing its own vicious rhythms on what might have initially seemed to be a struggle for a just cause. War does not exist to make a point, but to vent frustrations as well as hostility and to satisfy the craving for new territory.

Orwell's disenchantment with Marxism underwrites another influential work, one which is also concerned with the conflicts of his time. In Animal Farm (1945), Orwell creates a parable. His story illustrates a moral about animals who, like the Russian Communists of the time, take power into their own hands and refuse to passively submit to the dictates of their human masters. Major, the prize boar, addresses the barnyard and incites a revolution during which the animals take over their farm; no sooner do they do so than they begin to bicker over power and find themselves being manipulated by animal rulers that are not very different from their human masters. Major reminds his comrades that the single solution to all their problems is to remove man, the source of overwork and insufficient food. The animal revolution, however, ultimately proves a disappointment; it simply installs a new tyranny, which Orwell suggests is the inevitable result of revolutionary social revision.

Orwell strikes a new note in his writing about the facts of war and social change. While not without hope, he challenges any conviction that violent change is the best way to lend force to valuable and idealistic beliefs.

Fred Thomas, like Orwell and many other English intellectuals in the thirties, served in the British anti-tank battery of the 15th International Brigade in Spain. He was there to join the battle against Franco. Thomas, too, went off to war for ideological reasons and soon found the conflict to be more complex than he had anticipated. Thomas was wounded in action twice, fighting in heavy battles at Brunete, Teruel, and on the Ebro River, and he spent long periods recuperating in the hospital. Furthermore, Thomas, like Orwell, found that, in practice, the ideology of the anti-Franco forces was not what he wanted it to be. His diary of this struggle, To Tilt at Windmills (1996), offers intimate glimpses of the Spanish war in the late 1903s. The title of the memoir recalls Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (1605) and its main character's quest for the romance of war and chivalry in a world where it no longer existed.

Thomas is less abstract than Orwell and presents a compelling picture of daily suffering in the war. He also captures the ultimate frustration of fighting a war on foreign soil, where one remains a stranger to the end even though one is committed to the cause.

World War II: 1940 into the Late Twentieth Century

The Spanish Civil War, the growth of the Nazi ideology in Germany, and the consolidation of Communist power in the (former) Soviet Union all cast a shadow over the Western world, a shadow that suggested imminent disaster to many. The catastrophe came in the form of a Second World War characterized by a systematic human brutality that dwarfed that of the First World War. From the extermination of six million Jews in the concentration camps to the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, World War II took the horror and destruction of war to a new level.

In the four novels of "The Raj Quartet" (1966–75), Paul Mark Scott (1920–1978) takes readers out of the world of Western wars and into the military and colonial atmosphere of post-Independence India. Scott places his extensive fictions in this setting; he also uses it to frame his broad understanding of cultural differences and the intricacies of colonialism, so much of which derives from the simple exercise of military power.

In "The Raj Quartet," Scott carefully analyze the social tensions in military and administrative circles in India during the last five years of the British colonial occupation (1942–47). This period of occupation was commonly called the Raj. The theme of these long novels is the way British power in India was stifled by obstacles such as the powerful resistance headed by Mahatma Gandhi.

Scott examines life in military circles and studies the last stages of an Empire motivated by economic concerns and a quest for military dominance. Scott's theme in that context is the failure of the British Empire's "civilizing mission" in India. In Scott's novels, that mission aimed to bring peace and economic development to an undeveloped country. That intention went astray because its execution was fundamentally paternalistic, like that of a parent overseeing a child. Because of this overbearing attitude on the part of the British, the Indians were not properly prepared for life after the Empire.

Peace was elusive in Britain, as well. Dame Edith Sitwell (1887–1964) played a prominent role in the London art scene. One of her most successful poems, "Still Falls the Rain" (1942), draws on her experiences during the German blitz over London. Her perspective was that of a woman living in a war zone and suffering the devastating effects of constant attack; she thus presents a new facet of British war literature. Works such as Sitwell's remind the reader that the casualties of war do not occur only on the battlefield. She likens the dark rain that fell during Christ's crucifixion to that which is falling over the world during war; both events, she contends, involve the murder and sacrifice of innocents. War, then, is essentially sacrilegious, an action against God: "Then sounds the voice of One who like the heart of man / Was once a child who among beasts has lain— / 'Still do I love, still shed my innocent light, my Blood, for thee.'"

Like Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) wrote about the German bombing of London in her novel The Heat of the Day (1945). Her text explodes with descriptions of terrifying daylight bombing raids as experienced by average people. Passages of chilling violence—walls falling, bottles tipped upside down, street pavements cracking—insert themselves into scenes from ordinary British lives: housewives preparing dinner, husbands hurrying back on the tube from a day of work, and lovers furtively joining. The last is of particular relevance to the story, which concentrates on the way strong personal emotions co-exist with a virtually disintegrating public life.

By showing lovers subjected to searing wartime attacks, Bowen makes it clear that life goes on, even in wartime. Life in wartime is nonetheless totally transformed by challenges and discoveries absent from the calmer climate of peace. The horrors of war are vividly presented here, yet Bowen also illustrates the strange fascinations of a world turned upside down by conflict.

W. H. Auden (1907–1973) was another writer who went to Spain in support of the opposition to Franco; unlike Orwell, he was not appreciated, for he was not a member of the Communist Party. As a result, by the late 1930s Auden's tone was less politically radical than it had been in the previous decade, although he remained an intense foe of totalitarianism, a regime in which the state controls almost all aspects of public and private life. During World War II, Auden worked with the American Army, surveying German civilians' psychological reactions to bombing. From this direct experience of the damage wrought by war, Auden brought forth texts like "The Shield of Achilles" (1955), a modernization of Homer's famous shield description at the end of the Iliad. Like Milton and many other of the greatest British writers, Auden drew inspiration from one of the greatest epic war poems in world literature.

In Greek mythology, Achilles loses his shield after loaning it to a friend who dies in battle during the Trojan War. This is a particularly significant event in Homer's version of myth and war. Achilles' mother goes to the god of fire, Hephaestus, and asks him to forge a new shield for her son. On the shield created by the craftsman god are depictions of bucolic landscapes and images of war and peace. In Auden's poem, however, all images of peace on the shield have been lost and replaced with horrible images of war, including the concentration camps where "they were small / and could not hope for help and no help came: / What their foes liked to do was done, their shame / Was all the worst could wish." The modern form of brutish, dehumanizing warfare is thus denied any connection to the noble wars of antiquity.

The poet Henry Reed (1914–1986) was in the British Army from 1941 to 1942. His early poetry dealt with political events that occurred before and during World War II. His perspective on the war experience in "Lessons of the War" is ironic and fresh, contrasting the protocol and bureaucracy of preparation for war with the messy and lethal experience of the battlefield. "Lessons of the War" (1941) was based on the words of Reed's drill instructor, and throughout the poem, young soldiers are given instructions on weaponry, the science of judging distances, and strategies for carrying out unarmed hand-to-hand combat. Despite all their technical training, the narrator emphasizes a different weapon: "While awaiting a proper issue, we must learn that lesson / Of the ever-important question of human balance. / It is courage that counts."

Reed's "Lessons of War" is reminiscent of American novelist Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895), which raises the fundamental problem of courage: soldiers ask, "Am I brave enough?" Reed refuses military posturing and reduces the military enterprise to a simple emotional level, refusing to imply scorn for the coward or to be taken in by the posturing of the hero.

James Fenton's (1949–) poem "A German Requiem" was written thirty-six years after the end of World War II, and serves as a reminder that war does not end when the fighting stops. In this poem, Fenton is engaged with the issues of historical guilt, memory, and imagination as they play out in the minds of victims and survivors of wars such as the one that engulfed Nazi Germany. World War II haunts its survivors and fills them with horrible memories that they cannot forget. Yet the things they can no longer remember cause the most terrible pain: joy, personal recollections, and life before the war.

    It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
    It is not the houses. It is the space between the houses.
    It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
    It is not your memories which haunt you.
    It is not what you have written down.
    It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.

Many cite World War II as a war waged with moral certainty. In other words, the evil in the situation—Hitler, the Nazis, the concentration camps, the bombing of Pearl Harbor—was easily and clearly identified. It was easy to define the roles in "us versus them," a division at the heart of all successful warfare. Most Allied soldiers and citizens (French, British, and American) believed that World War II was just and essential to ending unrestrained oppression and genocide. The wars that followed in the twentieth century, however, often lacked that feeling of moral certainty. The Vietnam War is a prime example of this difficulty. The United States entered a war on vague terms and fought an enemy that blended seamlessly with civilians. The U.S. government concealed information; thousands of soldiers lost their lives in a cause that became increasingly unclear; and the war became known as a quagmire, a situation from which there was no easy exit. To be defeated in war, as the United States was, also brought home to the nation the precarious nature of military conflict.

Throughout the world, people protested America's military presence in Vietnam. Poet Adrian Mitchell (1932–) wrote the poem "To Whom It May Concern" (1965) as a protest against the war, which would last for another ten years after the poem was written. "I smell something burning, hope it's just my brains. / They're only dropping peppermints and daisy-chains / So stuff my nose with garlic / […] / Tell me lies about Vietnam."

Mitchell's poem explores the distrust that many felt toward the U.S. government's official version of events in Vietnam. The "something" that Mitchell smells burning is napalm, a gasoline-based weapon that developed during World War II and used extensively on military and civilian targets during the Vietnam War. The reference in the next line to "peppermints and daisy-chains" satirizes the way the government justified their actions, claiming that their presence in Vietnam was almost a positive one, bringing gifts to the Vietnamese people. Mitchell finds those claims so implausible that he asks to have his senses taken away so that he can believe these lies about the Vietnam War.

Laurie Lee (1914–1997) wrote a trilogy of autobiographical works: Cider with Rosie (1959), As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969), and A Moment of War: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War (1991). The second volume covers Lee's departure from home in the 1930s and his wanderings through Europe. It ends with Lee's being evacuated from Spain by a British ship, then returning to Europe and entering Spain through the Pyrenees mountains to join the Republican anti-Franco forces, the same forces Orwell and Thomas joined. The third volume in the trilogy claims to be an eyewitness account of the war itself, with a full discussion of Lee's difficult quest to enroll in the International Brigade. The book appeared in the United States in 1993 and was praised for its extraordinary power and honesty.

In 1998, British newspapers reported startling news from Bill Alexander, secretary of the Association of the International Brigade, the foreign volunteer fighters in the Spanish Civil War. Alexander had evidence that Lee had not participated in the war, and that his memoir was fictional. This news, apparently, was not a surprise to everyone; as early as 1991, Lee's book had been described as fiction.


There is a threshold above which common political speech shifts into the moving realm of oratory. Abraham Lincoln achieved this kind of breakthrough in his Second Inaugural Address, as did the ancient Greeks and Romans, who were attuned to the importance of great rhetoric. Modern readers still study Pericles' funeral oration, a product of Athens in the fifth century b.c.; we also still read Cicero's Orations against the Catilinarian Conspiracy, made in Rome during the first century b.c.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874–1965) and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) are part of this grand tradition. External circumstances drove these men to harness the rhetorical power of speech; as a result, they have left their mark on history.

World War II presented huge challenges to the civilized world as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan threatened the Western democratic tradition. Though this challenge had been building for several decades, the Axis powers' threat exploded into every aspect of the Allies' public life in the late 1930s. Military, social, and economic life were all focused on defeating Hitler and the Japanese. World War II commanded global attention from 1939 to 1945, from Pearl Harbor and the German invasion of Poland to the atom bomb over Nagasaki. By the end of the war, a fatal split emerged between the former Allies as Russia followed its own path into a kind of communism and the Western Allies attempted to reconstruct their badly defeated former enemies. In this devastating setting, Roosevelt and Churchill were called upon to articulate their power, sympathy, and resolve. Whole peoples needed to be inspired and encouraged.

Roosevelt described December 7, 1941—when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—as "a date that will live in infamy." Roosevelt addressed the nation on December 8, 1941, in a famous speech rallying Americans and calling for a declaration of war. The Japanese had been carrying on various diplomatic negotiations with the U.S. government while preparing these attacks. In the face of their "unprovoked and dastardly attack," the President spoke on behalf of the nation: "The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation."

Roosevelt's "Infamy" speech is an impassioned request for Congress to declare war on Japan, but its brevity belies the gravity of its impact: "Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory and our interests are in grave danger." The speech has a simple and forceful unity, appropriate to crisis, but still calm and determined: "With confidence in our armed forces—with the unbounded determination of our people—we will gain the inevitable triumph." The nation was inspired by Roosevelt's words and went willingly into battle.

In contrast, Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946 was a long, reflective, and almost scholarly response to events after World War II. His speech addresses the gradual origins of the cold war between the West and the Soviet Union and formulates the dangers of "these anxious and baffling times." This speech that coined the term "iron curtain," which described the division of Eastern and Western Europe that lasted until 1989.

There are several masterful touches in Churchill's speech, and they all spring from his rhetorical skill. The image of the "iron curtain" summed up the era's dilemma. It described the situation, but it also provided language that would endure into the future—for example the lifting of the Iron Curtain symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. He reminds the United States that its role as a world power makes it "necessary that the constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, and the grand simplicity of decision shall guide the conduct of English-speaking peoples in peace as they did in war." He also expresses his hope that the pain and suffering of World War II will make it possible to "guard the homes of the common people from the horrors and miseries of another war."

Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech is perhaps his best known oration. Its rhetorical strength derives from the way it marks off a specific geographical area and lists the captive cities of the region, each of them dignified and noble, but still part of the "Soviet sphere." The embedded warning about the "increasing measure of control" puts Moscow on notice that further encroachment will not be tolerated, yet Churchill still allows for the possibility of negotiation. These are small points in a long and artful speech, but they show the finesse which Churchill achieved time and again during the pregnant military-economic moment that characterized Western democracies in the era of the World War II.

Lee's fictional autobiography signals an interesting change in war literature: a rekindling of the desire to be associated with the glory and romance of war. For hundreds of years, much war literature had favored reality over romance, focusing on the devastation and search for meaning that war ignites. This was a shift from the glorification and romance of war depicted in ancient texts such as the Iliad, Beowulf, and Le Morte d'Arthur. Perhaps Lee wanted to link himself with the valor and bravery associated with World War II-era battles against fascist aggression, just as the ancients wrote to connect themselves with great battles and leaders.


Over time, the portrayal of war and peace has changed in British literature. Patterns emerge during the historical development of these war stories, and the texts surveyed here display a variety of attitudes toward war. When one analyzes how these attitudes have evolved, several trends become evident.

The concept of warfare in Beowulf, The Battle of Malden, and Le Morte d'Arthur seems premodern to contemporary readers. These texts describe war as an exercise in prowess and victimization, an opportunity for glory and masculine feats, and an open struggle in a time when death was a stronger presence in human affairs. When war is a rough fact of life, little literary attention is paid to the specifics of peace.

From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, there are occasional notes of lyrical patriotism or military enthusiasm. Samuel Daniel praises Henry VII, the first Tudor King, for his prowess in battle; Shakespeare, in Henry V, gives brilliant expression to British patriotism; and Andrew Marvell, in his "Horatian Ode" on Cromwell's victory. This kind of patriotism is not much in style today, but earlier writers expressed less ambiguous attitudes toward war and military victory. Consider a World War I poem like Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier." The patriotism of that poem will sound naive and insincere to readers brought up with the Vietnam, Korean, and Iraq wars.

By the nineteenth century and on through World War I, compassion for the ordinary soldier becomes an important literary theme. This note is more elegiac and less strident than the full-scale assaults on war which will emerge in the novels of World War II. Consider Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," Hardy's "Drummer Hodge," and Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth." These texts are sad and compassionate, reflecting the sentimentality that was a defining element of the Victorian Era in England.

There is a sharp contrast between these sentimental views and the attitudes expressed by World War II and Vietnam-era writers such as Mitchell, Fenton, or Auden. War as they knew it is almost devoid of humanity; as a result, the soldiers fighting it were cut back to the bone of mere existence.

In the last century, some writers have turned to reflection on war, sometimes engaging in war as part of an ideology. Traces of the intellectualization of the military enterprise appeared long before this time, but its strength as a theme shines forth in this period. Vancouver, Hardy, Scott, and Doyle were all involved in England's colonial endeavors, and Orwell and Thomas fought—and wrote—for the cause of the Spanish Civil War.

War and peace are facets of humanity; as such, they will always find a place in literature. The evolution of British attitudes toward war will continue in the face of future conflicts. England's war literature—and increasingly, peace literature—will change as well, recording the country's shifting perspective on these subjects.


Churchill, Winston, "Iron Curtain Speech," The National Center for Pubic Policy, www.nationalcenter.org/ChurchillIronCurtain.hmtl (September 9, 2005), originally presented at Westminster College, Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946.

Roosevelt, Franklin D., "Infamy Speech," The University of Oklahoma Law Center, www.law.ou.edu/hist/infamy.html (September 9, 2005), originally presented to Congress on December 8, 1941.

Arnold, Matthew, "Dover Beach," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 1367-68.

Auden, W. H., "The Shield of Achilles," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 2272.

"Beowulf," in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 35, 36.

Blake, William, "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 64.

Brooke, Rupert, "The Soldier," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 1826.

Butler, Samuel, "Hudibras," in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 1984-85.

Byron, Lord, (George Gordon) "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 496.

Dryden, John, "Annus Mirabilis," in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 1789.

Fenton, James, "A German Requiem," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 2443-44.

Hardy, Thomas, "Drummer Hodge," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 1696.

Jones, David, "In Parenthesis," in Vol. 2 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 1853, 1854.

Malory, Sir Thomas, "Le Morte d'Arthur," The University of Adelaide (Australia) eText Library, etext.library.adelaide.edu.au (August 5, 2005).

Marlowe, Christopher, Dr. Faustus, in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 797.

Marvell, Andrew, "An Horatian Ode Upon Cromwell's Return from Ireland," in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 1430.

Milton, John, Paradise Lost, in Vol. 1 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 6th ed., edited by M. H. Abrams, W. W. Norton, 1993, pp. 1495, 1496.

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War and Peace in British Literature

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