Thomas Hardy, “And There Was a Great Calm”

I was asked to add my own final reading, so here it is.

Carleigh’s Reading Questions for March 22 (my birthday. maybe I will bring cocoa to share around the tables)

  1. The poems “I Looked Up From My Writing,” “My Boy Jack,” “The Messages,” “August 1914,” and “For a Girl” all emphasize the distance and disconnect from the war. In reality, I think you could argue that most of these poems emphasize that, but I feel that these provide particular important perspectives. How do you begin to characterize the feelings towards the war in these poems? How does this distance change the way these poets relate to the war and to the people fighting in it? 
  2. Charlotte Mew’s poem “May 1915” is maybe the one that has stuck with me the most. She repeats “sure” and “surely” several times as if to convince the reader, and perhaps herself, that pring will return and life itself will come back. In the most basic way possible: are you convinced? Or are the war and grief too blinding? Are we, as readers, supposed to feel optimistic at the final line of the poem? 
  3. We’ve encountered patriotic characters in all of novels: the BF, Mrs. Evans-Mawnigton, Paul’s father, other soldiers, the General in Hemmingway. Most of the time, though, these characters are set in opposition to the protagonist and narrator; they are the ones blinded by nationalism and propaganda. This is perhaps the first time we’re getting patriotic writing from the author themselves. Particularly in Kipling’s poems (the same guy who wrote “White Man’s Burden”), we see the English nationalism come through. What is Kipling trying to suggest about patriotism and war? Do you feel that the tension between loss and duty in “My Boy Jack” supports or undermines this propaganda that Kipling puts forth?

Katia’s Reading Questions for February 10th

  1. “Repression of War Experience” is one of now several portrayals we’ve seen of a narrator struggling with mental health in relation to the Great War, but it’s the first we’ve seen in metered poetry, as opposed to Smith and Aldington’s prose. How does the existence of meter as a force that structures the poem interact with the narration of the post-war mind, which is arguably a fundamentally unstructured thing? How might the change in form from prose to poetry impact a reader’s experience of this subject? 
  2. “The Redeemer” and “Christ and the Soldier” both portray men who appear to be Jesus Christ in contact with the war, but the two portrayals are very distinct. Notably, the symbology of the crown of thorns is explicitly divergent between the two. What kinds of differing or parallel images do the two poems paint regarding Christ in relation to soldiers and the Great War? How might this tie into Sassoon’s more overarching views on England, or on religion? 
  3. Sassoon varies the tone of his poetry and the voices imbedded into it a great deal; the dialogue-centered, sardonic “They” and “The General” exist alongside dense, highly-detailed, visually-oriented narration, such as the voice that narrates “Counter-Attack” and “A Night Attack.” What are the differing purposes or effects of these styles, or other poetic styles Sassoon assumes? Is there a particular advantage (or disadvantage) that one of these approaches might hold in writing about the war for a particular audience?

All Quiet/Not So Quiet: An Ongoing List Of Explicit Textual Parallels

Or deliberate contrasts, or both! I’m not claiming to have exhaustively mined our section for today, but I love patterns and referentiality, so I’m going to start up a list of sections from the text of Not So Quiet… that explicitly evoked a segment of All Quiet on the Western Front to me. The interaction of explicit contrasts, parallels, and half-parallels was really engaging to me.

Page 13: resentment of blind patriotism back home.

No, Smithy, you’re one of England’s Splendid Daughters, proud to do their bit for the dear old flag, and one of England’s Splendid Daughters you’ll stay until you crock up or find some other decent excuse to go home covered in glory. It takes nerve to carry on here, but it takes twice as much to go home to flag-crazy mothers and fathers…”

In some ways this is an explicit, direct echo of All Quiet, and in some ways we see the class difference between Smithy and Paul; we don’t see quite as much of Paul’s parents being blamed for his entry in the war as Kantorek, even though his father does try to show him off to his social circle. Still, the idea of young people being traumatized while people back home congratulate themselves for the “sacrifice” echoes between the two novels.

Pages 19-20: bathrooms.

“Our thoughts fly to bathrooms: big, white-tiled bathrooms with gleaming silver taps and glass-enclosed showers, bathrooms with rubber floors and square-checked bathmats, bathrooms fitted with thick glass shelves loaded with jar upon jar of scented bath salts, white, green, mauve–different colours and different perfumes, lilac, verbena, carnation, lily of the valley.We see ourselves, steeped to the neck in over-hot, over-scented water ;in our hands are clasped enormous, springy sponges foaming with delicious soapsuds, expensive soap-suds-only the most expensive will suffice–sandal-wood, scented oatmeal, odiferous violet. Massage brushes lie to hand, long-handled narrow brushes with quaint, bulbous bristles of hollow rubber that catch the middle of the back just, where the arms are too short to reach… We scrub and scrub and scrub until we are clean and pink and tingling and glowing, we lie in a pleasant semi-coma until the water begins to cool, but emerging has no terrorsElectric fires glow softly ; before them are spread incredibly huge bath-sheets, soft, lavender-scented, monogrammed, waiting to caress our dripping bodies, to smother them in voluptuous warmth.Now we are dry; we pepper our newly-born selves with talcum powder.”June Roses “fills the air with its fragrance, daintily argues with the scent of the bath water, triumphs…

“Half a pint of icy water between six of us,” says Tosh. “Oh Hell, there’s a war on, they tell me.”

This feels like one of the more explicit references to the quick but memorable segment of All Quiet where Paul and his comrades dismiss memories of “white marble” in favor of “shitting under the stars.” It’s a divergence that I think can be rooted in class as well as gender, because (as Smithy’s narration takes care to keep reminding us in various ways) the cast of Not So Quiet… is specifically selected for their middle and upper-class status, and far from every young woman of the time would have had memories of verbena-scented bath salts. Certainly I doubt Paul’s sister would resonate with this particular memory.

That said: I also think this bathroom scene illuminates something fundamentally distinct from Paul in Smithy’s narration, which is that she’s more unstuck in time; this isn’t the only time that she tries to imagine her past life in detail, even though I read ahead by accident and thus can’t bring up the other visible example I have of this yet. To Paul, time and space are more-or-less rigidly delineated between home and the war; I don’t think it would be comforting to him to imagine the former when he’s occupying the latter space. Whether or not it’s comforting or painful to Smithy, though, she does keep doing it.

Page 30: Communications with home, and the truth.

My last letter home opens before me, photograph clear, sent in response to innumerable complaints concerning the brevity of my crossed-out field postcards: “It is such fun out here, and of course I’m loving every minute of it; it’s so splendid to be really in it…”

Jokes aside, though, I think this sequence with Smithy’s letter (and a great portion of the book) demonstrates a far more explicit disdain for Englishness than Paul ever expresses for German-ness. It’s explicitly jarring to hear Smithy put on a show of parodically English upper-class diction after hearing her real narrative voice. (This is another shared quality between All Quiet and Not So Quiet, and perhaps between more of the novels we’ll read this semester; the intimacy between the narrator and the audience, an intimacy that doesn’t include older authority figures in the narrator’s life.) And picking up from my very first item: what my writer friends and I refer to as “momblems” are a lot more bitter and pronounced for Smithy than they are from Paul. Paul lies to his mother with the primary intent of protection; Smithy feels an explicit (and justified) disdain for her.

39: Authority figures

One of these days I will murder her slowly and reverently and very painfully. I will take lots of time over it–unless I meet her coming up the hill with dim lights, denoting an empty ambulance, in which case I will crash her bus head-on and take the risk of my own skidding into the valley afterwards.”

Two important points here. First, a quality of this book that I appreciate is that (even though one of the girls later says “It’s women who will end war,” a statement I find unconvincing in the light of the rest of the book) there is no essential quality of kindness or goodness ascribed to women by default here. The Commandant abuses her power and takes pleasure in doing so, not in the same ways but in many ways just as destructively as Himmelstoss does. Secondly: young women are just as capable of thinking murderous thoughts about their sadistic superior as young men. With the difference being, I guess, that Smithy and the gang cannot plausibly team up to beat up the Commandant. (Cannot, or choose not to, or both? Let’s debate violence again, I guess.)

45: Camaraderie

“A hot-water bottle? They have made a hot-water bottle for me. My friends! They have not forgotten me. This touch of kindliness finishes me completely. The tears roll down my cheeks. I feel a rotter… a beast. I have been calling them everything vile, and all the time they have done this for me.”

A parallel and a contrast in one: the sense of camaraderie between the young people in a horrible situation is the same, but the vital distinction is that Paul never has the moment of misdirected rage against his comrades that Smithy experiences on the preceding pages and feels horrible for upon discovering the hot-water bottle. I don’t like to express preferences here, but I there’s something more authentic about this particular take on experiences of comradeship in crisis; rather than a consistent flood of safety, Smithy’s informed sense of crisis functions in such a way that everyone is a potential threat to her, and in moments of real despair even the bonds of friendship can’t automatically beat out cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Of course, the two characters also exist in different situations; is it in some ways lonelier to be an ambulance driver than to be a soldier? I don’t think I’m qualified to say, having done neither.

55: Solutions?

“Enemies? Our enemies aren’t the Germans. Our enemies are the politicians we pay to keep us out of war and who are too damned inefficient to do their jobs properly. After two thousand years of civilization, this folly happens. It is time women took a hand. The men are failures… this war shows that. Women will be the ones to stop war, you’ll see. If they can’t do anything else, they can refuse to bring children into the world to be maimed and murdered when they grow big enough.”

The same sense of flirtations with internationalism that Paul and his comrades experience on the other side; the same blaming of authority. The gender theory is new, and given the actions and words of the Commandant and Smithy’s mother and the B.F., I’m not sure the text of Not So Quiet… is in accordance with Edwards’s statement here. I like that it’s brought up here, though, for contemplation–

– and I like most of all the way focusing in on any one echo between the two books brings up more questions than answers, and rarely leaves us with the ability to say “well, that’s a parallel!” and move on without further interrogation. So: if there’s anything I missed, or any parallels/contrasts/half-parallels that you discover in further chapters, or if you want to respond to any of the big themes listed above, that’d be (Smithy writing to her mother voice) really splendid!

NOT SO QUIET Miscellany

Nellie notes that her family is sick of receiving her “crossed-out field postcards” (30). This is an example of such a card, many thousands of which were sent during the war:

image of field postcard

Bovril: “thick and salty meat paste extract” (wikipedia)

British ambulance and drivers: