Creativity in Times of War

The Receiving Room: 42nd Stationary Hospital by William Orpen

The Receiving Room: 42nd Stationary Hospital by William Orpen

One of the least comfortable things in the human experience is war. As I’ve noted, in Atonement by Ian McEwan, it is said that “Warfare, as we remarked, is the enemy of creative activity” (315). Although it may be true that in the throes of war there may be little time for the frivolity of the arts, there are obviously those who took their inspiration from war instead of being stymied by it. Poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen took the discomfort, horror, and terror that came from their experiences as soldiers in World War I and wrote beautiful, haunting poetry. Both focused on the jingoism and war propaganda. For example, in Owen’s “Dulce Et Decorum Est” the final stanza blatantly calls out war propaganda as “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” (27-28). The Latin phrase here translates to “It is sweet and seemly to die for your country” (Merriam Webster). This poem paints war to be anything but sweet, as the men “bent double, like old beggars under sacks,/ Knock-kneed, coughing like hags,

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington from BBC

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington from BBC

we cursed through sludge” (1-2). The horribly uncomfortable state of the men is obvious, and the use of sound throughout Owen’s poems creates a stunning representation of the horrors of war. The men are “coughing like hags” (2). When they are gassed there is a man “yelling out” “guttering, choking” (11,16). Then the dying soldier has “blood/ come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs” (21-22). The horrible sound imagery builds on Owen’s already horrifying picture of war. Additionally in Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” there are more sounds that recall the horror of war, such as “the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” (3). The “shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells” are the soldiers’ only mourning sounds, and “bugles calling for them from sad shires” (7, 8).

Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “They” focuses on the war propaganda and the ways in which soldiers were affected by the war. While the Bishop in the poem warns that the soldiers “will not be the same” he also says that it’s because “’they’ll have fought/ ‘In a just cause” (2-3). However, the “boys” themselves, tell a more gruesome story. They say

…’We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘ And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’ (7-12)

This description of all of the changed men, now individualized by their own voice instead of being described as a simply a faceless mass of soldiers, shows a tiny glimpse of the horror that comes, not just with war, but with the aftermath. At the National Portrait Gallery in London we saw the WWI exhibit which featured a display of soldiers before and after reconstructive surgery. Most of the soldiers had sustained injuries to their faces, and, while alive, few of them looked like they could have been born that way. They were forever physically changed by what they experienced in the war. It was obvious that “You’ll not find/’A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change” (11).

The Dead Stretcher Bearer by Gilbert Rogers from The Rimes Magazine

The Dead Stretcher Bearer by Gilbert Rogers from The Rimes Magazine

The same pains from the aftermath of war can be seen in Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, though his wounds are not physical. Septimus returned form the war with shell shock, and this wound’s invisible nature made it all the more difficult to treat because doctors at the time didn’t understand it. Though Septimus threatens to kill himself and has hallucinations he is simply encouraged to “take an interest in things outside himself,” a recommendation from a doctor who said that he “had nothing whatever seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts” (31). It is said over and over that Septimus has nothing wrong with him. His wife is left to think “he was selfish. So men are. For he was not ill. Dr. Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him”(33). However, his post-traumatic stress disorder, or shell shock, causes him no end of torment, and eventually leads him to kill himself. He has such vivid hallucinations that when a plane passes overhead he thinks “they are signaling to me,” and he sees the trees “beckoned,” and the leaves were “connected by millions of fibers with his own body” (31, 32). His hallucinations get very intense, and he finds that they “All taken together meant the birth of a new religion—” (32). His trauma has changed him so violently that “he was not Septimus now” (32). All of these representations of the effects of war show the distress and hardship it causes. These horrors, though terrible, are definitely fuel for creativity, as is illustrated by war poetry and the way that war is featured in novels of the time.


Photo citations:

“The Great War in Portraits, National Portrait Gallery.”, first with arts reviews, news and interviews., n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <;.

“Sebastian Faulks on the legacy of the Great War | The Times.” The Times. The Times Magazine, 13 July 2014. Web. <;.

“Your Paintings.” BBC News. BBC, n.d. Web. 13 July 2014. <;.



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