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  • Cited by 3
  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: January 2010

17 - The Second World War: British writing

from Part III - Poetics


Unlike the First World War, Britain's Second World War did not have, nor has it acquired, a hegemonic setting. Vera Brittain and Stephen Spender both thought that the no-man's-land of their war, its “background,” was the bombed city, an equation that is fulfilled in the extraordinary air-raid climax to James Hanley's novel No Directions (1943). All three writers were civilians (Spender volunteered in the Auxiliary Fire Service). That their writing from wartime London has moral and historical authority says a good deal about the heterogeneity of the literary record of the Second World War, and the variety of possibilities for reading it. This is thrown into relief by comparisons with the writing of the First World War, which is still appraised largely in terms of the values and experience of the combatant.

It was claimed that the literature of the Second World War would only repeat that of the First World War (Keith Douglas, in “Desert Flowers,” a poem paying homage to Isaac Rosenberg); that it would only be “created after war is over” (Douglas again); and even that the war “will have no literature” (a character in Elizabeth Bowen's 1941 story “Sunday Afternoon”). Robert Graves thought it unlikely poets would “write horrifically about it,” given broad assent to the struggle against Nazi Germany. Later it would become a convention that writing of the Second World War was inferior to that of the First, an act both of forgetfulness, as Alun Munton has pointed out, and of presumption about what war writing should be like.