Combat Gnosticism and the Woman Poets

British Female Munitions Worker

British Female Munitions Worker 1914-1918, Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library Archives on Flickr Commons

James Campbell’s ‘Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism’ ranks among the best and most provocative essays I have read on the poetry of the First World War. If you have access through Project Muse (linked above), I strongly recommend the essay in its entirety, because I can only do limited justice to it here.
Campbell makes a case that the canon of war poetry is founded on what he calls ‘combat gnosticism’ — that is, ‘the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of existence that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience’. Failing to critique this ideology, scholarship has merely replicated it. Campbell concludes that ‘trench lyric criticism has itself striven to become the trench lyric in prose form.’
A great deal of Campbell’s argument seems absolutely right. He points out that ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ has been overrated because of its extreme (but as Campbell shows, problematic) claims to realism, with better poems relegated to the supporting cast. Campbell is also very good at exposing the extra-aesthetic reasons why some of these poems are valorised; readers understand them as pieces of documentary evidence rather than art. (Ironically, many would level the same criticism at those poems which Campbell wants to see added to the canon.) There is, for example, a danger that Wilfred Owen’s claims to present ‘Truth’ raise his works above criticism, as when Seamus Heaney worries that his occasional complaints about Owen’s poetry are ‘prissy’ and ‘trivial’ compared with ‘what lay behind [Owen’s] words’.
I start to feel uneasy about Campbell’s argument when he embraces what he calls ‘feminist stud[ies] of war literature’ as an aid to his argument about canonical bias. His silent shift from ‘poetry’ to ‘literature’ is strategic. The case that there were significant women writers engaging with the First World War is unanswerable, but the case that there were significant women poets is less easily made. The feminist critic Jan Montefiore has dismissed women’s poetry of the war as ‘bad’ because scarred with ‘literary cliches’. I think that Charlotte Mew‘s achievement bears comparison with any soldier-poet’s, but she only wrote three short poems explicitly about the war and her place in studies of war poetry is therefore peripheral. Finding anthologies of women’s war poetry ‘useful in suggesting the extent and variety of women’s verse’, Simon Featherstone has argued that they lack poets as challenging as Owen or (for that matter) prose writers like Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen:the anthologies ‘provided ample evidence of women’s poetic activity during the wars, but response to that activity, on the whole, was limited to an acknowledgement of its presence rather than a sustained engagement with the poetry itself.’
The conspiracy theory that women poets (and others) have been overlooked by scholarship because of its commitment to combat gnosticism collapses, then, on purely aesthetic grounds. Most combatant-poets are now forgotten: however ‘gnostic’ their work, it isn’t good enough to survive. If Owen had written bad poetry, his truth-telling claims would be irrelevant. The promotion of combat gnosticism has only been possible because it has not excluded significant voices or contradicted value judgements. Cause and effect have been muddled up in Campbell’s argument. Were there a woman war poet the equal of Virginia Woolf, combat gnosticism would have been unsustainable as a canon-forming ideology. If Campbell believes that women poets have been unfairly ignored, why does he fail to name a single one except to join the condemnation of that eternally useful straw woman, Jessie Pope?
The quiet expansion of the war poetry canon in the last two decades must be welcome, although there is very little evidence that it has assimilated poets important enough to bring about a radical change in our perception of the war’s finest poetry. Scars upon my Heart, Catherine Reilly’s anthology of First World War women poets, is highly uneven in quality, as even the introduction by Judith Kazantzis seems to concede. However, it introduced me and many others to the works of Margaret Postgate Cole and May Wedderburn Cannan, two poets who belong in those anthologies of First World War verse which offer a home to the best of both sexes.
Originally posted on the 10th April 2009, in War Poetry

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About Tim Kendall

I am Professor of English at the University of Exeter. I have written mainly on twentieth-century poetry from Britain, Ireland and America. My most recent publications have focused on war poetry: Modern English War Poetry, a monograph, appeared from Oxford University Press in 2006; and in early 2007 The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry, a 37-essay collection which I edited, came from the same publisher. Previous works include studies of Sylvia Plath and Paul Muldoon. My monograph, The Art of Robert Frost, is forthcoming from Yale University Press in April 2012. I am currently completing an anthology of First World War poetry for Oxford World's Classics. Also under contract are a book on war poetry for OUP's Very Short Introductions series, and (with Philip Lancaster) a three-volume edition of Ivor Gurney's Complete Poems for Oxford English Texts. An essay on Charlotte Mew is forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Victorian Poetry.
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One Response to Combat Gnosticism and the Woman Poets

  1. Dear Professor Kendall,
    I was so happy to find the information related to “Combat Gnosticism and the Woman Poets” since my last poetry
    collection (#6) is entitled “PAX VOBISCUM:Anti-War Poetry Collection (Pacific Copy & Print(c)2009) dedicated to Germany’s wonderful anti-war poet Kathe Kollwitz. I would be happy to forward a copy to you if you can provide a mailing address, as I feel you might find it interesting.
    I’ve been in the literature field for the last 40 years, having discovered my “latent literary talent” when I returned
    to college after the age of 50, having been prevented from attending college when World War I I began, one month
    after graduating from high schoo in 1942. However, blessed with “longivity genes” I hope to live to be 105, since one of my cousins did, and “the beat goes on!”
    I host a monthly poetry series – “Valley Voices of the Muse” for Barnes&Noble/Palm Desert/Westfield Center in Palm Desert, funded by Poets&Writers Magazine through a grant they receive from the James Irvine Foundation, and am also privately funded by them to give readings and creative writing workshops anywhere in the world, which I am more than happy to do. This series celebrates eight years in 2013, and I also hosted a similar program at Barnes&Noble in Sacramento for 10 years for the Wellspring Women’s Center, where I also taught a creative writing program, helping women of low means, which resulted in two anthologies of the women’s writings. I felt I was blessed by the Lord and His Angels to provide this service pro bono for six years.
    I have been an anti-war poet since childhood when photographs of war catastrophes upset me more than the rest of
    the family, and I was number 9 in a family of 10. My brothers and sisters called me ” overly sensitive” and yes, indeed, I was since I knew I was a poet, even then. I’m so happy the Lord and His Angels have hovered over me in life for the last 88 years, with a wish to live to be 105 – but only, if I’m in good health and able to continue writing.
    Since I fly FREE (space available) due to one son’s Alaska Airlines experience, on a “parent privilege pass” my bags are always packed and I’m ready to fly anywhere since I enjoy the privilege of giving a reading and/or teaching a creative writing class. Since you are in a college setting, would there be a chance that you present poets from the community to your students? If so, I would deem it a privilege to meet you and your class.
    In the meantime, I would like to send you a copy of my last anti-war poetry collection, with blessings and a wish for a splended Holiday Season, for you and your family, and may the Aztecs and Mayans be wrong about December 21st!
    Warmest Wishes,
    Patricia D’Alessandro

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