Pen and Sword Pt. IV: Yeats Refuses to Declare

[N.B. This is the fourth in a series of posts about the history of British propaganda efforts during the First World War — the inaugural post can be read here.  The main focus of the series will be on the literary side of things, but possibly with sidelights on other related topics as necessary.]

During the course of reading a marvelous new volume just out this year from the Bodleian Library — From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-Hand Accounts from the Great War, 1914-1916 — I was thrilled to discover something that sheds another sliver of light upon the matter of the Authors’ Declaration of 1914.

It comes in the form of a letter to the eminent classicist Sir Gilbert Murray from the influential Irish poet W.B. Yeats.  I think it is a mark of the direction in which history has unfolded that Yeats should need no contextualizing hyperlink while Murray surely does, but in their time it was Murray who was the titan and Yeats still the rising star.  In this letter, we discover that Yeats had been asked by Murray to endorse the Authors’ Declaration with his signature — but Yeats refused.

Here is the text of that letter, dated 15 September 1914:

Dear Murray,

No.  I am sorry, but No.  I long for the defeat of the Germans but your manifesto reads like an extract from the newspapers, and newspapers are liars.  What have we novelists, poets, whatever we are, to do with them?

First: I don’t know whether England or Germany brought on this war, and you don’t.  Diplomatic documents published in the White Book deal with matters of form.  The question is whether Germany has as England believes been arming for years to wage war on England, or whether as Germany believes, England has surrounded her with hostile alliances waiting their moment to attack, through which she had to force her way at the first likely moment.  That knowledge will be kept by secret diplomacy for a good many years to come.

Second: I cannot see who this document is going to influence.  It has every sign of its origin ‘drawn up to include as many people as possible’ that is to say to be something which nobody will wholeheartedly believe, and which looks all its insincerity.  If a manifesto is to move anybody the man who made it must at least believe in it.  I would gladly join with you if you would get up a declaration against secret diplomacy when the time comes, or get up a manifesto demanding some responsible investigation of German outrages.  The present campaign may result in reprisals that will make this war more shameful than that of the Balkans.

There should be no anonymous charges, and when the war is over the whole question of atrocities by whatever nation committed should be sifted out by the Hague or some other tribunal.  It doesn’t seem possible to doubt the atrocities in many cases, but one hopes that investigation would prove that great numbers of German commanders and soldiers have behaved with humanity.  I gather from stray allusions in the Press that the Germans are carrying on an atrocity campaign not only against the Belgians but against the French and English.

Yours sincerely

WB Yeats.

There is much in this that will already seem familiar to the anti-propagandist reader of the modern age — the skepticism of newspaper accounts, the condemnation of ‘secret diplomacy’, the dismissal of the Declaration‘s power on account of its seeming banality.  Yeats, in this letter, is very much a man ahead of his time.

Still, it is possible to be too much ahead of one’s time.  Modern scholarship — in volumes like John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities 1914 (2001), Jeff Lipkes’ Rehearsals (2007), and Alan Kramer’s Dynamic of Destruction (2007) — has shown that the vicious destruction of Belgium was all too real an event, and Yeats would have stood upon firm ground in condemning it if his qualms about the manifesto in question had been less fervent.

This is not a rarity, though.  Many at the time were suspicious of claims focused on German atrocities in Belgium, believing them to be likely propaganda inventions.  This notion was further cemented in the years following the war, with volumes like Irene Cooper Willis’ England’s Holy War (1928) and Arthur Ponsonby’s Falsehood in War-Time (1928) insisting that such claims were the fatuous inventions of Allied propagandists.  History has proven otherwise, but this only lends further flavour to Yeats’ contemporary refusal.

Cite : Pen and Sword Pt. IV: Yeats Refuses to Declare (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/?p=3464) by Nick Milne (http://ww1centenary.oucs.ox.ac.uk/author/nmilne/) licensed as Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/uk/)

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About Nick Milne

Nick Milne is an adjunct professor in the Department of English at the University of Ottawa. His research focuses on the intersection of literary scholarship and historiography in the study of the First World War, with a particular emphasis on how this has impacted the study of the war's British propaganda writing. He has had work about the war appear recently at Slate and on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Further updates on these and related subjects may be found at his blog, Wellington House, or through his twitter feed.
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