The poetics of cultural memory: WWI refractions of ancient peace

Hardwick, Lorna (2018). The poetics of cultural memory: WWI refractions of ancient peace. Classical Receptions Journal, 10(4) pp. 393–414.



This article aims to inform and sharpen debate about the status of poetry and art in providing evidence about the First World War and in influencing attitudes to the War, then and subsequently. It is constructed around five cruxes, all of which relate to each other as well as to the overall topic.

I start by considering visual evidence. This is important both because of its content and because war artists were ‘approved’ by the authorities at the time, in the expectation that war art would shape public perspectives on the War, as well as providing some kind of record from the field. Literary sources were not accorded the same public status (crux 1). I outline a basis for comparison and understanding of the overlaps between the images and aesthetic of visual and literary material, both of which offer a record of the lived experience of participants as well as underlying affective judgements made about the War (crux 2).

I then describe arguments from revisionist historians who exclude literary sources from their construction of narratives of the War. I argue for the recognition of a plurality of narratives including those that are informed by visual and literary sources. No narrative can be totalizing and each needs refining. This approach can best be illustrated by tightening the lens on one key aspect and I have selected refractions of peace. Once the value of literary sources is recognized, the way is open to challenge simplistic polarization between notions of war and peace and to refine distinctions between different conceptions of peace that were important in antiquity and were both embedded and challenged in the poetry of WWI (crux 3).

Reception of classical texts and ideas and the ways that they can be read in relation both to antiquity and to World War I poetry has a crucial role to play in nuancing these relationships between notions of war and peace (crux 4). I test that hypothesis against close readings of the dialogue between classical texts and WWI poetry in their explorations of what peace entails (crux 5).

Finally, in the Coda I return to the bigger picture and suggest how the case studies and the constellations of heightened classical receptivity that they reveal can also contribute to future analysis of the formation of public imagination and the overlapping layers of cultural memory.

[the First World War] continues to cast its long, cold shadow from the past to the present. […] Ten million [of the sixty-five million soldiers] died and nearly twenty million were wounded; seven million civilian lives were lost: gross statistics which can only, perhaps, be comprehended, in simply human terms, through the poetry of the time.

Carol Ann Duffy (2013)

Here was the world’s worst wound. And here with pride

‘Their name liveth for ever’, the Gateway claims.

[…] Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime

Rise and deride this

Siegfried Sassoon, ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’ (1927–28)1

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