By DAVID COLLARD
Lytton Strachey, asked what should be done with the instigators of the First World War, reportedly said: “Have them publicly disembowelled at the foot of the Edith Cavell statue.”
This year's centenary commemorations have overlooked the instigators and focused on the dead. Sorrow and pity, not retributive rage, were the keynotes. The Guardian critic Jonathan Jones risked a public disembowelling when he described the installation of 888,246 ceramic poppies (one for every British or colonial casualty of the war) at the Tower of London as “fake, trite and inward-looking . . . a deeply aestheticised, prettified and toothless war memorial”. It is now being dismantled and each poppy sold to raise funds for Service charities, marking a temporary lull in the commemorations.
There's a more thought-provoking response to the Great War on display at the Saison Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall. The artists David and Ping Henningham collaborate as Henningham Family Press on essays and poetry which they develop through printmaking, bookbinding and performance. An Unknown Soldier is the title of a three-part artwork consisting of a silkscreen printed birch-ply box containing a long poem split between two slender volumes (Parts I and III) and a series of fine art prints (Part II). The latter, mounted and framed, are complex modernist poetic texts forming the centrepiece of the show.
The poem – also published in a single volume – was prompted by a news item about the way First World War remains are today routinely identified by DNA testing, a forensic development that, David Henningham says, has unwittingly transformed the meaning of the memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, whose anonymity (and therefore symbolic value) can no longer be assumed. The unsettling question arises: does The Unknown Soldier now embody our desire to ignore, rather than commemorate, the past? The loss of the definite article in Henningham’s title reflects this uncertainty.
The first part (“Preparatory Oratory”) apes the conventions of remembrance with (the poet says) “a voice like the bastard-child of BLAST and The Book of Common Prayer” in a ferocious assault on sentimental pieties. Here, for instance, is part of a recipe for the creation of a representative of the Fallen:
Wash what you have,
the blood will never dry
Get him in soak.
What remains of organs
place in canopic jars
made with haste from defused artillery shells
and hacksawed heads from tin piggy banks
modelled on the war cabinet in caricature
for the savings of boys too young to recruit
(a free gift upon joining a war bond
a free pen for merely making enquiries).
Use rolled up newspaper for a makeshift gasket.
Petroleum Jelly may be required.
There follows a satirical onslaught against modern commemoration in which “Remembrance is now / a wilful unremembering”. That last word appears in Wilfred Owen’s poem “The Show” (1917) and Henningham, wilfully remembering, is clearly alert to such predecessors.
Part II, “An Unknown Soldier”, is a disordered pile of polyglot fragments – a slurred amalgam of English, German, French and Dutch – delivered by a garrulous corpse:
tes ditches est n long, long grave,
unt now un cannot sit in any kind uf furrow, hole od divot,
un sleep af nuh [TOP] bunk
un ride af nuh [TOP] deck
un aviate, un avoid tunnels
un sit in nuh gods
The words in square brackets employ the Henninghams’ bespoke “Trench” font (impossible to reproduce here) and the reader has to pick out the meaning slowly, letter by letter, traversing a lexical minefield.
Part III (“Funeral, March”) offers a brief domestic coda in which reason and benign science succeed chaos and carnage, an affirmation of enduring hope in technology that offers a measure of consolation after the earlier lexical bombardment. There is no room for bitterness, only regretful memory.
An Unknown Soldier is a long way from the canonized verses of Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon; the romantic aestheticism of their Georgian style was always at odds with the subject although that very tension is of great interest. Henningham’s mordant wit and avant-garde flair is part of another poetic tradition stretching back to Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound and the Dada pranksters of Zurich, although the first truly modernist treatment of the conflict in English emerged only in 1937 with the publication of David Jones's In Parenthesis. (The term “avant-garde”, incidentally, had a purely military significance until used by Olinde Rodrigues in his essay L'artiste, le savant et l'industriel (1825), although its widespread application to modernist art dates from around 1910.)
The Saison exhibition includes other works with a Great War theme, all made over the past three years, including posters which, using the Trench font in brilliant colours, reference call-up papers, wartime propaganda and military instruction manuals; a series of dazzling screen prints commissioned by the Scripture Gift Mission (who during the war distributed 43 million copies of The Gospels of St John to servicemen); a small, elegantly embossed card bearing the word “paradise”, the slang term for the rear of a trench; vitrines displaying the component parts of An Unknown Soldier and a small display of the Saison's poetry holdings, which date from 1912.
This provocative and intelligent exhibition will not suit all tastes, and there are moments when the complex ingenuity of the project threatens to overwhelm both the reader and the subject. It nevertheless brings a much-needed sense of indignation and disgust to present-day rituals of commemoration and gives a voice to the anonymous war dead of all nations without tapping into simple patriotic sentimentality. Mindful of Lytton Strachey’s retributive rage, we might recall the words inscribed on the plinth of Edith Cavell’s statue: “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.”
An Unknown Soldier: An exhibition by Henningham Family Press is at the Saison Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall until January 4.