Monday, December 19, 2011


Vandiver on DiCesare on Vandiver. Response to 2011.12.43

Response by Elizabeth Vandiver, Whitman College (

Version at BMCR home site

Since Professor DiCesare's review contains several favorable comments about my book, it may seem churlish of me to point out its inaccuracies. Nevertheless, I wish to note that the review contains serious distortions of my argument and numerous factual errors about my book's content. Space prevents me from addressing more than a few of these.

DiCesare says that I am "dismissive of the 'old paradigm'—the attitude towards the war expressed in the poetry of such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon." This misrepresents both my approach to the poems I discuss and the meaning of my term "old paradigm," which does not refer to Owen's or Sassoon's or any other poet's attitude toward the war. Rather, I use "old paradigm" to designate an extremely simplistic (but unfortunately common) critical approach to war poetry: the assumption that the war poets are "an easily defined, unified group with a single viewpoint," who moved en masse from naive enthusiasm to bitter disillusionment, and that all true war poetry is by definition anti-war poetry (2). The first twenty pages of the introduction are devoted to describing the limitations and drawbacks of the old paradigm and one of the book's main points is to demonstrate the complex range of reactions to the war represented in contemporaneous writing. But to acknowledge the existence of war poets who supported the war is by no means the same thing as to "dismiss" or undervalue the work of Sassoon and Owen, either as poetry or as protest.

Throughout his review DiCesare takes my descriptions of certain viewpoints held in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as statements of my own opinions. For instance, since my first chapter discusses the tendentious use of classics in the public schools, DiCesare attributes to me a "starry-eyed" view of classics, games, and muscular Christianity. Apparently he thinks that description implies endorsement. Far from it; in fact, I call this version of classics "grotesque and disturbing" (41), not least for its occlusion of homoerotic themes in classical literature (see esp. 42-3). Similarly, DiCesare says that I assert that "the notion of sacrifice is Christian, not classical" (203). While I do write "The 'sacrifice' of such young men . . . is conceptualized as deeply Christian," this refers to the views expressed in Winston Churchill's 1915 obituary for Rupert Brooke, quoted immediately before the sentence in question. It should be evident that this is not my own view of the subject, since the point of this whole section (201- 214) is to discuss the extremely complex interplay of classical and Christian notions of sacrifice in several writers' works. Again, when DiCesare says that I "appear to enjoy an implicit certainty that in the classical world no one could doubt Horace's oft-cited Dulce et decorum," he is mistaking my descriptions of the assumptions made by one (by no means the only) tendentious reading of classics in 1914-1918 for my own assumptions about "the classical world." My book is not about attitudes to war in the classical world; its topic is the range of classical receptions in British poetry of the First World War, which is a very different subject. I do not share the assumptions of many of the writers I discuss nor do I anywhere endorse their interpretations of the classical world.

DiCesare also faults my book for failing to give enough background information about the First World War. True, I do not recapitulate familiar details of major battles, since the book is not a history of the war. Nor do I discuss the well- known memoirs of Sassoon, Blunden, and Graves, since my book is about poetry, not prose (although I do cite Goodbye to All That more than once). Frequently, DiCesare's objection seems to be that I did not write the book he wanted to read: an appreciation of the foremost canonical war poets set against the background of the horrors of trench warfare. But there are already several excellent books of that sort in print1 and I saw no reason to add to their number.

DiCesare's claim that I "ignore the horrors" of the war and say "virtually nothing of the casualties" is puzzling. I discuss these points repeatedly throughout the book in terms that make my awareness of them quite clear (e.g., "casualties that were, by any estimate, staggering in their numbers," 333) and my entire sixth chapter focuses on writers' attempts to articulate forms of mourning and commemoration that would be appropriate to such slaughter. Similarly, DiCesare claims that "we get no sense that the Gallipoli campaign, with its half-million casualties, was a disaster"; yet I mention the failure of the Gallipoli campaign and the high British casualties many times (see, e.g., 178, 248, 250-2, 254-5, 258). He says that "there is no notice of the heartbreaking fact that some 400,000 British soldiers . . . had no known graves." Chapter 5 contains a ten-page section on the "problem of 'corpselessness'"2 which discusses mourning for the missing as well as for those whose bodies were buried abroad, and Chapter 6 includes a section on Max Plowman's "The Cenotaph in Whitehall" where I refer more than once to "the sheer horror" of the numbers of casualties (355, 356.)

There are many other such points, but these examples are sufficient to indicate that DiCesare has read my book very carelessly. For reviews that demonstrate closer engagement with what the book actually says, readers could consult, among others, S. Goebel, Classical Review 61.2 (2011) 627-9 and V. Izzet and R. Shorrock, Greece & Rome 57.2 (2010) 405-6.


1.   The best of these is J. Stallworthy, Great Poets of World War One: Poetry from the Great War (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2002).
2.   I take the term "corpselessness" from A. Booth, Postcards from the Trenches: Negotiating the Space Between Modernism and the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 21-49.

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