I have already adverted to the Solar Revolution,
that startling turnaround in the public attitude toward the sun and its
effects on human beings which is one signal of the modern era. Another
is what can be called the chivalric revolution, although perhaps revulsion
be a better word.
The idea of chivalry I'm thinking of derives
from the romanticizing of the Middle Ages that occurred in the later eighteenth
century, a phenomenon marked by the Gothic Revival in architecture and
decoration, the vogue of "Ossian" and Gothic fiction, and the recovery
of Chaucer. A century later an even more intense form of this sentimental
archaism was promoted by Victorian aesthetes. Saturated in Arthurian themes
and deeply conservative and patriotic, they were reacting against utilitarianism,
industrialism, agnosticism, and socialism. The Victorian celebration of
the chivalric is an attempt by the traditional imagination to posit that
the modern world, with its political compromises and gross materialism,
its scientism and urban squalor and proletarianization, does not exist.
This Victorian form of the chivalric understanding
comprises a rich amalgam of archaic images and behavioral imperatives.
These are drawn from such materials as The Song of Roland, Malory's
"'Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Chaucer's Knight's Tale,
Drayton's The Battle of Aflincourt, Spenser's
and Shakespeare's Hcnry V, as well as from works by such latter-day
popularizers of medieval materials as Tennyson and William Morris. first,
there is a hankering after knightly trappings, and here Robinson's Miniver
Cheevy is a good example of the chivalric archaizer.
[He] loved the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.
The chivalric imagination exults in armor,
stained glass, cottage manufacture, baldrics, castles, moats, drawbridges,
portcullises, drums, trumpets, and bugles, and it likes to conceive torches
being passed from the hands of "the fallen" to those who continue the struggle.
Since the chivalric practitioner of the olden time was most often mounted,
horses and their accouterments are indispensable. Nobility is imputed to
them as well as their riders, requiring them to be referred to as steeds
(It would have to be on a charger that Sir Walter Scott's Young
Lochinvar spirits his love away.,} And in bellicose contexts horses are
attended with all the romantic habiliments of cavalry, like lances, pennons,
guidons, and sabers.
A crucial chivalric imperative is fairness,
even disinterestedness, in combat: the enemy must be given an equal chance
and treated fairly and honorably. Which is to say that the chivalrous man,
like Wordsworth's Happy Warnor, "keeps the law." An equally important element
of the chivalric code is the ennobling of women, as in Tennyson. Their
honor is precious, and some of them are so noble that they are virtually
saints already. Wounded and in the hospital, one Canadian officer of the
Great War, author of the book The Glory of the Trenches, testifies
that the nurses were "Arthurian": "I see them as great ladies," he writes,
"medieval in their saintliness, sharing the pollution of the battle with
their champions." Very like the Boy Scout, whose twelve-point code apes
the knightly one (as imagined by Victorian reactionaries), a knight is
reverent, and if he resembles Gabhad, he can achieve actual holiness. Since
when on a crusade the knight opposes the enemies of Christianiq,
his death in battle is an act of Christ-like sacrifice, wholly noble and
redemptive. In his famous sonnet "The Dead," Rupert Brooke specifies"holiness,"
in addition to '`honor" and "nobleness," as gifts the dead British soldiers
convey to the yet living ones. Indeed, the dead have managed to reverse
the course of progress and cultural modernism, and...we have come into
our heritage, that is, retrograde, chivalric conceptions of soldiering.
Again, the knight is loyal and obedient
to his superiors. He reveres his monarch, honors the conventions of the
is ready at all times to sacrifice himself for his military and social
betters (usually identical). The Victorian and Edwardian kind of chivalry
throve, of course, on the mystique of monarchy, and in 1914 virtually every
European country France and Switzerland excepted could display an actual
monarch. Indeed, at the outbreak of the Great War, it was still a "lingering
notion," as Maurice Rickards has observed, that the monarch should be present
on the battlefield. In admittedly backward Russia, the Czar actually was
from time to time, which, some cynic might suggest, haps explain why the
Russians did so badly. (In the same way, the same cynic might imply, the
disaster of Dunkirk seems not unrelated to the late presence in France
of the former almost crowned head the Duke of Windsor, who, in British
army uniform, dispensed advice and counsel.) The atmosphere of social hierarchy
indispensable to the traditional imagination makes it seem natural for
Gerard Manley Hopkins, in "The Windhover," to apostrophize a creature who
is at once a kestrel and Christ as "O my chevalier!" Browning and Tennyson
provide abundant examples of exemplary chivalric obedience. In Browning's
"Incident of the French Camp" the badly wounded boy messenger¯mounted,
of course¯ brings to Napoleon the news of a crucial local victory
and then, "smiling" proudly, falls dead. And in the Tennysonian model,
"The Charge of the Light Brigade," the six hundred cavalrymen obey orders
and ride to their death enthusiastically, even though they know that some
one had blundered. (Clearly someone high in the social hierarchy.)
A further tenet of the chivalric code requires
sexual purity of the knight. The goal is cleanliness. Rupert Brooke's
swimmers, welcoming the war in his sonnet "Peace," dive into cleanness,
abjuring the "dirty songs and dreary" of "halfmen." (Lytton Strachey?)
In the same way, the soldiers in Robert Nichols's poem "The
Day's March" achieve b,, means of military procedures a cleansing from
Heads forget heaviness, Hearts forget spleen,
For by that mighty winnowing Being is blown clean.
And best! Love comes back again
After grief and shame....
In a pamphlet titled Cleansing London (1915)
the Bishop of London attacked the pimps swarming about the troops on
leave and designated them "villains more
mischievous than German spies, who ought to share their fate, [as they]
lie in wait to stain the chivalry of our boys." There, chivalry functions
as an elegant synonym for chastity, and that significance would
be assumed by most contemporary admirers of George Frederic Watts's famous
painting Sir Galahad It's possible to sense that the storing up
of semen is a prime source of physical, as well as moral, strength, when
in Tennyson's "Sir Galahad," the noble youth testifies that his strength
"Is as the strength of ten Because my heart
And if sexual purity is axiomatic in the
chivalric code, so is total bravery. The idea of chivalry can admit of
no neurasthenia, shell shock, combat fatigue, or post-traumatic stress
disorder. And it can certainly admit of no running away, skulking, or scrimshanking.
This was the code of gentlemanly conduct
with which the Anglo-Saxon allies were equipped in 1914. It is pleasantly
available for study in Mark Girouard's The Return to Cameron Chivalry
ant the English Gentleman (1981). At the outset there was no suspicion
that very soon this code would appear ludicrously inappropriate, destined
to defeat by poison gas, zeppelin raids on civilians, the machine gun,
and unrestricted submarine warfare, not to mention such very unchivalric
experiences as soldiers' passively trembling under artillery shelling hour
after hour or soiling their trousers for weeks with acute dysentery (sometimes
requiring the cutting of large holes in the rear of their clothing), or
milking down their penises monthly before the eyes of bored and contemptuous
medical officers alert for unreported gonorrhea! discharges. Not to mention
the unchivalric degradations intentionally visited upon modern conscripts
in camps and billets. As Ivor Gurney complains in his poem "Servitude,"
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare With this brass-cleaning life....
But when the war began no one suspected
that chivalric imagery would encounter such rude modern realities.
In 1914 and 1915 allusion to the British
at Agincourt was a ready way of suggesting a valuable chivalric continuity
between the fifteenth-century battle, its sixteenth century celebration
by Drayton and Shakespeare, and the twentieth century enactment of a presumably
similar enterprise. It was the British archers of Agincourt whom Arthur
Machen invoked in his famous fiction of the Angels of Mons, and a "fellowship"
with the men of Agincourt is what is achieved by the once-timid clerk of
Herbert Asquith's poem "The Volunteer." Before the war, this pathetic nonentity
toiled at ledgers in the City, and his only access to high chivalric materials
was through fantasy. But thanks to the war, he is able to encounter his
"high hour" and, dead, he now
goes to join the men of Agincourt, gathered
chivalrously into the British Valhalla. The dead British chivalry of the
premodern world is invoked likewise in a patriotic poem of 1914 by Justin
Huntly McCarthy, "Ghosts at Boulogne," which equates the British troops
just landed in France with "Harry and His Crispins" and projects the British
Expeditionary Force as a traditional heraldic and collective St. George,
combating "the Worm"¯the dragon of the central Powers. The very titles
of editorials in the London Times during September and October 1914,
suggest the rhetorical atmosphere. On September 6 the lead editorial is
titled "Courage." On September 20, "Chivalry." And on October 25, "Agincourt
and the Modern Soldier."
It was the achievement of Robert Bridges,
Poet Laureate, Platonist, and devotee of classical allusion, to impose
the chivalric idea, normally associated with horses, onto the navy. In
a poem titled "The Chivalry of the Sea" he designated the British navy
as an institution fully equal in nobility to the cavalry, enforcing the
point by indicating that sailors, after all, could be said to ride "iron
coursers," from each of which the knightly sailors' "pennon Qies." And
Bridges's successor in the laureateship, John Masefield, went even further
in the direction of chivalric associations. Because during the war he was
a paid government propagandist, his wartime-products suggest the degree
to which the chivalric line was the official one. In writing his brief
history Gallipoli, published in 1916, his obligation was to rationalize
a disastrous campaign in which it might seem obvious that someone had blundered.
An all but impossible task, one might think. But he was fortunate to find
ready-made at Gallipoli a situation where the British, presumed Christians,
were fighting the Turks, who were clearly "Paynims." He thus had before
him an embroilment replicating the Crusades, and for Masefield a crusade
a useful metaphor, because one of his government's objects was to persuade
the Americans to join a Christian war against barbarism. In order to suggest
that the botched invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula was really a contemporary
crusade, Masefield invokes The Song of Roland,
positioning a heroic
quotation from that twelfth-century chivalric narrative as an epigraph
at the head of each of his chapters. The actual Turks are thus made to
blend with Roland's enemies, the Saracens, and the point can emerge that
God is not on the Turks' side but on the Allies'. Actually, one could infer
as much from their different standards of purity.
"Our camps and
trenches were kept clean," says Masefield. "But only a few yards away were
the Turk trenches, which were invariably filthy; there the flies bred undisturbed,
perhaps encouraged." Masefield pushes his Crusade analogy vigorously, at
one point suggesting that the landing parties were virtually clad in white
crusaders' tabards with red Christian crosses on the front. As the British
troops approached the shore, death and wounds and hardship, says Masefield,
``were but the end they asked, the reward they had come for, the unseen
cross upon the breast." But finally even Masefield has to admit that the
enterprise failed. That failure, however, is virtually irrelevant compared
to the glory and heroism of the deeds it fortunately occasioned:
[The British troops] had failed to take
Gallipoli, and the [Turkish] mine fields still barred the Hellespont, but
they had fought a battle such as has never been seen upon this earth. What
they had done will become a glory forever, wherever the deeds of heroic
unhelped men are honored and pitied and understood.
And then Masefield delivers his final chivalric
image: "They went up at the call of duty, with a bright banner of a battlecry,
against an impregnable fort." The skeptic, or even the military theorist,
moved to ask, "Why on earth did they attack an impregnable position?" poses
a question not to be presented to the chivalric imagination of 1916.
As Masefield's performance suggests, chivalric
diction still carried a lot of weight with most people. Even though the
war had been going on for two years and three months, to sentimentalists
and Tories one still did not carry a rifle, one bore arms. The enemy
was still the host, the battle the tumult, and actions deeds,
variously as valiant, gallant, or noble. Language like that
had amazing staying power. Even in 1918 the Canadian Coningsby Dawson's
title The Glory of the Trenches seems to have triggered very little
rude laughter, although rude laughter at that sort of unwitting oxymoron
is precisely what John Dos Passos's Three Soldicrs (1921) invited.
Actually, the medieval-minded Coningsby Dawson reviewed Three Soldiers
due course, and he was outraged, his outrage taking the form of chivalry
insulted. Dos Passos's book, he wrote, constitutes "a dastardly denial
of the splendid chivalry which carried many a youth to a soldier's death
with the sure knowledge in his soul that he was a liberator."
The problem any writer faces who tries
to reanimate the matter of chivalry to make it fit the actualities of the
Great War or any other becomes blindingly apparent in the face of the decline
of military horse culture. Both linguistically and literally, the fate
of chivalry implies the fate of cavalry. Words like lancers and
uhlans, once conveying the clearest meaning and the warmest, most
colorful associations, are now so obsolete as to require the coldest annotation.
It was largely the machine gun, of course, that did for the cavalry as
a plausible branch of the armed services. Once the static trench system
was emplaced, cavalry units on both sides, deprived of their mission of
assault and pursuit, disconsolately took their turns in the trenches as
infantry, going back when rotated to care for their idle mounts well to
the rear. They exercised their imaginations by envisaging the ultimate
breakthrough, but after years of frustration they became as demoralized
as anyone else and began to understand the fate of chivalry in the new
world of industrialized warfare. One infantryman, a survivor of the attack
on the Somme of July 1, 1916, asked for his strongest recollections of
the day, perceived nothing but irony in the cavalry's readiness to perform
their accustomed function: "My strongest recollection: all those grand
looking cavalrymen, ready mounted to follow the breakthrough. What a hope!"
An acute intelligence spiced with a bit
of skepticism might have inferred from nineteenth-century military history
that as a weapon of mass attack cavalry had grown pitifully obsolete long
before the Great War. There had been successful cavalry charges in the
past, but to find one you'd have to go back as far as the Battle of Waterloo.
But despite the data, the romance of chivalry persisted, and disasters
like the charge of the Light Brigade, in 1854, became rather the rule than
the exception. In 1866, in the Austro-Prussian War, "56,000 cavalrymen,"
one authority points out, "armed only with sabers and lances, charged fatally
into rifle- and gunfire." The same thing happened in the Franco-Prussian
War of 1870. But the romanticism of chivalry survived these pathetic demonstrations.
The first commander-in-chief of the British forces in Belgium and France,
Sir John French, had once provided a preface to the German General von
Bernhard I's book insisting on the indispensability of cavalry, and when
the war broke out the Kaiser proclamed: "We shall resist to the last breath
of man and horse." Throughout the war and despite the well-known actualities,
the warhorse of chivalric tradition remained a standard feature of such
ephemera as cigarette cards, postcards, and posters. The horse of battle
was always noble and brave: he (she?) was thus an ethical model for the
cavalryman. The horse was patient, too, as in Julian Grenfell's poem "Into
Battle," written in 1915. Here "the fighting man" is befriended by all
the forces of nature, especially the horse:
In dreary, doubtful waiting hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!
But useless as the cavalry soon revealed
itself to be, the chivalric associations of the very word lived on and
on. It was found that some of the cavalry's dash could be salvaged and
used to glorify aviators and their machines. Thus a book by Captain Alan
Bott, MC, on the air forces: Cavalry of the Clouts (1918). And as
late as the 1940s the United States War Department announced, as if attempting
to persuade the public that all was well and that the newest war was going
to make safe, traditional sense, that the army had just supplied itself
with 20,000 horses the largest number, it emphasized, since the Civil War.
That the cavalry idea dies as slowly as virtually any element of traditional
imagining was further emphasized at the outset of the Second World War,
when the Polish cavalry set out with impressive élan in September
1939, to repel the attack by panzers and Stukas. "As the Germans looked
on in disbelief," says Robert Wernick, "the troopers [of the crack Pomorske
Cavalry Brigade] came riding . . . on splendid horses; white-gloved officers
signaled the charge, trumpets sounded, pennons waved, sabers flashed in
the sun." Like an animated page out of an old history book the brigade
came forward across open fields, at a steady earth-shaking gallop, lances
at the ready, straight into the fire of Guderian's tanks. In a few minutes
the cavalry lay in a smoking, screaming mass of dismembered and disembowelled
men and horses.
That was perhaps the last mass act in the
history of chivalry, but with an idea so attractive, ministering so efficiently
to the human desire that life be colorful and supremely interesting, one
can never be sure that a timely death has overtaken it.
Discrediting it thoroughly was the object
of the brilliant body of skeptical writing the Great War produced. These
well-known satires and works of outrage seem to register the triumph of
experience over theory, for the bitter poets, as well as the pissed-off
novelists and memoirists, had all been up the line¯as Rupert Brooke
and John Masefield and Robert Bridges and the Bishop of London had not.
The writings of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Ernest Hemingway, and Siegfried
Sassoon are all attacks on the chivalric model of warfare. Graves says
good-bye to it in Good-bye to All That, Hemingway says farewell
to it in A Farewell to Arms. Recuperating from wounds, Hemingway's
Lieutenant Frederic Henry wanders into a military supply store in Milan.
After be buys the pistol he needs, the woman owner asks, "Have you any
need for a sword? I have some good used swords very cheap." "I'm going
to the front," he answers, and she replies, in words sufficiently indicating
the fate of chivalry, "Oh yes, then you won't need a sword."
In poetry, probably the best-known exposure
of the irrelevance of chivalry is Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est," which
comes fully alive as brutal monologue if one notices who the addressee
is supposed to be. He "or just as likely she" is presumed to be ignorant,
sentimental, bloodthirsty, and wholly loyal to the chivalric conception,
and thus in severe need of noneuphemized instruction. If the reader could
experience what the speaker has, if the chivalrous naïf could see
what the speaker has seen, a gassed soldier dying disgustingly, with nothing
of nobility attached to the act, the reader would no longer
...tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The old lie was familiar, although of course
not so designated until Owen stigmatized it, to anyone who'd read Horace
at a Public School. Two decades before Owen wrote, it had been highly popular
as a patriotic goad during the Boer War, and one of the poems recommending
Horace's tag, James Rhoades's "Dulce et Decorum Est," may have been
Owen's specific target. Rhoades's we in these lines refers to we
officers who have been raised in traditions of chivalric honor:
We, nursed in high traditions,
And trained to nobler thought,
Deem death to be less bitter
Than life too dearly bought....
And in May 1916, two months before the
disastrous, instructive attack on the Somme, Sir Herbert Warren, president
of the Poetry Society (a source throughout the war of an uncomprehending
chivalric view of events) offered in his Presidential Address the suggestion
that Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade" was still a model for
the sort of poetry the war demanded, and he asserted as well that Horace's
et decorum est pro patria mori (taken straight, of course) should be
the theme of all war poetry.
That position, and public rhetoric in general,
has been less damaged by Owen's utterance than the literate and the skeptical
might like to think. The American Purple Heart Medal still says "For Military
Merit" on its obverse, although one earns it not for any action or decision
but for having one's body accidentally penetrated by foreign objects. In
1918, the Somme area now cleared of the enemy, someone in authority in
the Durham Light Infantry erected an elaborate twenty-foot-tall wooden
memorial cross atop the notorious Butte of Warlencourt, a sinister terrain
feature from which for years the Germans had dominated the battlefield.
Words painted on the main part of the cross memorialize the men who "fell
in the attack on the Butte of Warlencourt and Surrounding Trenches on Nov
5th and 6th, 1916." And then, in a circle around the intersection¯it
is a Celtic cross ¯the words "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."
Owen ever see this cross? No, he wrote his poem a year before it was put
up. Did those who set up the cross see his poem? No, it was not published
until two years later. This is to suggest the unlikelihood, then and now,
of the chivalric and the antichivalric taking much notice of each other.
Despite the shock of the Somme and a thousand subsequent disillusions,
the chivalric tradition, enfeebled and compromised though it may be, remains
one of the attendants of social and political conservatism. For its part,
the antichivalric impulse takes off in the opposite direction, its rude
skepticisms helping to consolidate the gains of Modernism and Post Modernism.
If Owen deflates Horace, Herbert Read deflates
the Wordsworth who defined and celebrated the "Character of the Happy Warrior."
Read's modern Happy Warrior is really the Unhappy Conscript, thoroughly
victimized and unmanned by terror and hysteria:
THE HAPPY WARRIOR
His wild heart beats with painful
His strain'd hands clench an ice-
His aching jaws grip a hot parch'd
His wide eyes search
He cannot shriek.
Dribbles down his shapeless
I saw him stab
And stab again
A well-killed Boche.
This is the happy warrior,
This is he
(Wordsworth's chivalric poem goes on "That
every man in arms should wish to be.") Wordsworth wrote in a day when the
poetry-writing classes were seldom identical with the war-fighting classes.
The two came together in the Great War. The result was a number of highly
literate young soldiers and officers equipped by talent and education and
instructed by alarming experience to do severe rhetorical damage to the
One of the most forceful, even if not one
of the most subtle, was Siegfried Sassoon. The mystique of the comitatus
hardly survive his depiction of inept commanders in poems like "The General"
or "Base Details," nor could the chivalric mystique of self-sacrifice for
a quasi-Christian cause survive undamaged his poem "The One-Legged Man,"
where the demobilized veteran, delighted to have purchased his life with
the loss of only one leg, hobbles cheerfully around his garden, thinking,
"Thank God they had to amputate!" The chivalric conception of women does
not come unscathed through Sassoon's sardonic assaults on it in "Glory
You love us when we're heroes, home on
leave, Or wounded in a mentionable place. You worship decorations; you
believe That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace. You make us shells. You
listen with delight, By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled. You crown
our distant ardors while we fight, And mourn our laurelled memories when
we're killed. You can't believe that British troops "retire" When hell's
last horror breaks them, and they run, Trampling the terrible corpses,
blind with blood. O German mother dreaming by the fire, While you are knitting
socks to send your son His face is trodden deeper in the mud.
There Sassoon quite unchivalrously damns
rather than celebrates the wartime innocence (that is, ignorance) of women,
and with that action (homosexually motivated as it doubtless is in his
case) he signals what is virtually a new attitude.
To the traditional imagination in the late
nineteenth century, it was taken for granted that one's attitude toward
one's mother should be conspicuously chivalric, if not reverential. It
was axiomatic not only that Mother Knows Best, but more startling
that A Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother.
Wherever you went, Mother was likely to
go too, safeguarding your chastity, making sure you were protected from
the evils of drink and tobacco and low friendships. And from Mother's omnipresence
you suffered no loss of manliness. When Douglas MacArthur arrived at West
Point as a cadet in 1899, he was attended by Mother. She lived there for
four years as self-appointed moral-tutor-in-residence, scrutinizing his
every move, awarding praise or blame as appropriate. And when, commissioned
a second lieutenant, he proceeded to his first post, in San Francisco with
the Corps of Engineers, she accompanied him. In England at about the same
time, Lord Northcliffe, the newspaper magnate, was revealing by his extravagant
devotion to his mother how deeply he was dyed in the style of the period.
His mother he always called "darling," while his wife was only "dear."
On his deathbed, his last coherent words were, "Tell Mother she is the
In such an atmosphere, it was to be expected
that mothers would not just demand their due but would seize all the power
they could grasp. Franklin D. Roosevelt's mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt,
would be found, by any civilized standard, a terrible person. She was ignorant,
intolerant, and opinionated, uneducated but assertive, anti Semitic and
snobbish, a lifetime practitioner of the libido dominandi, and she
visited her tyranny on anyone she could cow. Her favorite victim was Franklin's
wife, but Franklin himself was by no means safe from her bullying and nosiness.
When he went to Harvard, she quite naturally moved into an apartment in
Cambridge, where for the full four years she kept the customary motherly
eye on him. She never willingly yielded her prerogatives to meddle and
interfere. According to Ted Morgan, one of Roosevelt's biographers, Betsy
Cushing, his daughter-in-law, was once in his office with him when the
Secretary of State telephoned. As she remembers, Roosevelt picked up the
phone and said, "Oh yes, Cordell."
She pointed at herself and silently mouthed,
"Shall I go?" and FDR shook his head. Then he said, "Mama, will you please
get off the line¯ Mama, I can hear you breathing, will you please
off the line?"
You sometimes see a photograph of a sad-faced
Roosevelt at his desk just after Pearl Harbor. He is signing the Congressional
Declaration of War, and on his left jacket sleeve he wears a black mourning
band. Captions on this picture sometimes assert that by this traditional
token he is mourning the deaths of the 2,000 men killed on December 7,
1941. Not at all. He is mourning his mother, who died three months before.
The erroneous caption measures the speed with which we have moved past
the traditional usages, especially those associated with the overpowering
devotion to Mother.
To realize the oddity of this canonization
of Mother, the historian of ideas and styles must try to imagine it flourishing
in the Renaissance or the eighteenth century. It clearly belongs only to
the nineteenth and to its afterglow in the earlier part of the twentieth.
Mother is "the noblest thing alive," says Coleridge in 1818. And once Victoria
matured into motherhood, her image as patriotic totem and head of the Established
Church doubtless added a weight more than trivially sentimental to the
mother cult. It was during her reign that it became popular to domesticate
Britannia, formerly imagined as a rather threatening classical warrior,
by designating her "Mother Britain." (It is impossible today to envisage
or delineate a noble allegorical Brittania. She has suffered a fate similar
to the demeaning of the female "America" referred to in the GI graffito
in the Saigon latrine: AMERICA LOST HER VIRGINITY IN VIETNAM, to which
a later hand has added: YES, AND SHE CAUGHT THE CLAP TOO.)
And it was just after Victoria's reign
that the mother fixation attained an additional ritualizing, at least in
the United States, when in 1908 a new holiday, Mother's Day, was devised¯by
Rorists, the cynical said. This rapidly developed symbolic floral conventions,
like sons wearing a white or red carnation to proclaim their homage to
Mother whether dead or living.
The soldiers of 1914-1918 began the war
with their traditional imaginations intact, and it seemed wholly appropriate
that their main visitors at their training camps should be not girlfriends,
mistresses, or even wives, but mothers. It is not surprising that a Civil
War song was revived for this later occasion, a song requiring the singer
to announce, "Just before the battle, Mother, I am thinking most of you."
The prevailing Victorian attitudes toward Mother are readily available
in a little book produced by the Rev. Dr. L. M. Zimmerman, the Methodist
pastor of Christ Church, Baltimore, titled Echoes from the Distant Battlefield
issued in 1920. Zimmerman had corresponded copiously with his boysoldier
parishioners during the war, and in his book he selected highminded chivalric
passages from their letters to him. Hardly a one neglects to deliver "period"
encomiums to Mother. One soldier, commenting on the loneliness in camp
on Sundays, says, "One longs to see . . . his best friend, his mother,
God bless her." And introducing a letter from a hospitalized soldier, Zimmerman
points out¯the parallelism seems significant¯that "His Mother
and his God are his very first thoughts." Many of Zimmerman's correspondents
emphasize that only the principles of chastity enjoined by Mother have
kept them pure abroad, amid the numerous temptations incident to residence
in Latin countries.
Indeed, the ultimate monitor and gauge
of perfect purity is Mother. "Don't use language your mother would blush
to hear," the American soldier is adjured by a YMCA pamphlet of 1918. And
it is assumed as too obvious for discussion that the main sufferers in
the war are by no means the soldiers in the cold and deadly line, but the
mothers at home. Their sacrifice¯the word was used freely¯was
recognized by the more traditionally minded of their sons as even greater
than the one required of them. "GIVE YOUR SONS;" commands one pre-conscription
pamphlet issued by the British Mothers' Union. It goes on to invoke chivalric
images, casting Mother now in the role formerly played by the knight's
courtly mistress. "The right sort of Mother for Old England," says this
pamphlet, must gird the armor on her son "just as truly as the ladies of
old braced on the armor of their knights." And no one seemed to doubt a
mother's ability to override her son's instinctive pacifism or her capacity
to deliver him up to the services on call. One mother depicted on a U.S.
Navy recruiting poster resolutely presents her boy to Uncle Sam with the
words, "Here he is, Sir." Mother's coercive power is similarly recognized
in a British recruiting leaflet shrewdly addressed not to sons but to their
mothers: "MOTHERS!" this leaflet asserts, "One word from YOU and he will
go." Likewise a British poster shows a white-haired mother with her hand
on her son's shoulder. He looks uncertainly into the distance, but she
gestures thitherward broadly, saying to him, "Go! IT'S YOUR DUTY, LAD.
JOIN TODAY." Did the British recruiting slogan say, "Every single one is
ready to carry a gun"? No, it said, "Every mother's son is ready to carry
The conservative poet Alfred Noyes, writing
for the government on behalf of the war effort, visited a munitions factory
in September 1916, as the gruesome Somme battle was beginning to wear itself
out. In the armaments factories, Noyes insisted, there was no labor trouble
whatever, as the troops frequently believed. Indeed, the affection of the
workers (many of them women) for their work can be described only as motherly.
The women Noyes saw working, he reports, as they heaved "great shells into
the shaping machines" or pulled "red-hot copper bands from furnaces, .
. . seemed to lavish all the passion of motherhood upon their work; for
this gleaming brood of shells, rank after rank, had indeed been brought
forth to shield a dearer brood of flesh and blood. 'Mothers of the Army'
was the thought that came to one's mind.... An army of little mothers...."
Like other tenets of the chivalric code,
this mother cult is going to suffer grave wartime damage. Before the war,
it would seem that the customary family quarrels popular in literature
were with Father, Mother being protected by chivalric convention¯privileged,
as it were. In books like Samuel Butler's The Way of All Flesh (1903)
and Edmund Gosse's Farher and Son (1907) Mother is still sacrosanct,
and it is Father who is exposed as an ignorant bully or a menace to the
freedom of the young. But after the shocks and disillusionments of the
Great War, satiric assaults upon Mother begin to recommend themselves to
the new postwar audience. And despite the formal persistence of Mother's
Day, the former adoration of Mother has scarcely weathered the scorn of
such psychically damaged veterans as Hemingway, Remarque, and Graves.
Looking back over Hemingway's total production,
one notices that although there are some fathers in it, like "My Old Man,"
mothers are virtually absent. Indeed, the Hemingway hero, like Jake Barnes
or Frederic Henry, seems to belong to no family at all. But on the one
occasion when a mother makes a conspicuous appearance in Hemingway's writing
she is ruthlessly anatomized and ridiculed. I have in mind the short story
"Soldier's Home," published in Paris in 1924 in the volume In Our Time.
Harold Krebs, a Marine Corps corporal who has been through the bloodiest
battles on the Western Front, returns badly shaken to his somnolent, incurious
middle-western town. (Some have identified it with Oak Park, Illinois,
Hemingway's parents' home.) The gulf is deep and unbridgeable between his
empirical knowledge of the war and his mother's sentimental image of it.
For him, it has changed everything. For her, it has changed nothing, since
to her mind it has been only a matter of received images and cliches, words
about gallantry and little Belgium. For her, we find, the
war has meant primarily a threat to Harold's chastity. She is disturbed
now at his lassitude, his unwillingness to resume his prewar life as if
nothing has happened:
"Have you decided what you are going to
do yet, Harold?" his mother said, taking off her glasses.
"No," said Krebs.
"Don't you think it's about time?" . .
"I hadn't thought about it," Krebs said.
"God has some work for everyone to do,"
his mother said. "There can be no idle hands in His Kingdom.'
"I'm not in His Kingdom," Krebs said.
"We are all of us in His Kingdom."
Krebs felt embarrassed and resentful....
"I've worried about you so much, Harold,"
his mother went on. "I know the temptations you must have been exposed
to. I know how weak men are....
After exhorting Harold to make something
of himself and become a credit to the community, his mother asks, "Don't
you love your mother, dear boy?" In 1910 he would have answered, "Of course."
Now he answers, "No." She collapses in tears, and he realizes that, having
uttered the inexplicable postwar thing, he must make amends:
He went over and took hold of her arm.
She was crying with her head in her hands.
'I didn't mean it," he said. "I was just
angry at something. I didn't mean I didn't love you."
He manages to pacify her, whereupon she
says, "I'm your mother.... l held you next to my heart when you were a
tiny baby." Before the war, this appeal might have reduced Harold to a
subservient atonement, but now, we are told, "Krebs felt sick and vaguely
nauseated." His mother invites him to kneel and pray with her. He
declines. As he leaves the house he feels sorry for his mother, but he
knows that soon he will have to leave home for good.
Equally unable to understand the way the
war has changed everything for those who fought it is Paul Bäumer's
mother in Remarque's All Quict on the Western Front (1929). When
Paul returns home on leave, he discovers that the only way the new world
of the trenches, that is, the new world of industrialized mass violence,
can greet the traditional one is by lies: "Was it very bad out there, Paul?"
his mother asks, and, hating himself, he answers, "No, Mother, not so very."
And as he prepares to return to the front, she honors the prewar convention
that one of a mother's main duties is preventing her son's access to sexual
pleasure (or, once he is married, hating the agent of it). She says: "I
would like to tell you to be on your guard against the women in France.
They are no good." And he informs her: "Where we are there aren't any women,
Mother." Formerly the all-wise Boy's Best Friend, Mother has now turned
into a hopelessly unimaginative, ignorant, sentimental drone and parasite.
And there's a similar mother, but a more
dangerous one, in another important work of 1929, Graves's highly fictionalized
memoir Good-bye to All That. Here, the mother is a literary character
devised by someone in the British propaganda services. He has denominated
her "A Little Mother," and in a letter imputed to her, reprinted in a vastly
popular pamphlet of 1916, she is made to reprehend any thought of a compromise
peace by insisting that any such would be an insult to mothers who have
already "sacrificed" their sons. Her bloodthirsty call for more war is
accompanied by a train of solemn illiterate testimonials from third-rate
newspapers, noncombatant soldiers, and fictional bereaved mothers, one
of whom is quoted as saying: "I have lost my two dear boys, but since I
was shown the 'Little Mother's' beautiful letter a resignation too perfect
to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give
my sons twice over."
From these and similar exposures of maternal
selfrighteousness, callousness, and egotism the mother cult never recovered,
and by the 1920s it was one of the numerous casualties of the Victorian
understanding of human rights and privileges. The British infantry veteran
Charles Grrington has described the way the war was recalled in the disillusioned
memoirs and novels of the late 1920s: "Every battle a defeat, every officer
a nincompoop, every soldier a coward." And, we can add, every mother a
monster. Twenty more years would virtually complete the ruin of the chivalric
mother, when, in 1942, Philip Wylie, in his wide-ranging satire Generation
of Vipers, stigmatized Mom and Momism as central signs, if not causes,
of cultural backwardness and perpetual psychological adolescence. And by
the time of the film Midnight Cowboy, in 1969, the mere display
of Mother's picture in an easel frame in a hotel room constitutes badnews.
To the village Freudians we have all become, it stigmatizes the elderly
traveling businessman who solicits the "cowboy" Joe Buck as a thoroughly
pathetic and unsavory type.
Thus the transition from the chivalric to the antichivalric, from romance to irony, or, as H. W. Massingham's Nation put it as early as 1915, "The development of war from a dilettante art into a national business, from armor and caparisons to khaki and cartridge belts." The whole process, relatively rapid as it has been, might be taken to be an image of the much longer process of secularization since the Middle Ages. In the spring of 1912, after the Titanic disaster, a number of American women contributed money toward a monument to be installed in Washington, D.C., a monument specifically devoted "to the everlasting memory of male chivalry"¯that is, the action of many gentlemen aboard the Titanic in insisting that the women and children occupy the lifeboats, leaving themselves to drown. "To the . . . memory of male chivalry": there, even if unintentionally, is the appropriately elegiac note. Today it would be impossible to imagine in a plane-crash-evacuation the men standing aside, calmly, nobly inhaling flames and gases for several minutes and feeling their fingers, ears, and noses burning off, while encouraging the women and children to leave down the slides. Like much else that is traditional, chivalry has proved unsuited to the world we have chosen to create.
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