World War I was an event that drastically changed and altered reality from several points of view. At a cultural level, realistic perspectives were highlighted by a cruelty that humans never saw before. At the same time, societies suffered from financial problems and the loss of a huge part of citizens. As it is possible to deduce, art was not exempt from this socio-cultural metamorphosis.
In particular, literature embodied significative human experiences, which wanted to be communicated around the world. The main goal of these writers was to urge people to understand the real nature of this massacre and the consequences it entailed at a human level.
If Proust in “Le Temps retrouvé” (1927) described the war effects on Paris as a spectator, most writers and poets experienced the war firsthand and expressed their own opinions. Nevertheless, not everyone stood out against World War I: some intellectuals considered the war as an opportunity to show human greatness, as well as its weakness. Even though this point of view may sound barbaric, social and historical implications gave meaning to it, actualising an eternal topos in the literary sphere: the limits of human beings.
Giuseppe Ungaretti is one of those poets who experienced war and described it in a very realistic and sincere way. Instead of depicting heroic deeds, the poet wrote down the daily life of soldiers who had to fight and live in trenches.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929) by Erich Maria Remarque is a novel that distances itself from the lack of terror reflected by Ungaretti’s poetry. Conversely, the writer describes in a harsh way the mental and physical distress that affected the life of soldiers. In this novel, it is interesting to observe the direct link between body and mind, two aspects of human beings that manifest the need of being home in different ways.
Another writer who offered a detailed description of the war through his personal experience is Ernest Hemingway. With his novel “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), a love affair between a nurse and an ambulance driver is told through the lens of two young people, who, pushed by their feelings, cannot avoid the horrors and massive massacre they are living in, even though it is the background of their relationship.
Wilfred Owen (pictured below) is one of the war poets who left its mark in the war literature. As an English young soldier, Owen exploited poetry as a powerful tool to show and denounce the horrific conditions provoked by trenches and inhuman battles. In his anti-war poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” (1920, published posthumously), Owen described the nightmare experienced by soldiers to confute the “old lie”, according to whom dying for your own country is a honour.
As we have already mentioned, another perspective was relevant to the war concept. According to these poets and writers, idealistic and patriotic values were materialized in this bellicose imaginary. World War I became a unique experience to show people’s love towards their country and their brave personality.
Gabriele D’Annunzio was one of those intellectuals who dedicated their life to patriotic values. Apart from fighting in the war and leading expeditions, D’Annunzio left an important literary patrimony, where the greatness of the war was exalted at a personal and social level.
As a war poet, Rupert Brooke (pictured below) didn’t imitate the work of his compatriot Wilfred Owen. On the contrary, the poet described the war as the perfect event capable of embodying his idealistic values. In his famous poem “The Soldier” (written in 1914), the death of a soldier is seen as a sacrifice for his country, thanks to whom a part of England will always belong to the heroes who lost their life in the battlefield. This poem contrasts with Owen’s one, where the patriotic idea of death is ridiculed since the first line.
World War I altered literature in a definitive way. Because of the cruelty and massacres experiences by human beings, artists abandoned their romantic view of society and nature, opting for a very different approach.
If the disillusionment was at the core of literature during the war period, afterwards the modernism became the most influencing movement in the artistic world. Realistic descriptions and deep introspective analysis aimed to highlight the veritable side of reality, without discarding the portrait of the inner feelings of their characters.