Review: John Matthias on “The Arts of Peace”

Arts of peace revised cover 20 March

Can one  commemorate war with poetry about peace?

That was what the editors, of anthology The Arts of Peace, asked themselves when they set out to mark the First World War centenary in 2014.

A long piece, by poet and professor emeritus,  John Matthias, entitled,  On Being Asked for a (Peaceful) War Poem appeared in Notre Dame Review no. 38.  It is an essay, a survey of war literature, a self analysis, and it is replete with illustrative poems. It is well worth a read:

Here are several extracts, published with permission.

From On Being Asked for a (Peaceful) War Poem by John Mattias:

The whole genre of “war poetry” is a problematic category, but as the editor of another nthology once remarked, it’s well to remember that “The best war poetry is also the best poetry: Homer and Shakespeare.”Anyway, like Beaven, Riley, Logan and the others, I wrote a poem. After afew months passed I felt uneasy about having done that, vaguely embarrassed, even ashamed. What kind of purchase could I possibly have on the First World War, by what authority should I open my mouth at all, what wound gave  permission to speak? Many poets in the anthology, it appears, approached the war obliquely, but I took my assignment to be some kind of direct address…

It has been said that the history of philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato; it could also be said that all of the terrible wars of our century have been extensions, in one way or another, of The Great War, “the war to end all wars” that didn’t, the war with no living survivors as of some years back, the war fought by the thousands and millions now pushing up poppies. I say “our century”; but of course I am a 20th century refugee who has
washed up on to a 21st century beachhead and doesn’t expect to hold his position for very much longer. Historical amnesia gets worse and worse. I retired from teaching at about the point when a significant number of my students in a course actually called “The Literature of World War I” clearly thought that conflict had something to do with defeating the Nazis…

As many poets resigned, or declined to write, during World War II, the novelists took over… For the poetry of modern war, with a few important exceptions, one still reads work by the poets of World War One. Or at least one should. It’s amazing how alive and fresh and heartbreaking even some of the standard anthology pieces still seem, whether modernist or Georgian…

So what did Peter Robinson and Adrian Blamires want us to do? They took their title from Andrew Marvell’s “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland,” which speaks of “the inglorious arts of peace.” Adam Piette’s Introduction remarks that Cromwell in Marvell’s ode begins to embody “history-as-warfare” and “Marvell subtly sets up his own status as poet practicing the arts of peace as a self-sanctioned rival to Cromwell and his arts of war.” There are many poems in this anniversary volume that do not deal directly with World War I, but all counter the Cromwellian art of war with whatever art of peace can be mustered. For all the poets, Piette says, “poetry is itself a peace-making activity.”


For the full article, please consider purchasing the Notre Dame Review No 38.