War Poets

Britain declared war on the Central Powers on 4 August 1914. Eliot and Pound, as Americans, did not enlist (although during the course of the war both tried to). However, many of their friends joined the army, including the imagist poet Richard Aldington, from whom Eliot took over as assistant editor of The Egoist, the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Hulme, Wyndham Lewis, the leader of the vorticist movement, and Eliot's closest friend from his year in Paris, Jean Verdenal. In May 1915 Verdenal was killed, and a month later Gaudier met the same fate. Hulme was killed in September 1917.

Pound began serious work on The Cantos in 1915, during the second year of the war; Eliot first mentioned The Waste Land in a letter of November 1919, a year after the war ended, though the earliest fragments of the poem had been written at least five years before. The First World War shaped both poems substantially: it appears in the texts not only in the form of references to the events of 1914-1918, but also as a broader moral framework. Both poems treat the First World War as a symptom of their main subject: the disintegration of civilization in the modern world.

The Waste Land's first section, 'The Burial of the Dead', contains a Bavarian countess's childhood memories of the pre-war Austrian empire and references to sprouting corpses, 'A Game of Chess' describes Lil's preparations for welcoming her husband Albert home from the war, and 'What the Thunder Said' includes a description of the post-war collapse of Europe and the Middle East (lines 366-76). In The Cantos, the wartime leaders of Britain and the United States, David Lloyd George (1863-1945) and Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924), appear in the 'Hell Cantos' (14 and 15), their identity not quite obliterated by libel-conscious dots; another of the poem's villains is one of the war's wealthiest arms traders, Basil Zaharoff (1849-1936), called 'Metevsky' in the poem (1994: 61, 187). Canto 16 runs through anecdotes about Pound's friends who served in the war, including Hulme.

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