The Book of the Week: Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace

Catherine Belsey writes on the futility of war

April 17, 2008

It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood." If Macbeth's tragedy is that he knows violence only breeds more violence, ours is that we still don't seem to have grasped the fact. R. S. White's thought-provoking book brings out literature's longstanding critique of armed combat as a way of resolving disputes.

Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace opens with an account of religious and secular attitudes to war. Despite the tendency of sectarian difference to present occasions for violence, and despite the Church's propensity to endorse state militarism, Christianity itself enjoins the faithful to love their enemies, and Christian sects, most notably the Quakers, have been responsible for engaging with many of the emotional and intellectual problems of pacifism. The history of Israel notwithstanding, Judaism has often shown itself to be peace-loving in practice. Islam condemns violence in general while imposing strict limits on the conduct that is legitimate in time of war.

Humanist discussions of pacifism, meanwhile, have had a shorter history, but hostility to violence characterises many forms of progressive politics. Sadly, however, the rational arguments against war have not in the event prevailed. Can literature, then, intervene by appealing to the imagination?

We are familiar with the way the poetry of the First World War influenced opinion against the military solution to international problems, but White traces pacifist writing back to the Middle Ages. Poets John Gower and John Lydgate both reacted strongly against the violence of the Hundred Years' War with the French. Chaucer's views are notoriously harder to pin down, but his Knight's Tale certainly throws into relief the ironies that surround love in a time of war.

Renaissance writing, too, was more sceptical towards violence than we have supposed, and many authors of the period reiterated Cicero's maxim that the worst peace was preferable to the best war. Milton, White maintains, was a militant pacifist, uneasy about his own political support for the revolutionary Civil War of the 1640s and paradoxically ready to make metaphorical war on warmongers. It was, after all, Satan who broke the peace of heaven to declare war on God.

Perhaps the most interesting discussion in the book concerns Shakespeare. White wisely eschews the attempt to locate the dramatist in his own work, preferring to make the case that, without the intervention of a narrative moderator, the plays hold in suspension equal and opposite views. Military heroics on the part of the authorities rarely stand unchallenged in Shakespeare's work, however marginal the opposing voices. If this chapter makes clear how much of Henry V Laurence Olivier had to cut to make his stirring, patriotic film in 1944, it also indicates how easily Orson Welles could turn the Henry IV plays against the Vietnam War in Chimes at Midnight two decades later.

Not surprisingly, generations of women poets have been fluent in their condemnation of violence. But the most sustained assault on the rationality of a specific conflict must surely be Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. This huge work depicts the heroic expectations invested in combat and the savage disappointments of the event, as well as the posturing of the generals on both sides and the implications of their blindness for the soldiers under their command. No brightly coloured pageantry, no amount of individual valour, justifies the mutilation, loss of life and, indeed, the collapse of illusions in the course of a struggle that led to more crimes of fraud, treachery, theft and murder than occur in centuries of peace. Worse still, the novel indicates, since all's fair in love and war, these acts are not even regarded by their perpetrators as criminal.

In Tolstoy's time, as in Shakespeare's, the shared model of war was hand-to-hand combat, soldiers confronting one another directly on the battlefield. But in the last century, with the increased mechanisation of warfare, adversaries no longer perceive at close range the effects of their weapons on individual human bodies.

Aerial bombardment has made civilian deaths the object of the exercise or, since the Geneva Conventions now confine a "just" war to military targets, an unavoidable case of "collateral damage". While armed conflict always had consequences for the widows and orphans, while it commonly laid waste the surrounding farmland, it has now acquired the means to destroy the water and food supplies, as well as the economic infrastructure, of whole populations.

Remarkably, H. G. Wells vividly foresaw much of this in his novel of 1908, The War in the Air, including "cities stricken with terror and dismay". These days, we remember the heroic resistance of Londoners to the Blitz, but the poets of the time also told the other side of that story. I remember when I first read, with what most of us still mean by shock and awe, Edith Sitwell's verses of 1940: "Still falls the Rain -/Dark as the world of man, black as our loss ... ". Her reaction to the use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was to write "Three Poems of the Atomic Age", foreshadowing any number of protest songs and lyrics in the following decades.

At the very least, literature has depicted combat in all its brutality. We live in a world where increasingly implausible euphemisms are designed to reassure us of war's humanity: "smart bombs", for instance, as well as "friendly fire", not to mention "intelligence".

"A geographical area of mass slaughter becomes a 'theatre of war'," White observes, as if killing were a show put on for the pleasure and instruction of interested spectators. Fiction and poetry, meanwhile, give a sharper picture than our own propaganda machines will permit.

Written with conviction in the context of the West's shameful waste of life in Iraq, and its equally shameful failure to intervene in the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, this reflective and wide-ranging book presents a timely reminder that war is always a choice. Literature tends to indicate that it is usually a poor one.


Despite being born and raised in sunny Sydney in Australia, it was in the fog on the Tyne that Bob White found his British home. After studying at the universities of Adelaide and Oxford, in 1974 he took up the post of lecturer of English at Newcastle University, where he stayed for 15 years. He has nothing but good memories from the time, saying: "I love its resilient community spirit, the sense of history in the cobbled streets by the Quayside - and above all the warm-hearted people."

However, an appointment to the chair of English led to a return to his native Australia, at the University of Western Australia, where he currently teaches and which he describes as "a perfect environment".

It was there that White felt able to stray from familiar territory, branching out from Shakespeare to topics as diverse as pacifism and the history of Vegemite - which, for readers unfamiliar with this Australian cultural and culinary icon, is similar to Marmite.

His fascination with food does not end there. He enjoys reading cookery books, and even preparing some of the recipes, and he credits Newcastle for instilling in him a traditional British love for Indian food.

This confidence was brought about by a change of title to professor of English and cultural studies; a move that caused some confusion when some people misread it as "cutlery studies" - perhaps understandable given his association with foodstuffs at the time. But Shakespeare still remains a focus in White's research, and he is working on a book on the Bard's influence on film genres, as well as a literary life of John Keats.

Away from university life, White's teenage daughters take up his attention, and he claims their interests as his own. He also enjoys being involved in primary and secondary education, as well as keeping in touch with the many people from around the world that he has taught throughout his career.

Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace

By R. S. White
Palgrave Macmillan
ISBN 9780230553170
Published 21 February 2008

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