Richard Aldington’s Le Maudit: Discussion and Analysis
At the beginning of the twentieth century 2 major historic events shook the very foundations of western society. These events being The First World War and the emergence of the historical Avant-Garde with the publication of several avant-garde manifestos. One of the figures who stands interlocked with both events is the poet, novelist, critic and translator Richard Aldington. Aldington’s work touches both the avant-garde, as he is often considered one of the founding members of the Imagist movement, while also being overshadowed by his experience in the War. The most prominent indication of this being his modernist novel Death of A Hero, which serves to illustrate both the experience of the War itself, and its connection to fundamental cultural changes of English society, one of which being the emergence of the avant-garde movements.
However, I believe that the aforementioned novel is not the only piece of semi-autobiographical material in Aldington’s oeuvre which indicates a deep impact of both the avant-garde and The First World War. In this essay, I will examine Aldington’s poem Le Maudit and how stands as an Imagist poem unmistakably intertwined with Aldington’s War and Post-War experience. The poem was published in 1920 in the modernist magazine Coterie, almost an entire decade before Death of A Hero. As well as discussing the references to the First World War, I will also indicate how certain parts of the poem can be interpreted as foreshadowing certain themes, scenes and sentiments present in Death of a Hero.
The title of the poem is itself a clue to the multifaceted nature of the poem. ‘Maudit’ can indeed be seen as a reference to the concept of le Poète Maudit as posited by Verlaine, in other words ‘the accursed poet’ despised by society and its rulers. However, while possibly evoking this reference, I believe that that title is more indicative A post-war pessimism undergone by the shell-shocked veterans of the War. As I will indicate further, the poem is marked distinctively by images echoing The Great War, rather than images evoking the spleen seen in poetry associated with the concept of the Poète Maudit.
The poem’s first two opening lines already seem to indicate a juxtaposition ubiquitous for First World War literature, namely the dichotomy of the warring men vs. the mourning women. While this dichotomy is present in other First World War writing, often in connection to the concept of Combat Gnosticism (e.g. Sassoon’s Glory of Women), this initial focus on the different experience ( of The War) of men and women is particularly pertinent to Aldington’s writing. One of the most prominent themes of Death of A Hero is the widening chasm between men and women as a consequence of the men being engaged in combat (in an almost exclusively masculine environment) and the women of the Homefront being confronted by the war in the form of loss of loved ones. Similarly to Death of a Hero and other war writing, these indications of a distinctly different form of suffering (i.e. shedding blood vs. shedding tears) serve as a factor in the isolation of the veteran. The inability of the veteran to communicate his post-war trauma in a comprehensive and meaningful way further contributes to his emotional turmoil and isolation.
In the stanza following the opening lines we further see indications of an experience scarred by war. Sleep being depicted as a torrent could, for instance, be seen as a reference to the ferocity of nightmares connected to shellshock. Contrastingly, Sleep drifting by, can also be an indication of the occasional insomnia also associated with post-war trauma.
In the third stanza it is indicated how the war experience influences the veteran’s perspective of the outside world. In particular, the use of the world ‘occupy’ to indicate the light of Dawn. Instead of the more conventional connotation of hopefulness, the image of dawn is tainted with echo of force and warfare. The pathetic fallacy continues as the protagonist’s grief is absorbed by the sudden apparition of snow in Spring.
The specific imagery of nature with which the emotional turmoil of the protagonist is identified is contrasted by the abstract expression of powerlessness in the follow stanza. In this stanza, the emotional turmoil is expressed on several levels. The first two lines indicate the powerlessness of the subject, as disaster and sorrow ‘have made him their pet’ and ‘He cannot escape their accursed embraces’. Furthermore, one could argue that the pair of disaster and sorrow further adds a layer of meaning. I believe that the aforementioned juxtaposition of the suffering of men and women (e.g. blood and tears) in the first stanza is here referenced, albeit in the form of a unification, rather than a contrast. In other words, I argue that it is possible to interpreted the pairing of disaster and sorrow as the combination of both direct and indirect suffering connected to the War; not only is the veteran subject to suffering (physical or mental) as a consequence to his direct contact with the War (disaster), but he is also stricken by the grief and mourning as a consequence of the loss (sorrow) shared by many who stayed at the Homefront. The following two lines indicate a form of suffering more unique to the veteran, namely that of the memory burdened by traumatic experience.
The following stanza further reiterates several war-related themes previously mentioned. ‘To wander nights hours through city streets’ again seems like a possible indication of insomnia and restlessness as a consequence of the war-experience. Furthermore, the companionship of ‘common men’ and ‘their unspoken instinctive sympathy’ seems to indicate a preference to a masculine environment, which may once again be connected to the aforementioned difference of suffering and understanding of suffering between men and women which is also discussed in Death of A Hero.
The final stanza further enforces the isolation and the warped worldview associated with the struggles of the shell-shocked veteran. The hint of company in the previous stanza is quickly contrasted with the second line, ‘he stands alone in the darkness’. The striking image of ‘a sentry never relieved, looking over a barren space, waiting for a tardy finish’ further illustrates how the protagonist cannot seem to shake his war experience, and even though The War, is over he still feels as if he is on sentry duty, waiting to be relieved.
This final image speaks of how even in a post-war world, the trembles of the Great War run deep. Indeed, I believe that his poem is an example of how the memories and experiences of the Great War will continue to haunt the Lost Generation, and will deeply affect their mark on literary history. As the War proved to be the first crack in European Imperialism and its values, so too did it galvanise many avant-garde movements looking for a new voicing in art, whilst always remaining under the shadow of one of the great horrors of their time.
“Richard Aldington.” Poetry Foundation,
assessed on 27 November 2017
“ Le Maudit.” Poetry Foundation,
assessed on 27 November 2017