WAR AT A DISTANCE: ROMANTICISM AND THE MAKING OF MODERN WARTIME by Mary A. Favret, Reviewed by James Tatum
 

WAR AT A DISTANCE: ROMANTICISM AND THE MAKING OF MODERN WARTIME
By Mary A. Favret
(Princeton, 2010) x + 262 pp.
Reviewed by James Tatum on 2010-06-15.

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In the late 1930's, the British in at least one way prepared themselves for war at close range. Early in 1937, shortly after King Edward VIII abdicated in 1936 to marry the American divorcée Wallis Simpson, the British anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the poet Tom Madge, and the film producer and director Humphrey Jennings organized a volunteer group called Mass-Observation to record the daily experiences of men and women throughout the United Kingdom. Their aim was to learn what the British people experienced in everyday life and what they actually thought about it. At first the project won few headlines. Save for occasional splashes of local color the realities of day-to-day living were never of much interest to the national press, which busied itself in reporting what Harrison and his colleagues regarded as mere sensational fiction--such as what "the British people" thought about the King and Wallis Simpson. But by the time George VI was crowned in May 1937, Mass-Observation was up and running. Ultimately the project drew 500 volunteers and gained results that qualified for national press coverage in a number of ways. By coincidence, this took place in the same year as the Germans' successful experiment in bombing a civilian target at Guernica.

When the Luftwaffe arrived over London on 9 September 1940 M-O was ready and soon directed its energies to the war effort. From that date, through Coventry on 14 November 1940 to the end of the Blitz with a final massive assault on London and Birmingham on 10 and 16 May 1941, Mass-Observation's volunteers kept journals and conducted interviews to record what it was like to live through the Blitz at ground level; teams of observers went anywhere the bombing was, often while it was still underway. At a distance, American radio audiences got their own version of the Blitz by listening to the radio broadcasts of Edward R. Murrow, each one beginning with the famous words, "This is London." His reporting won sympathy for Britain's cause and did much to counter American isolationists, who would not finally be silenced until Pearl Harbor.

Mass-Observation collected and stored thousands of recorded interviews and reports of eye-witness observation, and these records sometimes did contribute to the war effort, which in any case had been all-out from the fall of France onwards. This archive also led to an unexpected discovery. As Tom Harrisson reports in his memoir of the wartime documentation of Mass-Observation in Living through the Blitz (1976), everyone's memories about what they had actually seen and reported during the war and what they remembered thirty years later often turned out to be wildly different from what actually happened, not least because everyone, from Churchill on down, participated in what Harrison terms a "public glossification" of war, both while it was going on and long after it ended. In this respect the story of the Mass-Observation project sounds more like the famous skit from Beyond the Fringe, "The Aftermyth of War," than anything an historian could credit. Harrisson rounds out the tale by noting that this surprising outcome confirmed the pioneering work of the Cambridge psychologist Sir Frederic Bartlett, whose Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology (1932) concludes with this observation:

Remembering is not the re-excitation of innumerable, fixed, lifeless and fragmentary traces. It is an imaginative reconstruction, or construction, built out of the relation of our attitude towards a whole active mass of organized past reactions or experience, and to a little outstanding detail which commonly appears in image or in language form. It is thus hardly ever really exact, even in the most rudimentary cases of rote recapitulation. (Bartlett 213)

The work of both Bartlett and Harrisson will interest anyone who wants to know how much we can know about what really happened in the past, especially if what was happening happened to be war.

Compelling and vivid as Harrisson's story is, one thing about war that Living through the Blitz does not challenge is the orthodox view that the greatest authenticity in any account of war belongs to those who have been in it. Thinking about war has always given pride of place to those who experience it at first hand, on the ground, in the sea, or in the air: the veterans, the victims, and eye-witnesses to conflict like the journalist Michael Herr, in his Vietnam war reporting in Dispatches. We might well ask, How could it be otherwise? If you are a civilian and don't know war at first hand you risk being trumped every time for authenticity, since we have been told over and over that only those who have actually been in war can know what it is like.

The problem is that those who wait to go to war, who fear its coming, or who never go to war at all but then have to deal with its aftermath can live through experiences scarcely less challenging, as Penelope in the Odyssey could tell you, or Clytemnestra in the Agamemnon, or Primo Levi in his Auschwitz memoir If This Is A Man, or the wives who welcome home their veteran husbands in William Wyler's 1946 Academy Award-winning classic The Best Years of Our Lives. Dread and foreboding about war are subjects just as worthy of regard, and so are the attempts people have always made to imagine what war can be like, or actually is.

Mary A. Favret's new book is likely to inspire a new respect for such imaginings, as well as new questions about the familiar notion that war can be truly experienced only by those who are wherever the fighting is. War at a Distance concerns living and thinking about war in an equally important way, possibly even more important than knowing war at first hand, because even more widely shared: What can war mean to those who are far away from it, and at what seems a safe distance? The possibility that war could come down on people who think they are dwelling with peace in their time can give these ruminations great urgency, depending on the wit and imagination of those who are doing the thinking. Favret has gathered some of best poets and artists who began to engage in exactly this kind of project.

As her subtitle indicates, she argues that Romantic poets and visual artists led the way in giving us a perception about war at a distance, and that it is one that we still live with today. For more than twenty years starting in 1792, Great Britain and all of Europe endured wars or the rumor of wars on a global scale, until Napoleon was defeated for the last time in 1815, at Waterloo. Britain's experience with those two decades of war created a new sense of wartime that differed from what the eighteenth and earlier centuries had known. The importance of this argument for better understanding our own wars at a distance could not be clearer, but it is characteristic of Favret's careful design that she does not belabor the obvious relevance of her book. She helps us understand where we now are in the mental landscape of war, and she recounts what has gone into the creation of that landscape with an intricate and challenging argument in which she reads and re-reads the same poetic texts from different theoretical and historical perspectives that are always rewarding. Whatever its reception in English literary history and criticism may be, War at a Distance deserves to be read and argued about in history, comparative literature and classics for years to come.

Favret includes the great Romantic poets whom general readers might expect to find, represented by poems like Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" and Wordsworth's "Ruined Cottage," which Favret reads so persuasively that it's almost as if they had been written to illustrate her argument. But the poet who did more than any other to articulate what she means by "war at a distance" comes from the generation before them. Influential and much admired by Coleridge and others, including Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, William Cowper (1731-1800) may not be as familiar to many readers today as he deserves to be. Many editions are available, but Favret's readers should not overlook the magisterial Poems of William Cowper in three volumes, edited by John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp for the Oxford Clarendon Press (1995). His greatest work The Task (published in 1785) gives haunting voice to the fears and discontents of people in a civilization at war, as in this passage from book IV ("The Winter Evening"):

. . . I seem advanc'd
To some secure and more than mortal height,
That lib'rates and exempts me from them all.
It [the world] turns submitted to my view, turns round
With all its generations; I behold
The tumult, and am still. (IV: 95-100)

 

Here, writes Favret, "a world hangs in nearly every line...a world of barely discerned consequences and violence...the ‘world' and its putative distance are both the objects of his thought and the enabling conditions of that thought" (23). But in the course of his poem, Cowper will move from this calmly detached and rational frame of mind to what Favret calls "a closer, more intimate sense of war" (23).

Like Edward R. Murrow in 1940, Cowper and his followers were broadcasting the news of war at a distance, through poetry. (As Favret notes, "broadcasting" is originally an agricultural term, and I'll return to the significance of her use of this kind of georgic etymology below.) All of them were engaged in mediations of war, of various kinds, to convey the sensations and the emotional states created by war to readers everywhere, no matter how far from conflict they happened to be. This affect created by war can befall anyone, anywhere, whether it be through poetry or the images of war in pictures produced by painters and photographers. Her book ends by expanding its range into the visual arts in the chapter "Viewing War at a Distance" (187-239), which discusses Thomas and William Daniel's pictures of the so-called Jewel in the Crown of the British empire, India, in Oriental scenery. One hundred and fifty views of the architecture, antiquities, and landscape scenery of Hindoo-stan (1812-1816). She also effectively juxtaposes some of the first photographic images of battlefields, such as the desolate terrain of the Crimea where the charge of the Light Brigade took place in 1855, with Mathew Brady's pictures of the American Civil War a few years later. All of this constitutes visible proof of Susan Sontag's aphoristic take on war in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003): "War was and still is the most irresistible--and picturesque--news" (War at a Distance, 190).

The most unexpected of Favret's many disciplinary border crossings--and in my view, the most original and exciting part of her book--is the foray she makes in Chapter Three ("War in the Air") into British weather (119-144). The UK's famously humorous and ever-changing climate turns out to have deeply influenced innovations that the Romantics achieved in imagining war at a distance. The revolutionary advances in meteorology that eighteenth-century science achieved transformed the way people saw themselves in their personal landscapes. Poets learned from scientists such as Luke Howard (1772-1864) that their once familiar and uniquely personal weather was actually linked to weather everywhere else in the world, and that the continual changes visible at the local level were part of larger patterns that could be traced throughout the world. In an innovation that recalls the earlier Linnaean taxonomy established for living organisms, Howard devised a Latin terminology for clouds (e.g., cumulus, nimbus, stratus) that Favret characterizes as "universal yet transitive signs of hidden and constant translation" (135). Learning to grasp this new, worldwide network of climates could be as destabilizing and unsettling to received opinion as war itself. After the discoveries of Cowper and Howard, when Britain was almost constantly fighting France and running an empire reaching as far as India, British thinking about global war would go hand in hand with thinking about global weather. "To understand the fugitive movements of weather and war," Favret writes,

we must simultaneously situate them within the history of meteorology, where, by the Romantic period, the nature and location of weather were vexed; and within a history of wartime communication, where again, location, temporality, and responsibility were problems. The need to conceptualize a war in which Britain was vitally engaged but geographically removed contributed to an expanded interest in the weather, which only in the late eighteenth century could be understood as a global system (126).

As Favret explains, the Romantics poets' new perception of climate upended long-standing conceptions in classical literature and other traditions that would identify weather with the machinations of immortal gods, somehow relating it to heroic codes of conduct.

To see her point, think of the opening scene of the Aeneid, where Juno cons the wind god Aeolus into sending a storm to drive Aeneas and the Trojan fleet away from their destined goal of Italy. When Neptune brings this disturbance of his realm to a stop, the first simile of the poem likens his exercise of power to that of an orator who can stop a mob running out of control simply by the power of his voice and the authority of his person. Does this storm anticipate the war in Italy that comes in the second half of the poem? Does Neptune's Olympian power politics presage Aeneas's defeat of Turnus at its end? We could think of the famous storm scenes in Shakespeare as well, but Favret's point is that this tradition of linking weather with human history was fundamentally changed by the science of Cowper's day. This point also illustrates one of the most compelling things about War at a Distance as a piece of criticism: this is the kind of book that encourages you to try out its ideas on works you may already know, and then rethink them, just as it makes you want to learn about the poets it discusses and the critics who played a role in its writing.

I suspect this happens because Favret herself is given to making this kind of move. She commends work that was just as important to her as Cowper's poetry or Hudson's meteorology, namely, Kevis Goodman's Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambrdige, 2004). Since Goodman likewise thanks Favret for her considerable help in her own work (Georgic Modernity, xiv), it is not surprising that readers will find signs everywhere in War at a Distance of their intellectual cross-pollination. From Georgic Modernity and its carefully argued interpretation of both Vergil's poem and the traditions it inspired Favret learned how to construct her own highly original argument focusing on Cowper's The Task.

And as she shows, to read Cowper is to be led inevitably back to Vergil. At the center of literary traditions mediating the distance between war and its wider audiences lies the middle poem he composed between his Theocritean Eclogues and Homeric Aeneid, the Georgics. Ostensibly a poem adapting Hesiod's Works and Days to Roman measure, it teaches all there is to know about the prosaic subject of cultivating the earth in furrows (versus), but in verses (also called versus) marked by such richly figurative language that it has long been recognized as one of the densest poetic texts in classical literature. Here as so often in Latin poetry the alleged poverty (egestas) of the Latin lexicon that Lucretius complains of in De Rerum Natura works to the advantage of the poet. The multiple meanings of that single word versus--a line of verse, a furrow in the soil--exemplify in microcosm the complexity of Vergil's project. The Georgics are self-consciously middle poems in both a literal and figurative sense, condensing allusion to Homer, Hesiod, Lucretius, and much of the rest of earlier Greek and Latin poetry into verse of such complexity that it is easy to believe ancient testimony that Vergil completed no more than one line a day in the seven or more years it took him to compose a poem of not quite 2,200 lines. The Georgics are not for the literal-minded. In their instruction about such seemingly prosaic subjects as crop rotation and bee keeping, these ways of working the land become figures for understanding the workings of human civilization, not least its propensity to wage war.

So the Georgics are wonderful poetry, their competing interpretations are legion, and joining in the fray is not for the faint of heart. It is as challenging to write persuasive criticism about them as about any other field of Classics, including Homer or Greek tragedy. In the late 1970s the Oxonian Jasper Griffin declared, "The reader who has duly confronted Coleman, Otis, Segal, Bradley, Wender, Wilkinson, Wankenne, Coleiro, Hardie, Joudoux, Wormell, Otis again, Parry, Putnam, Cova, Chomarat, and Stehle, feels dismay; perhaps despair." ("The Fourth 'Georgic,' Virgil, and Rome," Greece & Rome, Second series, Vol. 26, No. 1 [Apr., 1979] 61). Griffin overcame whatever despair he had by thoughtfully presenting his own interpretation as the latest word on the subject. It sure wasn't the last. Twenty years later the American classicist William Batstone observed, "Despite the innumerable labors of many critics, Virgil's Georgics remain one of the most fundamentally intractable works of ancient literature." ("Virgilian Didaxis: Value and Meaning in the Georgics," Cambridge Companion to Virgil, ed. Charles Martindale [Cambridge, 1997] 125). Then Batstone tried his hand at them, too. Not for him or Griffin what Achilles' soldiers do in the Iliad when Thetis brings the shining new arms made by Hephaestus:

Awe-struck, the Myrmidons all turn'd away
Their dazzled eyes, and, trembling, fled the place.

(Iliad 19.14-15, trans. Cowper)

Happily a number of books have succeeded in speaking to many Vergilians and a wider critical audience in English and comparative literature. Two that were particularly helpful to Goodman were Christine Perkell's The Poet's Truth (1989) and Joseph Farrell's Vergil's Georgics and the Traditions of Ancient Epic (1991), and they were well chosen. Perkell and Farrell exemplify modern Georgics criticism at its best.

Yet however much the Georgics may or may not challenge modern classicists, Vergil's middle poem was not so intimidating to the poets of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and with the inspiration of Goodman's Georgic Modernity Favret explores that particular Romantic readership with great skill. Cowper and others were able to turn to Vergil for inspiration, not least because John Dryden's 1697 translation of what he termed "the best poem by the best poet" had already made the Georgics available to a wide readership for a century and more. At the beginning of her Introduction Goodman quotes a passage near the end of the first Georgic that prefigures an important theme in both her book and Favret's. A skillful lexicographer and philologist, Goodman quotes the original Latin with a prose translation (Georgics, I. 493-497), but we can see her point just as well through the Dryden version:

scilicet et tempus veniet, cum finibus illis
agricola incurvo terram molitus aratro
exesa inveniet scabra robigine pila,
aut gravibus rastris galeas pulsabit inanis,
grandiaque effossis mirabitur ossa sepulcris.

Then, after length of time, the labouring swains
Who turn the turfs of those unhappy plains,
Shall rusty piles from the ploughed furrows take,
And over empty helmets pass the rake--
Amazed at antique titles on the stones,
And mighty relics of gigantic bones.

 

As Goodman explains, Vergil is alluding to his own violent present, with the Roman civil wars only recently concluded. In this passage those wars are conceived as a temporally remote events whose relics--rusty piles and empty helmets--are unearthed at some distant point in the future. Playing on the double meanings of the Latin versus--a line of verse turned out by a poet, a row in the soil turned over by a plow--she argues that "historical presentness is often ‘turned up' by georgic as unpleasurable feeling: as sensory discomfort, as disturbance in affect and related phenomena that we variously term perceptive, sensorial, or affective" (Georgic Modernity, 3-4). You can see here the germ of the ideas that would lead eventually to War at a Distance.

There are many examples that one could cite to show how Favret builds on Goodman's reading of the poets. To take but one example, Book 4 of The Task ("The Winter Evening") demonstrates how Cowper turns war into a temporal experience that starts with the kind of georgic perception we can see in Vergil's original Latin or Dryden's version of it, and then moves beyond it, "making war into wartime." This new wartime emerges in the person of the post-boy who brings the latest news from abroad.

Hark! ‘tis the twanging horn! o'er yonder bridge...
He comes, the herald of a noisy world,
With spatter'd boots, strapp'd waist, and frozen locks,
New from all nations lumb'ring at this back.
True to his charge, the close-pack'd load behind,
Yet careless of what he brings, his one concern
Is to conduct it to the desin'd inn:
And, having dropp'd th'expected bag, pass on.
He whistles as he goes, light-hearted wretch,
Cold and yet cheerful: messenger of grief
Perhaps to thousands, and of joy to some;
To him indiff'rent whether grief or joy. (IV. 1...5-15)

Favret's reading of the post-boy passage well represents her sensitive eye and ear for poetry:

The solitary youth with his makeshift uniform and purposive air, not a stranger but a familiar figure who arrives with trumpeting and departs whistling, performs a national service while standing in for so many absent and awaited young men gone to war. The post-boy offers the poet and reader fleeting contact--and fleeting consolation: however unexpected or disabling the burden he unloads, however unanswerable the questions he prompts, his coming and going nevertheless inscribe a secure rhythm ordering the upheaval. And whatever the effect of his news, the young man performs his duty unscathed--pace mud and frozen locks. He is more than a messnger; he is an impassive figure of translation, condensation, and displacement: disburdening his own body of a load of pain and grief, he converts the war into a matter of reading, its "grief perhaps to thousands" packaged for consumption while he himself remains immune to feeling, "indiff'rent" (60).

It requires no great stretch of the imagination to see here the same kind of cheerful indifference and persistence that so characterize the media of our own day, with the same endless, ever-changing news cycle that we now complain of, and then follow to the point of addiction. The volume and the intrusiveness have increased, but in most respects the movement is already there in Book IV of The Task, coming from remote wars and disasters that move ominously into our presence.

In a poem first published in 1785, then, we encounter "the dislocated experience that is modern wartime: the experience of war mediated, of time and times unmoored, of feeling intensified but also adrift" (9). These are large claims and War at a Distance does more than substantiate them. By the end we have learned not only a great deal about William Cowper and the later Romantics' poetics of war. We have gained a new way to think about our own time's unending wars at a distance. To signal that new way, Favret begins her book not with Cowper or Vergil, but with a poem by the American poet C. K. Williams. Written in the winter of 2003 during the buildup to the U. S.-led invasion of Iraq, "The Hearth" begins with memories of a friend blinded and scarred by napalm during the American war in Vietnam, and moves eventually to the coming war at a distance in both time and space.

But in fact I wasn't listening. I was thinking,
As I often do these days, of war;
I was thinking of my children, and their children,
of the more than fear I feel for them,

and then of radar, rockets, shrapnel,
cities razed, soil poisoned
for a thousand generations; of suffering so vast
it nullifies everything else. (41-48)

 

This recent poem about a distant war still in progress is emblematic of both the range of Favret's argument and the intersections her book creates between the study of wartime literature and the study of affect, the emotional states people fall into in response to wars that they and their governments are conducting at a distance.

*

Panegyrics are of limited use, even when books deserve them, and I would like to end by suggesting some aspects of war at a distance that Favret does not touch on--nor, for that matter, so far as her highly rewarding study of mediation goes, does Goodman. As accomplished readers of the OED, both scholars know very well that while the now widely-used term "mediation" develops out of Latin formations from the adjective medius, the actual word mediatio is post-classical. (Its history is well presented in the Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, VII 526-527 s.v. mediatio.) Mediation figures importantly in Augustine's writing about Christ as the mediator between human beings and god, participating in both mortal and divine aspects. In so far as He is incarnate as a human being, Christ is connected with man, but in so far as He is the Son of God, He is divine. He is the mediator between humanity in its fallen state, since we are all children of Adam and Eve, and at the same time He is the only power that can unite us with God (Confessions 10. 43). Augustine bases his influential exposition on a doctrine that originates in the New Testament, where the Greek word for "mediator" mesitês was translated by Jerome as mediator and then likewise by the King James scholars as "mediator," as in Hebrews 9.15.

And for this reason he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance.

I do not know whether specialists in media theory and media studies ever stray into theology; they would probably think they have no reason to. But when it comes to the imagination of wars at a distance it might be useful to try, because there is good evidence that in Cowper's time others in Europe were thinking just as hard and just as creatively as he and his successors were about war at a distance. While advances in the science of meteorology would naturally be of interest to them, and might captivate them as much as they did Cowper, they were also powerfully influenced by Christian doctrine. This can be illustrated by what happens when another kind of artist, a composer, turns to setting the text of the Eucharist to music.

A long tradition of Christ's mediation between God and humanity underlies the liturgy of the Eucharist, especially as it assumed the form of the Tridentine Mass, which dated from the Council of Trent in 1570 and which remained the same until 1962, when it was revised under Pope John XXIII. As the text to which any musical setting of the mass had to conform, it was unchanging and unchangeable. While there could be different versions of the Mass Ordinary, as in a Requiem Mass or shorter versions such as the Missa Brevis, celebrants and congregations would expect a fixed and familiar text. The challenge to the composer was to create a new setting of it by his musical invention.

The doctrine of Christ as mediator between God and humanity is central to the mass and the source of its attraction for believers, since this kind of mediation is the blessing repeatedly sought in the mass from start to finish. By contrast, the mediation that preoccupies both Goodman's and Favret's work involves only this world. In this respect they are once again on the same page. They are focused on the impact of the Enlightenment and empirical science on British literary life. Admirable as their discussions are, you wouldn't know from either of them that there was such a thing as a Christian conception of mediation, as much in England as across the Channel and far to the east. Even the illiterate as well as the modestly educated in Christian Europe would know what such mediation entailed. Any composer who set the Ordinary of the Mass to music for the faithful confronted a distance that did not merely traverse the globe or a set of meteorological zones, but one that soared beyond this world entirely--to wherever you think God the Father and God the Son happen to abide. When a composer working in this tradition wants to bring the life of this world into the spiritual realm of the Eucharistic experience, the mediations that result can be complex.

The greatest living composer of Cowper's time offers an instructive example. In 1795 Franz Josef Haydn was summoned back from London to Austria by his newest patron, the next generation's Prince Esterházy. He had spent some of his happiest times in a difficult life and marriage during his stays in England, where he was universally admired and honored. He received a doctorate from Oxford, and many of his greatest later symphonies and quartets were written for audiences in England. But with his homeland under increasing danger of French invasion, he saw many signs that Napoleon would soon be turning his armies towards Vienna--as he eventually did. Back in Austria, then, Haydn devoted much of his energies in his final years to the composition of his great oratorios The Seasons and The Creation and a half dozen masses. One of the first was composed and performed in 1796, which he entitled Missa in tempore belli, Mass in Time of War. In German it is also known as the Paukenmesse, or Kettle-Drum Mass ("kettle drum" being the English term for the usual musical term "timpani"). Both these titles are worked out in the music: Haydn's own words describe the temporal circumstance of the mass, while the German nickname reflects what is most memorable and distinctive in a performance of it.

The Mass in Time of War brings war straight into the text of the Eucharist. There Haydn mediates war every bit as much as the English Romantic poets were doing, while at the same time celebrating the mediation offered by Christ, the intercessor and mediator to whom the believer prays. In the Mass's opening Kyrie, the first four measures are piano but in the fifth measure at the word "Kyrie" there is suddenly a surprising, loud chord with a fortissimo timpani roll, the first indication that the timpani are going to play a prominent role. While they are present in other movements, the kettle drums are most prominent where you would least expect them, in the concluding prayer to the Lamb of God, the Angus Dei. Since the mass aims above all else to save souls, this is a prayer for each communicant's personal peace, building on Philippians 4.7, "And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." Haydn's Mass in Time of War ends with a powerful inflection of this prayer.

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

War is very much at a distance in Haydn's setting of the opening of the Agnus Dei. The tempo is Adagio, and the trumpet, the other musical instrument that signifies the military, also acquires a prominent role. The timpani start after the evocation of the Lamb of God and his attributes, with the word miserere, "Take pity on us." This prayer for peace thus has an ominous sound to it; the effect is like the distant rumblings of thunder or cannon over the horizon. This is followed by an Allegro con spirito and then a faster più presto setting of only the plea, Dona nobis pacem. It is the same word pacem as ever, but as it is inflected through Haydn's music it begins to sound like something the very opposite of peace. At present there are only so-so recordings of the Kyrie available on You Tube and other on-line resources. For a great one that brings out this effect--or as Goodman and Favret might prefer, the affect it creates--I recommend Leonard Bernstein's 1973 performance with the New York Philharmonic, where the reverberations in this finale are at their most thrilling, thanks to the cavernous spaces of the National Cathedral in Washington.

In Haydn's setting the alternation between forte and piano is orchestrated in such a way that the last word of the text, pacem, is at once the word of a prayer, and the sound of war's threat to that prayer. Without resorting to a musical score, let me try by typographical approximation to suggest what Haydn's orchestration and choral writing create. The fortissimo measures and the insistently repeated words are in caps, while I've put the drawn-out, three measures of pianissimo in lower-case type. And I've added an exclamation mark that isn't in the Mass's Latin text to represent the vehemence with which these final words are sung. The final twenty measures (144-164) of the Agnus Dei would then look like this:

PACEM, DONA, DONA, DONA, DONA NOBIS PACEM! PACEM!
(Fermata or grand pause before the final cadence)
pa......cem, pa....cem, PACEM! PACEM!

 

War is at a distance in the Paukenmesse, and then, at the end, with the trumpets and timpani at full volume, it is as present and unavoidable as the kettle drums that give it its German name. Is the ending of the Missa in tempore belli therefore a prayer for peace? or for victory? Are those our Austrian trumpets and drums we are hearing at the end, or the enemy's? The answer to such questions is not as important as the fact that Haydn's music inspires us to ask them.

There are many differences between the poets and visual artists that War at a Distance expounds and this musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass. And in Haydn's music there are two kinds of mediation at work simultaneously, the sacred and the secular. But The Task is also concerned with the sounds of war. Not long after the passage in Book IV about the coming and going of the post-boy, Cowper writes

The sound of war
Has lost its terrors ‘ere it reaches me,
Grieves but alarms me not. I mourn the pride
And av'rice that make man a wolf to man,
Hear the faint echo of those brazen throats
By which he speaks the language of his heart,
And sigh, but never tremble at the sound.

(The Task, IV. 100-106)

The sensibilities of Cowper and Haydn differ in many ways, but aren't both of them trying to convey the same thing to their readers and listeners? What is the Mass in the Time of War about, if not war at a distance?

I don't pose such questions to suggest that Favret has left out something she should have included, or even should have thought about. I offer them as an example of the kind of ripple effect reading War at a Distance can have, as it inspires readers to rethink, reread, or rehear what they have heard or read before, and thought they understood. (My sincere thanks to Charles Beye, David Rosen, and the Editor for their considerable help.)


James Tatum is Professor Emeritus of Classics at Dartmouth College. His books include The Mourner's Song: War and Remembrance from the Iliad to Vietnam (Chicago, 2003) and African American Writers and Classical Tradition (Chicago 2010), co-authored with William W. Cook.


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