Fall 1989, Volume 6.2
Troubled Water: The Wet Death Image as an Anglo-American Response to the Great War
Rich Schweitzer (M.A., Georgetown U) served as a legislative intern in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1988 and is currently researching a book-length manuscript on religion and World War I.
From biblical times to the era preceding World War I, material and spiritual factors combined to impart a powerful symbolic value to rain/water; its life-sustaining associations were the most important to be recorded in the Bible in the accounts of the Israelites' struggle to survive the parched lands of Palestine. But the Bible also chronicled the Flood, a torrent of cataclysmic proportions that presented an altogether different and more complicated view of rain—at once destructive and cleansing, purifying and cathartic. Both images were passed on as the literature of Western culture evolved, particularly in the writings of English-speaking authors, though rain/water's positive, nourishing qualities remained clearly dominant. The radically different material circumstances and spiritual convulsions wrought by the Great War transformed rain/water's meaning from an ambivalent symbol most often associated with life to one primarily associated with death. The amputation of rain/water's life-giving qualities was a significant development which needs to be understood in the historical context of the war and immediate post-war periods.
"Our civilization was about to reverse itself, or some new civilization about to be born from all that our age had rejected . . . ," prophesied W. B. Yeats in the aftermath of World War I (qtd. in Hunter 343). Published in 1920, the opening stanza of Yeats's "The Second Coming" captures the uncertainty and dread of the post-war period:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity. (342-43)
As Yeats's poem suggests, the longevity and sheer brutality of the War devastated Europe. This devastation manifested itself in a variety of ways in the literature of the period. One way in which it did so was the characterization of rain/water. Previously depicted as a central symbol of life and death, rain/water was associated predominantly with death by many wartime and post-war American and British authors. The shift is peculiar in that positive rain/water imagery might have been helpful to members of the war generation when they faced the hard questions raised by the war. Rain/water imagery, with its cleansing and rebirth components, was specifically well suited for aiding those who confronted the issues of mortality and salvation. The war generation's rejection of rain/water's positive qualities, in circumstances in which those positive qualities might have been invoked to great advantage, makes the shift in rain/water's meaning all the more compelling. While the war experience did not quite "reverse" rain/water's symbolic meaning, it did—as Yeats's "blood-dimmed tide" illustrates—signifi-cantly alter the way in which the symbol was employed. To be clear, the change rain/water imagery underwent was by no means absolute. The nature of cultural history, with its reliance on selective evidence, precludes such absolute generalizations. Still, while there may be exceptions, a broad reading of printed sources reveals a clear shift to rain/water's negative death associations. Examples of, and explanations for, the evolution of this cultural process are the subject of this essay.
Rain/water's symbolic life-giving qualities are rooted in material circumstances. Humans—indeed all living matter—need water to survive. Agriculture, which sustains most human societies, is dependent upon rainfall. The fecund associations of rain/water and life were firmly established in the Bible. Exemplifying a desert-people's need for rain, the Hebrews projected upon their God the capacity to provide water. In Isaiah 44:3, the Lord promises: "I will pour water on the thirsty land" (Oxford Bible). In the New Testament, water is assigned the sacred role of cleansing the soul in the sacrament of baptism. The Book of John records that when asked about rebirth—"how can a man be born when he is old?" (New Catholic Edition, John 3:3)—Jesus replies, "Except a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God" (John 3:5). The major exception to this pattern is the story of the Flood. Even the Flood story has a positive dimension and can be read as a cleansing of the earth, the spiritual rebirth of a decadent society. On the whole, though, it must nevertheless be viewed as one of a number of biblical examples of the rain/water symbol's destructive subcurrent.
The war generation inherited an ambivalent biblical and literary tradition which emphasized the life-giving qualities of rain/water,1 while acknowledging the symbol's potentially destructive function. The question arises, why did that same generation bequeath a pattern of imagery which identifies rain/water almost exclusively with death? A number of material conditions help account for the frequency in which rain/water and death are linked. First, Germany's introduction of submarine warfare meant that writers who sailed to the Continent actually faced the possibility of dying in water. This was a dramatic break with both America's and Britain's historic relationship to the sea. Sea barriers offered America a natural defense against invasion. In Britain, a similar relationship took on a mythic dimension. Once regarded as a buffer zone shielding Arcadian England from Continental invaders, and more positively as the domain which guardian angels had bequeathed to Britannia, the ocean was transformed into a killing zone by submarine warfare. The apex of the crisis was reached in 1917, when for several months one out of every four British merchant vessels leaving port was sunk in the sinister seas. Recalling the U-boat campaigns, Vera Brittain wrote, "We were certainly surrounded by a sea which held terrors" (311). The perils of sea travel were made abundantly clear to the British nation when Lord Kitchener drowned on 5 June 1916, after the ship on which he was traveling struck a mine. As a prominent historian notes, Kitchener "was generally regarded as the greatest British soldier still in active life: conqueror of the Sudan and of South Africa, Commander-in-Chief in India . . . ruler of Egypt" (Taylor 51). The drowning of such a national symbol made a great impression on the British public. Brittain personally recalls quite clearly the "day the news came through of Kitchener's death in the Hampshire. The words 'Kitchener Drowned' seemed more startling, more dreadful, than the tidings of Jutland" (272). She goes on to imagine what Kitchener's drowning meant to the British people: "So great had been the authority over our imagination of that half-legendary figure, that we felt as dismayed as though the ship of state itself had foundered in the raging North Sea" (272).
A second explanation lies in everyday trench life, which in most seasons was something of a wet nightmare. The Allied trenches were "dug where the water-table was the highest and the annual rainfall the most copious" (Fussell 47). Consequently, the trenches were usually wet and sometimes flooded. Surveying his surroundings, one soldier wrote, "There is a mean depth of two feet of water" (qtd. on 48). Constantly wading through the trenches, many soldiers developed circulatory problems in their feet, or as it was more commonly known, trench foot. Two of the most famous trench poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, have linked especially bad experiences with wetness. In a private letter Owen oddly recalled that "the worst incident was one wet night" (164). Sassoon is more explicit in joining "wet days" with an apocalyptic vision:
On wet days, the trees a mile away were like ash-grey smoke rising from the naked ridges, and it felt very much as if we were at the end of the world. And so we were: for that enemy world . . . had no relation to the landscape of life. (qtd. in Fussell 136)
The wetness endemic to trench life found an almost literal representation in the language used to describe modern industrial warfare. Chlorine gas attacked the lungs, and thereby drowned soldiers in their own blood. Likewise, during an artillery barrage, shells came down with such concentration as to resemble a violent thunderstorm. Owen: "Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained upon us as we advanced in the open" (164). Advancing in the darkness, the speaker of Isaac Rosenberg's "Returning, We Hear the Larks" realizes that "Death could drop from the dark," much like a raindrop (Silkin 120). The figurative wetness of modern industrial warfare no doubt combined with the literal wetness of the trenches to leave many macabre memories on soldiers' minds. This sort of "memory" was Eliot's nightmare as an April shower unearths the recently buried war dead in "The Waste Land."
A third explanation for the motif lies in the unfortunate relationship which developed between Allied offensives and the weather. Many offensives were foiled by storms. Vera Brittain wrote of the terrific gales and whipping rains of the late autumn, which turned the shell-gashed flats of Flanders into an ocean of marshy mud that made death by drowning almost as difficult to avoid as death from gun-fire. . . . (390)
In several cases, just as Allied soldiers were going "over the top," it began to rain. The rains of death spawned rumors on the British side that "the Germans . . . could make it rain when they wanted it to" (Fussell 48). Indeed, at the "Battle" of Passchendaele, it seemed as if the Germans had willed the rain. The six weeks preceding the offensive had been "magnificent summer weather." The weather held for the first day of the assault, but during the crucial first night a storm struck. A British officer recalled:
That evening heavy and persistent rain fell. It was heartbreaking. The ground absorbed the wet like a sponge but kept it close to the surface. . . . Grim it was indeed. . . . Several men were drowned in the water or smothered in the mud. . . . Those who saw it will never forget that battlefield in the wet: as far as the eye could see a vision of brown mud and water . . . . (Falls 300-04)
Aided by the rains in repelling Allied offensives, the German Army leader Crown Prince Rupperecht wrote, "Welcome rain, our strongest ally" (300-04).
These conditions help account for the spate of rain/water death associations in Great War literature. The majority of the images can be divided into two categories. The death by water/drowning image can be traced to submarine and chemical warfare, whereas the rain_death association was a product of the bleak "battlescape" of the Western Front. Being static, the front area was pounded by artillery shells for years to the point where it resembled a huge mud pit. Rainfall added to the mud and gloom, and, along with artillery shells, sometimes unearthed buried corpses. The painter Paul Nash described this unique and horrible "battle- scape" as "unspeakable, godless, hopeless." Similarly, the death by water/drowning image was a product of unique Great War conditions. Pre-Great War naval combat consisted of surface engagements and death by cannon fire, whereas submarine warfare led mostly to drowning. These unique circumstances help explain why the transition of rain/water imagery from a symbol of life to one of death took place between 1914 and 1918, rather than in a previous era of predominantly naval warfare. Finally, it should be stated that while distinct in a limited sense, rain and water images are related and complementary. The images were often coupled by authors in an attempt to convey wet death as a crucial metaphor for the way in which the Great War devastated European culture. Within the broad cluster of rain/water images there are, of course, different usages. For the most part, British authors were likely to employ the metaphor with a greater sense of urgency than their American counterparts. Since this is the case, a comparative methodology along national lines will be used to enhance the structure and clarity of the essay.
Ambrose Bierce's short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," was a key piece of national literature for American novelists concerned with both World War I and water imagery. Bierce fought in the American Civil War and later mastered a sort of shock fiction in which the protagonist's woes are compounded as irony is added to injury. In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" the protagonist, Peyton Farquhar, stands upon a railroad bridge waiting to be hanged. Miraculously, a plank in the bridge breaks; Farquhar plummets into the river and begins to swim to safety. Several times, he dives deep and then surfaces in a pattern fraught with baptismal connotations. Farther downstream, he wades out of the river and then heads homeward. As Farquhar's escape seems complete, the river appears to have been his savior. In this way Bierce neatly captures a national fixation. From Thoreau's pond to Twain's Mississippi, the American imagination has been fascinated by the promise of bodies of water. Even as disconsolate a writer as T. S. Eliot had an affection for bodies of water (Ackroyd 22). The importance of "An Occurrence" lies in the way in which it anticipates a break with this tradition. For as the story ends, there comes a "stunning blow upon the back of the neck," and "Peyton Farquhar was dead" (Bierce 17-18). By writing a detailed sketch of the imaginative flight of a man about to be executed, Bierce implies that water imagery's redemptive qualities are a sham.
The mass slaughter and trench warfare of the American Civil War was in many ways a military preview of the Great War. So too, the irony which scars Bierce's fiction anticipates that which emerged from the Great War. Unfortunately, the bloody lesson of the American Civil War was lost on Continental Europeans, the majority of whom dismissed the American experience as an aberration. As if in protest of the Europeans' failure to heed his warning, Bierce vanished while on a trip to Mexico in 1913. One year later, the world, minus Bierce, plunged into world war.
Only after the war did American writers acknowledge Bierce's warning. Significantly, both Dos Passos's and Hemingway's war novels contain false river escape scenes. In Three Soldiers, Andrews flees a labor crew by diving into the Seine, only to be recaptured in a later scene in which his final vision of a colorful flag on a riverboat serves as a sort of freedom tease. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederick Henry also escapes execution in a baptismal-like river plunge. But Frederick's redemption by water proves to be false as eventually his lover dies, and Frederick realizes this is a world in which "they killed you in the end."
A number of critics have shown that rain imagery plays a crucial role in conveying the sense of doom which is at the core of A Farewell to Arms (Cowley xvi). Passages in the novel contain phrases like "wet dead leaves" (Hemingway 163).2 and sequences such as "He looked very dead. It was raining." As Frederick falls in love with Catherine, the rain_death association becomes even more pronounced. Rather than the hope and thankfulness with which biblical authors greeted falling rains, Catherine is overcome with fear: "I'm afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it" (126).3 Her fears prove justified, but before Catherine dies, Frederick has some harrowing experiences of his own. Caught in the hectic Italian retreat from Caporetto, he yearns for Catherine, and the poem "Western Wind" comes to mind. The original medieval poem reads:
Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again! (Bain et al. 531)
This allusion concisely illustrates the way in which the positive aspects of rain imagery were lost on the war generation. In the medieval version, the speaker, who is on a boat, imagines the Western Wind bringing on a "small rain" storm. This will, he hopes, force his ship back to port and thereby reunite him with his lover. But in A Farewell to Arms it was not the small but the "big rain down that rained," and "It rained all night" (Hemingway 197). Instead of reuniting the lovers, rain in the modern version imperils. If the ship is deluged, the speaker will drown.
Similarly, in Three Soldiers, Dos Passos demonstrates the way in which earlier perceptions of water imagery were altered by the Great War experience. But rather than poetry, Dos Passos alludes to mythology. Andrews is "staring" at his reflection in a "puddle" when "Absently, as if he had no connection with all that went on about him, he heard the twang of bursting shrapnel." Steel pierces flesh as Andrews is wounded. "A feeling of relief came over him. His legs sunk in the puddle . . . from somewhere a little stream of red was creeping out slowly into the putty-colored water" (193).4 Thus in a scene which might be entitled "Narcissus Meets the Industrial Age," the novel's hero bleeds in water.
While Dos Passos revives a classical myth with wet death imagery, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in The Great Gatsby, creates a modern myth which ends in a bloody pool of water. Gatsby is mythical in that he fashions an honorable, if fictitious, upbringing from his criminal past. No one is quite sure who Gatsby really is; he is rumored to be a relative of the Kaiser's. First-person narrator Nick Carraway encounters the Gatsby figure at a party. After conversing about their shared war experience, Nick concludes: "We talked for a moment about some wet, gray little villages in France" (47). Thus, from the beginning wetness is associated with the Great War in Nick's mind. At the end Gatsby is murdered on a raft in a swimming pool: "The touch of a cluster of leaves revolved [Gatsby's corpse] slowly, tracing, like the leg of transit, a thin red circle in the water" (163). Before his son's funeral, Gatsby's father "spoke of the rain in a worried, uncertain way" (175). The cortege is led by a "horribly black and wet" hearse. The funeral service is performed in "thick drizzle" (175). During the service, Nick recalls, "Dimly I heard someone murmur 'Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on'" (176).
In the battlefield tour scene in Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald uses both rain and water images in expressing wet death as a metaphor for the Great War. As the passage shifts from rain to water imagery, it demonstrates their complementary nature and argues for their coupling under the concept of wet death imagery. Surveying a Great War battlefield, a character uses a stream for geographical orientation. "See that little stream," he states, "we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying" (55-56). As the characters leave this battlefield, "A thin warm rain was falling on the new scrubby woods and underbrush and they passed great funeral pyres of sorted duds, shells, bombs . . . abandoned six years in the ground"(57). They soon notice a "sea of graves." Then "the rain was coming down harder." Reflecting on the tour of the Great War battlefield, one character concludes, "Altogether it had been a watery day" (58).
While the American war novelists—Hemingway, Dos Passos, and Fitzgerald—employ the motif, a comparison with the British trench poets—Owen, Sassoon, and Blunden—reveals that British wet death imagery has a greater, more evocative, force. In part this is a function of medium, as poetry, more than prose, relies on compression. Yet, national explanations are plausible too. The unevenness may be explained by Britain's war experience being more traumatic than America's. While the British Expeditionary Force fought from 1914 through 1918, the A. E. F. saw only a few months of heavy fighting. The authors' personal experiences mirror their respective national ones. Hemingway and Dos Passos were non-combatant ambulance drivers. Fitzgerald posed as a member of the "front generation"(Kazin 391-92), but actually spent the war at a stateside post neglecting his soldierly responsibilities while working on his first novel. In contrast, the British trench poets fought some of the war's bloodiest battles and were mentally scarred in the worst way. Ivor Gurney "died in a mental hospital in 1937, where he had continued to write 'war poetry,' convinced that the war was still going on" (Fussell 74). Finally, while Bierce had in a sense prepared the American war novelists for the limits of watery salvation imposed by modern warfare, the British trench poets had no such forewarning. Rather the national literature with which they went to war left them defenseless. One text in particular stands out. Published in 1896, William Morris's The Well at the World's End combines chivalrous quests, wounded knights, and rejuvenating waters in a pattern similar to that which appears in Tennyson's "Morte d'Arthur." According to one scholar, the protagonist of the tale, Prince Ralph, is trying to find a magic well at the world's end, "whose waters have the power to remove the scars of battle wounds" (Fussell 136). The impact of Morris's work upon the war generation was enormous: "There was hardly a literate man who fought between 1914 and 1918 who hadn't read it and been powerfully excited by it in his youth" (135). The force, then, with which British authors employ wet death imagery can be understood as a reaction against Morris's coupling of martial virtues and restorative water imagery.
As with American prose, the British poetry of the Great War illustrates the evolution of rain water's symbolic qualities. Before the dying began en masse, poets such as Rupert Brooke exploited water's traditional cleansing qualities. In "Peace" (1914), the image of men going away to war is captured by the baptismal-like image:
Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping. (146)
A "Morrisian" use of water imagery is in Wilfred Owen's poem "From My Diary, July 1914" (written during the war). The poem is exuberant in celebrating water's positive qualities and moreover life itself: "Lives / Wakening with wonder"; "Boys / Bursting the surface of the ebony pond"; "Fleshes / Gleaming with wetness" (117). Since this vital poem is purposefully dated one month before the war began, it seems that Owen's poetic imagination was aware of the way the Great War destroyed rain/water's positive symbolic qualities. This assertion is borne out by a number of Owen's poems set after 1914 which link rain, water, and death.
One of Owen's most famous war poems, "Dulce Et Decorum Est" details a gas attack. "Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!" shouts a voice as the men scramble for their masks (55). All but one get their masks on "just in time." But the unfortunate one dies a slow death; occasion-ally "blood / Come[s] gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs." Watery imagery is used to describe the dying soldier as he is seen "as under a green sea." This indelible death scene sticks in the speaker's mind: "In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning." An even more notable evocation of the rain_death motif is in "Exposure." Here the speaker asks, "Is it that we are dying?" Almost as if to answer the question before asking it, the speaker has previously stated, "We only know war lasts, rain soaks" (48). Unfortunately for Owen, the war did last. On 4 November 1918, one week before the Armistice was signed, he was shot while assaulting a German position at Sambre Canal. In a strange convergence between literature and life, Owen died at the "water's edge" (qtd. in Blunden 178).
While in the army Owen met Siegfried Sassoon. In addition to their friendship, the soldier-poets share a common employment of the rain/water death motif. But where Owen's imagery is delicate, Sassoon's is graphic. Take for instance "The Effect": "'He'd never seen so many dead before.' / The lilting words danced up and down his brain, / While corpses jumped and capered in the rain" (War Poems 87). A crucial stanza in Sassoon's "The Death-Bed" makes a distinction between different types of rain:
Rain—he could hear it rustling through the dark;
Fragrance and passionless music woven as one;
Warm rain on drooping roses; pattering showers
That soak the woods; not the harsh rain that sweeps
Behind the thunder, but a trickling peace,
Gently and slowly washing life away. (52-53)
"We'd gained our first objective hours before" is the cheery first line of "Counter-Attack." But gaining the first "objective" was costly. A gruesome rain_death association is recorded as the speaker surveys what happened "hours before":
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began, —the jolly old rain! (105-06)
Like Owen, Edmund Blunden was befriended by Sassoon, and, as if to round out this poetic trinity, Blunden also employs the rain/water death motif. His poems are littered with lines like "its rainy tortured blood" and "Where the Yser at Dead End floated on its bloody / waters." "Third Ypres" is Blunden's most vivid portrayal of the rain_death motif. The poem sketches Blunden's experience during the British offensive of Passchendaele. As "Third Ypres" alludes to Book VIII of Herodotus's Persian Wars, Blunden suggests the continuity of the soldier's experience throughout the ages. The dramatic situations of the Greeks and the British are similar: soldiers wait and are ill-informed. Groping for information about the unseen Persian enemy, the Greeks consult the Oracle at Delphi. Musing about the fate of those who have gone before him, the speaker of "Third Ypres" asks, ". . . comes there no word / From those who swept through our new lines to flood / The lines beyond?" he speculates that his predecessors are dead. Rain confirms their deaths: "Then comes the black assurance, then the sky's / Mute misery lapses into trickling rain." A pun creates the image of a steely artillery storm as "The second night steals through the shrouding rain." As if to literally illustrate the Oracle's warning that "Neither the head, nor the body is firm in its place" (Herodotus 550), there comes this desperate bleeding message by way of a British sergeant: "For God's sake send and help us, / Here in a gunpit, all headquarters done for, / Forty or more, the nine-inch came right through, / All splashed with arms and legs." Reminiscent of the Oracle's "dark sweat horribly dripping," is this impressionistic scene, "The light comes in with icy shock and the rain / Horribly drips. Doctor, talk! talk! if dead." Much like Hemingway's, yet with more compulsion, Blunden's perception of the past is altered by the Great War experience. His allusions to an earlier age are undercut, severed, by ironical wet death images. While the Oracle warned the heroic Greeks of "a fiery destruction," trench soldiers have to deal with death by water and drowning in mud. In the muck at Passchendaele, the speaker of "Third Ypres" consults the modern God only to find that "The rain is all heaven's answer" (303-07).
The trench experience, with its watery death image, so pervaded the contemporary British consciousness that it affected persons not directly involved in combat. While ostensibly about rodents given to mass suicide in times of over-population, John Masefield's "The Lemmings" is actually displaced trench poetry. The six references to "Westward" suggest the soldier's slang phrase for death, as a dead man was said to have "gone west." Also the time reference to these mass suicides taking place "Once in a hundred years" is chronologically analogous to the one hundred years of relative peace between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. Lastly, in asserting that "the little brains of all the Lemming Kings" are responsible for the slaughter, rather than any instinctual Malthusian motive, the poem assumes a distinctly human quality. "The Lemmings" is dominated by a drowning image:
Once in a hundred years the Lemmings come
Westward, in search of food, over the snow;
Westward until the salt sea drowns them dumb;
Westward, till all are drowned, those Lemmings go.
Once, it is thought, there was a westward land
Now drowned where there was food for those starved things,
And memory of the place has burnt its brand
In the little brains of all the Lemming Kings.
Perhaps, long since, there was a land beyond
Westward from death, some city, some calm place
Where one could taste God's quiet and be fond
With the little beauty of a human face;
But now the land is drowned. Yet we still press
Westward, in search, to death, to nothingness. (216)
In summary, it has been shown that wet death imagery cuts across national boundaries yet was employed with greater force by British authors. In contrast to British troops, many of whom endured the war for over four years, members of the American Expeditionary Force had a sense of missing the "real" war. Perhaps taking President Wilson's claim that the U.S. was a "disinterested" Associate Power a bit literally, some American soldiers had a curious feeling of being observers rather than participants in the war. As Malcolm Cowley noted, even American combatants "retained their curious attitude of non-participation, of being friendly visitors who though they might be killed at any moment still had no share in what was taking place" (qtd. in Carpenter 119). Potentially with both their individual and national survival at stake, British trench poets were very much participants in the war, and thus inclined to use wet death imagery with greater force than their American counterparts. Fitzgerald is emblematic of this as he borrowed one of his most evocative wet death images from the British trench poet Edward Thomas.5 In addition to national lines, the motif also cuts across literary styles. Thus, the writings of an essentially traditional writer like Sassoon (Bergonzi 92) and an early modernist like Hemingway exhibit the motif. I have suggested that part of the explanation of the evolution of rain/water symbolism lies in material circumstances, such as submarine warfare, trench conditions, and untimely storms. Yet material conditions are not sufficient to account for the wet death motif. For a fuller explanation it is helpful to recall that irony was a major literary trend arising from the war (Fussell).6 As Frederick Manning wrote on the ironic nature of wartime memory, "The mind, so delicately sensitive to the least vibration from the outer world, no longer recorded it in the memory, unless it had some special relevance" (22). The suggestion is that the shock which the writers felt when they expected to see life-giving rain/water and instead saw rain, water, and death, led to an ironic imprint. Especially ironic is the way Christianity revered rain water's life-giving qualities. For a spiritual explanation of the image, it should be pointed out that several of the authors link Christianity to wet death. Edmund Blunden wrote "The rain is all heaven's answer" (303-07), while Eliot, who suffered a bout of atheism while writing "The Waste Land," signals that the loss of faith in rain/water's life-giving qualities is related to a loss of faith in God. This sequence of imagery, in which an inability to find God is followed by a warning about water, is revealing: "I do not find / the Hanged Man. Fear death by water" (31).7
This spiritual interpretation is particularly useful in explaining those authors who most deliberately exploit, and seem almost obsessed with, rain/water and death imagery. In the cases of Hemingway and Sassoon, linking rain, water, and death in the heat of composition may have been a way of working off religious frustration. In calculated defiance of the Christian God, Hemingway wrote "All thinking men are atheists" (8). Hemingway's use of the prayer image, death, and water are undeniably entwined in the following:
They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against a wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees. (qtd. in Wilson 120)
While at the front Sassoon was tortured by a need for religion and the simultaneous realization that institutionalized Christianity was not fulfilling that need. Regarding the inadequacy of Christian dogma for front line soldiers, Sassoon observed, "I never could find anyone who really got any value out of the Christian theology out there." An unpublished poem in Sassoon's diary, "Via Crucis," explicitly links rain, death, and God:
'Mud and rain and wretchedness and blood'.
Why should jolly soldier-boys complain?
God made these before the roofless Flood—
Mud and rain.
Mangling crumps and bullets through the brain,
Jesus never guessed them when He died.
Jesus had a purpose for His pain,
Ay, like abject beasts we shed our blood,
Often asking if we die in vain.
Gloom conceals us in a soaking sack—
Mud and rain. (Diaries 102)
The war experience mocked biblical tradition. In response, Robert Graves lashed out, rather than submit to the tyranny of an unusable past, in his poem entitled "After the Flood." Exemplifying the spiritual reaction so crucial to understanding the wet death motif, Graves's title refers to the war as a "Flood" as it harks back to the Bible. After having flooded the earth, God created a rainbow to seal his promise that "I will recall the Covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy . . . " (New American Bible, Genesis 9:9). Several thousand years later, Graves recalls this passage from Genesis with brutal irony:
God's rainbow is a glorious toy,
His wine a cheerful drink,
And since He chooses to destroy
Folk better dead, we wish Him joy,
While choking at the stink. (213-14)
After the war, Western civilization was gripped by what might be termed an ideology of despair. It can be seen, then, that wet death imagery became a crucial metaphor for expressing some of the particular horrors encountered in the Great War "battlescape." Through identifying and interpreting the way in which the Great War affected rain/water's symbolic qualities, a more complete understanding of how the war generation made sense of its experience and, concomitantly, a fuller knowledge of the war's impact upon Anglo-American thought is achieved. From a methodological perspective, the wet death motif offers a path to the too seldom traversed intersection where literature meets history. At one level the motif exemplifies the way in which historical events impact upon literary symbols. Virginia Woolf's watery suicide can be viewed as an affirmation, or literal enactment, of the cultural consensus on rain/water's symbolic value which emerged from the Great War. Indeed, a case can be made that death by water is the writer's death of the Twentieth Century: Hart Crane, John Berryman, Paul Celan (Kelly). But the relationship between literature and history is a reciprocal one. Eliot's poetry is a fine example of this reciprocity. April 1917 was a very "cruel" month for the Allies. Huge losses to U-boats were accompanied by a mutiny in the French Army and horrendous casualties in the air, which earned the month the grim name of "Bloody April." The opening line of "The Waste Land" may be rooted in this historical experience. Yet, when it is recalled that the final wet death image in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was written three years before the war in 1911, it seems that Eliot's literature anticipates history:
We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown. (3)
The historiography of the war also illustrates the convergence of the disciplines. While documenting the war many historians have recorded the motif and thereby invested their narratives with fuller meaning. To cite one example, a recent work, Modern Times, mentions that "the calamitous battle of Passchendaele ended in a sea of blood and mud" (Johnson 169). In this way, the wet death motif illuminates how even the most scrupulously objective historical scholarship can be "factionalized." Recognizing this leads to a better understanding of the interdependence of present and past. For, in discovering the motif either in literary or historical sources, we resuscitate our past and come to realize why the modern memory is, in some ways, still haunted by the Great War's image of mucky, wet death.
1While a detailed survey of pre-war usages of rain/water imagery is beyond the scope of this essay, a few examples may, nevertheless, be helpful. A soft pastoral British rain is evoked in the opening line of the "General Prologue" to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which reads, "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote." Writing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, William Blake emphasized rain/water's life-giving qualities in his poem entitled "Milton": "To cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination. / To bathe in the Waters of life; to wash off the Not Human." Wordsworth echoed biblical sentiments when he wrote "From Heaven a general blessing; timely rains." After the killing of the Albatross in Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the sailors suffer from a lack of drinking water: "Water, water, every where, / Nor any drop to drink." Eventually, regenerative rains fall and contribute to what Maud Bodkin has termed the "Rebirth Archetype" in "The Ancient Mariner."
2Hemingway's naming his protagonist Frederick Henry sounds like an ironical "hybridization" of Stephen Crane's heroic Henry Fleming. The protagonist in Hemingway's posthumously published The Garden of Eden is most likely a tribute to Frederic Manning's stoical hero, Bourne, in The Middle Parts of Fortune.
3One wonders what Catherine would have had to say about acid rain.
4Another wet death scene involves Chrisfield, who, since the novel's start, has had an abrasive relationship with his superior, Lieutenant Anderson. In France, both Chrisfield and Anderson are separated from their units. They meet. Alone and wounded, Anderson does not immediately recognize Chrisfield: "Give me some water, buddy," he asks. Chrisfield complies. Anderson "drank greedily, spilling the water over his chin and his wounded arm." Chrisfield walks away and then hurls a grenade, which kills the wet lieutenant. "A thick rain of yellow leaves came down" is employed to describe the aftermath of the explosion. As if to dramatically emphasize the rain_death link, "A few drops of rain were falling," and then "The rain beat hard."
5The "Blessed are the dead" line resembles line seven of Edward Thomas's "Rain": "Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon."
6A precise page notation is not needed since the irony argument is at the core of the book.
7Eliot, of course, also associates dryness with death in "The Waste Land."
NOTE: The author would like to thank Michael Adas, Scott Cook, Paul Fussell, Lord Gardner, and Nella Navarro for their encouragement and criticism in writing this essay.
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