Professor of Languages and Literature John McGuigan presented To Do and Die: World War I Poetry and the End of Victorian Progress Oct. 9, as part of the lecture series Reflections on the Great War, which runs through November at Fairhaven Senior Services.
McGuigan’s lecture focused on the way The Great War, as it was known at the time, dispelled humanity of the romantic notions of war held in the Victorian Era, as poets and artists who witnessed the war portrayed a pointless brutal slaughter. Many of the poets McGuigan referenced specifically criticized the propaganda and romanticism used to recruit by contrasting it with real experience.
“We can really say that in many ways this was the beginning of the rise of anti-war art,” McGuigan said.
The new technological advances used in the war created a disaster unprecedented in human history to that point. In one battle, the battle of the Somme, McGuigan pointed out 20,000 people were killed in the first day, and 1.2 million were killed by the end.
The new firepower also forced soldiers to live in muddy trenches, which is hard to romanticize, McGuigan said.
One of the most enduring trends that began in the war was soldiers portraying those on the enemy line as more sympathetic than their own leaders.
In many works of art from the time such as “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, a German conscript in the war, soldiers see they have more in common with the poor people they are fighting than with the rulers they are fighting for.
All of these artistic trends undercut prevailing notions of war as honorable and noble, and their cultural effect has lasted to the present.
In America, McGuigan said that romantic notions of war in art are more common than elsewhere, but the anti-war trend in art is still present.
“I definitely think you have both of those currents here simultaneously,” McGuigan said, “in a single movie you might see war portrayed in different ways.”
The lecture was part of the Fairhaven Lecture Series: Reflections on the Great War, which began on Sept. 18 and ends on Nov. 27.
Outreach Program Manager at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater Office of Continuing Education Kari Borne, said the lecture series was chosen to commemorate the war which was fought 100 years ago.
“We schedule 10 to 12 lectures in a given series on a chosen theme, so we thought we would take that opportunity focus on this historic event,” Borne said.
The Fairhaven Lecture Series is held on Monday at 3 pm in the Fellowship Hall of Fairhaven Senior Services, and all lectures are free and open to the public.