Saturday, August 14, 2010

Inventing the (Peace Literature) Tradition: A Review of Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace (2008) by R.S. White

Inventing the (Peace Literature) Tradition:
A Review of Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace (2008) by R.S. White
(first published in Australian Literary Studies journal)
by Philip Metres

Some twenty years ago, Cary Nelson’s pivotal Repression and Recovery: Modern American Poetry & the Politics of Cultural Memory (1989) invited us to re-examine the lost paths of our literature by setting canonical figures and texts into social contexts, and by reintroducing lost or minor figures and texts back into our literary conversation. Since, to paraphrase Nelson, history is a palimpsest between the past and the contemporary, rediscovering lost pasts can be a way to re-envision the future. R.S. White’s Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace executes such a Nelsonian turn in its polemical exploration of the history of English literature through a pacifist lens, seeking out moments when the literature mirrors back a pacifist vision. White asserts, in his introduction, to “make no claim that there is a coherent and sustained tradition or ‘school’ of pacifist literature” (1), but the book reads as a genealogy of a pacifist literature if one were possible.

Pacifist literature, for White, is not quite a tradition—which would suggest a vital, sustained conversation in literature handed over from generation to generation—but rather a tendency, a motif woven in the fabric of literature as we know it. Given the immense breadth and complexity—not to mention the violence—in English literature, such a claim is probably a realistic one. There is indeed a paucity of studies of literature from a pacifist or peace-centered point of view; White asserts that “no book has taken as its scope the whole subject [poetry as an education into pacifism], even within a national body of work, such as English literature” (2), though there have been studies of anti-war literature and of peace literature within specific periods.

Though White’s book is an essential corrective—and indeed a worthy study that can reinvigorate and recast our sense of the literary past and the actual future—his point is not quite correct. Michael True’s important study, An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (1995), does precisely for American literature what White does for English literature, except that he makes the broader claim that a nonviolent tradition already exists. I don’t want my quibble to be interpreted as the schoolmarm’s finger-waggle at a missed source; rather, it speaks precisely to White’s basic point—as pacifist scholars, activists, and artists, we confront a great isolation, and we struggle to make a history out of such disparate events, to continue a conversation with those separated by time and continents. To echo poet William Stafford’s words, pacifism is so often “a footnote in the big histories.” Pacifism and nonviolence has relied on enduring faith-based institutions through much of their history (in particular, for England and the U.S., on the so-called Historic Peace Churches—the Friends, the Mennonites, and the Brethren), and only more recently on secular and academic institutions. It is perhaps only now possible that literature and other modes of artistic production can begin to crystallize into the vibrant and vital conversation that approximates a pacifist or non-violent tradition.

In this conversation, White’s Pacifism and English Literature promises to be a touchstone. The exploration of literature, for White, is nothing short of a cultural intervention in our national and global discussions about war—such an intervention, indeed, is something like how families “intervene” when a family member needs to be confronted about their addictions. In White’s words:

Since war has been a permanent and continuing reality throughout human history, peace an ephemeral or fragile state, the vicious circle can be broken only by stepping outside the sense of binary alternatives and imagining a peaceful world remote from immediate conflicts, where the very sources of conflict have been eliminated—and literature sometimes offers such an option. To create a better world, we must first envisage one, and this takes the kind of profound conceptual shift that only the imagination, buttressing reason, can offer. (4).

Beginning with a consideration of the role of literature in peace studies, and a brief examination of the origins of pacifism in both sacred and secular texts (with a particular emphasis on natural law as a source of thinking about justice and injustice, war and peace), White provides nothing short of a period-by-period exploration of pacifism as it emerges in the literature, in chapters titled “Medieval Pacifism,” “Renaissance Pacifism,” “Pacifist Voices in Shakespeare,” “Romantic Peace and War,” “Pacifism in Prose and Films,” and “A Plague on Both Your Houses: War from the Air, the Civilian Dead and Modern Poetry.” The strength of White’s study, clearly, is its breadth and scope, a bird’s eye survey of the entire literature—offering moments where he alights upon a forgotten text such as the “first English pacifist poet” John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (c. 1390), or a canonical text such as Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” in which he makes a stunning argument that the text dramatizes its titular soldier-character as a sort of “war machine,” and that the play is “a prophetic warning against the military machine itself” (158).

In White’s narrative, it is the 1380s when “peace becomes an over subject for poetry in English” (85), and when the very idea of peace as a normative social state, rather than a period between wars, emerges. Thanks to John Gower and John Lydgate, and Chaucer’s satiric deconstruction of the chivalric codes in “The Tale of Melibee,” early signs of a pacifist literature in English propose a weariness of conflict—its excessive waste of blood and treasure, its contradiction to Christian scripture, its loss of human possibility. White does not speculate to what degree such pacifist literary articulations were the discourse of a select few, or represented unheard voices. Yet already two centuries before, in Europe, as documented by Ronald G. Musto in The Catholic Peace Tradition, the Peace of God movement had gathered many thousands in its ranks, since the peace council in Limoges in 1031, and in 1233, 400,000 reportedly gathered at the Plain of Pasquara. New scholarship investigating the existence of nascent peace movement in English is needed.

White thus renovates such dismissed or forgotten figures such as Gower, John Colet (16th century), Samuel Daniel (16th century), Leigh Hunt (18th century), Christian Gray (19th century), and New Zealander Archibald Baxter (20th century), placing them alongside canonical English heavyweights such as Chaucer, Erasmus, More, Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Herbert, Swift, Shelley and Blake—in whose works pacifism glimmers amid the violence-darkened portraits of human life. Truly, then, a survey-ready recovery project, Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace invites easy application for an introductory course on “Pacifism and English Literature,” as well as sets the stage for future research on the interactions between literature and the peace movement.

The book is not without its limits, however. In taking the survey approach, White often admittedly forgoes the nuance and texture embedded in and definitive of “the literary,” when he plucks speeches and quotes from texts without contextualizing how the text works, or from what social contexts this text emerges. Literature is literature precisely because it is irreducible to social statements or polemics. Relatedly, because White focuses principally on statements on peace, the larger question of what peace might look like (and whether the literature itself might dramatize or model what a peaceful society might look like) goes unanswered. As we must move beyond defining pacifism as the absence of war, we must seek how peace actually happens, and how representations within literature might model the intricate operations of a peaceful social sphere.

Finally, while White’s study is strongest in the earliest literary examples of pacifism, it gets less focused as it moves toward the modern period—indeed, as it moves closer to the very moments, in modern literature beginning with the Soldier Poets of World War I, when a pacifist literature becomes most visible and recognizable. Perhaps White’s gamble is that, as he notes early on in the book, that much has been written about the poets of the Great War, and there is little need to do so, but in a book with such a broad scope, the 20th century could have been given greater attention. As I have shown in Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront (2007), essential figures such as Robert Lowell, William Stafford, and June Jordan have gone far to articulate and dramatize what peace might look like. What the work of R.S. White, Michael True, and others have begun to produce promises to instantiate what might become something like a peace tradition in literature. In the words of peace poet Naomi Shihab Nye, in a poem called “Jerusalem”: “it’s late but everything comes next.”

--Philip Metres is a poet and scholar at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio. His recent works include To See the Earth (poems, 2008), Come Together: Imagine Peace (an anthology of peace poems, 2008), and Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront, since 1941 (scholarship, 2007).


Italica Press said...

Thanks for the reference to my Catholic Peace Tradition: for this and much more material, please now see my Peacedocs website at:

-Ron Musto

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Ron, and for your work. I found CATHOLIC PEACE TRADITION to be an illuminating and important book for my own research and thinking.