In The Long Weekend, how does Robert Graves describe the effects of the war on Britain, on the aristocracy, on the British literati and on the culture of Britain?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Soldier Poet Siegfried Sassoon, 1917:
"Finished With War: A Soldier's Declaration"
I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. ... the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

In his discussion of his perception of the years between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II, a period he calls The Long Weekend, Robert Graves sets out his observations of the changes that swept over Britain as a result of World War I, itemizing many of the affects of that war on Britain's government, on Britain's aristocracy, on Britain's literati and on Britain's culture.

Britain's Government

Graves charges that the "British Government was criminally stupid." He charges that deep distrust of the government developed during the course of the war in part because of the propaganda issued by the government and the military, propaganda that the Fighting Forces, those risking life and limb in the trenches recognized as false since it contradicted experience. The Fighting Forces developed a deep "disgust" for the "'muddle-through' politicians" who were responsible for the false propaganda unleashed on the unsuspecting British citizens. Open hostility toward government erupted in feelings that if the heads of state of the warring governments were forced into trenches, forced to stare right into each others eyes and "forced to throw bombs at each other" then "peace would be signed in three minutes." On the eve of the war, Britains trusted in their government and believed in the worthiness of their call to arms, trusting that what they were being told and what they were being asked to do were true and virtuous and needed in the cause of freedom and liberty.

Britain's Aristocracy

In Graves perception, as a result of the war, Britain became divided into two Britains. Gone were the divisions of society based upon the ruled over classes and the ruling classes: the powerless and the powerful. A new division came into place. That division was based on those who fought and won their worthiness by valor and courage. The two classes in Britain, as an affect of the war, came to be the fighters and the others:

quote: "the two Britains were: the Fighting Forces [literally those who fought], ...and the Rest, including the Government."

The aristocracy had lost its privileged separateness, its sanctioned aloofness. It to be that a good military record counted socially with the aristocracy as much as good birth did and that marriages between the aristocracy and the merchant or laboring classes, once forbidden, were now a socially acceptable possibility if the man had a good military record.

Britain's Literati

The literati is a country's literary intelligentsia, the brilliant literary minds contributing to a society's culture.

As an affect of the war, soldier poets emerged. The first was Rupert Brooke, who was followed by Charles Sorley. Both were killed in the war, Sorely only five months after Brooke. Siegfried Sassoon, a close friend of Graves', was one of the more prominent of the soldier poets. Edward Mash collected an anthology of these soldier poets in volumes called Georgian poetry.

A new literary monthly journal also emerged called Mercury and edited by J. C. Squire. Aside from young new soldier and war writers, the Mercury had a cadre of the old guard in writers like Thomas Hardy, William Butler Yeats and Rudyard Kipling who deliberated on the eternal problems of literary art. The Mercury was followed, after its closing, by journals dedicated to avant garde and "Literary Bolshie" poets and writers with a focus on experimentalism, Franco-American Imagism and free verse. These poets were represented by such names as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis.

Britain's Culture

One of the most dramatic affects of the war was on the cultural perception of women. It seems everything about the cultural perception of women changed. Skirt hems were raised and clothes became less elaborate because wool and cotton materials were needed for the soldiers' uniforms.

textile companies worked to reduce the wool and cotton contents on their materials in order to serve the war effort best. Smaller portions of wool combined with various other materials created new fabric types (Elizabeth Barron, "Rationing Wartime Fashion")

Slacks for women were introduced because women were manning industrial war production. Soldiers were nursed by women overseas, and ambulance trucks were driven by women. Women left domestic service, changing the servant structure in Britain for good, because of the high pay offered to work in gas mask or munitions factories. Women's suffrage advocates turned their energies to the war effort. All classes of women, whether married or single, took jobs of the same kind and in the same places to contribute to the war-required labor force.

With the new cultural contempt held by Fighting Forces for able, fit young men who avoided fighting, who "escaped ... front-line service," a new "other" was created in society: the lowest class became men who could have but for some reason did not fight. This included men who were technicians in war-critical industries and Anglican ministers. The Fighting Forces had been the victims of these ministers self-serving adherence to orders to stay away from the fighting while Catholic priests defied the same orders and braved the trenches with the men in order to give succor and burial rites to the dead and dying.

This contempt for Anglican ministers opened a new distaste for religion in Britain, which created a cultural conflict because those remaining at home were bolstering their moral and spiritual characters and virtues with new emphases on discipline and proving one's worthiness and on virtuous qualities such as humility, endeavor, thrift and prudence. As Graves put it, while women were "emancipated," "God as an all-wise Providence was dead; blind Chance succeeded to the Throne."

BBC Interview with Robert Graves' Son

Sources:

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