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How to write the Great War?

Comment écrire la Grande Guerre ?

Francophone and Anglophone poetics throug the war and its aftermath

Poétiques francophones et anglophones

*  *  *

Published on Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Colloque international bilingue organisé conjointement par la Maison Française d'Oxford et Madgalen College. L'objet de cet événement sera d'interroger à travers des perspectives littéraires, historiques, stylistiques et linguistiques les littératures de témoignage anglophones et francophones de la Grande Guerre, en questionnant les moyens que mobilisèrent les écrivains pour répondre aux bouleversements occasionnés par le conflit. Une attention particulière sera accordée aux évolutions de la langue, des genres ou encore du personnel romanesque, mais aussi à leurs permanences respectives, tout aussi instructives dans l'optique d'une saisie des enjeux éthiques, esthétiques et politiques de la période.


« Je veux n’oublier rien, et tout mettre en place. »,
Alain, « Des souvenirs », Mars ou La Guerre jugée.
« But now I've said good-bye to Galahad,
And am no more the knight of dreams and show:
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,
And my killed friends are with me where I go.
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs. », 
Siegfried Sassoon, « The poet as hero ». 


The period after the First World War was mainly an era of silence for the survivors of the trench warfare. But many of them still tried to bring aesthetic, political and ethical responses to this trauma, which the literary language of the pre-war period was not able to express in a convincing way. Novels, poems and autobiographical texts multiplied and achieved considerable success from the beginning of the conflict to the end of the 1920s. These works fulfilled a public interest, allowing people to gain access to parts of the witnesses’ experiences that the press was unable to provide. This conference will question the different textual forms taken by those answers to the trauma in terms of generic, stylistic and narrative patterns. The perspective will be a comparative one, between the Francophone and Anglophone literary fields, which are very different and yet complementary because they share a common experience of the horror and uprooting caused by the war.

By confronting textual responses to the question of how to write the war, we aim to rediscover the political and ethical issues crucial to our corpus. The reflection will start with some literary aspects that have been largely neglected in the main critical literature: style and genre. We want to encourage a discussion between the Francophone and Anglophone domains, based on analysis of the individual texts and also on wider cross-sections of the field. Our approach will be broadly in the tradition of poetics rather than thematic or qualitative study.

Main themes

We propose three main lines of investigation: 

1: Poetry of the Great War, famous or forgotten 

In England, some of the major poems of the Great War belong to the canon, whereas France has largely forgotten its poets from 1914-1918, with the exception of Apollinaire and his Calligrammes. However, this period produced plenty of poetry and gave short-lived fame to many writers, such as Henri-Jacques, while also launching better-known poets such as Aragon or Cocteau. Can we attribute the French loss of interest in its poetical production to a lack of innovative perspectives amongst its war poets? How can we bring together the prose poems of Drieu la Rochelle (Interrogation), the poetic stories of Cendrars (J’ai tué) and those of Giraudoux (Lectures pour une ombre) in order to reclaim a proper place in literary history for the poetry of 1914-1918? Have the poems of this period been forgotten because they were perceived as being less realistic and therefore far from the soldiers’ experience? Breaking with the idealist vision of war (Rupert Brooke), how did poets such as Owen or Sassoon choose to describe the Great War in a different style? How can we find a single perspective to bring together the work of novelist-poets as different as Drieu, Sassoon, or the lesser known Australian, Manning? By using the war as a source of inspiration, did poetry in fact open up new avenues for literary language?

2: Novel and testimony: aesthetics

In this part, we will question the role of aesthetics in novels and testimonies that describe the realities of the War. By studying their style and structure, we will compare the national and genre-related specificities of those literatures, especially what they inherit from the past and what they bring that is new. To what extent do they still echo the realist and naturalist traditions? Is “neutral” writing a specific feature of testimonies? Are previous literary movements crucial to understanding the abundance of novels and testimonies after the War? We will also study the new techniques used in War literature, such as the inclusion of popular speech. What common issues can we find in Le Feu by Barbusse and The Middle Parts of Fortune by Manning – which in its later version, Her Privates We, had all the slang removed? What aesthetic is being put forward in the famous book by the French-American critic Jean Norton Cru, Témoins, which deals with the literature of the trenches from an ethical point of view? To what extent do the aesthetics of fiction create a distance from reality? How does the architecture of novels and testimonies reflect the loss of meaning that characterises the conflict?

3: Fictional characters: ethics

The generalisation of trench warfare and modern weapons in the Great War (gas, aeroplanes, grenades, shrapnel…) dramatically changed the representation of war from what it had been in the 19th century. While former conflicts highlighted individual courage and heroism, this unprecedented kind of war gave birth to new literary representations. Due to the new lower status of soldiers on the battlefield, the individual fictional character could no longer be central to the narrative. We will study the impact of the experience of war in the evolution of the characters in novels. While we can observe the decline of the war hero, some characters still represent heroic values, especially in nationalistic writings. Some texts tried to compensate for the disappearance of the hero by focusing on groups, others on comic characters. We will analyse the political and aesthetic issues raised by this consecration of the lower-class character. What are the ethical issues implied by first person narratives in this respect? Many writers involved in the war found it hard to write about farmers, workers and people from their own higher-class backgrounds in the same breath, although the conflict brought them close.

Submission guidelines

Presentations should not be more than 25 minutes long. The prospective presenters must write a 500-word abstract along with a short resume, complete contact details and the academic institution to which they belong. The submissions should be emailed to nicolas.bianchi (at) ens-lyon.fr 

before 10 February 2015.

PhD students and young doctors are particularly encouraged to submit a presentation. Prospective presenters will receive an answer from the academic committee at the end of February.

Academic committee 

  • Nicolas Bianchi (ENS Lyon, Maison Française d’Oxford)
  • Toby Garfitt (Magdalen College, University of Oxford)
  • Philippe Roussin (CNRS-EHESS, Maison Française d’Oxford)
  • Anne Simonin (CNRS, directrice de la Maison Française d’Oxford)
  • Hew Strachan (All Souls College, University of Oxford)


  • Oxford, Britain


  • Tuesday, February 10, 2015


  • Grande Guerre, France, Royaume-Uni, poétique, écrire, 1914-1918, première guerre mondiale, Oxford


  • Nicolas Bianchi
    courriel : nicolas [dot] bianchi [at] univ-amu [dot] fr

Information source

  • Nicolas Bianchi
    courriel : nicolas [dot] bianchi [at] univ-amu [dot] fr


CC0-1.0 This announcement is licensed under the terms of Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal.

To cite this announcement

« How to write the Great War? », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Tuesday, January 20, 2015, https://calenda.org/315163

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