The War Song Of Dinas Vawr Analysis Essay

What Was in People’s Minds?

By Eli Siegel

In American history there are two very visible, obvious, tremendous requests for a declaration of war. The first and clearest is Woodrow Wilson, April 2, 1917, talking to a joint session of Congress, representatives and senators. The other is Franklin Delano Roosevelt in December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor. In both instances, it was clear that America was going to be in a war. Other wars—well, they weren’t declared as clearly.

No official declaration of war with George III. He wouldn’t have understood it anyway. The War of 1812 is somewhat clearer; there is a declaration, but we don’t have the full formality. It’s called “Mr. Madison’s War.” There is something like a confused declaration of the war with Mexico. With the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln called for volunteers. The Indians never got a declaration of war: they weren’t seen as important enough; I think they still resent it. Something like a declaration of war occurred in 1898, but it was very confused: was it Cuba or Spain that was doing all this? The great declaration of war occurred in 1917—and another in 1941. I’ll read Woodrow Wilson’s first paragraph:

Gentlemen of the Congress. I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made, and made immediately, which it was neither right nor constitutionally permissible that I should assume the responsibility of making.

This means that Mr. Wilson felt Congress should declare war, not himself. And he was quite right. He understood the Constitution, which is more than some later presidents did. Mr. Wilson went through all the right procedures, while I can mention a few presidents who did nothing of the kind.

Mr. Wilson’s prose still has a quality. You can be quite sure he wrote this himself. He is a literary person. He wrote on Burke. He wrote on Bagehot. He wrote an essay called “Mere Literature.” He wrote a history of the United States. He wrote on congressional government. He wrote on “The New Freedom,” which is so new it hasn’t occurred yet. But it’s one of the important documents of American history.

“I have called the Congress into extraordinary session because there are serious, very serious, choices of policy to be made.” They were very serious. The event that has stood out in people’s minds is the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915—May 7th. And there was something less known now: the sinking of the Sussex in 1916. Then, in February 1917, Imperial Germany said it was going to resume submarine warfare and gave reasons. It said, The blockade of Germany has not stopped and it is an inhumanity toward the German people. England ruled the seas, but it didn’t rule what was under the seas: that is, it didn’t have more submarine power than Germany.

This resumption of submarine warfare annoyed Americans a good deal. They wanted to be able to go to England without suddenly having a submarine rise at them. Then, there was commerce. That should be remembered, because the cause of America’s entering the war was given very often as the need of J.P. Morgan to collect the debts owed to him by England.

The first sentence of the address is important. And it’s a well made sentence, and definitely shows that Woodrow Wilson deserved to be president of Princeton. He was literate. I’ll come back to his statement, but I now go to some other paragraphs on the same subject.

Freud, War, & Evasiveness

It seems that in 1915 Sigmund Freud felt there was something going on in man other than the desire for expression in sex. I’m reading from a sourcebook published by Columbia University Press, Man in Contemporary Society. Freud is here, writing in 1915 about the war, and he does not relate what he is saying to the things he said earlier. I’ll read first the head note given by the editors, who are “the Contemporary Civilization Staff of Columbia College”:

…During the first two decades of his work in psychology, Freud established the essential directions for the theory and practice of psychoanalysis. However, he continued to widen the scope of his theoretical evaluations.... This evolution of ideas is evident in his essay “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” (1915), which comprises the following selection....[ A] motif to be found in [it,] which was further articulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922), Ego and Id (1923), and the Problem of Anxiety (1936), explores the... struggle between the forces of life and death.

Sometimes contempt takes the form of protecting something unjustly. It happens that Sigmund Freud, as he wrote this in 1915, could have been aware that he was saying something different from what he had said in earlier works, including the work on dreams, and Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and in many papers. There is a great difference between saying that man, unless he has a sex life that can be praised, cultivates neurosis—which Freud said before this—and what is said in this particular paper.

If man can find himself killing other people, there must be something pretty strong impelling him. People didn’t go to the trenches in order to add to their sex life. Sometimes that did happen: there’s a strange story by a Croatian writer who tells of a rat being caught in the trenches and used for illicit purposes. I won’t read the story—don’t worry. Occasionally there was a celebration: that can be seen in the most famous play of the First World War, Journey’s End, by R.C. Sherriff.

But I think the editors here are much too easy on Freud. As soon as Freud dealt with his death principle in any way, the question of its consistency with what was earlier said should have been asked about. Freud had a contempt for truth in not asking about it himself.

What Is the Essential Thing?

“Freud established the essential directions for the theory and practice of psychoanalysis.” It is quite clear that Freud made the essential thing in man his attitude to sex and his procedures about it. This can be covered up. You can be weasely about it. You can say, “We meant more by the word libido. We meant even the excitement of a baseball game,” and that kind of thing. But the fact remains that in the early work of Freud, as later was maintained by Reich, sex and its fullness or paucity or mishaps or deviations was the large thing.

It does seem that if man goes to war, that is not the cause. It’s true that often a soldier was able to be more lewd than he had been at home. Still, the first reason for his being at war was not to conquer Babylonian girls or Athenian girls. And no one said that Bethmann-Hollweg fought Viscount Grey because of hidden sexual desires.

“However, [Freud] continued to widen the scope of his theoretical evaluations.” The chief thing that he got to was the desire for death, the death instinct.

“This evolution of ideas is evident in his essay ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915),... [which] reveals Freud’s abiding concern for the travails of contemporary civilization.” This is a use of weasel words. Freud, up until the war, did not write about economics and what was happening to people generally. He didn’t want to see that now he was saying something different.

His Problem of Anxiety, of 1936, is mentioned. Freud changed about anxiety. The anxiety neurosis was usually ascribed by him to some inability to express something sexual.

I have to say this head note is cowardly. It hasn’t been asked why Freud took another track, and what that means.

Another bad to terrible idea* from Wuthering Expectations:  a week or so writing about Thomas Love Peacock, friend of Percy Shelley, author of satirical novels, poems, and whatsits.  Not a forgotten author – I have evidence to the contrary – but one who is sliding in that direction.  I read three of his novels recently, Nightmare Abbey (1818), Crotchet Castle (1831), and Gryll Grange (1860) and enjoyed them all quite a lot, but I have some doubts about the, what shall I call it, universality of their appeal.

Fortunately, I can point to a brief exception, a well-prepared, clove-encrusted taste of Peacock, his 1829 poem “The War Song of Dinas Vawr”:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

“The War Song” continues for four more stanzas; Peacock wisely wrote short.  In some sense, the poem is topically satirical, parodying the crude but sanitized blood-thirstiness of the flood of fake Border ballads and “historical” poems inspired by the success of Walter Scott and Thomas Moore and so on.  Peacock’s satire has outlived the poems it mocks, and I hope the reason is clear enough.  Contemporary writers and readers have switched to prose, but we have plenty of equivalents.

Anna Saikin, a PhD student specializing in British Romanticism, has kindly posted her Comprehensive Exam reading list.  Among a long list of books and I have read and books I hope I never read, Peacock is present, not under Fiction or Poetry, but rather as the author of “The Four Ages of Poetry” (1820), another sly piece of mockery, this time hitting the Romantic poets right where they live, which is not in the Golden or Silver or even the Bronze Age of poetry, but in the Age of Brass, a time of cheap knockoffs, tinny sentiments, and muddled thinking:

A poet in our time is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community.  He lives in the days that are past.  His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions.  The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.

Peacock, I should point out, loved Romantic poetry and was a Romantic poet himself.  Mockery can be an expression of love.

Why, I wonder, is Nightmare Abbey not on Anna’s list?  It is a short little thing, just ninety pages.  Shelley, Byron, and Coleridge are actually characters in the novel, not even thinly disguised.  It features Shelley communing with owls and drinking Madeira from a human skull.  My doubt about much of Peacock’s work is that its virtues might be too obscure for a reader not immersed in Peacock’s time.  For the reader who is immersed, the reader who has prowled around that British Romanticism reading list, Peacock is a relief, and a reward.

The entirety of “The War Song of Dinas Vawr” and “The Four Ages of Poetry,” as well as a fine little introduction to Peacock can be found here (PDF).  That’s Peacock’s section of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume 2; I will bet you eight dollars that the intro is written by the great Robert M. Adams.

*  In the sense that obscure writer = skimmed and skipped posts.  Maybe I am wrong about that.

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