‘THERE’S an east wind coming, Watson …”

Thus says Sherlock Holmes, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, grand old man of empire, writing what he hoped yet again would be the final Holmes story, has the promise of war and revolution in the air.

“There’s an east wind coming … such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will be in the sunshine when the storm has cleared…”

Few writers were as confident. The great German satirist Karl Kraus began work on his enormous play The Last Days of Mankind, in 1915, reading parts of it at numerous wartime recitals. By earthly standards, he said, it should take 10 full evenings to perform and was intended for a theatre on Mars, since earthly audiences could not bear it. “It is written in blood and its contents will live on in nightmares, where clowns act the tragedy of humankind.”

Kraus ends the play by addressing the audience directly: “I have exposed the heroics of your murderers for the empty shadows they are; I have stripped them of their flesh. But I have given body to their stupidities, their malice, their worthlessness, and have brought all these to life, here on the stage.

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“Time washes away the essence of events and would grant amnesty to even the most heinous crime ever committed under the stars; but I have preserved this essence. My ear has recorded the sounds of the deed, my eyes the gestures of the talks, and my voice, by merely quoting, has preserved the base chord of this era forever. This is my manifesto to mankind. This is world war.”

The American poet Ezra Pound, in 1912, seemed to foresee the ghostly remnants of empire coming back to a changed world in tatters and rags:

See, they return; ah, see the tentative

Movements, and the slow feet,

The trouble in the pace and the uncertain


See, they return, one, and by one,

With fear, as half-awakened;

As if the snow should hesitate

And murmur in the wind,

and half turn back ...

With Pound, perhaps more than any poet, the form of modern poetry changes. In Marshall Walker’s phrase “Poems look different after Pound.” Pound is as much the revolutionary in poetry as Stravinsky is in music, Picasso in art, Lenin in world politics.

The tyranny of regimented rhyme, the rule of the right-hand margin, the proprieties of poetic diction, all are blasted before his energy and care. “Compose,” he advised, “not in the sequence of the metronome (tick-tock, tick-tock, dum-di-dum, dum-di-dum). No. Compose in the sequence of the musical phrase.”

His influence was felt in the prose of Ernest Hemingway, and Hemingway’s influence crosses from writing to film to television. Be quick, make an impact, cut to the chase. Pound warned him to “Go in fear of abstractions.”

Hemingway understood the value of this – after all, it was abstractions, the big words, glory, justice, patriotism, fatherland, loyalty, or rather, “the little words that trouble us so much”: home, courage, freedom: these were the things that empire had endorsed, that led so many to their deaths. Pound again: Some quick to arm, some for adventure, some from fear of weakness, some from fear of censure, some for love of slaughter, in imagination, learning later ... some in fear, learning love of slaughter ... And for what? “For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilisation.”

Hemingway learned so much from Pound. “Deal with things,” Pound said. “Get the right word for the right thing.” Pound taught Hemingway to distrust certain adjectives as he later learned to distrust certain people he knew could not be relied on.

In A Farewell to Arms, his novel about an American ambulance officer in Italy in the First World War, Hemingway captures perfectly

a mood made up of details, clearly seen and comprehended things. Listen to the way the rhythm in the opening paragraph is perfectly conveyed by long sentences, phrases connected by that marvellously inconspicuous word “and”, while an understated atmosphere of ominous tragedy hangs in the air:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.

“Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterwards the road bare and white except for the leaves.”

This drifting and uncertain march towards war, this acutely realised, particular landscape, were a long way from the world of purpose and defined identity so many people craved:

If I should die, think only this of me:

That there’s some corner of a foreign field

That is forever England …

Unlike Rupert Brooke, the soldiers in Hemingway and Pound, and especially in David Jones’s epic, In Parenthesis, are marching not into destiny but into doom. Along with Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Jones is the great poet of the trenches:

You can hear the silence of it:

you can hear the rat of no-man’s-land

rut-out intricacies,

weasel-out his patient workings,

scrut, scrut, sscrut,

harrow out-earthly, trowel his cunning paw;

redeem the time of our uncharity, to sap his own amphibious paradise.

You can hear his carrying-parties rustle our corruptions through the night–

weeds – contest the choicest morsels in his tiny conduits, bead-eyed feast on us; by a rule of his nature, at night-feast on the broken of us…

These too have shed their fine feathers; these too have slimed their dark-bright coats ...

The imagination toughens to interpret, to redefine in language a different reality. The prophetic poetry of Apollinaire in France delivered vigorous, experimental verse straight from the front lines. Apollinaire, the most brilliant poet of the cubist movement, offered a different sense of how the future might be imagined.

But the First World War was not the only great war of the decade, and the Soviet revolution in Russia and the Easter Rising in Ireland heralded new writing as well as new politics.

Maybe the strongest contrast between two poets of the time is that between Vladimir Mayakovsky and TS Eliot. Mayakovsky proclaimed the new dawn of communism in passionate, lyrical, declamatory verse, to crowds of hundreds or thousands of people.

He wrote commercial adverts for the state, made posters, painted placards. He appealed to everyone, to help to build a new Jerusalem, not to be cynical, not to give up, but to recognise the spirit, to be like the old horse that slipped on the ice on Kuznetsky Street and went down: it might have given up, lying there, collapsed, but suddenly

the horse

jerks up

clatters to her feet

whinnies in the frosty air

and gallops down the street

with a flick of her tail

like a yearling

she canters into her stall

ready for work once again

for the life that’s worth it all!

These days, we’re trained to be cynical. For myself, I remember my grandfather. He was a grocer at that time, with the co-operative movement in Scotland. He was one year older than the century.

He told me that when the news of the Russian Revolution came through, he thought that that was it – liberation was coming, a new world was possible throughout Europe, from Moscow to Scotland, the class system and wage-slavery could be beaten. It was, for millions, a moment of tremendous optimism and hope.

It is at the furthest end of the spectrum from the city-world of hesitation, timidity, loneliness and fear inhabited by J Alfred Prufrock, TS Eliot’s first great creation. Prufrock is the man for his place and season, asking us, rather wearily, to go with him in the opening lines of his “Love Song”.

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky ...

So far, so inviting. But this romantic twilight is a twilight of small gods. The third line of the poem delivers an exploding alarm clock to the new dispensation:

Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Let us go, through certain

half-deserted streets,

The muttering retreats

Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels ...

Those “muttering retreats” and “restless nights” are as utterly of 1917 as Mayakovsky’s clamorous optimism and revolutionary hope.

Somewhere between these two extremes, a new Ireland was forming in a dialectic of urban paralysis and Fenian extremism. The foiled and thwarted Dubliners in James Joyce’s first book were contemporaries of the men and women whose radical commitment led to the Easter Rising in 1916.

That rising wasn’t popular. But when the British sentenced its leaders to death, the executions made them martyrs. A great tide of feeling arose which fuelled Irish resistance to British rule and eventually led to the establishment of the Republic.

WB Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916” commemorates the leaders who were shot and the cause in which their sacrifice was made, but it’s no simple-minded assertion of national identity. It’s a painful recognition of the complexity of idealistic hopes and petrifying violence crystallised in the Easter Rising. Here’s how it begins:

I have met them at close of day

Coming with vivid faces

From counter or desk among grey

Eighteenth-century houses.

I have passed with a nod of the head

Or polite meaningless words,

Or have lingered awhile and said

Polite meaningless words …

So far, it might seem, so innocuous, but now, in the aftermath of violence and the stirring of a movement towards a new dispensation, a break away from the authority of the British Empire, something else is beginning to take shape: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.”

Yeats names and talks about particular historical figures: a woman whose “ignorant good-will” and night-hours spent “in argument / Until her voice grew shrill” was also, “young and beautiful” once; a man who was once a school-teacher and another who was sweet-natured, and another who was a “drunken, vainglorious lout” – all of them come into the song, resigning their parts in the ”casual comedy”; all have “been changed in their turn: “Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone

Through summer and winter seem

Enchanted to a stone

To trouble the living stream.

The horse that comes from the road,

The rider, the birds that range

From cloud to tumbling cloud,

Minute by minute they change;

A shadow of cloud on the stream

Changes minute by minute;

A horse-hoof slides on the brim,

And a horse plashes within it;

The long-legged moor-hens dive,

And hens to moor-cocks call;

Minute by minute they live:

The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice

Can make a stone of the heart.

O when may it suffice?

That is Heaven’s part, our part

To murmur name upon name,

As a mother names her child

When sleep at last has come

On limbs that had run wild.

What is it but nightfall?

No, no, not night but death;

Was it needless death

after all?

For England may

keep faith

For all that is done and said.

We know their dream; enough

To know they dreamed and a

re dead;

And what if excess

of love

Bewildered them till

they died?

I write it out in a verse —

MacDonagh and MacBride

And Connolly and Pearse

Now and in time to be,

Wherever green is worn,

Are changed, changed utterly:

A terrible beauty is born.

Yeats isn’t glorifying or advocating violence, he’s commenting upon its aftermath. The poem’s refrain identifies the vision of liberation from British colonial rule: everything is “changed”, Yeats says, “changed utterly” – all has been “Transformed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” And the grim sense of what is “terrible” and the sober understanding of what inspiring “beauty” might come with the hope of liberation are both present in the poem. The cost is being counted. The price is being paid.

Perhaps one day in Scotland we shall have to count the cost of violence once again. I hope not. But if you want to get a musical sense of what such violence might be like, consider this. Three years after The Rite of Spring burst on an unsuspecting world with all the shock of a childbirth in a church, Sergei Prokofiev, heavily under Stravinsky’s influence, conducted the first performance of his Scythian Suite in 1916, just a few months before the Easter Rising in Dublin took place.

The spirit of the sheer energy and the violence of war, its exhilaration, and its destructiveness, and the price that violence demands, is captured here, with “The Enemy God and the Dance of the Spirits of Darkness”.

Listen to it and you’ll hear what I mean.