Research Stream


Robert White
The University of Western Australia

Andrew Lynch
The University of Western Australia

Katrina O'Loughlin
The University of Western Australia/ Brunel University


Victims of War

This project deals with poetry which is pacifist in perspective, from Anglo Saxon to the present day, through a series of published articles and chapters. Bob White argues that since the existence of Humanities is perennially threatened by war, teachers are justified in teaching their subjects from an emotions-based and polemically pacifist stance.

victems of war

Andromache and Priam Urging Hector Not to Go to War (from Scenes from the Story of the Trojan War) Tapestry probably produced through Pasquier Grenier of Tournai, c. 1470–90. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bob White’s book Pacifism and English Literature: Minstrels of Peace (Palgrave, 2008) was ‘Book of the Week’ in Times Higher Education when it appeared. It deals with poetry which is pacifist in perspective, from Anglo Saxon to the present day. Bob has also published articles and chapters arguing that since the existence of Humanities is perennially threatened by war, teachers are justified in teaching their subjects from an emotions-based and polemically pacifist stance.

 “My premise is that war is always a direct threat not only to human beings themselves but also to the Humanities since its function is to undermine the human values and rational methodologies that are at the centre of our disciplines. Bombs also have a nasty habit of destroying forever our data, the repositories of our heritage as human beings, the more positive footprints we have left on the planet. War incites racial hatred rather than fostering tolerance of other cultures and language-users. War permanently and self-evidently damages for its victims their “happiness and quality of life,” which the Humanities are said to take as their subject. Meanwhile, it is no use complaining about globalisation, climate change or economic meltdowns if there is not likely to be an inhabitable earth left to live on, after the kinds of destruction that the technology of modern weapons offer are used. It is no use extolling the value of music to still the savage breast, if the only sounds being heard by a civilian population are massive explosions that destroy their homes, schools, universities, farms, and hospitals. The wastage is not confined to property and objects, since in every war it includes the loss of lives of many young men and women—a whole generation of young men in 1914–18—many of whom would have been students, promising writers and performers, and future scholars. Enhancing “cultural understanding” and analysing “historical perspectives on contemporary policy problems” (in the British Academy’s words) are not especially noticeable in the present context of our own recent Australian relations with Afghanistan and Iraq, nor indeed the whole Muslim world, except within specialised academic circles.
As an academic I may be able to understand and analyse with some humane sympathy why individuals and nations have been aggressive or bigoted and why conflict is inevitable in societies, but the point of such understanding would not be to condone or perpetuate such attitudes but to see them as a failure of education, to refute them with analysis instead of pretending a misplaced impartiality, and in the long term to make them irrelevant to the way we conduct our disciplines and run our lives. After all, a certain degree of conflict, often of quite a high order, can emerge within departments and families, but even the most heated antagonist would not accept that murder is a satisfactory resolution, or anything other than a criminal action, and it is not self-evident why international relations should be any different.”

Extract from R. S. White “The Humanities and War”
Journal of the Australasian Universities Modern Language Association (Ed. Peter Goodall, Special Issue, 2009, 1 -12)

R. S. White “Victims of War: Battlefield Casualties and Literary Sensibility”
War’s Affects, ed. Neil Ramsey and Gillian Russell (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)
Beginning with a reading of the coloured engraving by Matthew Dubourg, Waterloo, the Day After, this chapter traces the affective depiction of casualties of war from Chaucer, Erasmus and Shakespeare up to 1815. The main concentration is on writers who described the post-carnage scene at Waterloo, such as Scott, Byron and Southey. In particular, Leigh Hunt appended to his poem Captain Sword and Captain Pen extracts from the horrific descriptions of an earlier battle as described by Southey in his The Horrors of War, and Hunt himself made suggestions concerning the lack of neutral, medical attention on battlefields, which anticipated the future function of the Red Cross. That institution itself was not created until 1863, after Henri Dunant published a pamphlet, A Memory of Solferino, also describing in detail the dreadful sufferings of soldiers and civilians alike. This chapter briefly covers the medical contexts in 1815 which made it impossible to address the sheer scale of the mass mutilation. Finally, the historical re-depiction by Thackeray in Vanity Fair of the casualties of the Battle of Waterloo add another strand to the chapter’s running theme that affective descriptions by influential writers were instrumental in drawing public attention to the plight of victims caused by war.  

R. S. White “Love in Times of War: Some Shakespearean Reflections”
Emotions and War: Medieval to Romantic Literatures, eds. Andrew Lynch, Stephanie Downes and Katrina O’Loughlin (forthcoming Palgrave MacMillan, 2015)

Judging by the frequency of Shakespeare’s insertions throughout his canon, it seems that war is dramatically purposeful rather than gratuitous, when he deals with love. There may be more than a suggestion that since war is omnipresent in national and social lives, it comes to be internalised into the emotional lives of citizens even in their more innocent amatory experiences. War becomes a metaphor for other, apparently opposing, emotional encounters, implying that they involve some level of contained conflict and latent violence that seems unavoidable. Perhaps in some cases war intensifies love, taking its sacrificial and transcendent possibilities to a new level, but in general Shakespeare’s female lovers, at least, are likely to agree with Marlowe’s character, ‘Accurs’d be he that first invented war!’.

R. S. White “Must Humanity Perforce Prey Upon Itself? King Lear and War”
What is the Human? Australian Voices from the Humanities, Australian Scholarly Publishing, ed. R. Hodge, P. Kelly, L. Semler (Melbourne, 2012)

    “One parallel between the play and the modern world which, so far as I know, has not been noticed, is that Lear’s fabular division of his kingdom into three anticipates a moment in world history when, like the arrogant old king, national leaders – in this case not just one but three, all as close to senility as Lear - Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt – arrogated to themselves the power to carve up the world into three spheres of influence – eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, western Europe to ‘us’; and ‘the Far East’ to the USA - and to create whole new states, not along ethnic, traditional, historical, linguistic or cultural lines but purely according to western, political and military priorities. As Butterfield argues, winners rewrite history, usually, we might add, by rewriting state boundaries. These three gentlemen, we may need to remind ourselves, were the ones who put a wall through Berlin. It was the powers they represented through the Security Council of the United Nations that, for conscious and strategic reasons, placed the boundaries of the new state of Israel along the lines most guaranteed to provoke Arabic hostility, partitioning Palestine into two countries, one Jewish and the other Arabic, and bordering Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, all fiercely contested from its creation in 1948 until today. Whichever ‘side’ one takes in that tragic situation, at the very least most people can surely agree that the borders are simply in the wrong place. The nineteenth century carve-up of Africa makes a similar point, and Pakistan was created, also in 1948, with imposed boundaries that caused equal offence to Hindus and Muslims, as well as horrendous bloodshed at that time and since. And just to emphasise that the process of tripartite division was anticipated by Shakespeare, Bangla Desh was created by partitioning India, Bengal and Pakistan, again along ahistorical and quite arbitrary lines determined by politicians. It was widely believed in the 1930s that it was the Treaty of Versailles that was inexorably leading to WW2, along the lines that poets have developed ever since the time Chaucer wrote Melibee that one war solves no problems and simply leads to the next war. It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every war or civil war since the end of the second world war was, and still is, precipitated by imposed partitions by politicians ignorant of ethnic autonomy, historical unity, and religious coherence, just as clearly as Lear’s division of his kingdom into three, along similarly strategical lines, causes the civil war in Celtic Britain which is not resolved at the play’s end, since with the violent deaths of the whole Lear family there is a dangerous power vacuum which seems to point to further bloody conflict between France and whoever is ruthless enough to emerge and assume power in Britain. It is not anachronistic to make such a reading of a Renaissance playtext, since, even earlier than Shakespeare, Erasmus had said very similar things about his own world.”