The Lion Caged

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To London’s intelligentsia, even patriotism was obscene. This was particularly true on the left, where intellectuals tend to congregate; at their urging a Labour conference declared that party members no longer regarded themselves as “subjects of the crown or citizens of Britain.” This shocked the middle and even the working classes; their loyalty to the Union Jack was blind loyalty; they would fight for their country, right or wrong. Learned men cannot do that. They were convinced that war was a criminal act; indeed, they felt that anyone who had anything good to say about the nation was an accomplice after the fact.

Intellectuals are well educated, and in those days the best schools and universities were largely reserved for members of the upper class. On the whole the privileged were the Crown’s most loyal (and conservative) subjects, but the defectors were among the brightest, and their bitterness was intensified by the most human and personal of motives. In the First World War, commissions were largely reserved for university men. And the most vulnerable soldiers on any battlefield are the young officers. Man for man and boy for boy, therefore, the patricians had paid a far higher price in blood than the families whose sons served in other ranks. In Oxford, Cambridge, and the public schools, towering marble slabs bore the chiseled names of alumni who had crossed the Channel as infantry lieutenants and company commanders—and had sacrificed their futures that England might have hers. In Haig’s Passchendaele offensive alone, 22,316 junior officers had been killed in action. These youths, the most idealistic generation England had ever bred, had been the boyhood companions of England’s intellectuals, who had passed through the same schools, come down from Oxbridge with Firsts and Double Firsts in the cloudless days before Sarajevo, and whose dreams were haunted by memories of beloved classmates beneath the crosses in Flanders. Among those who had chosen careers in public life were the coming men in’the House of Commons, and it is scarcely surprising that they were drawn, almost irresistibly, toward pacifism and its alternative, compromises with those who—however implausible their reasons—threatened the peace. They were also passionate converts to the twentieth-century world view that life’s casualties, in peace as well as war, are martyred victims of callous society—antiheroes who replaced Edwardian heroes in stage center and are still there seventy years later.

Churchill—whose views on everything had been fixed in his youth and who still believed in heroes, friends, individual responsibility, courage in battle, and the manly virtues—represented everything the humane intellectuals loathed. To them his flamboyance and heroic postures were an affront to the memories of the inglorious dead, his re-creation of formal English rhetoric “too bright,” as Berlin puts it, “too big, too vivid, too unstable for the epigone of the age of imperialism.” Leo Amery said: “He can think only in phrases, and close argument is really lost on him.” C. F. G. Masterman declared that “he can convince himself of almost any truth if it is once allowed...to start its wild career through his rhetorical machine.” Later the Australian critic J. H. Grainger commented, “Much of Churchill’s rhetoric is tiresomely windy.”

But rhetoric, however anachronistic it may appear, is entitled to a pragmatic judgment. The ancients wrote: “When Pericles speaks, people say, ‘How well he speaks,’ but when Demosthenes speaks, they say, ‘Let us march.’” John Kennedy said, “Churchill formed the English language into battalions and sent it into battle.” A rhetorical style that can transform an entire nation by its power, passages of which are quoted more frequently than those of any other English writer except Shakespeare, which lives after the very names of its critics have been forgotten, cannot be dismissed or laughed out of our literary heritage. At the very least one should try to understand how it was formed and why it did what it did.