The following is an excerpt from my public humanities lecture, “Toxic Agents: Poetry, Pollution, and Environmental Racism,” which will be given tonight at the Health Museum of Houston (5:30pm). The goal of the talk is to outline three toxic agents that I believe have shaped both literary and medical discourses over the last 100 years. The first of these agents, chlorine gas (Cl2), will be explored through the writings of World War I’s soldier-poets. The use of chemical weaponry marked a shift in not only the medical practices of the time, but also the psychological dislocations that resulted from the constant fear of polluted skies. This anxiety, which I have labeled “Atmos-Fear,” often determined the tenor and tone of the period’s poetics, as well as the way soldiers viewed their larger environmental surroundings.
Cl2: A POETICS OF THE ATMOS-FEAR
April 22nd, 1915. The Northern Salient in Ypres, Belgium. At just after 5pm, the French encampment lifts its eyes above the wall of their trench and witnesses a yellow-green cloud drifting toward their position. No precedent for this kind of warfare. The Germans had spent months studying wind patterns, frustrated by the general easterly breeze coming off the coast. But on the 22nd, the wind changed, turned 180 degrees, blowing straight toward the ocean and the French soldiers waiting on the opposite side of Ypres. For those French, nothing was portended by that wind; no one ran or yelled; no doctors rushed to their post. But after April 22nd, that would change. Studying the wind and sky and breeze and visibility became some of the fundamental concerns for soldiers of the Great War. Captain’s diaries, soldier’s journals, and letters from the front reveal the precarity of their situation, an evolution in the logics of war, and a new attention to the tainted and the toxic clouds overhead. And word spread fast. When the Germans deployed chlorine gas again two days later, the Canadians, who had learned that the gas was denser than air, climbed out of their trenches, letting the cloud sink below their feet, and stood boldly in straight lines, returning fire. At the advice of two medical officers, Lieutenant Colonel George Nasmith and Captain Francis Alexander Scrimger, the men were ordered to urinate on socks and scarves and hold them to their faces—an ersatz method for neutralizing the toxin whose efficacy is debated to this very day.[i] From here on out, some of the bloodiest campaigns of the war will be marked by the use of different strains of gas, including the equally infamous but better known mustard gas. And from here on out, chemical warfare will occupy the attentions of a world in horror, especially poets, who will write about poison gas. In what follows, I want us to pay attention to the physical and psychological trauma wrought by this war: a war, in fact, that changed how medicine understood both chemical exposure and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (although the world at this time would simply call it “Shell Shock”).[ii]
The literature of the war is all entangled: discussions ranging from sacrifice and sickness to religion and ecology infuse these poems with complicated dynamics that are not reducible to a single reading. These poems are no more about the medical horror of war than they are about modern humanity’s psychological, spiritual crises. Take, for instance, Thomas Hardy, the late Victorian novelist turned Edwardian poet, who so brutally and unexpectedly summarizes the war that changed the literal and figurative landscape of Europe. In his poem, “Christmas: 1924,” Hardy frames gas in the context of what he perceived to be a failing of a Christian faith that claimed to secure, or at least seek, “peace” for mankind:
“Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.[iii]
While perhaps not the most nuanced of verses, these rough-hewn lines speak quite pointedly to the horror of the Great War, as well as to its signature synecdoche of destruction—gas. Hardy, the self-proclaimed student of William Wordsworth, strays far from Tintern Abbey in this moment, finding in the image of a church not peace, but despair. The spiritual crisis of modernity may indeed be groundless after all, that is to say rooted not in terrestrial anxieties, but anxieties of the air: an atmos-fear.
Such an argument would at least resonate with German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s work on what he calls “atmo-terrorism,” a century-long narrative of unease about the atmosphere that was inaugurated, he argues, with one very specific moment: “The twentieth century dawned in spectacularly revealing fashion on April 22, 1915, with the first large-scale use of chlorine gas as a warfare agent by a specially established “gas regiment” in the western German armies against French and Canadian infantry position in the northern Ypres Salient.[iv] Sloterdijk goes on to claim that this event marks not only the birth of modernity, but also the birth of the concept of the “environment,” at least as we understand it now—an environment that can no longer be easily shut out by hills of dirt or walls of stone. Rather than defend this rather overzealous claim, I would like to instead suggest that, based upon the poetry of this moment, the advent of chlorine gas marked a shift in the understanding of sickness and exposure. While this event clearly did not give birth to the concept of the “environment,” it did at least increase our fear of it—of what variously invisible or barely visible traces of toxins may line the clouds above.
In one of the most anthologized poems of World War I, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” Wilfred Owen famously declared that sacrifice for one’s country was “The old Lie” (l. 27).[v] Beneath this declaration is an image that gives rise to Owen’s challenge of patriotism: that is, the poem’s account of a gas attack. And not just the attack itself, but also the physiological aftermath for the one exposed: the “white eyes writhing” (l. 19), “the froth-corrupted lungs” (l. 22), and the “vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues” (l. 24). These images inspire the remarkable, oft-recited conclusion:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. (l. 25–8)
The allusion to the Roman poet Horace’s axiom—“it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”—is here inverted, but more poignantly, that inversion is predicated upon the explicitly physiological revelations brought about by poison gas on the Western front. Is it the gas itself that reveals the “Lie?” Is this a genesis for what we now often call, wrongly or rightly, the medical humanities? I ask this not simply to be provocative, but to point out the impact of this atmospheric anxiety in shaping the futures of medicine and aesthetics.
Notice that the power of gas warfare is coded as undeniably personal, indeed individual. While the scale of many war poems is larger than life, told in a kind of cinematic widescreen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est” reveals the cost paid by only one soldier who does not fit his gear “in time”:
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . . (l. 11–4)
The ABAB rhyme scheme signals a stark contrast. As if attempting to order a world that is no longer orderly, Owen’s poetry often follows the simplest rhyme and meter—something that can be said of a good deal of war poetry from this day. But the simplicity of the rhyme also contrasts two kinds of outcomes for gas exposure. For all those who are “fumbling” and “fitting…helmets just in time,” there is one who is “stumbling” like one chemically burnt by “lime.” Men “in time” are saved, men “out of time” are lost, and it is up to the poet to record that loss: of only one man, who nevertheless continues to haunt the poem and its speaker, who becomes the totem and impetus behind that bitter, unpatriotic conclusion. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” suggests that “Gas” is without glory.
The accounts of gas exposure reveal that beyond the bodily reactions to the chemical arose a challenge to the spiritual and psychological assumption of the times. Thomas Hardy’s curt dismissal of the church in “Christmas: 1924” can be contrasted to Gilbert White’s sonnet, “Holy Week: 1918,” which though praying to God for relief, nevertheless acknowledges the pressure poison gas places upon discourses of faith[vi]:
Man slays and slays his brother, while the reek
Of poison gas pollutes the air: the meek
Are trampled in the mire, and foulest wrong
Becomes true right if championed by the strong,
Nor is there light to see for those who seek. (l. 4–8)
Once again, in the midst of a disordered and chaotic environment, the poetic voice becomes regulated: nothing is more ordered, after all, than a traditional sonnet. Form notwithstanding, the bloodshed and atmospheric anxiety create a moral upheaval, where right becomes wrong, and light is obscured by “pollute[d]” air. As with “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” White’s poem open up a porous boundary between self and other, imagining the awful conditions of the fighting elsewhere, far from the spiritual rituals that punctuate domestic life. But “Holy Week: 1918” also opens up a boundary to yet another other—that is, the environment—when it concludes its prayer: “Purge, if Thou wilt, with Thy tremendous fan / Earth’s threshing-floor, foul since the world began, / But, rising, open heaven and give us light” (l. 12–14). The very gas clouds that signaled a new machinery for war here represent a spiritual and ecological ill that must be blown and “Purge[d]” from the face of the earth. Material and metaphor all at once, gas and the wind that carries it rest firmly upon the axis of the real and the imagined. If any poem might defend Sloterdijk’s assertion that the concept of the “environment” was born as a response to chlorine gas, it might be “Holy Week: 1918,” a piece that clearly images the imbricated spiritual, physical, and environmental consequences of these vapor clouds.
Gas warfare, and the poetics it inspired, return again and again to a diffuse sense of the interconnectedness of living things—of humans, animals, atmosphere, and soil. This is what environmental philosopher Stacy Alaimo has called “trans-corporeality,” a concept that while acknowledging the ways material—especially toxic material—moves between human and nonhuman bodies, also indicates how such a material “ruptures ordinary knowledge practices.” [vii] In other words, the omnipresent and seemingly untraceable risk of toxicity challenges our epistemological paradigms in such a way as to demand new theories of knowledge and, by extension, new forms of poetry. This atmospheric anxiety, this “terror from the air” as Sloterdijk would say, certainly has come to determine much of the epistemological and philosophical framing of modernity.[viii] Not that the environment is born in this moment, per Sloterdijk, but that a modernist calibration of the self, anxiously and hopelessly entangled in networks of contagion or chlorine, emerges from within the writings of this generation of soldier-poets. These poems advocate understanding the whole person and the individual person, weaving together psychic and physical trauma while resisting the urge to generalize. They tell us about both the experience of war and how we might live in its aftermath.
The poems of the First World War give one the sense that nothing is not toxic anymore, a realization that continues to haunt our ideas of self and environment, and an awareness that cannot help but undermine the belief that the toxic and the non-toxic can be in any way regulated. In this way, chlorine gas signals the end of the world, insofar as it signals the end of a world in which we can easily partition ourselves from the toxic. As Timothy Morton writes in Hyperobjects (2013), “There is no ‘away’ after the end of the world. It would make more sense to … admit our coexistence with toxic substances we have created and exploited.”[ix] I agree, but upon reading these poems, I’m led to ask, For some, hasn’t that admission taken place already?
Clint Wilson III is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, a Diana Hobby editorial fellow for Studies in English Literature: 1500–1900, and a PhD student in the English department at Rice University. His research explores the intersections of race, politics, and toxicity in the modernist imaginary, as well as the larger study of contamination in the environmental humanities.
[i]. John Mackie, “The First Poison Gas Attack: In 1915 at Ypres,” The Great War, last updated 26 May 2014, accessed 23 August 2017, http://ww1.canada.com/battlefront/the-first-poison-gas-attack-in-1915-at-ypres. See also Erik Sass, “WWI Centennial: Gas Attack at Ypres,” Mental Floss, last updated 22 April 2015, accessed 23 August 2017, http://mentalfloss.com/ article/63365/wwi-centennial-gas-attack-ypres.
[ii] For a helpful overview of how gas warfare influenced the trajectory of literature emerging from this time—ranging from diaries and letters to poetry and prose—see Hilda D. Spear and Sonya A. Summersgill, “Poison Gas and the Poetry of War,” Essays in Criticism 41, no. 4 (1991): 308–23 .
[iii]. Thomas Hardy, “Christmas: 1924,” in Collected Poems (1930), Literature Online, ProQuest Information and Learning, accessed 1 Sep. 2017.
[iv]. Peter Sloterdijk, Foams: Spheres Volume III: Plural Spherology, trans. Wieland Hoband (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2016), p. 86.
[v]. Wilfred Owen, “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” in The Poems of Wilfred Owen, ed. Jon Stallworthy (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986), pp. 117–8.
[vi]. Gilbert White, “Holy Week: 1918,” in The Poems of Gilbert White: With an Introduction by Sir Herbert Warren (1919), Literature Online, ProQuest Information and Learning, accessed 1 Sep. 2017.
[vii]. Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 17.
[viii]. See Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).
[ix]. Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 109.