Herbert Read and the fluid memory of the First World War: poetry, prose and polemic


  • The author wishes to thank Iain Stewart, Martin Adams and the two anonymous referees for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article, and is indebted to Catherine Feely and Allan Antliff for their advice. He also acknowledges the support of the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship programme.


According to many critics, Herbert Read's experience fighting in the trenches of the First World War was a formative one that shaped his intellectual life. His war poetry and autobiographical prose reflected on the horrors of fighting, and his anarchist-pacifism was a product, they argue, of experiencing the war first hand. Utilizing archival material and analysing Read's poetry, prose and polemical writing, the present article contests this reading. It argues that Read's perception of the war was deeply ambiguous, and shifted in response to the changing view of the conflict in British cultural history. He saw the war as at once disabling and liberating, and his continual return to the conflict as a subject in his writing was a process of attempting to fix its ultimate meaning to his life.