This site is owned and maintained by William Ames,
a member of the Modern Language Association

On "Combat" by W. Roberts
from Blast, July 1915

Combat depicts the horror of trench war by representing disturbing and chaotic images of death. The representation works through specific imagery and style, but while the angularity and bold visual action is consistent with other images in Blast, Combat is different in that it yields layers of extremely strong emotional content from very simply drawn forms.

The most striking element of this work is Roberts' use of line. With the exception of the highlights in figure 1 (on the last page), the art is entirely composed of straight lines and angles. Angles were used extensively in the art surrounding this image in Blast, the work of Frederick Etchells, Sanders, Wadsworth and Wyndham Lewis all make use of sharply jutting edges for emotional impact in their work, but none are as beautifully simple in the approach. The sheer number of lines and complex shading of the other works complicates them. Combat is extremely concise and focused in its presentation. Roberts earlier works in the first Blast were also shaded and more complex.

The use of disjointed angles suggests disorder and confusion which was a common theme, not only in the visual arts, but in poetry as well. One need only to look as far as the poets in Blast to find the early fragmentary poems of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. After the war, the fractional and chaotic style of The Wasteland and Hugh Selwyn Mauberly would have a major effect on future verse because of their ability to capture the disillusioned mess of the world at that time. Combat is placed very near the poems Preludes and Rhapsody of a Windy Night by Eliot, which was probably done specifically because of their similarity in fragmented style. The word "rhapsody" means irregular and intense, so Eliot was very much aware of his style. Later in the issue, other woodcuts and drawings are followed by the writings of Pound.

One natural connection the line has with the war is the trench, also known as "the line." Trench soldiers must have had some of the most horrific experiences during the war, since many of them felt compelled to express it somehow, even if that expression was through active repression. Sculptors, painters, poets and novelists were all driven to capture what they had seen through their particular art. Some even combined media in an attempt to convey their most horrendous experiences.
The combination of two parallel lines, one thick, and one thin, lends a three-dimensional appearance to Combat. It might even depict sunlight and shadows on a trench. Figure 2 shows the most obvious trench-like structure, but all of the lines symbolize the underground homes of soldiers who spent terrific (in the old sense of terror) hours and months there. This places the observer in the mindset of trench warfare, which would be a moving visual experience by itself, but the public of the time was probably not as aware of trench life as we have become since. Combat goes much further in its deliverance of disturbing icons of death to make an even greater statement about the horror of war.

Many of the lines represent human bodies. The ghostly outline in figure 6 represents a person, but the angles and positions of the limbs are not quite correct. Many of the lines and shapes in Combat are placed nearly, but not quite, in symmetrical positions, which helps to confuse the eye and cause further inspection of the figure. The unnatural position is much more like that of a corpse than of a living soldier, and the death pose of someone killed suddenly is now quite familiar to modern audiences. This is one clear image of death, but there are others. If the previous form was a whole person, then the broken and covered lines in figure five are disembodied legs, since there are no corresponding torsos. The sight of separated body parts causes one of the strongest emotional responses. The instinct of self-preservation demands that it disturbs us. Furthermore, if figures 3 and 5 are viewed as body parts, then figures 1 and 2 can easily be viewed as the entrails of the "ghost" in figure 6. Combat richly mixes these images and allows for an association that feeds back on itself. Feedback intensifies sensation, since what looks like a trench turns into a human, then the human becomes a disemboweled human. The more the observer discovers about the lines, the more they reveal through a progression of "if/then" logic. If figure 6 shows legs, then 6 is a person, if 6 is a person, then 2 shows his innards, and so on. Seeing something horrific nearby means real danger is also nearby, so the natural sensation one feels is a mixture of disgust, fear and anger. Even with only two associations of imagery in Combat, the viewer can share some of the disturbing realities of "The Great War."

There are other visually striking facets of Combat aside from the human forms. The angularity of the piece is nearly symmetrical, but not quite. While the upper half of the drawing is almost square, its four corners do not line up to form a regular rectangle. It is also placed on a 45 degree angle with "lopsided" balance. The "arm" of figure 6 breaks the boundary on the upper right, and it almost seems to take several of the other lines with it. The "hand" of that arm seems to match the object directly above the "head." The upper left corner is inverted and causes the eye to try to make it work in a three-dimensional space. Much like hands drawing hands, this is an optical illusion deliberately placed to create confusion in the mind of the viewer. While there is clearly chaos, there is also order. The discord of the upper left corner is balanced by that of the upper right, and they are both balanced by the bottom, which, while it is itself off balance, is still grounded by a base or "pedestal." The base of Combat shares the system of turmoil through order. The legs of figure 3 and those next to it seem to be pushing up the "heaviest" part of the structure above it, while the arms of figure 4 are pulling it back. The entire top of the drawing seems to be teetering precariously on a point while the dead and dying figures hold it in balance.

Sadly, if the figures are human and dying, and the top-heavy structure is unbalanced, then it must eventually fall. "Must," however, in this context is an inappropriate word, since, like Keats' Grecian Urn, this structure will be static forever-it can never fall. Still, while it will never fall, neither will it ever stable. To Roberts, his view of war and horror must have been a constant endeavor. His own "combat" had not ended with the war. Like T. S. Eliot's "infinitely suffering thing" in Preludes, Roberts' image is also infinitely suffering with no end. It cannot end since it is captured in ink and in the artist's mind. This is the horror of Combat-infinite suffering by disembodied trench soldiers desperately holding on to balance in a disordered world. The emotional impact is profound, while the form is uncomplicated in its genius. Combat is effective because it generates so much from so little.

combat by Roberts 300 dpi.GIF (154951 bytes) Click for a larger image (151k)

Home|Forum|Guest Poets|Poetry and Literature |Sleeping Giant|Bill's Home Page | Modern War Poetry

This page is the Property of William Ames - All Rights Reserved
Copyright © 1996-2009
Poems with listed authors remain copyright of the author