Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Remembering the War Poets


Yesterday was Veterans Day—originally Armistice Day—was renamed in 1954 to include veterans who had fought in all wars. As discussed in yesterday's post, this day of remembrance has its roots in World War I—Nov. 11, 1918 was the day the guns fell silent at the end of the Great War. On this day after Veterans Day, we celebrate the poetry of World War I, one of the legacies of that conflict.  My love of poetry and the history of World War I go hand in hand.  As an undergraduate, I became fascinated with World War I, and from there, I became fascinated with the poetry from that war, which only intensified my love of poetry.  So I am dedicating this post to the three poems that I believe are the most important for understanding the First World War.

Soldiers like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, John McCrae and Rupert Brooke wrote evocative poems about their experiences. One of the most famous poems of the war is Brooke's "The Soldier." Brooke died of dysentery and blood poisoning aboard a troop ship headed for Gallipoli in April 1915. Brooke's poem "The Soldier" reads:

The Soldier
  by Rupert Brooke
If I should die, think only this of me:
   That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.  There shall be
   In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
   Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
   Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
   A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
     Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
   And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
     In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

"The Soldier" shows the eagerness for war that was so apparent in the militarism that helped move the world toward war.  "The Soldier" was written at the beginning of the First World War in 1914, as part of a series of sonnets written by Rupert Brooke. Brooke himself, predominantly a prewar poet, died the year after "The Soldier" was published. "The Soldier", being the conclusion and the finale to Brooke's '1914' war sonnet series, deals with the death and accomplishments of a soldier.  This sonnet encompasses the memoirs of a deceased soldier who declares his patriotism to his homeland by declaring that his sacrifice will be the eternal ownership of England of a small portion of land upon which he died.

As the Great War continued and bogged down on the Western Front, the attitude of patriotism began to wane slightly.  Militarism had given the world the impression that wars would be short and glorious occasions, yet as 1914 turned into 1915 with no sign of end in sight, war was not seen through the naive young eyes of ready and willing soldiers, but of those of war weary soldiers of the front.  One of these soldiers was a Canadian doctor named John McCrae.   He was inspired to write it on May 3, 1915, after presiding over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres. According to legend, fellow soldiers retrieved the poem after McCrae, initially unsatisfied with his work, discarded it. "In Flanders Fields" was first published on December 8 of that year in the London-based magazine Punch.  

In Flanders Fields
  by John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

"In Flanders Fields" demonstrates McCrae's preoccupation with death and how it stands as the transition between the struggle of life and the peace that follows. It is written from the point of view of the dead. It speaks of their sacrifice and serves as their command to the living to press on.  As with many of the most popular works of the First World War, it was written early in the conflict, before the romanticism of war turned to bitterness and disillusion for soldiers and civilians alike, yet it has a more sorrowful tone than Brooke's "The Soldier."

One of the lasting legacies of "In Flanders Field" is the symbolism of the poppies.  The red poppies that McCrae referred to had been associated with war since the Napoleonic Wars when a writer of that time first noted how the poppies grew over the graves of soldiers. The damage done to the landscape in Flanders during the battle greatly increased the lime content in the soil, leaving the poppy as one of the few plants able to grow in the region.  Even today, you will see many citizens of the British Commonwealth, and even some in the United States, wear a red poppy pinned to his or her lapel to commemorate the soldiers of the Great War.

The last poem I want to discuss is that of Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum est." This is a poem written by poet Wilfred Owen in 1917, during World War I, and published posthumously in 1920. Owen's poem is known for its horrific imagery and condemnation of war. When Owen wrote this poem, the romanticism of war was long gone.  The Battles of Verdun and the Somme had destroyed any residual romanticism left in soldiers of the trenches.  

Dulce Et Decorum Est
  by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!-- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.--
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
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.

The historian and literary critic Paul Fussell has noted in The Great War and Modern Memory that, "Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it." He argues that World War I, with its unprecedented trench warfare and mass devastation across the European landscape, left a dark cloud hanging over the world. Despite the patriotism, optimism, and idealism held by the young men who eagerly fought for their respective country, World War I was fraught with widespread destruction and loss.

The very symbol of dawn, which traditionally would bring with it the hope and freshness of a new day, was reconfigured in a war like no other in history. Instead of the symbolic hope and freshness of a new day, the Great War dawn often brought with it the profound reality of a landscape flecked with causalities and devastation as young soldiers peered from the dark depths of their trenches. With dawn as a common symbol in poetry, it is no wonder that, like a new understanding of dawn itself, a comprehensive body of "World War I Poetry" emerged from the trenches as well.

Perhaps the most widely read and anthologized World War I poet, Wilfred Owen fought and ultimately died in World War I. His famous poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" presented a raw portrait of the life soldiers often experienced during the War.  From the horrors of the trenches, we have the beauty of the War Poets to keep the memory of the war alive.

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3 comments:

iama{GAY}tekeeper said...

studied Wilfred Owen's poems in high school really made me think

silvereagle said...

It was good to read "Flanders Field" once more. Several years ago I was in London on "Poppy Day" and remember seeing folks from every strata of society wearing their poppies....I also remember doing that as a child in grade school, many many years ago!!

David Jeffreys said...

In grade school, we memorized "In Flanders Fields" and wore little paper poppies on our lapels. It is a beautiful poem.