Saturday, March 25, 2017

A quiet place apart

Robert Frost and Edward Thomas
On an August day in 1914, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost “were sitting on an orchard stile near Little Iddens, Frost's cottage in Gloucestershire…when word arrived that Britain had declared war on Germany. The two men wondered idly whether they might be able to hear the guns from their corner of the county.”*

Frost would later describe Edward Thomas as “the only brother I ever had.” The First World War separated the two poets: Frost returned to America, and in 1915 Thomas enlisted in the British Army, but the two men frequently exchanged letters.  In December of 1916, Frost sent Thomas a letter about talk of the war in the United States: “Silly fools are full of peace talk over here…. It's none of my business what you do: but neither is it any of theirs. I wrote some lines I've copied on the other side of this about the way I am struck. When I get to writing in this vein you may know I am sick or sad or something.” Frost enclosed this poem with the letter:

Suggested by Talk of Peace at This Time
Popular anti-war song, 1915

France, France I know not what is in my heart.
But God forbid that I should be more brave
As a watcher for a quiet place apart

Than you are fighting in an open grave.

I will not ask more of you than you ask,
O Bravest, of yourself. But shall I less?
You know the extent of your appointed task,
Whether you still can face its bloodiness.

Not mine to say you shall not think of peace.
Not mine, not mine. I almost know your pain.
But I will not believe that you will cease
I will not bid you cease, from being slain.

And slaying till what might have been distorted
Is saved to be the Truth and Hell is thwarted.

Shortly before being posted to the Western Front, Edward Thomas replied to Frost in a letter dated 31 December 1916:**

War poster, 1917
My dear Robert,
I had your letter & your poem ‘France, France’ yesterday.
I like the poem very much, because it betrays exactly what you would say & what you feel about saying that much. It expresses just those hesitations you or I would have at asking others to act as we think it is their cue to act. Well, I am soon going to know more about it.

In previous letters to Edward Thomas, Frost had written,“You know I haven't tried to be troubled by the war. But I believe it is half of what's ailed me ever since August 1914,” and “You rather shut me up by enlisting….Talk is almost too cheap when all your friends are facing bullets.”

Frost’s poem expresses his own ambivalence toward the Great War as well as the uncertainty many Americans felt towards the conflict.  Frost is deeply worried for his soldier-friend Edward Thomas, who prepares for “fighting in an open grave” while Frost watches in safety “from a quiet place apart.” The repeated refrain “Not mine, not mine” speaks not only of Frost's surrendering his  right to comment on a war that the US had not yet entered, but also of Frost's respect for Thomas’s decision to enlist and even for Thomas’s willingness to die in battle. It is a very hard thing to concede that our loved ones have the right to sacrifice their lives that are so very precious to us. 

Edward Thomas was killed on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917.  In his letter of sympathy to Helen, Thomas’s widow, Frost wrote,

I have heard Edward doubt if he was as brave as the bravest. But who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his word? He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known….
Edward Thomas
Of the three ways out of here, by death where there is no choice, by death where there is a noble choice, and by death where there is a choice not so noble, he found the greatest way.  There is no regret—nothing that I will call regret. Only I can’t help wishing he could have saved his life without so wholly losing it and come back from France not too much hurt to enjoy our pride in him.  I want to see him to tell him something.  I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet….”††

*Guardian article “Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the road to war,” by Matthew Hollis, published Friday, 29 July 2011.  This link
**“A Poem from Robert Frost for Edward Thomas,” A Century Back. Blog post 31 Dec. 2016.
† “Between Friends: Rediscovering the War Thoughts of Robert Frost,” by Robert Stilling. Virginia Quarterly Review 82.4, Fall 2006.
†† Robert Frost: An Adventure in Poetry, 1900- 1918, page 178. The book is written by Leslie Lee Francis, Frost’s granddaughter.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Song of the Air, Part II

WWI German aeroplane, the Taube
In her lifetime, Jessie Pope was one of the most popular writers of humorist verse in England.  As a recent article from the BBC News Magazine  indicates, however, she has since become “the war poet students love to hate….She is the villain of the war.” In British schools, Pope’s poem “Who’s for the Game?” is widely studied and derided for its jingoist views as it is contrasted with Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” (in an early draft, Owen dedicated his poem “to Jessie Pope, etc.”).

Not all of Pope’s poems, however, are blind to the darker side of war.  In her poem describing a German airplane (“To a Taube”), she notes the beauty of the plane as well as its destructive power.  Pope acknowledges that modern technologies can be shaped for terrible ends; man has fine-tuned the art of slaughter, and people can now be killed from a distance with cool detachment.

To a Taube

Above the valley, rich and fair,
On flashing pinions, glittering, gay,
You hover in the upper air,
A bird of prey.

Aerial Bombs Dropping on Montmedy, 1918
Edward Steichen, Smithsonian Museum of Art 
Snarling across the empty blue
You curve and skim, you dip and soar,
A dove in flight and shape and hue –
The dove of war.

Above the soldier and the slain,
An armoured bird, you hang on high,
Directed by a human brain,
A human eye.

A thirsty hunter out for blood –
Drinking adventure to the dregs –
Where hidden camps the country stud
You drop your eggs.

Thus, man, who reasons and invents,
Has inconsistently designed
The conquest of the elements
To kill his kind.
            – Jessie Pope

Like Alchin in his poem “Song of the Plane,” Pope also celebrates the new and astonishing miracle of flight: the German Taube (the word is translated as dove in English) glitters as it glides above the earth, and light reflects off its wings.  Yet there is a sinister double identity to the Taube: the soaring dove is also a bird of prey, a “thirsty hunter out for blood.” With ruthless precision, the plane discovers hidden camps upon which to drop its bombs, deadly eggs that hatch not life but death and destruction.  During the First World War, German airplanes dropped over 120 tons of explosives on England*; it is estimated that British pilots dropped over 600 tons of explosives on Germany.**
Vaux #2 After Attack, photo by Edward Steichen
Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The plane snarls, dips, and soars in a world far removed from the bloody carnage it has caused below.  But Pope’s poem does not hold the machine to blame: the plane is directed by a human brain and human eye.  Humans have invented the plane to subdue the heavens and to kill their own kind. The aeroplane just one of the many inventions of mass destruction developed or refined for slaughter during the Great War (others include armored tanks, modern hand grenades, machine guns, and poison gas).

Although Pope is remembered for her nationalistic war writing, this poem seems to condemn not just the Germans, but humans on all sides who create only to kill.  

*Raymond H. Fredette, The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917–1918, pp. 265 -266.
**Scott Addington, The Great War 100: The First World War in Infographics. 

Song of the Air, Part I

Close Up A Bombing Formation, George Horace Davis
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 3071)
For the British Royal Flying Corps, April 1917 became known as “Bloody April.” That month, “the average life expectancy of a British flyer at the front fell to a mere 93 hours of flight time, just 21 days of active service.”* Flight was in its infancy at the start of the First World War: the Wright brothers’ first successful attempt had occurred just over ten years earlier in December of 1903, and it wasn’t until September of 1904 that they managed to maneuver their plane in a circle (before that, their flights had been limited to short and straight lifts over a flat field). 

Yet the military was relatively quick to recognize and develop the killing power of the flying machine. The first use of massed airplane squadrons for strategic bombing occurred in September of 1914; the first time a machine gun was mounted to a plane so as to fire at enemy aircraft was in the spring of 1915, and the first time a plane was shot down from the ground (with a modified cannon) occurred in September of 1915.**

Airplanes came to serve a vital role in reconnaissance missions, bombing raids, enemy aircraft attacks, and support of infantry. By the end of the war, more than 115,000 military planes had been lost (more due to accidents than attacks); the total number of pilots killed is much more difficult to estimate.

Captain Gordon Alchin was a pilot with both the British Royal Flying Corps and the Australian Flying Corps. Awarded the Air Force Cross for his service, he also wrote about flying in the Great War.  

A Song of the Plane

This is the song of the Plane –
   The creaking, shrieking plane,
   The throbbing, sobbing plane,
And the moaning, groaning wires: –
   The engine – missing again!
   One cylinder never fires!
            Hey ho! for the Plane!

THE NCO Pilot, RFC (Flight Sergeant WG Bennett)
William Orpen ©IWM Art-2397
This is the song of the Man –
   The driving, striving man,
   The chosen, frozen man: –
The pilot, the man-at-the-wheel,
   Whose limit is all that he can,
   And beyond, if the need is real!

            Hey ho! for the Man!

This is the song of the Gun –
   The muttering, stuttering gun,
   The maddening, gladdening gun: –
That chuckles with evil glee
   At the last, long dive of the Hun,
   With its end in eternity!

            Hey ho! for the Gun!

This is the song of the Air –
   The lifting, drifting air,
   The eddying, steadying air,
The wine of its limitless space,
   May it nerve us at last to dare
   Even death with undaunted face!
            Hey ho! for the Air.
                        --Gordon Alchin

Alchin’s poem appears to celebrate the plane, the pilot, the gun, and the air, and yet the sounds of the poem communicate a darker message. The marvelous plane appears chillingly fragile: it creaks, shrieks, throbs, and sobs, while its wires moan and groan at the strain of each climb and dive.  Most alarmingly, the engine is dependably unreliable – one cylinder never fires. 

As for the pilot, he strains to control the unsteady machine, and no matter how much effort he gives, more is always required if he is to survive.  As the flyer freezes in the thin air of high altitude, the plane’s gun sullenly mutters and stutters, breaking into evil laughter as it watches another man fall from the sky to his death.

The struggle and noise of the man, the gun, and the plane contrast with the calm of the air they inhabit.  They are the unnatural invaders of the sky, and they sully the steadying space of the heavens with the death and chaos they bring.  

And yet the limitlessness of the air is like an intoxicating wine, and the serenity of the skies are what brace the men to face death. The poem raises an unspoken question: Which is vaster and more all-encompassing: the war that demands such sacrifice, or the air that inspires and accepts it? 

*Eric and Jane Lawson, First Air Campaign: August 1914 – November 1918, p. 11.