Before television and radio, there was poetry. In The Great War and Modern Memory, describing the world of 1914, Fussell asserts, “Except for sex and drinking, amusement was largely found in language formally arranged, either in books and periodicals or at the theater and music hall, or in one’s friends’ anecdotes, rumors, or clever structuring of words” (158). In other words, language was entertainment. Books were the immortal companions of the soldiers in the trenches.
For one of the first times in history, most of the soldiers were literate, and reading offered men an escape to other worlds removed from the mud and blood, an avenue for self-improvement when the surrounding situation was descending into madness, and a way to battle the boredom of static, entrenched armies. Fussell claims that “the Oxford Book of English Verse presides over the Great War in a way that has never been sufficiently appreciated” (159).
When soldiers tried to make sense out of the senselessness of the war with language, and when ordinary language failed to communicate the realities of the Great War, trench poets often turned to the language of literature, recycling words and images from traditional sources.
Edgell Rickword, “youngest of the soldier poets” (Kendall’s Poetry of the Great War), took with him to the Front a two-volume edition of the poems of John Donne, a seventeenth-century Metaphysical poet, and with dark humor, Rickword uses Donne to give voice to the horror of watching a friend’s body decay.
Trench Poets by Edgell Rickword
I knew a man, he was my chum,
But he grew darker day by day,
And would not brush the flies away,
Nor blanch however fierce the hum
Of passing shells; I used to read,
to rouse him, random things from Donne—
like ‘Get with child a mandrake root.’
But you can tell he was far gone,
for he lay gaping, mackerel-eyed,
and stiff and senseless as a post
even when that old poet cried
‘I long to talk with some old lover’s ghost.’
I tried the Elegies one day,
but he, because he heard me say:
‘What needst thou have more covering than a man?’
grinned nastily, so then I knew
the worms had got his brains at last.
There was one thing I still might do
To starve those worms; I racked my head
for wholesome lines and quoted Maud.
His grin got worse and I could see
he sneered at passion’s purity.
He stank so badly, though we were great chums
I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.
It’s a shocking poem the first time you read it -- the speaker irreverently bounces the timeless and elegant poetry of Donne off of the increasingly grotesque body of his “chum,” in a vain attempt to “rouse the dead.” But what better words can be used? Poetry and high language are commonly used to cope with grief.
What is jarring are the colloquial and disturbingly realistic descriptions of a dead body that are interwoven with Donne’s poetry: “mackerel-eyed,” “stiff and senseless,” and “grinned nastily.” The excerpts that Rickword chooses from Donne seem to tell their own story: it begins with an invitation to accomplish the impossible (“Get with child” from Donne’s “Song,”), then moves to longing and the frustration of unrequited love and connection (“I long to talk” from “Love’s Deity”), and ends with a reference to nakedness and seduction (from “To His Mistress Going to Bed”). The continued unresponsiveness of his friend causes the writer to abandon the sensual immorality of the last Donne reference, and so he reaches for “wholesome lines” and settles upon Maud, Tennyson’s romantic poem of doomed love. But the putrefying body “sneers” at these Victorian ideals of love and purity; his physical reality seems more in tune with the Metaphysical theme of carpe diem expressed in Marvell’s lines, “The grave’s a fine and private place,/ But none, I think, do there embrace,” – except that this body has been deprived of even the final dignity and comfort of a private grave.