Monday, December 1, 2014

Returning, we hear the larks


Paul Nash, Menin Road

“Dawn has never recovered from what the Great War did to it,” writes Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory.  Dawn, an archetype of hope and renewal, was for the men in the trenches one of the most anxious and exhausting times of day.  Sunrise was the time when attacks were launched and men were ordered to “go over the top.”  Additionally, the dangerous work in No Man’s Land of cutting barbed wire, gathering information on enemy positions, and rescuing the wounded was done during the night and finished at daybreak. 

Isaac Rosenberg’s poem “Returning, we hear the larks,” captures dawn and its moods in an almost painterly fashion, not surprising perhaps, as Rosenberg was both an artist and a poet (he studied at the Slade School of Art). 

Returning, we hear the larks

Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know

What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp –

On a little safe sleep.
But hark! joy – joy – strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks.
Music showering our upturned list'ning faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song –
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

The first five lines use terse, ordinary language to describe the dark terror and insidious dangers (“poison-blasted”) of the night that has gone before, as the men numb with exhaustion make their way back to their trenches and the simple hope of “a little safe sleep.” 

But everything shifts in line seven:  the language becomes Biblical (“but hark,” “Lo!”) as it tries to describe the miracle of  simple, natural bird song, almost stuttering over the word “joy” as it is repeated three times.  It is impossible to forget that “Death could drop from the dark,” but for that one dawn moment, everything is caught up in the strange beauty of “music showering” that washes and cleanses the men from the mud and horror of the night.  They share in the communion of song, looking heavenward towards the “heights of night ringing with unseen larks.”  Their numbness has been replaced by an exaltation of larks. 

And then another shift:  the “But” that begins line 12 signals the change, a return to hopelessness and fear. It isn’t that “only song” dropped – but that the song “only dropped,” fading away as quickly as it had come.  The last three lines go further, warning against such moments of joy, for  the larks’ music is like the song of the sirens, compared to images of impermanent beauty that conceal danger and threat. 

The beauty and the joy are real, but the poem’s warning is also clear:  in times of war, those who let themselves feel, those who are mindful of their surroundings and who look for small miracles of grace, open themselves up to distractions that can kill and to a vulnerability that can lead to madness. 

In August of 1916, writing home to a friend, Rosenberg said, “I am determined that this war, with all its powers for devastation, shall not master my poeting; that is, if I am lucky enough to come through all right.  I will not leave a corner of my consciousness covered up, but saturate myself with the strange and extraordinary new conditions of this life, and it will all refine itself into poetry later on.” 

“Returning, we hear the larks” was written in 1917.  By early 1918, Rosenberg was struggling to stay alive, in every sense, writing, “Sometimes, I give way and am appalled at the devastation this life seems to have made in my nature.  It seems to have blunted me.  I seem to be powerless to compel my will to any direction, and all I do is without energy and interest.” 

He died two months later.  Some report that Rosenberg was killed at dawn on April 1st, 1918, when returning from a night patrol like that described in his poem.  The truth may be more complex:  for days, his battalion had been under heavy attack in what became a front-line trench in a shifting battle.  It was common each night for men to be sent out into No Man’s Land.  When his unit was relieved and ordered further back, Rosenberg wasn’t there.  Like thousands of others in the Great War, his body was never found.

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