Sunday, December 28, 2014

New Year, Shall I See Your End?


 Happy New Year -- Happy War!  That seems to be the message of this French WWI post card, with "Good Year" (the literal translation of the greeting) spelled out over bullets or artillery shells, while  interlocking guns and mistletoe frame the soldier and his sweetheart.

The war that was supposed to be over by Christmas of 1914 was settling in for a long stay. For the French poilu (the nickname for French infantry soldiers, just as the British were Tommies and the Americans doughboys), the war would have terrible costs: it is estimated that by the war’s end, over 70% of French active duty soldiers were casualties of the war (over 1.3 million dead, over 4.25 million wounded). 

Jean-Pierre Calloc’h (also known in Breton as Yann Ber Kalloch) was twenty-six when he wrote “A Song of Welcome to the New Year.” The title of the excerpt I’ve quoted from can be translated “Come, Holy Spirit!”  It begins by comparing the “blood-face of War” to that of a hungry, resentful beggar pressed against a window, staring into an extravagant ballroom as he watches the self-indulgent “wild dancing.”  Is this the face of the ordinary soldier staring into the glittering world of statesmen and power-hungry rulers?  There is little sense of joyous welcome here for the future, nor in the two similes that follow:  a prophetic, disembodied hand writes of imminent doom at the feast of an ancient Babylonian king, and the moon outshines the sun.  Both signal a world gone terribly wrong.   

Veni, Sancte Spiritus!  from A Song of Welcome to the New Year
by Jean-Pierre Calloc’h (translated by Ian Higgins)

Now in the one thousand nine hundred and fourteenth year after Christ was born in the stable;
Like the Poor man’s face all at once against the windows of the worldly rich at their wild dancing;
Like the three words on the wall, when Belshazzar made his great feast;
Like a moon of grief and terror, blinding each day’s sun with its savage splendour,
Over every contemptible horizon of the Strumpet Europe,
The blood-face of War!
And before that terrible Star every star fell back, cast into the depths of night;
And all works ceased, until the Great Work should be wrought;
And men fixed their eyes upon fields of carnage, the place of celebration of a great Mystery, a transcendental Sacrifice,
The Mass whose celebrant is Fire, its unexampled music the gun, the Mass whose victim they call the son of man.

I sleep no more.  There is a voice in the winter night, calling to me, a strange voice;
A strong voice, and harsh, a voice accustomed to command: such a voice rings agreeably in young men’s ears;
(And it is no woman’s voice, nor that mermaid voice that haunts the Celtic sea);
A voice that none can disobey: War, howling at the frontiers.
I will obey.  Soon I shall be with my brothers, a soldier following soldiers.
Soon I shall be among the slaughter…What signs are on my brow?  New year, shall I see your end?
But it is of no account! Sooner, or later, when the hour to approach the Father sounds,
I shall go with gladness.  Jesus shall comfort our mothers.
Be blessed, new year, even should, among your three hundred and sixty-five days, there be my last!....
New year, year of war!  Be blessed, even should you 
bring, wrapped in the folds of your cloak, next to springtime for the world, death for me. 


The new year that this French soldier welcomes in 1915 is not heralded with merry song:  instead, like a ravenous beast intent on devouring all before it, war “howls at the frontiers.”  Here are no  amorous meetings with sweethearts under the mistletoe, but rather men who go to meet their brothers “upon fields of carnage.”

And yet….this poem does welcomes the new year and invites the Spirit of God to join in marking a new beginning. Calloc’h’s poem recognizes the suffering that is to come and still names the field of tragedy as “the place of celebration of a great Mystery, a transcendental Sacrifice.”  Even the valley of the shadow of death can be welcomed if he walks there with his Father God.  What is easily dismissed today as naïve superstition was for Calloc’h a bedrock of belief that allowed him to say, “I shall go with gladness.” 

The mystical poet would live to see the beginning of the next new year, but would not live to see the end of the war:  he was killed in action in April of 1917. 







Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Gift of Gentleness

May Wedderburn Cannan is best known for her war poem “Rouen” (one of the most-anthologized war poems written by a woman), but her short poem “Since They Have Died,” written in February of 1916, has one of the most poignant first lines of any poem written during The Great War. 

Since They Have Died by May Wedderburn Cannan

Since they have died to give us gentleness,
And hearts kind with contentment and quiet mirth,
Let us who live also give happiness
And love, that’s born of pity, to the earth.

For, I have thought, some day they may lie sleeping
Forgetting all the weariness and pain,
And smile to think their world is in our keeping,
And laughter comes back to the earth again.


This is another war poem that stands in the present moment looking both to the past (“Since they have died”) and to the future (“Let us who live”).  There comes a shock when Cannan juxtaposes  the incredible violence of the first industrial war with the gentleness, contentment, and “quiet mirth” that men fought to preserve (Thomas Kettle’s poem, “For My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God,” describes just one instance of this). 

Like Kettle’s poem, Cannan’s is also about a gift, the gift of the future for which men were dying.  In a war cemetery in India (WWI was not limited to the Western Front), one can read the epitaph, “When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”  

Cannan’s poem, written in early 1916, makes it clear that the future isn’t certain:  she is able only to hope that “some day they may lie sleeping” and may “smile to think their world is in our keeping.”  She writes from a present in which death is certain, but love and laughter are not (her fiancé was fighting in some of the bloodiest battles of the Western Front – he survived, only to die in the influenza epidemic of 1919 before returning home). 

In this poem, any future love is "born of pity."  Wilfred Owen wrote, “My subject is War, and the pity of War.  The Poetry is in the pity.”  What do these writers mean by “the pity" of war?  Some argue that Owen meant that the pity of war was the tragedy that war and suffering are ineradicable parts of the human condition.  But that doesn’t seem to be what May Wedderburn Cannan means here.  

In 1915, she volunteered in France for four weeks at a railway canteen for soldiers.  Such canteens were “somewhere for soldiers to have some vital human contact, amidst horror or impending fear” (from the National Railway Museum website).  It seems likely this experience would have forged in Cannan a strong emotional tie between love and pity, both for the new recruits who were headed to the front lines and for the wounded men who were traveling home.


While not strictly a Christmas poem, this seems a fitting season to remember that others have sacrificed their world into “our keeping,” so that we can give happiness and love, so that laughter can “come back to the earth again.”  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Singing into the Silence

Paul Nash, The Ypres Salient at Night


In this year of centenary remembrance, many contemporary poets have written about the Great War.  Anthony Wilson, a poet and faculty member at the University of Exeter, has generously allowed me to share his poem on the Christmas truce.

Natalia Goncharova, "The Christian Host"
Truce by Anthony Wilson

Just who gave the order
no one knew.
They say there wasn’t one.

Stille Nacht in no man’s,
its accordion leaking like gas
across the frost.

One by one came stars,
better to pick out limp rags
of surrender.

What I remember next is nothing,
if absence is what nothing is,
a song into which we sang silence.

Witnesses, we witnessed it.
We were part of that cloud, and lost in it.


The poem breaks the silence with “Just who gave the order,” and then changes the landscape of military command in the short line “no one knew.”  No order, only rumor and not knowing – that is what made the miracle of peace possible.  Men stepped out into the no-man’s land of not knowing.  In the absence of hostilities, into the empty space created by the silent guns, the imagined soldier of the poem remembers filling the nothingness with a song “into which we sang silence.”   

Subtly, the poem invites us to compare the first Christmas with the truce of 1914:  the “limp rags of surrender” suggest the swaddling clothes, the stars that appeared “one by one” are reflections of the single star that paused over Bethlehem, and the soldiers who witnessed the truce recall the witness of the shepherds and the cloud of angels that appeared to them. 

December 24th, 1914 was another kind of holy night, one in which men lost themselves in the miracle of communion with others, as fleeting as a cloud.    


Monday, December 15, 2014

Common Decencies of Ordinary Men: Christmas Truce Part II



Jay Winter, one of the preeminent historians of the First World War, has said, “The importance of that moment [the Christmas Truce] was that it indicated something about the humanity of soldiers, the preservation of which was so difficult over the course of fifty months of killing.”  Winter says that the Christmas Truce of 1914 gave evidence of “the common decencies of ordinary men.” 

As we remember that very special Christmas, it’s a wonderful thing to celebrate those men and let their words be heard once again.  Several years ago, the organization The Christmas Truce: Operation Plum Pudding, worked to locate, transcribe, and share actual letters of soldiers who participated in the Christmas Truce.  The letters were sent home to loved ones, and a number of them were then published as letters to the editors of local papers.  This avoided military and government censorship, as the Christmas Truce was an incident in the war that politicians and generals wanted to suppress.    

I’ve taken an excerpt from the letter of Private Heath, which was found and transcribed by Marian Robson, and reformatted it as poetry.  The letter was written on the Western Front and published in the North Mail on January 9, 1915 (it can be read in its entirety at this site).   

Fires in the English lines had died down,
and only the squelch of the sodden boots in the slushy mud,
the whispered orders of the officers and the NCOs,
and the moan of the wind
broke the silence of the night.
The soldiers' Christmas Eve had come at last,
and it was hardly the time or place
to feel grateful for it.

Memory in her shrine kept us
in a trance of saddened silence.
Back somewhere in England,
the fires were burning in cosy rooms;
in fancy I heard laughter
and the thousand melodies of reunion on Christmas Eve.

With overcoat thick with wet mud,
hands cracked and sore with the frost,
I leaned against the side of the trench,
and, looking through my loophole,
fixed weary eyes on the German trenches….

Blood and peace, enmity and fraternity –
war's most amazing paradox.

The night wore on to dawn –
a night made easier by songs from the German trenches,
the pipings of piccolos and from our broad lines
laughter and Christmas carols.
Not a shot was fired, except for down on our right,
where the French artillery were at work.

Came the dawn, pencilling the sky with grey and pink….
Then came the invitation to fall out of the trenches and meet half way.
Still cautious we hung back.
Not so the others.
They ran forward in little groups, with hands held up above their heads,
asking us to do the same.
Not for long could such an appeal be resisted –
beside, was not the courage up to now all on one side?

Jumping up onto the parapet,
a few of us advanced to meet the on-coming Germans.
Out went the hands and tightened in the grip of friendship.
Christmas had made the bitterest foes friends.
Here was no desire to kill,
but just the wish of a few simple soldiers
(and no one is quite so simple as a soldier)
that on Christmas Day, at any rate,
the force of fire should cease.

We gave each other cigarettes and exchanged all manner of things.
We wrote our names and addresses on the field service postcards,
and exchanged them for German ones.
We cut the buttons off our coats
and took in exchange the Imperial Arms of Germany.

But the gift of gifts was Christmas pudding.
The sight of it made the Germans' eyes grow wide with hungry wonder,
and at the first bite of it
they were our friends for ever.
Given a sufficient quantity of Christmas puddings,
every German in the trenches before ours would have surrendered….

(The original letter was transcribed by Marian Robson; the line breaks are my invention). 

For those wanting to know more, the web site of the U.S. National World War I Museum offers exceptional background on the Christmas Truce, including a video narrated by historian Jay Winter. 



Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Silent Christmas and Sainsbury's

The poems of WWI continue to resonate with us today because they speak to human feelings and experiences that transcend time.  Diana Gurney’s poem “The Fallen” reminds us that holidays often highlight emptiness;  we see the vacant place at the table, we fail to hear the familiar voice, we miss the loved ones we have lost. 

Our grief is often awash in uncertainty, and that’s where this short poem begins -- with a question and with the heart-wrenching admission “We do not know.”  The speaker of the poem seems paralyzed with sadness, unsure even about laying a holly wreath on the grave of “The Fallen” (holly is not only associated with festive cheer, but also with defense and domestic happiness).  There are no big actions here, only “a breath/Of our remembering.”  The dead are also quiet, and the poem is suffused in stillness.  Instead of the musical notes of “Silent Night,” we hear only a “Silent Christmas.” 

 The Fallen by Diana Gurney

Shall we not lay our holly wreath
Here at the foot of this high cross?
We do not know, perhaps a breath
Of our remembering may come
To them at last where they are sleeping,
They are quiet, they are dumb,
No more of mirth, no more of weeping,
Silent Christmas they are keeping;
Ours the sorrow, ours the loss.

What is the appropriate response to loss and war at Christmas time? The British grocery chain Sainsbury's has generated a lot of controversy with their Christmas ad that remembers the 1914 Christmas truce.  Some have accused the ad of being exploitative and tasteless, using “millions of deaths” to sell wrapping paper and frozen food (here’s a critique that appeared in the The Telegraph).  Others say the ad is a poignant and moving tribute that also reminds us of soldiers today who won’t be home for Christmas (here's an example from the Daily Express).  How to remember war?  Some say that we shouldn’t even be using the word “commemoration,” but instead refer to “centenary events.”


If you don’t like your history and remembrance served up by a supermarket, I recommend the film Joyeux Noel – or just take a moment out of the holiday bustle for silence and stillness as Diana Gurney’s “The Fallen” suggests.  

Friday, December 5, 2014

But for a Dream




German Christmas card

In September of 1916, as the Royal Dublin Fusiliers prepared to join the fight at the Battle of the Somme, their leader, a thirty-six year old father, wrote a poem that looked back to Christ’s birth and dedicated it to one of his most precious treasures, his three-year-old daughter, Elizabeth.  Few people have heard of Thomas Kettle or his poem, “To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God” – and I hope that in some small way, this blog post begins to change that. 

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God
(Elizabeth Dorothy)

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsmen shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

The poem sits on the knife-edge of the present: it begins by looking to the future, and it ends reflecting on the past as it wraps present, past, and future into a single vision of purpose. 

In the first lines, thinking ahead to the future, Tom Kettle anticipates the arrival of “wiser days” when the rosebud matures into beautiful bloom, and his young daughter becomes a woman.  He describes her coming of age as a “desired, delayed, incredible time,” words that not only feel good in the mouth with the steady rhythm of the alliterative ‘d,” but that hold together the sense of growing up both too quickly and too slowly, all of the changes unbelievable as they unfold and unfurl like the petals of the rose. 

Kettle envisions his daughter asking about him and about his motivations for leaving her so long ago to die fighting for Britain in a war that wasn’t popular in Ireland.  Anticipating that others will try to twist his motivations to suit their agendas, he composes his personal answer to his daughter-of-the-future in the second half of the poem, shaping beauty and meaning out of a war that offered little of either. 

Kettle wants his daughter to know that he didn’t die for a country, but “for a dream,” for tidings of great joy and reconciliation that were revealed in a humble stable, that were for all people, but especially for the poor in spirit, for the humble who are promised the kingdom of heaven.  And looking again at the title, one can admire the perfect rightness and double meaning of “The Gift of God,” recalling both his daughter and the baby born in the “herdsmen shed.” 

WWI Recruiting Poster
© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13638)
Kettle’s wife, Mary, wrote “What chiefly appealed to him in Catholicity was its mystery and its gospel of mercy.  He abjured the self-righteous who, he used to say, went round as if they were “live monuments erected by God in honour of the Ten Commandments.” 

Writing about the Western Front, a place that seemed very far from heaven, mystery, and mercy, Kettle penned an essay “Silhouettes from the Front”:  “…Over there in front across No Man’s Land there are shell-holes and unburied men.  Strange things happen there.  Patrols and counterpatrols come and go.  There are two sinister fences of barbed wire, on the barbs of which blood-stained strips of uniform and fragments more sinister have been known to hang uncollected for a long time.  The air is shaken with diabolical reverberations; it is stabbed with malign illumination as the Very lights shoot up, broaden to a blaze, and go out.” 

This is a man who knows war, yet still believes in the dream. 

In late July of 1916, he wrote to his wife, Mary Sheehy Kettle (who was adored by the adolescent James Joyce and believed to be the model for the young female character in the short story “Araby” and for Miss Ivors in “The Dead”), “What impresses and moves me above all is the amazing faith, patience and courage of the men.  To me it is not a sort of looking-down-on but rather a looking-up-to appreciation of them.  I pray and pray and am afraid! –they go quietly and heroically on.  God bless them and make me less inferior to them.”

Tom Kettle

And a few weeks later, again in a letter to his wife, he wrote, “....If God spares me I shall accept it as a special mission to preach love and peace for the rest of my life.  If He does not, I know now in my heart that for anyone who is dead but who has loved enough, there is provided some way of piercing the veils of death and abiding close to those whom he has loved till that end which is the beginning.  I want to live, too, to use all my powers of thinking, writing and working to drive out of civilization this foul thing called War and to put in its place understanding and comradeship….” 

In his last letter to Mary, Tom Kettle said, “The long-expected is now close to hand.  I was at Mass and Communion this morning at 6 o.c., the camp is broken up, and the column is about to move.  It is no longer indiscreet to say that we are to take part in one of the biggest attacks of the war.  Many will not come back.  Should that be God’s design for me you will not receive this letter until afterwards.  I want to thank you for the love and kindness you spent and all but wasted on me.  There was never in all the world a dearer woman or a more perfect wife and adorable mother.  My heart cries for you and Betty whom I may never see again.  I think even that it is perhaps better that I should not see you again.  God bless and keep you!  If the last sacrifice is ordained think that in the end I wiped out all the old stains. Tell Betty her daddy was a soldier and died as one.  My love, now at last clean will find a way to you…”

Four days after writing the poem, Kettle and his men were ordered “over the top” in an assault on the German lines.  He was shot nearly immediately, and a friend wrote of the moment, “…he only lasted about one minute, and he had my crucifix in his hands.  Then Boyd took all the papers and things out of Tom’s pockets in order to keep them for Mrs. Kettle, but poor Boyd was blown to atoms in a few minutes.  The Welsh Guards buried Mr. Kettle’s remains.” 








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.