Friday, January 23, 2015

O, Canada: “I will turn away my head”

Youth Mourning, George Clausen
From its opening image of “the aching womb of night,” exhaustion and pain struggle for breath throughout "The Mourners," a short poem by Canadian poet Robert Service.  The night struggles to give birth, but instead miscarries only the stillborn dead, the broken men who are scattered across the “foul, corpse-cluttered plain” of No Man’s Land. 

The Mourners by Robert Service
Sorrowing Woman, Kathe Kollwitz

I look into the aching womb of night;
    I look across the mist that masks the dead;
The moon is tired and gives but little light,
        The stars have gone to bed.

The earth is sick and seems to breathe with pain;
    A lost wind whimpers in a mangled tree;
I do not see the foul, corpse-cluttered plain,
        The dead I do not see.

The slain I would not see... and so I lift
    My eyes from out the shambles where they lie;
When lo! a million woman-faces drift
        Like pale leaves through the sky.

The cheeks of some are channelled deep with tears;
    But some are tearless, with wild eyes that stare
Into the shadow of the coming years
        Of fathomless despair.

Bamforth Song Card:  "Peace"
And some are young, and some are very old;
    And some are rich, some poor beyond belief;
Yet all are strangely like, set in the mould
        Of everlasting grief.

They fill the vast of Heaven, face on face;
    And then I see one weeping with the rest,
Whose eyes beseech me for a moment's space....
        Oh eyes I love the best!

Nay, I but dream. The sky is all forlorn,
    And there's the plain of battle writhing red:
God pity them, the women-folk who mourn!
        How happy are the dead!
In sympathy with those fighting in the trenches, the moon, the earth, and the wind also are “tired,” “sick,” and “whimper” at the death and suffering hidden in the mist and blackness.   The turn of the poem occurs when a vision breaks across the night sky.  Looking heavenward, the voice of the poem sees “a million women-faces drift/Like pale leaves through the sky.”  However, this is not an angelic host singing with joy, but instead a throng of women, young and old, tear-stained and dry-eyed, connected only by their “everlasting grief” and “fathomless despair” as they stare from the depths of night “into the shadow of the coming years.” 

The women, united in mourning, appear to do something that the man speaking in the poem cannot:  they look at the dead, while he repeats three times, in an increasingly powerful incantation, his inability and unwillingness to do so:  “I do not see the foul, corpse-cluttered plain,/The dead I do not see./The slain I would not see.” 

Robert Service was forty-one when war broke out:  he tried to enlist in the Canadian army, but was turned down for varicose veins.  Wanting to contribute to the war effort, Service became a war correspondent for Canadian newspapers while serving as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer.  In one of his news accounts of the war, Service wrote, “The skin of [the burned soldier] is a bluish colour and cracked open in ridges.  I am sorry I saw him.  After this, when they put the things that once were men into my car I will turn away my head” (quoted in Poetry of the First World War by Tim Kendall).   

“I will turn away my head” – for a man at the front to look at the dead is to admit that he may well be the next to be cut to pieces by artillery fire or caught on the barbed wire.  The voice of the poem recognizes this and foresees his own death when he sees “weeping with the rest,” the eyes of the woman he loves “the best.” The men and women who live to see those whom they love die are forever changed and scarred.  Only the dead, released from the horrors of war and the desolation of mourning are happy.   

Robert Service knew what it was to mourn.  His 1916 war poetry collection, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, was dedicated to his brother, Albert, who was killed with the Canadian infantry while fighting in France. 


  1. “I will not turn away my head”
    As you write - Robert Service knew what it was to mourn.

    As did D.H. Lawrence. Your post reminds me of Lawrence's essay "With the Guns" published in the Manchester Guardian in August 1914.
    He knew before the war began that it would be unthinkable:
    "It is a war of artillery, a war of machines, and men no more than the subjective material of the machine. It is so unnatural as to be unthinkable.

    Yet we must think of it."

    It was unthinkable then.

    It is unthinkable now. But we must think of it""

  2. Josie, I love it when poems and essays speak to one another; thank you so much for sharing the information and excerpts from D.H. Lawrence's essay. I didn't know of it -- but then again, I think that Lawrence and his writings related to the First World War are sadly overlooked (there are several exceptionally powerful poems he wrote in response to the war).