Epiphany or “Three Kings Day” is celebrated on January 6th , so it seems only fitting to share a poem from World War I that ends with the scent of frankincense. “High Barbary” was written by J. Howard Stables and published in his small book of verse, The Sorrow that Whistled, in late 1916. Stables enlisted early in the war and served with the 15th Gurkha Rifles in India, Northeastern Pakistan, and what was then Mesopotamia and is now modern Iraq.
“High Barbary” reminds us that the Great War extended far beyond the Western Front: some of the fiercest fighting occurred at sea, on Turkish beaches in the Gallipoli Campaign, in the high Alps between Italy and Austria-Hungary, and in the Middle East. “Barbary” is the romantic name given to the coast of North Africa, and at a first reading, the poem appears to romanticize wars of the past, when Barbary pirates attacked merchant ships, raided cattle (“harried kine”), and pillaged Italian villages. The choice of the word “pillaged” itself is subtle and apt, for it has become a euphemism for the violence and terror that armies inflict on civilians during war, associated mainly with the distant past.
“High Barbary” by J. Howard Stables
The distant mountains’ jagged, cruel line
Cuts the imagination as a blade
Of dove-grey Damascene. In many a raid
Here Barbary pirates drave the ships of wine
Back to Sicilian harbours, harried kine,
Pillaged Calabrian villages and made
The land a desolation….
Saracens, Moors, Phoenicians—all the East,
Franks, Huns, Walloons, the pilgrims of the Pope,
All, all are gone. The clouds are trailing hence:
So goes to Benediction some proud priest
Sweeping the ground with embroidered golden cope.
--Go, gather up the fumes of frankincense.
The poem invites us to look out over an alien landscape, but to see deeper with the eyes of the imagination that cut “as a blade/Of dove-grey Damascene.” Damascus steel was famous for its use in swords and knives, but when used as an adjective, “Damascene” refers to a moment of insight that transforms one’s beliefs and attitudes – an epiphany.
That transformation from romanticism to emptiness and loss occurs in the last line of the first stanza of this short poem: the ellipsis and stanza break demand that we pause and consider the consequences of the raids that have made the “land a desolation.” The second stanza continues the shift, as names of past and present combatants and victims are jumbled together in a Whitmanesque catalog of war (“Huns” was the derogatory term used for Germans and “Walloons” are French-speakers of Belgium). Linked by their absence, “All, all are gone.” The words seem almost prophetic in naming the “Lost Generation” who were killed during The Great War (an estimated 17 million dead).
The clouds of death (perhaps also evoking the deadly gas that was used in the war) are “trailing hence,” while a “proud priest” in his finery seems to indifferently continue the ritual of blessing. What are we to do or think? The poem commands us to do the impossible, as if no rational response to war can be made: we are to “gather up the fumes of frankincense.” More than anything, the poem is saturated with images of impermanence, of things that fade and are lost forever.
Like so many others, Stables did not survive the war but died at age 21 in a battle near Baghdad in early 1917. He has no known burial place, as his body was never found. Wounded and left behind when the British troops withdrew, he is presumed to have died in enemy hands. His name, however, is on the BASRA memorial in modern Iraq. Due to recent wars and tensions in that country, the entire memorial was moved in 1997 from its original location to the middle of what was a major battleground during the first Gulf War.
On a final note of irony, here is what one reviewer wrote about Stables' volume of poetry when it was published in 1916: "The Sorrow that Whistled is an unusual little book, as suits with its name. The writer, whom one takes to be young, revels in Eastern colour and fragrance. He can do something quite good and simple...On the other hand, he can do something extremely bad...Yet there is here a promise, and, not unconnected with it, indications that J.H. Stables is a young soldier. There could be no better school for a young poet who wants to shed the faults of youth than the trenches."