Friday, February 20, 2015

A healing magic

Killed May 13, 1915

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a term that wasn't known or used during the First World War.  Those who experienced debilitating psychological effects as a result of war trauma were instead labeled as victims of "shell shock."   Tracey Loughran's excellent article "Shell Shock,Trauma, and the First World War" explores the ways in which "…across the decades and the centuries, such suffering has manifested itself differently in different individuals and in different conflicts. In many times and places, it has been ignored or acknowledged only informally or in passing. Elsewhere, and above all during the twentieth century, it has been 'diagnosed' and therefore 'treated' in different ways, and consequently experienced differently." 

Colwyn Philipps was never diagnosed with shell shock.  A captain in the Royal Horse Guards, he arrived in the Ypres Salient in early November of 1914.  Less than six months later, at the age of 26, he was killed in an attack on German lines.  He has no known grave: his name is one of the 54,896 listed on the Menin Gate memorial. 

When his belongings were sent home to his mother in Wales, the poem "Release" was found among his possessions.

Release by Colwyn Philipps
(Found in his note-book when his kit came home)

There is a healing magic in the night,
The breeze blows cleaner than it did by day,
Forgot the fever of the fuller light,
And sorrow sinks insensibly away
As if some saint a cool white hand did lay
Upon the brow, and calm the restless brain.
The moon looks down with pale unpassioned ray -
Sufficient for the hour is its pain.
Be still and feel the night that hides away earth's stain.
Be still and loose the sense of God in you,
Be still and send your soul into the all,
The vasty distance where the stars shine blue,
No longer antlike on the earth to crawl.
Released from time and sense of great or small,
Float on the pinions of the Night-Queen's wings;
Soar till the swift inevitable fall
Will drag you back into all the world's small things;
Yet for an hour be one with all escaped things.

It is so very easy to picture this man who attempts to forget "the fever of the fuller light" as he gazes into the night sky and searches for peace for his "restless brain."  The poem suggests that the night is able to wash this man from the filth of war with its "cleaner" breezes and the darkness that hides "earth's stain."  The night offers the gift of lightness, a time and space when not only can burdens be dropped, but the soul itself can rise above the ant-like, crawling, underground existence of the trenches and join "the vasty distance where the stars shine blue" to be "one with all escaped things." 

The Thinker on the Butte de Warlencourt, William Orpen
As if in an attempt at self-hypnosis, three times the poem chants the words "Be still," recalling Psalm 46 and its meditation on God and war:  "He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;/he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;/he burns the chariots with fire./Be still, and know that I am God.”

Staring up at the distant stars, for "an hour" this man experiences "a healing magic" and a respite from the psychological traumas that go undiagnosed for so many who must simply push on and continue to fight.  Then comes the "swift inevitable fall." As certain as the dropping of shells, the return to grim reality drags him back "into all the world's small things": the pettiness of European politics, the trivial gains made by the sacrifice of repeated "over the top" attacks, and the insignificance of individual lives. 

Several months before his death, Philipps wrote home to his mother and described an early battle experience:  "As we went through the first village, we got heavily shelled by the famous Black Marias; they make a noise just like an express train and burst like a clap of thunder, you hear them coming for ten seconds before they burst.  It was very unpleasant, and you need to keep a hold on yourself to prevent ducking – most of the men duck." 

Phillips' posthumously published book of poetry was described by the Welsh Outlook in May 1916 as "a memorial to a very gallant gentleman" in whose verse "at times he lifts the veil and suffers us  to catch glimpses of his inner self, face to face with life's realities."  His poem "Release" also serves as a memorial to all who have experienced the traumas of war, come"face to face with life's realities," and soldiered on. 

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