Friday, February 6, 2015

The Art of War

Death Awed, by Percy Smith
Drawing on his experiences at the Western Front, Richard Aldington is best known for his 1929 novel Death of a Hero.  Although it has been compared to Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Aldington's Death of a Hero "is rarely read today and much of it [Aldington's writing] languishes out of print…For those seeking an overview of the conflict or a chronicle of how it swept up and snuffed out individual lives, here is a graphic, vitriolic and incredibly moving testament" (The National).   

Aldington's novel has recently been republished, but his poetry remains largely forgotten.  His short poem "Soliloquy II" deserves to be read and remembered. 

Soliloquy II 

Aux Eparges, soldats enterrant leurs camarades au clair de lune
GP Leroux, Musee natioinal du Chateau de Versailles
I was wrong, quite wrong;
The dead men are not always carrion.

After the advance,
As we went through the shattered trenches
Which the enemy had left,
We found, lying upon the fire-step,
A dead English soldier,
His head bloodily bandaged
And his closed left hand touching the earth,

More beautiful than one can tell,
More subtly coloured than a perfect Goya,
And more austere and lovely in repose
Than Angelo's hand could ever carve in stone.

               --Richard Aldington, 1918

This soliloquy, the voicing aloud of thoughts that are then overheard by an audience, begins with a stark confession:  "I was wrong, quite wrong."  The soldier of the poem then makes a startling observation about the bodies of the dead:  they are "not always carrion."  He is compelled to assert that the corpses that surround him and that were an ever present feature of the Western Front – do not always resemble the bodies of dead animals, are not always putrefying flesh, unfit for food.  Paul Fussell, describing the front lines, writes "The stench of rotten flesh was over everything….Dead horses and dead men – and parts of both—were sometimes not buried for months and often simply became an element of parapets and trench walls" (The Great War and Modern Memory 49). 

To remain sane at the Front, men had to become numb to death.  They had to learn to see others' bodies as nothing more than "carrion." 

Goncharova's "The Pale Horse"
But after charging the German lines, this soldier finds himself with the other survivors of his company "in the shattered trenches/Which the enemy left."  And there, among the numerous "dead men," he encounters the body of an English soldier, a comrade who has been left behind by the retreating enemy. 

The specific details and unemotional description communicate the cold, material reality of death: the body has been left "lying upon the fire-step" (a shelf-like step cut into trench walls, that enabled men to peer over the top into No Man's Land and to ready themselves for attack).  The English soldier has sustained a head wound that is "bloodily bandaged," most likely by the enemy troops who left him behind, and one hand, his left, lies "closed" yet "touching the earth."  With that final gesture, did the dying soldier seek the comfort of connection with the dust to which he would soon return, or is the closed hand an act of despair and final surrender? 

The speaker cannot provide an answer, but instead turns the poem in an unexpected direction: he proclaims the dead man "More beautiful than one can tell."  Lacking words to describe the scene, the survivor turns to metaphors from art.  This corpse is "more subtly coloured" than a canvas painted by Goya, the early nineteenth-century painter who was considered to be the last of the Old Masters.  It may be significant that Goya is also regarded as the first of the moderns: his paintings bridge the tradition of the past and the ambiguities of the modern world.  Goya's series of prints The Disasters of War are disturbing in their depiction of the suffering of individuals in the face of violence that cannot be controlled.     

This dead body, this canvas, is described as "Austere," a word suggesting that which is reserved, unemotional, plain, and restrained, but also grave, grim, unbending, and cold.  More of a masterpiece than any carved in marble by Michelangelo, the corpse is "lovely in repose," a play on the French term given to rotations of rest behind the lines:  "en repos."

Perhaps the speaker feels envy of the dead man, for his war is over.  Or perhaps in this one moment and in this single body, the living soldier is again able to see death as emotionally moving and very human.  In either case, the poem records the moment of epiphany when his world has turned upside down and that which was dead certain has again become mysterious and revered. 

Other poems (such as Robert Service's "The Mourners") describe the dead as happy; Aldington's poem finds in them a beauty that can only be expressed in art. Timeless and sobering, Death speaks to us wordlessly of the ineffable human condition. 
War, by John Moody

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