Thursday, July 23, 2015

Haunted

Robert Graves

If you had to choose:  the excitement of war or three years of dull research and study at a prestigious university?   According to John Stallsworthy, Robert Graves, a young man who had been awarded a scholarship in Classics to Cambridge after having "spent fourteen of his nineteen years studying Latin and Greek" was thankful for the outbreak of the First World War, seeing it as a reprieve from further drudgery in Latin and Greek.

Nothing was dull about Graves' experiences on the Somme in July of 1916.  A little more than two weeks after the battle had started, Graves was seriously injured in an artillery barrage:  "One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up, near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to escape emasculation.  The wound over the eye was made by a little chip of marble….This and a finger-wound which split the bone, probably came from another shell bursting in front of me.  But a piece of shell had also gone in two inches below the point of my right shoulder-blade and came out through my chest two inches above the right nipple."  So seriously wounded that he was reported dead (his obituary appeared in The Times, and his family received a letter of death on his twenty-first birthday), Graves survived the war. 

But what did it mean to survive The Great War?  The men who returned to their home towns brought with them experiences they could not forget, terrible memories of the war and of the men whom they had left behind. 

Haunted
Robert Graves

Gulp down your wine, old friends of mine,
Roar through the darkness, stamp and sing
And lay ghost hands on everything,
But leave the noonday's warm sunshine
To living lads for mirth and wine.

I met you suddenly down the street,
Strangers assume your phantom faces,
You grin at me from daylight places,
Dead, long dead, I'm ashamed to greet
Dead men down the morning street. 
Beckett and Teeuwisse, The Independent (22 May 2014)
In this poem, it is not the survivors who drink to forget, but the ghosts who carouse, gulp wine, roar through darkness," and "stamp and sing."  The life and energy of the dead who "lay ghost hands on everything" stands in sharp contrast to the hesitant survivor who is "ashamed to greet/Dead men down the morning street." 

Robert Graves
Years after the Armistice, Graves wrote, "Not only did I have no experience of independent civilian life, having gone straight from school into the army: I was still mentally and nervously organized for war. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy [Grave's wife] shared it with me….I knew it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life."*

For those who lived to see the end of the war, the most mundane circumstances of each day were colored with death and haunted by the shadows and empty places of the nine million who would never return.  Nations and societies were altered forever, not only by those who were lost, but by those who lived on and could not forget. 



*Graves is best known for his war memoir Goodbye to All That; Tim Kendall in Poetry of the First World War says, "In later years, Graves did not greatly value his soldier poetry, suppressing much of it" (192). 

2 comments:

  1. Hello, Connie. I've been checking in on your blog since you joined our WWI Meetup group. I'm very impressed by the breadth of your knowledge and scholarship - and even more so by your energy and commitment to the blog. So interesting, and so well presented. I'm only a blogger wannabee at the moment.

    Several members of the Meetup group toured Soldiers & Sailors Museum today, then had lunch afterwards. Coincidentally, we talked about reading Graves "Goodbye to All That" as our next book discussion. It was interesting to see Graves profiled here on your blog today.

    Hope your summer and your research are going well.

    Jeannine
    Remembering the First World War Meetup Group

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Jeannine, for your time in reading the blog! Looking forward to getting together this fall. :)

    ReplyDelete