Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An intimate death


Written at the time of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson’s poem “Success is counted sweetest” describes the frustrated longing of a soldier who dies on the field of battle minutes before the victory is secured.   Just over fifty years later, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote of a similar moment in the First World War.  However, his poem “Victory” is far more intimate: the grand campaign of the war appears trivial and meaningless when compared to the death of a single ordinary man.  As Joseph Stalin was reputed to have said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

Victory
Last Message, F. Matania © IWM

I watched it oozing quietly
Out of the gaping gash.
The lads thrust on to victory
With lunge and curse and crash.

Half-dazed, that uproar seemed to me
Like some old battle-sound
Heard long ago, as quietly
His blood soaked in the ground.

The lads thrust on to victory
With lunge and crash and shout.
I lay and watched, as quietly
His life was running out. 
                        -- WW Gibson

In twelve short lines, the poem deftly sketches a moment in which the world is forever changed for two men, while the war rushes on without taking notice.  As in his poem “The Question” (previously shared on this blog), Gibson eschews the epic and heroic, and instead explores the experiences of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. 

As “the lads thrust on to victory,” they leave behind two injured comrades-in-arms, one of whom is dying.  Apart from the din of battle, with its crashes, curses, and shouts, a man helplessly watches as the blood quietly oozes from the wounded body of his friend. 

The form and the language of the poem are unassuming, using only four rhymes, common diction, and repetition (lines 3 – 4 are echoed in lines 9 – 10).  Lacking heroic language and vivid imagery, the poem simply represents the inherent contradictions of the war: deafening battles are punctuated by moments of quiet focus, and underpinning every thrusting charge is the resigned acceptance of stasis and loss. 

There is a reverence in this one death among thousands, for it is witnessed, shared, and thus sanctified by the presence of a friend.   Perhaps the greatest irony of the poem is its title, “Victory,” for what the poem wants us to see and remember is the death of one common and nameless soldier. 

WW Gibson
Gibson repeatedly tried to volunteer for the army, but was rejected four times, until he eventually succeeded in being accepted as a Private in the Motor Transport Corps.  Later in the war, he served as a medical officer’s clerk, but was never sent abroad. Gibson wrote not from first-hand experience of the war, but instead shaped his poems from news accounts and the stories of soldiers he encountered.   His writing often displays a strong sympathy with the poor and the underprivileged, and he wrote his poems, he said, to “get at people” by highlighting the war’s personal tragedies.*

*Cited in Kendall’s Poetry of the First World War (64).


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