Monday, May 9, 2016

Sad streets of war

Village of Festubert, Photo Visa Paris
One hundred years ago, soldier-poet Edmund Blunden visited what remained of the village of Festubert in northern France.  A year earlier, on May 15th of 1915, the British had attacked Festubert in their first night attack of the war.  In the ten-day struggle that followed, the number of British dead and wounded grew to over 16,500, while the Germans suffered over 5,000 casualties.

Blunden’s poem “Festubert, 1916” isn’t about that attack.  Instead, the poem captures the moment a full year later when a battle-worn soldier visits the desolate village.  In the quiet of the ruins, he hears the echoes of men who fought and died; he is a silent witness to the fluttering grey rags of their decaying uniforms and the rusted remains of their discarded rifles.    

Festubert, 1916

Festubert ruins of church and dressing station,
Canada Dpt of National Defence PA004450
Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day,
I sit in solitude and only hear
Long silent laughters, murmurings of dismay,
The lost intensities of hope and fear;
In those old marshes yet the rifles lie,
On the thin breastwork flutter the grey rags,
The very books I read are there—and I
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags

Its wounded length from those sad streets of war
Into green places here, that were my own;
But now what once was mine is mine no more,
I seek such neighbours here and I find none.
With such strong gentleness and tireless will
Those ruined houses seared themselves in me,
Passionate I look for their dumb story still,
And the charred stub outspeaks the living tree.
--Edmund Blunden

These are the first two stanzas of Blunden’s longer poem (the entire poem can be read here), and they include some of my favorite lines from the poetry of the Great War:

and I
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags
Its wounded length from those sad streets of war

The poem echoes with lonely exhaustion, and in its images we feel the heaviness of grief and empty loss. “Festubert, 1916” solemnly testifies to an inescapable truth: no matter how the war ends, the world will be forever changed.



5 comments:

  1. When he had finally reached his decision to entrust his private war memories to paper, which he did in Undertones of War (1928), Edmund Blunden wrote that "I must go over the ground again". To that statement he added in one of his poems that, in his perception, "the charred stub outspeaks the living tree".

    Just northeast of Ypres another 19 war dead were found in the course of digging works preliminary to installing a new gas mains.

    There is so much truth in The Northern Irish poet Michael Longley's verse that "there never will be an end to cleaning up after the war" (poem The War Graves).
    As Wilfred Owen once wrote: "That is why the true poets should be truthful."
    However, who cares for the truth that poets speak, I have often wondered.

    Warm regards, and keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Chris, for the richness of the additional information you've added. I, too, wonder who cares for the truth that poets speak. Your work in this area is making a difference (I tried to get a copy of your book, but it's nearly impossible in the US).

      Delete
    2. But now what once was mine is mine no more,
      I seek such neighbours here and I find none.
      With such strong gentleness and tireless will
      Those ruined houses seared themselves in me,
      Passionate I look for their dumb story still,
      And the charred stub outspeaks the living tree.

      I had never given the matter much thought, but Blunden, who must somehow have remained "stuck in time", literally repeats the line about he charred stub and the living tree in his later poem "1916 seen from 1921".

      Apparently unable to exorcise his ghosts of war, the poet kept coming back to the battlefields time and again after the war. Needless to say these visits only exacerbated the abyss between his obsession with the war one way, and a physical and emotional landscape that had meanwhile undergone dramatic changes, the other.

      Like many of the surviving war poets, it must have made him feel utterly and tragically alienated.

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    3. The two poems are the same, but there seems to be variation in the titling: "Festubert, 1916" and "1916 seen from 1921." I may have increased the confusion by only including the first two stanzas in my post, with a link to the full text of the poem (that includes all four stanzas).

      Chris, I find your gloss on Blunden's psychology adds richness to the experience of the poem -- thanks for sharing. Along the same lines, I find Robert Graves' poem "Sorley's Weather" to be quite moving. Here's a link to Graves' poem: http://behindtheirlines.blogspot.com/2015/10/the-ghost-of-sorley.html

      Delete
  2. When he had finally reached his decision to entrust his private war memories to paper, which he did in Undertones of War (1928), Edmund Blunden wrote that "I must go over the ground again". To that statement he added in one of his poems that, in his perception, "the charred stub outspeaks the living tree".

    Just northeast of Ypres another 19 war dead were found in the course of digging works preliminary to installing a new gas mains.

    There is so much truth in The Northern Irish poet Michael Longley's verse that "there never will be an end to cleaning up after the war" (poem The War Graves).
    As Wilfred Owen once wrote: "That is why the true poets should be truthful."
    However, who cares for the truth that poets speak, I have often wondered.

    Warm regards, and keep up the good work.

    ReplyDelete