Tuesday, July 26, 2016

December of July

Streatley Mill at Sunset, 1859
George Price Boyce

Summer: the season of fireflies, porch swings, day lilies, and beach strolls.  And yet somewhere even now, a war is raging.

One-hundred years ago, during the summer of 1916, a volunteer nurse in the First World War wrote of the enormous gulf that separated the beauty of summer in the English countryside from the carnage that British troops were experiencing at the battle of the Somme.

 July, 1916

Here in happy England the fields are steeped in quiet,
Saving for larks’ song and drone of bumble bees;
The deep lanes are decked with roses all a-riot,
With bryony and vetch and ferny tapestries.
O here a maid would linger to hear the blackbird fluting,
And here a lad might pause by wind-berippled wheat,
The lovers in the bat’s light would hear the brown owl hooting,
A Copse, Evening, 1918
A.Y. Jackson 
Before the latticed lights of home recalled their lagging feet.

But over there in France, the grass is torn and trodden,
Our pastures grow moon daisies, but theirs are strewn with lead.
The fertile, kindly fields are harassed and blood-sodden,
The sheaves they bear for harvesting will be our garnered dead.

But there the lads of England, in peril of advancing,
Have laid their splendid lives down, ungrudging of the cost;
The record—just their names here—means a moment’s careless glancing,
But who can tell the promise, the fulfilment of our lost?

Here in happy England the Summer pours her treasure
Of grasses, of flowers before our heedless feet.
The swallow-haunted streams meander at their pleasure
Through loosestrife and rushes and plumed meadow-sweet.
Yet how shall we forget them, the young men, the splendid,
Who left this golden heritage, who put the Summer by,
Who kept for us our England inviolate, defended,
But by their passing made for us December of July?
-Winifred Mabel Letts

The poem opens in rural England.  Peace settles over the fields and is broken only by birdsong and “the drone of bumble bees,” while just across the English Channel, the drone is that of incoming shells and aeroplane bombing runs.  Sunken English lanes bloom with roses, a stark contrast to the muddy French trenches littered with bodies of the dead.

The tragedy of the Somme is almost unimaginable, but how much more was it so for those hundreds of miles from the front lines? Awash in the poetry of flowers (“bryony and vetch and ferny tapestries”), those in England who waited for word of their loved ones could barely begin to comprehend the barren, blasted landscape of the Western Front.

Winifred Lett’s poem pays homage to the men who fought on the Somme; they left their “golden heritage,” choosing to “put the Summer by.” For some soldiers, the choice was deliberate and measured; others found themselves caught up in and swept along by the Great War; many were conscripts forced to join the colours. The poem reminds us that each of them surrendered the lush promise of Summer overbrimming with life, exchanging it for the task of keeping England “inviolate.”

The poem strikes a note of deep irony, however, as it comments that with their very sacrifice, the deaths of the men who laid down their "splendid lives" brought to England the bitter chill of December.  The desolation of the battlefields travelled across the English Channel, arriving with the unfathomably long lists of the missing, wounded, and dead of the Somme.  Striking deep into the heart of the summer countryside of rural England, July of 1916 was barren, bleak, and dark.
Winifred Mabel Letts


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