Dreamers were perhaps more common in the trenches of the Great War than has been previously acknowledged. Imaginative soldiers “seized a star-beam” and climbed out of the trenches to join “star and bird and wind and rain” (see “Bivouacs” by Gilbert Waterhouse) or mentally removed themselves from the unspeakable horrors of the front lines:
"Over! How the mud sucks! Vomits red the barrage.
But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs."
William Oliphant Down was a West Country man, born in Somerset and raised in Dorset. Before the war, he had achieved recognition for a play "as iridescent as a soap bubble," the 1911 one-act fantasy The Maker of Dreams, which asserted that “the greatest thing that dreams are made of is love.”*
While rotating in and out of the front lines of battle, Down continued writing plays and poetry. Three of his trench poems are parodies, reshaping popular songs and poems. In “Picardy Parodies No. 2,” he turns his wry humor to reshaping W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Down’s poem satirizes the loss of individual freedom and volition in war.
Picardy Parodies No. 2 (W.B. Y..ts)
I will arise and go not, and go to Picardy
|Lough Gill and Lake Isle of Innisfree, vintage postcard|
And a new trench-line hold there, of clay and shell-holes made,
No dug-outs shall I have there, nor a hive for the Lewis G.,
But live on top in the b. loud glade.
And I may cease to be there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the mouth of the Minnie to where the sentry sings;
There noon is high explosive, and night a gunfire glow,
And evening full of torpedoes’ wings.
I will arise and go now, though always night and day
I’ll feel dark waters lapping with low sounds by the store,
Where all our bombs grow rusty and countless S.A.A.;
I’ll feel it in my trench-feet sore.
--William Oliphant Down
In Yeat’s original poem (which can be read here), the speaker rises and retreats to the idyllic charms of an Irish lake, where he builds a small cabin, plants beans, tends bees, and finds peace “alone in the bee-loud glade.” The poem describes the simple beauties of an island sanctuary: the morning songs of crickets, the purple glow of noon, the evening skies full of birds in flight, and the soft glimmer of midnight.
|After the Battle, Paul Nash (1918)|
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2706)
In Down’s parody of Yeats' poem, the speaker rises, but is unable to go anywhere. In Picardy, men dwell in a state of paralysis, and the stagnation and mud cannot be escaped. Soldiers live and work in water-logged trenches and struggle against the corrosive damp that attacks everything from their Lewis machine guns to the store of bombs and small arms ammunition (S.A.A.). In early July of 1916, the Berkshire Regiment’s War Diary reported, “The trenches were in a very bad condition, full of water and mud…the water in many places was waist deep.” Down's parody transforms the gently lapping lake waves of Lough Gill to dark, fetid pools that rot even the feet of the soldiers.
The soundscape of the two poems is also sharply different: in Picardy, the silence of nature has been invaded by artillery blasts, the rattle of gunfire, and the shouts of a sentry as incoming “Minnies” fall on the trenches. The effects of the Minenwerfer, a German short-range artillery trench mortar, are described in the 1918 book Lingo of No Man’s Land: “The mortars throw a shell one thousand one hundred forty feet away, and even though no fragments touch him, the concussion is so great that a man’s insides burst like a kernel of popcorn and death is usually instantaneous.”†
Night and day are undifferentiated in this world of madness and mud. The only peace to be found in Picardy “comes dropping slow,” as the only escape is death.
With no end to the war in sight, men were forced to adapt to nearly unendurable conditions of life in the trenches. Writing parodies and reshaping familiar songs and poems may have provided some semblance of autonomy and control in a world that offered very little of either.
William Oliphant Down died of wounds and escaped his war on May 23, 1917. He was most likely shot by enemy machine gun fire on the night of May 22nd as his unit was relieving the Glosters near Demicourt, France. Harold Veasey, in the Foreword to Down’s posthumously published book of poems notes, “His was a nature that abhorred war and its attendant horrors; it is, therefore, remarkable that this dreamer and idealist should have developed into such a very gallant and capable soldier.”††
|Memorial at St. Mary's, Gillingham|
Photo by Mr. C.E. Moreton
*“The Maker of Dreams: Some Press Opinions” from George Otis, The Stupid Witness and “Lecture Given on “Maker of Dreams,” The Columbia Spectator, 27 March 1915.
**The War Service of the ¼ Royal Berkshire Regiment (T.F.) by C.R.M.F. Cruttwell
†Lingo of No Man’s Land by Sergt. Lorenzo N. Smith, a soldier who fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, p. 36.
††Poems by Oliphant Down, 1921.