Monday, January 8, 2018

At the Front

German field hospital
German writer Wilhelm Klemm, born in Leipzig in 1881, was trained as a physician.  In 1915, serving as a doctor with the German army in Flanders, Klemm published his first volume of poetry titled Gloria! War Poems from the Field.  An American review in 1916 named Klemm as one of two “young artists who preferred emphasizing the realities of war to boasting their ‘Veterlandsliebe [Patriotism]’” and compared his work to Walt Whitman’s Drum-taps.*

At the Front

Woodcut from Gloria! by Wilhelm Klemm
The countryside is desolate.
The fields look tear-stained.
A grey cart is going along an evil road.
The roof has slipped off a house.
Dead horses lie rotting in pools.

The brown lines back there are trenches.
On the horizon a farm is taking its time to burn.
Shells explode, echo away, pop, pop pauuu.

Clouds of shrapnel burst open and fade away.
A defile takes us in. Infantrymen are halted there, wet and muddy.
Death is as much a matter of indifference as the rain which is coming on.
Who cares about yesterday, today, or tomorrow?

And the barbed wire runs across the whole of Europe.
The forts sleep gently.
Villages and towns stink out of their terrible ruins.
Like broken dolls the dead lie between the lines.
            —Wilhelm Klemm, translated by Patrick Bridgwater

Der Krieg (The War), Otto Dix
It is tempting to contrast Klemm’s poetry with that of another military doctor serving in the Ypres Salient, John McCrae, the Canadian physician who wrote “In Flanders Fields.” Klemm paints the war in dreary tones of brown and grey, a foul-smelling miasma of rot and stench. Larks do not bravely sing, nor do poppies blow in the desolate fields of “At the Front.”  The dead do not rest beneath crosses, but instead lie unburied between the lines, “like broken dolls.”

Contrasted with the active challenge of the
dead in McCrae’s poem (“Take up our quarrel with the foe”), both the dead and living men in Klemm’s poem are depicted as immobile, numb, and indifferent.  Instead, it is the anthromorphized countryside, villages, and objects of war that live, breathe, and act: roofs slip off homes, farms burn in a leisurely manner, shrapnel and shells burst and explode, while forts quietly sleep, and barbed wire stretches itself across the continent of Europe.  
Wilhelm Klemm

Klemm chose a quotation from Goethe to introduce his collection of war poetry: “Alles vergangliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” (Everything is only a parable or Every fleeting thing is only a simile).  In what ways might “At the Front” invite readers to a deeper understanding of life at the front? Caught up in the paralysis of war, the speaker of Klemm’s poem can only bear witness, much like Whitman in his poem “The Wound-Dresser”:

Aroused and angry,
I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war;
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead. 

Perhaps that is the lesson: awful silence may be needed before violence can be stilled.  
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* Alec W. G. Randall, “German Poets and the War.” The Living Age, Vol. 289, no. 3745, 15 April, 1916, p. 189.
A military term used to refer to a narrow pass through which soldiers can advance only in single file or a narrow column.   

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