Friday, September 6, 2019

Sassoon's "Thrushes"

Thrushes in flight, photo by Karen Woolley
After earning a Military Cross for bravery, making public his letter “Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration,” undergoing treatment for shell shock at Craiglockhart Hospital, and deciding to return to his men and the battlefront, Siegfried Sassoon found himself at Litherland military camp in December of 1917. His diary records his mood:
Came to Litherland on December 11. Since then have eaten, slept, played a few rounds of golf at Formby, walked on the shore by the Mersey mouth, and am feeling healthy beyond measure. I intend to lead a life of light-hearted stupidity. I have done all I can to protest against the war and the way it is prolonged. At least I will try and be peaceful-minded for a few months–after the strain and unhappiness of the last seven months. It is the only way by which I can hope to face horrors of the front without breaking down completely. I must try to think as little as possible. And write happy poems. (Can I?)*

Sassoon’s poem “Thrushes” had been written shortly before his release from Craiglockhart as Sassoon prepared himself to return to battle; it was published in the Hydra in November of 1917. 


Tossed on the glittering air they soar and skim,   
Whose voices make the emptiness of light   
A windy palace. Quavering from the brim   
Of dawn, and bold with song at edge of night,   
They clutch their leafy pinnacles and sing   
Scornful of man, and from his toils aloof
Whose heart's a haunted woodland whispering;   
Whose thoughts return on tempest-baffled wing;   
Who hears the cry of God in everything,   
And storms the gate of nothingness for proof.
            —Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon
In April of 1916, Sassoon recorded in his diary, “Since March 26th I have done 18 days in the trenches,—and those days & nights are a mechanical & strained effort,—Coming away from it all—to find the world outside really acknowledging the arrival of spring—oh it was a blessed thing…. Sunset was fading with a long purple-gray cloud above the west, & oh the wood was still, with slender stems of trees, all in their vesture of young green—& bluebells were on the ground, & young fresh grass, & blackbirds & thrushes scolding & singing in the quiet, & the smell of wet mould, wet earth, wet leaves—& voices of children coming up from a cottage below the hill. It was a virgin sanctuary of peace for my soul & heaven for my eyes & music for my ears; it was Paradise, & God, & the promise of life.”**

In his study of nature and the British soldier in the Great War, John Lewis-Stempl writes, “Birds had a special place in the hearts and minds of men on the Western Front…. Although birds lived in their own world, they were also the ‘link’ to God. More than any other fauna, birds possessed the ability to carry the watcher ‘heavenwards.’”

After the war, Sassoon told Professor Lewis Chase that his poem “Invocation,” “together with “Thrushes,” was the only ‘pure poetry’ in Counter-Attack.”††
* Siegfried Sassoon, 11 Dec. 1917, Diaries, pp. 2v, 3r,
** Sassoon, Diaries, April 1917, pp. 7v, 9r,
John Lewis-Stempel, Where Poppies Blow, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016, pp. 33, 62.
†† Sassoon, qtd in Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon: The Making of a War Poet, Duckworth, 1998, p. 438.

Friday, August 30, 2019

I know the truth

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1914
Regarded as one of the finest Russian poets of the twentieth century, Marina Tsvetaeva was a witness to war and revolution.  Born in Moscow in 1892, her father was a professor of Fine Art at the University of Moscow, and her mother was a concert pianist, with strong family ties to Germany and Poland. Her mother wished Marina to become a concert pianist and disparaged her daughter’s writing.  In later life, Tsvetaeva was to write, “With a mother like her, I had only one choice: to become a poet.”  

Before her marriage in 1912, Tsvetaeva traveled extensively in Europe, attending school in Switzerland and studying literature at the Sorbonne. When Russia declared war on Germany in 1914, her husband volunteered for the Russian army; she adopted a pacifist stance.  Tsvetaeva composed “defiantly pro-German poems [that] she wrote and read in public during World War I,” and in her essay “On Germany,” written shortly after the war, she wrote, “Politics is a self-evident abomination from which nothing but further abominations should be expected. The very idea of trying to bring ethics into politics!”*


I know the truth! Renounce all others!
There’s no need for anyone to fight.
For what? – Poets, generals, lovers?
Look: it’s evening, look: almost night.
Ah, the wind drops, earth is wet with dew,
Ah, the snow will freeze the stars that move.
And soon, under the earth, we’ll sleep too,
Who never would let each other sleep above.
                        3rd October, 1915
            —Marina Tsvetaeva, translated by A.S. Kline

Russian soldiers suffered greatly due to a severe shortage of weapons and munitions. Lacking artillery shells, machine guns, and rifles, they had little choice but to carry out what became known as the Great Retreat in September of 1915. Tsvetaeva’s poem is a desperate cry for peace, made with the certain knowledge that the war will continue.  As surely as night will fall, snow will fall, and men will continue to fall by the hundreds of thousands. There will be no end to the killing until death claims more victims than can be counted.  Scholar Catherine Ciepiela writes, Tsvetaeva “asks too much; her demands are embarrassing and improprer; she ‘makes one feel guilty’ as one critic has phrased it…. She speaks, that is, as all human subjects would like to speak but dare not.”**

Marina Tsvetaeva and family in Prague
from Russia Beyond
Tsvetaeva was in Moscow expecting the birth of her second child, hoping to be reunited with her husband, when the Russian Revolution of 1917 occurred.  Unable to leave the city, believing her husband to have been killed by the Bolsheviks, and with no family to assist her, she and her children struggled in abject poverty during the famine that followed.  By 1919, she felt she had no option but to place her two young daughters (Alya, born in 1912 and Irina, born in 1917) in a state orphanage, hoping they could be fed.  Alya survived, but Irina died there of starvation in 1920. Reunited with her husband in Berlin in 1922, Marina continued to write poetry, but the family were impoverished exiles, moving from Berlin to Prague until eventually settling in Paris.  By 1939, they had returned to Moscow, but under Stalin’s regime, their lives were intolerable. On August 31, 1941, Tsvetaeva hanged herself; her husband was shot two months later, and their daughter Alya would spend sixteen years in Soviet prison camps. After Alya’s release, she wrote an account of her family’s life of unrelenting tragedy, No Love Without Poetry: The Memoirs of Marina Tsvetaeva's Daughter (English translation published by Northwestern UP in 2009). 
* Simon Karlinsky, Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry, Cambridge UP, 1986, p. 67.
**Catherine Ciepiela, “The Demanding Woman Poet,” PMLA, May 1966, p. 430.