Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Seed Merchant's Son

Mary J. Henderson’s “The Seed Merchant’s Son” isn’t a poem of the trenches, but one from the home front, where different kinds of battles are fought, battles against despair and loss. 

The first half of Henderson’s poem lives in the past, celebrating brightness, speed, youth, and love.  The second half of the poem, by contrast, is dark, still, aged, and somber. As if with held breath, the poem asks a single question: “What could one say to him in his need?”   

The Seed Merchant's Son

The Seed-Merchant has lost his son,
His dear, his loved, his only one.

So young he was. Even now it seems
He was a child with a child's dreams.

He would race over the meadow-bed
With his bright, bright eyes and his cheeks all red.

Fair and healthy and long of limb:
It made one young just to look at him.

His school books, into the cupboard thrust,
Have scarcely had time to gather dust.

Died in the war. . . . And it seems his eyes
Must have looked at death with a child's surprise.
   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
The Seed-Merchant goes on his way:
I saw him out on his land to-day;

Old to have fathered so young a son,
And now the last glint of his youth is gone.

What could one say to him in his need?
Little there seemed to say indeed.

So still he was that the birds flew round
The grey of his head without a sound,

Careless and tranquil in the air,
As if naught human were standing there.
   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .   .
Oh, never a soul could understand
Why he looked at the earth, and the seed in his hand,

As he had never before seen seed or sod:
I heard him murmur: 'Thank God, thank God!'
                  --Mary J. Henderson

The poem achieves its poignancy as it attempts to find meaning and beauty in the midst of inexpressible sadness. The place where the poem shifts is with the ellipsis in line 11:  it asks us to pause and rest with the realities of death.  It reminds us that death nearly always comes as a surprise, whether in war or in nursing homes, and survivors have little choice but to "soldier on."  The poem acknowledges the inadequacies of language to comfort or make sense of sorrow:  “little there seemed to say indeed,” as even the birds keep silent, circling the solitary father “without a sound.”  

But perhaps most striking are the lines, “Oh, never a soul could understand/Why he looked at the earth, and the seed in his hand,/As if he had never before seen seed or sod.” 
Why does the father murmur thanks?  What prompts his prayer? 

Kathe Kollwitz, "The Grieving Parents"
One analysis of the poem suggests that the seed and earth reassure the father of rebirth and resurrection – his son lives on, whether in God’s heaven or in the cycle of nature.  Yet this seems to ignore “Oh, never a soul could understand.”  

Perhaps the poem whispers a different truth:  we cannot ever fully know another’s grief nor understand this man’s way of dealing with the despair of losing his only son.  Indeed, we often can’t fully understand or communicate our own griefs.  There are no good explanations for the boy’s death or the father’s words; grief and faith are mysteries to which we can only quietly surrender.      

Thursday, November 20, 2014

It is terrible to be always homesick

The war poetry of Francis Ledwidge is little known and frequently dismissed as being overly dreamy and disconnected from the reality of the trenches.   An Irishman from County Meath, Ledwidge was a poet before the war, and he writes of folklore, fairies, and the country landscapes of his home. 

Shortly after enlisting, in November of 1914 he wrote to a friend, “This life is a great change to me, and one which somehow I cannot become accustomed to.  I have lived too much amongst the fields and the rivers to forget that I am anything else other than the ‘Poet of the Blackbirds.’” 

Ledwidge’s poetry is strikingly different from the better-known works of other trench poets.  His imagery yearns towards beauty and serenity; his poems written on the front lines are pastoral and melancholic, yet just as true to his experience as anything written by Owen or Sassoon.   

 Rather than describe the horrors surrounding him, Ledwidge escapes to a world of the imagination, or as Keats writes in “Ode to a Nightingale,” he flees from the present sufferings on “the viewless wings of Poesy.”  Writing to Lord Dunsany (a fellow Irish writer), Ledwidge explained, “It is surprising what silly things one thinks of in a big fight.  I was lying one side of a low bush on August 15th, pouring lead across a little ridge into the Turks, and for four hours, my mind was on the silliest things of home.” 

His short poem “War” is more reminiscent of the writing of Yeats and the Lake Isle of Innisfree than of muddy, bloody trenches – it is replete with images of Ledwidge’s home.  He personifies War as a brother to the wind and thunder, as one with the darkness.  Throughout the poem, War is imagined as both frightening and yet strangely comforting in its associations with nature and the more familiar fears of the poet’s native landscapes. 


Darkness and I are one, and wind
And nagging thunder, brothers all.
My mother was a storm.  I call
And shorten your way with speed to me.
I am the love and Hate and the terrible mind
Of vicious gods, but more am I,
I am the pride in the lover’s eye,
I am the epic of the sea. 

In the poem, War is imagined as a child, with a stormy mother, and its siren call draws men, shortening their journeys and their lives, as if this might be seen as a good thing.  War is not only “Hate” and the “terrible mind/Of vicious gods,” but it is also love and “the pride in the lover’s eye.” 

How can war be love?  Love of for the ideals for which one for one’s comrades?  And how might war be associated with pride and lovers?  This line offers an intriguing contrast to Sassoon’s “Glory of Women,” as it seems to affirm (though not celebrate) the glory and honour for which men fight, recalling the epic wars of the past in which sailors such as Odysseus journeyed home across the sea. 

Ledwidge was killed on the first day of the battle of Passchendale by an artillery shell.  In a letter to Katherine Tynan, another Irish poet, he wrote in 1917, “I am a unit in the Great War, doing and suffering, admiring great endeavour and condemning great dishonour.  I may be dead before this reaches you, but I will have done my part.  Death is as interesting to me as life.  I have seen so much of it, from Sulva to Serbia, and now in France.  I am always homesick.  I hear the roads calling, and the hills, and the rivers wondering where I am.  It is terrible to be always homesick.” 

Virginia Woolf reviewed his posthumous book of poetry in The Times Literary Supplement in 1918, writing, “Most of Mr. Ledwidge’s poems are about those little things…as common as the grass and sky…And you come to believe in the end that you, too, hold these things dear.” 

 *The superb illustrated poetry collection Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics includes a wonderful interpretation of this poem by the artist S. Harkham. 

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Song of the Mud

TW Culbertson's photo of the Western Front
While few have heard of Mary Borden -- a nurse, memoirist, and poet of the First World War --  the mud she writes about is one of the most iconic images of the war.  Born in Chicago, Borden graduated from Vassar and married a Scotsman.  When he joined the British army in 1914, she volunteered her services with the Red Cross and was working in a military hospital in Belgium by January of 1915, despite having three children (the youngest who had been born in November).  

In a series of haunting and richly descriptive short vignettes, she writes of her hospital work in Belgium and on the Somme (where the hospital was so close to the front lines that it was in bombarded by artillery fire).  

She attempted to publish her writing as a short memoir titled The Forbidden Zone in 1917, but British authorities censored the book and halted publication, concerned that it would damage morale.  The Forbidden Zone was finally published in 1929.  Borden explained that the book's fragmentary quality was her attempt to reflect the brokenness of the war experience.  The Forbidden Zone is one of my favorite memoirs of all time -- beautiful, haunting, and unforgettable. In the vignette “Belgium,” Borden writes, “Mud: and a thin rain coming down to make more mud.  Mud:  with scraps of iron lying in it and the straggling fragments of a nation, lolling, hanging about in the mud on the edge of disaster.”  
photo by TW Culbertson

Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory provides soldiers’ accounts of the mud:  Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother from his posting at the Somme in early 1917, “The waders are of course indispensable.  In 2 ½ miles of trench which I waded yesterday there was not one inch of dry ground.  There is a mean depth of two feet of water.” Another soldier wrote in his diary, “Water knee deep and up to the waist in places.  Rumors of being relieved by the Grand Fleet” (48).   Borden’s poem "Song of the Mud" communicates the sights, sounds, smells, and agonies of that morass. 

It is a wonderful poem for reading out loud – the words “feel good in the mouth.”  In the tradition of Walt Whitman and his poem “Song of Myself,” Borden’s “Song of the Mud” strings together phrases that repeat, getting stuck and unstuck as they vividly paint shifting scenes:  the sodden lanes, the sunken trenches, and the sludge of No Man’s Land, viewed from different angles and perspectives. 

The Song of the Mud

This is the song of the mud, 
The pale yellow glistening mud that covers the hills like satin; 
The grey gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys; 
The frothing, squirting, spurting, liquid mud that gurgles along the road beds; 
The thick elastic mud that is kneaded and pounded and squeezed under the hoofs of the horses; 
The invincible, inexhaustible mud of the war zone. 
This is the song of the mud, the uniform of the poilu. 
His coat is of mud, his great dragging flapping coat, that is too big for him and too heavy; 
His coat that once was blue and now is grey and stiff with the mud that cakes to it. 
This is the mud that clothes him. His trousers and boots are of mud, 
And his skin is of mud; 
And there is mud in his beard. 
His head is crowned with a helmet of mud. 
He wears it well. 
He wears it as a king wears the ermine that bores him. 
He has set a new style in clothing; 
He has introduced the chic of mud. 
This is the song of the mud that wriggles its way into battle. 
The impertinent, the intrusive, the ubiquitous, the unwelcome, 
The slimy inveterate nuisance, 
That fills the trenches, 
That mixes in with the food of the soldiers, 
That spoils the working of motors and crawls into their secret parts, 
That spreads itself over the guns, 
TW Culbertson's photo,  ambulance drivers
(Paul Borda Kurtz in foreground)
That sucks the guns down and holds them fast in its slimy voluminous lips, 
That has no respect for destruction and muzzles the bursting shells; 
And slowly, softly, easily, 
Soaks up the fire, the noise; soaks up the energy and the courage; 
Soaks up the power of armies; 
Soaks up the battle. 
Just soaks it up and thus stops it. 
This is the hymn of mud –  the obscene, the filthy, the putrid, 
The vast liquid grave of our armies. It has drowned our men. 
Its monstrous distended belly reeks with the undigested dead. 
Our men have gone into it, sinking slowly, and struggling and slowly disappearing. 
Our fine men, our brave, strong, young men; 
Our glowing red, shouting, brawny men. 
Slowly, inch by inch, they have gone down into it, 
Into its darkness, its thickness, its silence. 
Slowly, irresistibly, it drew them down, sucked them down, 
And they were drowned in thick, bitter, heaving mud. 
Now it hides them, Oh, so many of them! 
Under its smooth glistening surface it is hiding them blandly. 
There is not a trace of them. 
There is no mark where they went down.
 The mute enormous mouth of the mud has closed over them.
 This is the song of the mud,
 The beautiful glistening golden mud that covers the hills like satin; 
The mysterious gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys. 
Mud, the disguise of the war zone; 
Mud, the mantle of battles; 
Mud, the smooth fluid grave of our soldiers: 
This is the song of the mud.

There's a strange beauty in the mud: it is “glistening,” “gleaming,” and “silvery,” like satin or ermine.  Sometimes it is playful --“frothing” and “squirting” as it “wiggles,” and sometimes it is as homey and domestic as bread that is “kneaded” and “squeezed.”  

Yet this is the “disguise of the war zone,” for beneath the surface, the mud is a sinister devourer, with “slimy voluminous lips,” a “mute enormous mouth” and a “monstrous distended belly.”  This is the stuff of nightmares. 

There is a dark humor in the poem (the soldiers have “introduced the chic of the mud” as it clings to their hair, their clothing, their bodies), but the poem's somber message is much like Wilfred Owen’s in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Beauty and glory are the mythical appearances of the war, but just underneath the surface of these lies and disguises are suffering,  nightmares, and futile deaths.  
Mary Borden

Monday, November 10, 2014

Remembrance Day and Rewinding the War

Poetry is best when it is heard (and not read):  listen to Carol Ann Duffy’s "Last Post" (read by Vicky McClure).  The text of the poem is posted below for those who want to read while listening.   

Last Post (Carol Ann Duffy)

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.  

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud...
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home--
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce -- No -- Decorum -- No -- Pro patria mori.
You walk away.  

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too -- 
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert -- 
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History, the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.  

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.

If poetry could truly tell it backwards, 
then it would.  

Duffy, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, wrote this poem in 2009, shortly after the deaths of two of the last surviving British soldiers of WWI:  Henry Allingham and Harry Patch.  The title “Last Post” is the name given to the British military bugle call that signals the end of the day’s activities and is also played at military funerals and ceremonies of remembrance to indicate that a soldier has gone to his final rest (like the American “Taps”). 

Interwoven with Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Duffy re-imagines the past of one hundred years ago with haunting language and imagery.  In her rewinding of time, she references the most famous poem of the war, Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” The first lines of “The Last Post” quote from Owen’s poem and recall the haunting sight of a man dying.  In the middle of “The Last Post,” she quotes the title and final words of Owen’s poem.  The Latin justification for war (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country) is not just unsaid, but forcefully denied:  Dulce (sweet) – No.  Decorum (fitting or proper) – No.  But “pro patria mori” – to die for one’s country -- that is left unchallenged, as the blood runs up and back into the bodies, as the men rewind back into their trenches.  

Listening to "The Last Post," you hear a steady drumbeat, a repetitive quality, in sound (“bled bad blood”), in rhythm (“to die and die and die”) and in sense (the lists of loved ones’ photographs, the list of soldiers’ names, the list of future possibilities that soldiers’ lives held).  It is these repetitions that undercut the hopeful imagining of the poet, as they inexorably, like a metronome, move the poem forward, relentlessly chaining it to the tyranny of time. 

Perhaps most poignantly, there is the repetition of the opening and closing lines.  “If poetry could tell it backwards” (at the start of the poem) is altered by the addition of the word “truly” at the end:  “If poetry could truly tell it backwards.”  The addition of that one small word pulls us up short and recalls us to the truth that we cannot rewind time, we cannot undo the effects of the war, we can never fully understand the loss of potential that resulted when over sixteen million people died during The Great War.  

But we will remember them.  

Sunday, November 9, 2014

We Will Remember Them

From the small Devonshire village of Topsham (population approximately 5,000), 69 men died in the First World War.  (Here's a link to their names and details—the Trout family alone suffered the death of two brothers and their cousin).  

At nearly every British Remembrance ceremony, “The Last Post” is played by a bugler, then the fourth verse of Laurence Binyon’s poem “For the Fallen” is read, and all in attendance repeat, “We will remember them.”  The poem was first published in the London Times on September 21, 1914.  

For the Fallen

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.
     --Laurence Binyon

Friday, November 7, 2014

You Make Us Shells

Next to Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon is perhaps the most recognized poet of the First World War.  His poem "Glory of Women" was published in his 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems.  On July 6th of 1917, Sassoon sent his statement protesting the war to his commanding officer declaring, "I am fully aware of what I am letting myself in for." 

Glory of Women

You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.
You can't believe that British troops “retire”
When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

There's a lot of anger in the poem, anger directed at women who in these lines are a faceless, undifferentiated mob possessed by fierce, naïve, and oddly erotic patriotism. 

A few months before composing “Glory of Women,” Sassoon wrote in his diary that soldiers returning home to wives and sweethearts should “ask their women why it thrills them to know that they, the dauntless warriors, have shed the blood of Germans.  Do not the women gloat secretly over the wounds of their lovers?  Is there anything inwardly noble in savage sex instincts?” 

Both Sassoon’s poem and journal seem to create a straw (wo)man, a caricature.  Who are these women who gloat over wounds?  And how many women, by 1917, believed that chivalry redeemed the war's disgrace?  Sassoon himself confessed he found women difficult to understand, writing in a 1916 diary entry that they were “outside my philosophy."  

The words of actual women writing during the war tell a different story,* describing the grief and horror they felt in learning of wounds that maimed and disfigured those they loved.  Vera Brittain’s poem “To My Brother,” says “Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart”; and in “Pluck,” Eva Dobell writes,” “Crippled for life at seventeen,/His great eyes seem to question why;/With both legs smashed it might have been/Better in that grim trench to die/Than drag maimed years out helplessly.” 

Nothing in these poems suggests “delight” or “fondly thrilled” admiration of heroes’ wounds.  

And yet “Glory of Women” has one of my favorite lines in WWI poetry:  “You make us shells.”  The terse four-word sentence is packed with explosive meaning:  women worked in munitions factories assembling the artillery weapons that exploded men’s bodies and ripped apart flesh with horrific shrapnel wounds.  Shells and mortars, rather than bullets or gas, were responsible for the majority of casualties during the war (some sources estimate nearly 60%), and women were the ones who made the weapons.  As well, women’s attempts to support, love, and encourage their soldiers were often wholly inadequate in bridging the immense gap of experience between those who had been at the Front and those who had not. 

The poem also skillfully challenges traditional and dualistic thinking about the war.  Staring at the reality of modern industrial warfare, it mocks the values of chivalry, propriety, and modesty (“mentionable place”).  Its language complicates and blurs the lines between conventional opposites-- heroism and cowardice (the contrast between “decorations” and “disgrace”), glory and horror (to “retire” and to “run”), and British virtue and German evil (the rapid shift of the last three lines turns from attacking British women to disparaging the hopes and efforts of a German mother). 

Yet in the end, despite its challenge to traditional dualistic thinking, the poem seems to fall into the same trap it so harshly criticizes, as it finds only a new enemy to stereotype and demonize:  women. 

*Sassoon isn’t the only one to challenge the cruelty of women’s ardent patriotism:  many women themselves criticized those who had joined The Order of the White Feather.  In her poem “The Jingo Woman,” Helen Hamilton describes her loathing for the “Dealer in white feathers,/Insulter, self-appointed,” saying “Oh! Exasperating woman,/I’d like to wring your neck,/I really would!/You make all women seem such duffers!”

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Wilfred Owen and The Princess Bride

Is it possible that the most iconic poem of the Great War, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is about more than war?  The poem very clearly takes as its subject an episode from  the First World War: it is anchored on the front line of the Western Front, during a gas attack, and it vehemently argues that war is not glorious.   

This is the poem as it is read during Remembrance Day ceremonies and as it is taught in schools, but to see it solely as an account of a battle incident that occurred nearly 100 years ago forces the poem into a strait-jacket. 

For this is also a poem about that moment when the world tilts crazily on its axis.  It’s the moment when we realize that something essential we’ve been told, an absolute we’ve believed in, a conviction we’ve firmly held --  does not fit the reality of our experience. 

The poem poignantly describes that moment of re-visioning:  the “boys” of the attack are transformed and appear as hags and old beggars; events take on a dreamlike quality as if seen from a distance “through misty panes and thick green light,” while everyone else, deaf and blind, marches on “asleep,” moving forward without consciousness or purpose, simply out of habits of conformity.   

All except the voice that speaks in the poem.  It cries out in protest and disbelief:  this is not how war — how life how death are supposed to be. 

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Fifty-five years after Wilfred Owen finished his revisions of “Dulce et Decorum Est,” in 1973 the American author and screenwriter William Goldman explored the same theme in his novel The Princess Bride“Life isn't fair, Bill. We tell our children that it is, but it's a terrible thing to do. It's not only a lie, it's a cruel lie. Life is not fair, and it never has been, and it's never going to be....The wrong people die, some of them, and the reason is this; life is not fair.  Forget all the garbage your parents put out."  

Owen would have understood.    

"Dulce et Decorum Est" was published in 1920, posthumously, after Wilfred Owen was killed while trying to cross the Sambre-Oise canal in France in one of the last, futile battles of the Great War.  He died one week (almost to the hour) before the signing of the peace treaty that ended the war.  His mother received the telegram informing her of his death on Armistice Day, as church bells rang out to celebrate the war’s end. 

Here is a link of Christopher Eccleston reading the poem.