Friday, January 30, 2015

Known unto God

Frederick Wm Darvell, missing, presumed killed
One of the tragedies of The Great War are the men who were literally "lost," those who were reported missing.  Over 70,000 British and Commonwealth men were never found after the battle of the Somme, and nearly 55,000 were missing in action after the battles in the Ypres Salient.   Just outside the city of Verdun, the Douaumont Ossuary contains the bones of over 130,000 French and German men who were never identified.  

Men were lost in collapsed tunnels that exploded during mining operations and buried in trenches after heavy artillery fire; others drowned and disappeared in the deep mud of No Man's Land; still others received injuries that were so severe that they couldn't be identified, men who were obliterated by the weapons of modern warfare. 

Anna Gordon Keown's poem "Reported Missing" gives voice to the anguish of not knowing, of not being able to mourn. 

Reported Missing 

My thought shall never be that you are dead:
Who laughed so lately in this quiet place.
The dear and deep-eyed humour of that face
Held something ever living, in Death’s stead.
Scornful I hear the flat things they have said
And all their piteous platitudes of pain.
I laugh! I laugh! – For you will come again 
This heart would never beat if you were dead.
The world’s adrowse in twilight hushfulness,
There’s purple lilac in your little room,
And somewhere out beyond the evening gloom
Small boys are culling summer watercress.
Of these familiar things I have no dread
Being so very sure you are not dead.
                  --Anna Gordon Keown

The poem is framed in denial:  both the first and the last lines refuse to accept that this man "Who laughed so lately" can be dead. 

His remembered laughter is echoed by her present laughter in line 8, repeated twice, as if to convince not only listeners, but the speaker of the poem herself that there is something left in the world to laugh about. 

The beat of her heart, the flowers gathered for his room, the abundance of the rapidly growing summer watercress are held up as evidence of the vitality that surrounds her.  These are set against the "flat things" and "piteous platitudes of pain" that call her to confront a horrible juxtaposition:  familiar things become dreadful when they continue on, as if in blithe indifference to shattering loss and death. 

She cannot allow herself to mourn:  her memory and hope keep him alive, and so instead, the speaker of the poem lives "adrowse in twilight hushfulness," suspended, only half-awake, in the gloom between day and night. 

One-hundred years later, the missing of the Great War are still being found by farmers clearing land and ploughing fields, by construction crews laying roads and digging foundations.  It's sobering to think how long their loved ones endured suspended lives, waiting for closure that failed to come within their lifetimes.  

Friday, January 23, 2015

O, Canada: “I will turn away my head”

Youth Mourning, George Clausen
From its opening image of “the aching womb of night,” exhaustion and pain struggle for breath throughout "The Mourners," a short poem by Canadian poet Robert Service.  The night struggles to give birth, but instead miscarries only the stillborn dead, the broken men who are scattered across the “foul, corpse-cluttered plain” of No Man’s Land. 

The Mourners by Robert Service
Sorrowing Woman, Käthe Kollwitz

I look into the aching womb of night;
    I look across the mist that masks the dead;
The moon is tired and gives but little light,
        The stars have gone to bed.

The earth is sick and seems to breathe with pain;
    A lost wind whimpers in a mangled tree;
I do not see the foul, corpse-cluttered plain,
        The dead I do not see.

The slain I would not see... and so I lift
    My eyes from out the shambles where they lie;
When lo! a million woman-faces drift
        Like pale leaves through the sky.

The cheeks of some are channelled deep with tears;
    But some are tearless, with wild eyes that stare
Into the shadow of the coming years
        Of fathomless despair.

Bamforth Song Card:  "Peace"
And some are young, and some are very old;
    And some are rich, some poor beyond belief;
Yet all are strangely like, set in the mould
        Of everlasting grief.

They fill the vast of Heaven, face on face;
    And then I see one weeping with the rest,
Whose eyes beseech me for a moment's space....
        Oh eyes I love the best!

Nay, I but dream. The sky is all forlorn,
    And there's the plain of battle writhing red:
God pity them, the women-folk who mourn!
        How happy are the dead!
In sympathy with those fighting in the trenches, the moon, the earth, and the wind also are “tired,” “sick,” and “whimper” at the death and suffering hidden in the mist and blackness.   The turn of the poem occurs when a vision breaks across the night sky.  Looking heavenward, the voice of the poem sees “a million women-faces drift/Like pale leaves through the sky.”  However, this is not an angelic host singing with joy, but instead a throng of women, young and old, tear-stained and dry-eyed, connected only by their “everlasting grief” and “fathomless despair” as they stare from the depths of night “into the shadow of the coming years.” 

The women, united in mourning, appear to do something that the man speaking in the poem cannot:  they look at the dead, while he repeats three times, in an increasingly powerful incantation, his inability and unwillingness to do so:  “I do not see the foul, corpse-cluttered plain,/The dead I do not see./The slain I would not see.” 

Robert Service was forty-one when war broke out:  he tried to enlist in the Canadian army, but was turned down for varicose veins.  Wanting to contribute to the war effort, Service became a war correspondent for Canadian newspapers while serving as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer.  In one of his news accounts of the war, Service wrote, “The skin of [the burned soldier] is a bluish colour and cracked open in ridges.  I am sorry I saw him.  After this, when they put the things that once were men into my car I will turn away my head” (quoted in Poetry of the First World War by Tim Kendall).   

“I will turn away my head” – for a man at the front to look at the dead is to admit that he may well be the next to be cut to pieces by artillery fire or caught on the barbed wire.  The voice of the poem recognizes this and foresees his own death when he sees “weeping with the rest,” the eyes of the woman he loves “the best.” The men and women who live to see those whom they love die are forever changed and scarred.  Only the dead, released from the horrors of war and the desolation of mourning are happy.   

Robert Service knew what it was to mourn.  His 1916 war poetry collection, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, was dedicated to his brother, Albert, who was killed with the Canadian infantry while fighting in France. 

Friday, January 16, 2015

Perishing things and strange ghosts

Imagining the future has an added poignancy in a time of war.  Rupert Brooke, one of the most famous of the soldier poets of the Great War, is best known for his poem “The Soldier” and its memorable first lines, “If I should die, think only this of me:/That there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England.”  In that poem, he speculates on his own death. 

Brooke’s lesser-known poem “Fragment,” however, imagines the future of others, of soldiers on troop ships headed for the Dardanelles and the battle of Gallipoli in the spring of 1915.  


I strayed about the deck, an hour, to-night
Under a cloudy moonless sky; and peeped
In at the windows, watched my friends at table,
Or playing cards, or standing in the doorway,
Or coming out into the darkness. Still
No one could see me.

                                          I would have thought of them
—Heedless, within a week of battle—in pity,
Pride in their strength and in the weight and firmness
And link’d beauty of bodies, and pity that
This gay machine of splendour ’ld soon be broken,
Thought little of, pashed, scattered …

                                                                        Only, always,
I could but see them—against the lamplight—pass
Like coloured shadows, thinner than filmy glass,
Slight bubbles, fainter than the wave’s faint light,
That broke to phosphorus out in the night,
Perishing things and strange ghosts—soon to die
To other ghosts—this one, or that, or I.
              --Rupert Brooke

The poem’s first stanza creates a mood of eerie tension:  the speaker of the poem is an outsider, a self-imposed exile from the camaraderie of his friends and fellow soldiers.  He haunts the deck unseen and “still.”  Recklessly careless – “heedless”-- the men dining, playing cards, and enjoying the last week before battle are both admired and pitied for their “link’d beauty of bodies” that will soon be “pashed” -- violently thrown and shattered to bits.  Despite their strength, “weight and firmness,” these are men without any control over the future that awaits them.

As fleeting as bubbles, their lives flicker in the lamplight with a wondrous and glowing beauty, made more real by its transience   Seeing them as ghosts, as men about to die, these men linger in memory forever, fixed for all time in this darkly lit moment on a ship quietly moving through the night.   The last lines of the poem capture the randomness of war death – who lives and who dies is also entirely out of anyone’s control. 

It’s a curiously prescient poem, as if Brooke stares into the future and sees not only the brutal losses of the Gallipoli campaign, but also the ways in which war creates its own despairing beauty and consigns survivors to a future that is fixated on memories of a time when “this gay machine of splendour,” was not utterly wrecked and broken.   

Brooke was one of the most popular of the First World War poets. W.B. Yeats is reported to have said he was “the handsomest young man in England,” and Brooke’s early death in April of 1915 transformed him into an iconic figure.  The man was far more complicated than the myth, however, and scholars such as Timothy Kendall have argued that neither Brooke’s views of war and nor his poetry are as naïve or idealistic as often assumed.  “The Fragment” enacts a complexity and subtlety for which Brooke is seldom recognized.  


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Sorrow that Whistled

Epiphany or “Three Kings Day” is celebrated on January 6th , so it seems only fitting to share a poem from World War I that ends with the scent of frankincense.  “High Barbary” was written by J. Howard Stables and published in his small book of verse, The Sorrow that Whistled, in late 1916.  Stables enlisted early in the war and served with the 15th Gurkha Rifles in India, Northeastern Pakistan, and what was then Mesopotamia and is now modern Iraq. 

“High Barbary” reminds us that the Great War extended far beyond the Western Front: some of the fiercest fighting occurred at sea, on Turkish beaches in the Gallipoli Campaign, in the high Alps between Italy and Austria-Hungary, and in the Middle East.  “Barbary” is the romantic name given to the coast of North Africa, and at a first reading, the poem appears to romanticize wars of the past, when Barbary pirates attacked merchant ships, raided cattle (“harried kine”), and pillaged Italian villages.  The choice of the word “pillaged” itself is subtle and apt, for it has become a euphemism for the violence and terror that armies inflict on civilians during war, associated mainly with the distant past. 

“High Barbary”  by J. Howard Stables

The distant mountains’ jagged, cruel line
Cuts the imagination as a blade
Of dove-grey Damascene.  In many a raid
Here Barbary pirates drave the ships of wine
Back to Sicilian harbours, harried kine,
Pillaged Calabrian villages and made
The land a desolation; here they played
On Glamour's passioned gamut at Lust's sign. 

Saracens, Moors, Phoenicians—all the East,
Franks, Huns, Walloons, the pilgrims of the Pope,
All, all are gone.  The clouds are trailing hence;
So goes to Benediction some proud priest
Sweeping the ground with broidered golden cope.
--Go, gather up the fumes of frankincense. 

The poem invites us to look out over an alien landscape, but to see deeper with the eyes of the imagination that cut “as a blade/Of dove-grey Damascene.”  Damascus steel was famous for its use in swords and knives, but when used as an adjective, “Damascene” refers to a moment of insight that transforms one’s beliefs and attitudes – an epiphany. 

That transformation from romanticism to emptiness and loss occurs in the last line of the first stanza of this short poem:  the ellipsis and stanza break demand that we pause and consider the consequences of the raids that have made the “land a desolation.”  The second stanza continues the shift, as names of past and present combatants and victims are jumbled together in a Whitmanesque catalog of war (“Huns” was the derogatory term used for Germans and “Walloons” are French-speakers of Belgium).  Linked by their absence, “All, all are gone.”  The words seem almost prophetic in naming the “Lost Generation” who were killed during The Great War (an estimated 17 million dead).

The clouds of death (perhaps also evoking the deadly gas that was used in the war) are “trailing hence,” while a “proud priest” in his finery seems to indifferently continue the ritual of blessing. What are we to do or think?  The poem commands us to do the impossible, as if no rational response to war can be made:  we are to “gather up the fumes of frankincense.”  More than anything, the poem is saturated with images of impermanence, of things that fade and are lost forever.  

Basra Memorial
Like so many others, Stables did not survive the war but died at age 21 in a battle near Baghdad in early 1917.  He has no known burial place, as his body was never found.  Wounded and left behind when the British troops withdrew, he is presumed to have died in enemy hands. His name, however, is on the BASRA memorial in modern Iraq.  Due to recent wars and tensions in that country, the entire memorial was moved in 1997 from its original location to the middle of what was a major battleground during the first Gulf War.  

On a final note of irony, here is what one reviewer wrote about Stables' volume of poetry when it was published in 1916:  "The Sorrow that Whistled is an unusual little book, as suits with its name.  The writer, whom one takes to be young, revels in Eastern colour and fragrance.  He can do something quite good and simple...On the other hand, he can do something extremely bad...Yet there is here a promise, and, not unconnected with it, indications that J.H. Stables is a young soldier.  There could be no better school for a young poet who wants to shed the faults of youth than the trenches."  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Rain, midnight rain

There are war poems that ring with exultation: “Stand in the trench, Achilles,/ Flame-capped, and shout for me.” Others sound with ear-shattering blasts and the confusion of artillery fire: “Dance, little girls, beneath the din!/The four-point-ones are talking.” Edward Thomas’s poem “Rain” never raises its voice above a whisper as it contemplates the loneliness of war.

Nevinson's "After a Push," from


Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.
                       --Edward Thomas

The poem recalls the soporific properties of rain at night, but sets the sound in a lonely context, where even though this man has found “bleak” shelter, he listens in solitude and in chilling awareness of the dead and wounded that lie out in the cold rain.  The poem is a quietly desperate prayer for all who are “Helpless among the living and the dead.”  Both the living and the dead share in the broken paralysis of war that transforms men into “myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff.” 

What is amazing is the beauty that is found in this poem of despair: there is blessing and cleansing in the “wild rain,” and the repetition of the word “rain” and “rains” in the line “Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon,” gives the poem an incantatory sense.  There is peace here even in the face of wild rain, a peace that comes from the love which is left, the love of death.  In this way, the poem recalls Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” and its lines, “for many a time/I have been half in love with easeful Death,/....Now more than ever seems it rich to die,/To cease upon the midnight with no pain.” 

It was Robert Frost who encouraged Thomas to write poetry and who shared his love of countryside rambles.  Frost tried to discourage Thomas from enlisting, and in the early months of the war, Thomas considered emigrating to America with his family to live near the Frosts.  However, in July of 1915, the 37-year-old Thomas decided to enlist in the British Artists Rifles, and “Rain” was written while training in Essex.  Sent to the Western Front in early 1917, Thomas wrote his wife, “It becomes harder for me to think about things at home somehow.  Although this life does not absorb me, I think, yet, I can’t think of anything else.  I don’t hanker after anything.  I don’t miss anything.  I am not even conscious of waiting.  I am just quietly in exile, a sort of half or quarter man.…”

Before the war, Thomas had turned his gaze to the solitary, singular moments in everyday life:


Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Rather than describe the war directly, nearly all of Thomas’s poems explore its effects on men and women through meditations on landscapes and natural scenes.  When asked by a friend on a countryside walk in England, “Do you know what you are fighting for?”, Thomas stopped and picked up a handful of earth and answered, “Literally, for this.” He was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday, 1917.