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.  


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