Friday, February 27, 2015

Watching the War in the Dark

Movies and war: nearly all of us are familiar with the World War II movies Saving Private Ryan, The Dirty Dozen, and Schindler's List, but it was the First World War that popularized war films.  Released in the fall of 1916, the British documentary The Battle of the Somme was viewed by over twenty-million people, nearly half of the population of Britain at that time.*  Using actual footage from the front lines, the silent film's graphic images of war were unlike anything those on the home front had seen before.  The Dean of Durham Cathedral, Herbert Henson, wrote to The Times, objecting that as an "entertainment it wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement." What did it mean to sit in a darkened room with others and watch the war in black and white? 

A War Film by Teresa Hooley

I saw,
With a catch of the breath and the heart's uplifting,
Sorrow and pride,
   The 'week's great draw'—
The Mons Retreat;
The 'Old Contemptibles' who fought and died,
The horror and the anguish and the glory.

As in a dream,
Still hearing the machine-guns rattle and shells scream,
I came out into the street.

When the day was done,
My little son
Wondered at bath-time why I kissed him so,
Naked upon my knee.
How could he know
The sudden terror that assaulted me?...
The body I had borne
Nine moons beneath my heart,
A part of me…
If, someday,
It should be taken away
To War. Tortured.  Torn.
Rotting in No Man's Land, out in the rain—
My little son…
Yet all those men had mothers, every one.

How should he know
Why I kissed and kissed and kissed him, crooning his name?
He thought that I was daft. 
He thought it was a game,
And laughed, and laughed. 

The poem begins with the simple phrase "I saw" – and then breaks off, as if the poem's speaker herself must pause to process the moving images she has just viewed.  Sorrow and pride co-mingle with horror and glory, and she cannot easily reconcile the contradictions that the film and the war have produced.  The war is presented as entertainment, the "week's great draw," and in cinemas where Charlie Chaplin plays out comic scenes, now it is "The Old Contemptibles" (the nickname given to the men in the British regular army who survived the slaughter of 1914) who "fight and die."

As she exits the cinema, she finds that the real world has also shifted and now appears dream-like.  The young mother tries to return to normal scenes of domesticity, but haunted by the war film, even her young son's bath-time is an assault as she is seized by "sudden terror."  Remembering the great intimacy of carrying her son "Nine moons beneath my heart," she realizes that he, too, will be renamed "It" if he joins the ranks of soldiers: "If someday,/It should be taken away/To War."
The anguish that she has witnessed on the movie screen is now projected onto the body of her young son as she imagines him in a future war, "Tortured. Torn./Slain./Rotting in No Man's Land, out in the rain—".   The horrors that mutilate and destroy the bodies of the soldiers are starkly and simply listed.  One-word descriptions of death are punctuated as full sentences, echoing the emptiness and demonstrating the inadequacy of words to convey grief and loss. 

Her actions, as she "kissed and kissed and kissed him, crooning his name" appear as a kind of charm to ward off the imagined horrors of the future, but the young boy "thought it was a game."  In this, the child is linked with the men who direct and propagandize war, often associating it with sports and games, selling it as adventure and competition. 
 The poem is at its most poignant in its implicit realization that the young mother is powerless to break the chain of violence.  For women like the speaker of the poem, the game is averting another war.  Published in 1927, the poem and its argument lost the game a mere twelve years later when Hitler's German armies invaded Poland, beginning World War II.    

 *For more on the film, see the excellent resources on the BBC's website "Why Was the Battle of the Somme film bigger than Star Wars"?  The film that inspired Hooley's poem has been debated, as has the date of the poem's composition.  "The War Film" was published in Hooley's 1927 collection Songs of all Seasons, suggesting that the 1926 film Mons was the inspiration for the poem.  For a fuller discussion, see the excellent post "A War Film" on The Bioscope.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

A healing magic

Killed May 13, 1915

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a term that wasn't known or used during the First World War.  Those who experienced debilitating psychological effects as a result of war trauma were instead labeled as victims of "shell shock."   Tracey Loughran's excellent article "Shell Shock,Trauma, and the First World War" explores the ways in which "…across the decades and the centuries, such suffering has manifested itself differently in different individuals and in different conflicts. In many times and places, it has been ignored or acknowledged only informally or in passing. Elsewhere, and above all during the twentieth century, it has been 'diagnosed' and therefore 'treated' in different ways, and consequently experienced differently." 

Colwyn Philipps was never diagnosed with shell shock.  A captain in the Royal Horse Guards, he arrived in the Ypres Salient in early November of 1914.  Less than six months later, at the age of 26, he was killed in an attack on German lines.  He has no known grave: his name is one of the 54,896 listed on the Menin Gate memorial. 

When his belongings were sent home to his mother in Wales, the poem "Release" was found among his possessions.

Release by Colwyn Philipps
(Found in his note-book when his kit came home)

There is a healing magic in the night,
The breeze blows cleaner than it did by day,
Forgot the fever of the fuller light,
And sorrow sinks insensibly away
As if some saint a cool white hand did lay
Upon the brow, and calm the restless brain.
The moon looks down with pale unpassioned ray -
Sufficient for the hour is its pain.
Be still and feel the night that hides away earth's stain.
Be still and loose the sense of God in you,
Be still and send your soul into the all,
The vasty distance where the stars shine blue,
No longer antlike on the earth to crawl.
Released from time and sense of great or small,
Float on the pinions of the Night-Queen's wings;
Soar till the swift inevitable fall
Will drag you back into all the world's small things;
Yet for an hour be one with all escaped things.

It is so very easy to picture this man who attempts to forget "the fever of the fuller light" as he gazes into the night sky and searches for peace for his "restless brain."  The poem suggests that the night is able to wash this man from the filth of war with its "cleaner" breezes and the darkness that hides "earth's stain."  The night offers the gift of lightness, a time and space when not only can burdens be dropped, but the soul itself can rise above the ant-like, crawling, underground existence of the trenches and join "the vasty distance where the stars shine blue" to be "one with all escaped things." 

The Thinker on the Butte de Warlencourt, William Orpen
As if in an attempt at self-hypnosis, three times the poem chants the words "Be still," recalling Psalm 46 and its meditation on God and war:  "He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;/he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;/he burns the chariots with fire./Be still, and know that I am God.”

Staring up at the distant stars, for "an hour" this man experiences "a healing magic" and a respite from the psychological traumas that go undiagnosed for so many who must simply push on and continue to fight.  Then comes the "swift inevitable fall." As certain as the dropping of shells, the return to grim reality drags him back "into all the world's small things": the pettiness of European politics, the trivial gains made by the sacrifice of repeated "over the top" attacks, and the insignificance of individual lives. 

Several months before his death, Philipps wrote home to his mother and described an early battle experience:  "As we went through the first village, we got heavily shelled by the famous Black Marias; they make a noise just like an express train and burst like a clap of thunder, you hear them coming for ten seconds before they burst.  It was very unpleasant, and you need to keep a hold on yourself to prevent ducking – most of the men duck." 

Phillips' posthumously published book of poetry was described by the Welsh Outlook in May 1916 as "a memorial to a very gallant gentleman" in whose verse "at times he lifts the veil and suffers us  to catch glimpses of his inner self, face to face with life's realities."  His poem "Release" also serves as a memorial to all who have experienced the traumas of war, come"face to face with life's realities," and soldiered on. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Remembering Jo

If not for the context in which Ernest Rhys' poem originally appeared (more on that later), "Jo's Requiem" would not be easily identifiable as a war poem at all.  The poem offers no description of the First World War:  not of the trenches, nor of the suffering and death that occurred there. 

Instead, this is a poem that is firmly grounded in the English countryside.  There, a man simply named Jo earns his strength behind a plow, watches with sharp-eyed vision for birds that might threaten his newly sown seed, and is so attuned to his land that "He could hear the green oats growing,/and the south-west wind making rain."  I'd like to meet that man. 

Jo's Requiem
by Ernest Rhys

He had the ploughman's strength
in the grasp of his hand;
he could see a crow
three miles away,
and the trout beneath the stone.
He could hear the green oats growing,
and the south-west wind making rain.
He could hear the wheel upon the hill
when it left the level road.
He could make a gate, and dig a pit,
and plough as straight as stone can fall.

And he is dead.

Unknown British soldier*
We learn that Jo has spent a lifetime in learning to read the subtle signs of life that surround him, spotting even "the trout beneath the stone."  His actions are neither noble nor heroic, yet he masters the world around him with skill and honest work, in making and digging. 

And he is dead.  The last line of the poem breaks with all that has gone before and ends as abruptly a sniper's bullet or an artillery shell.  We are not told if Jo fell "straight as stone can fall."  It doesn't matter how it happened:  the details of his death are irrelevant as they will not change the reality of it. 

The poem's bare closing statement heartbreakingly expresses the utter finality of death.  As Robert Frost writes in "Out, Out—", a poem of unexpected death on a farm, "No more to build on there." 

"Jo's Requieum" does not argue with death, nor does it attempt to glorify or justify the cause for which this man died.  The poem deliberately refuses any explicit attempt at making meaning of Jo's death.  What we are asked to see in the poem is one country man and his life, not the scope of the war or the nameless and faceless mass of the millions who died. 

Implicitly, however, there is a sense of injustice underlying the stark contrast of the poem's first eleven lines and its final sentence.  Strength and keen-sightedness were not enough to save Jo, nor were his practical talents, resourcefulness, and listening ear.  The poem doesn't try to explain Jo's death, for no sense can be made of a senseless war in which over nine million died.  The poem only asks us to remember and to mourn, as signaled by its brief title, "Jo's Requiem." 
Unknown British soldiers*

Curiously, the poem at some point was retitled "Lost in France."  First published as "Jo's Requiem" in Rhys' volume of poetry The Leaf Burners (1918), it appeared as the last poem in a series of twenty related verses entitled "The Tommiad." The title of the verse sequence is a play on the Iliad, suggesting an epic about British Tommies, the name given to British infantry soldiers.  But Ernest Rhys was a Welsh writer, and the title of the verse sequence may also be a play on the Welsh word tomi, "to spread dung" or "to bespatter with dirt," suggesting a much less glorious view of the First World War.  

"Jo's Requiem" was retitled "Lost in France" as early as 1945 in a British anthology titled Soldiers' Verse.  For a while, the two titles appeared together, with "Lost in France" as the main title and "Jo's Requiem" as the subtitle.  Most recently, the subtitle has disappeared altogether.  Several years ago, the poem appeared on the London Underground as "Lost in France," marking Remembrance Day. 

But the title change is significant:  it alters the poem from being a tribute to a single, knowable man to a more abstract comment on an enormous and indecipherable war. 

It is said that history repeats itself, and as actually happened in the First World War, the name of this man is being erased from memory. 

Rest in peace, Jo. 

*These photos and others were found several years ago in the loft of a barn in France, discarded as trash.  To read more, visit the Independent's web article "Unseen Photographs."  

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Art of War

Death Awed, by Percy Smith
Drawing on his experiences at the Western Front, Richard Aldington is best known for his 1929 novel Death of a Hero.  Although it has been compared to Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, Aldington's Death of a Hero "is rarely read today and much of it [Aldington's writing] languishes out of print…For those seeking an overview of the conflict or a chronicle of how it swept up and snuffed out individual lives, here is a graphic, vitriolic and incredibly moving testament" (The National).   

Aldington's novel has recently been republished, but his poetry remains largely forgotten.  His short poem "Soliloquy II" deserves to be read and remembered. 

Soliloquy II 

Aux Eparges, soldats enterrant leurs camarades au clair de lune
GP Leroux, Musee natioinal du Chateau de Versailles
I was wrong, quite wrong;
The dead men are not always carrion.

After the advance,
As we went through the shattered trenches
Which the enemy had left,
We found, lying upon the fire-step,
A dead English soldier,
His head bloodily bandaged
And his closed left hand touching the earth,

More beautiful than one can tell,
More subtly coloured than a perfect Goya,
And more austere and lovely in repose
Than Angelo's hand could ever carve in stone.

               --Richard Aldington, 1918

This soliloquy, the voicing aloud of thoughts that are then overheard by an audience, begins with a stark confession:  "I was wrong, quite wrong."  The soldier of the poem then makes a startling observation about the bodies of the dead:  they are "not always carrion."  He is compelled to assert that the corpses that surround him and that were an ever present feature of the Western Front – do not always resemble the bodies of dead animals, are not always putrefying flesh, unfit for food.  Paul Fussell, describing the front lines, writes "The stench of rotten flesh was over everything….Dead horses and dead men – and parts of both—were sometimes not buried for months and often simply became an element of parapets and trench walls" (The Great War and Modern Memory 49). 

To remain sane at the Front, men had to become numb to death.  They had to learn to see others' bodies as nothing more than "carrion." 

Goncharova's "The Pale Horse"
But after charging the German lines, this soldier finds himself with the other survivors of his company "in the shattered trenches/Which the enemy left."  And there, among the numerous "dead men," he encounters the body of an English soldier, a comrade who has been left behind by the retreating enemy. 

The specific details and unemotional description communicate the cold, material reality of death: the body has been left "lying upon the fire-step" (a shelf-like step cut into trench walls, that enabled men to peer over the top into No Man's Land and to ready themselves for attack).  The English soldier has sustained a head wound that is "bloodily bandaged," most likely by the enemy troops who left him behind, and one hand, his left, lies "closed" yet "touching the earth."  With that final gesture, did the dying soldier seek the comfort of connection with the dust to which he would soon return, or is the closed hand an act of despair and final surrender? 

The speaker cannot provide an answer, but instead turns the poem in an unexpected direction: he proclaims the dead man "More beautiful than one can tell."  Lacking words to describe the scene, the survivor turns to metaphors from art.  This corpse is "more subtly coloured" than a canvas painted by Goya, the early nineteenth-century painter who was considered to be the last of the Old Masters.  It may be significant that Goya is also regarded as the first of the moderns: his paintings bridge the tradition of the past and the ambiguities of the modern world.  Goya's series of prints The Disasters of War are disturbing in their depiction of the suffering of individuals in the face of violence that cannot be controlled.     

This dead body, this canvas, is described as "Austere," a word suggesting that which is reserved, unemotional, plain, and restrained, but also grave, grim, unbending, and cold.  More of a masterpiece than any carved in marble by Michelangelo, the corpse is "lovely in repose," a play on the French term given to rotations of rest behind the lines:  "en repos."

Perhaps the speaker feels envy of the dead man, for his war is over.  Or perhaps in this one moment and in this single body, the living soldier is again able to see death as emotionally moving and very human.  In either case, the poem records the moment of epiphany when his world has turned upside down and that which was dead certain has again become mysterious and revered. 

Other poems (such as Robert Service's "The Mourners") describe the dead as happy; Aldington's poem finds in them a beauty that can only be expressed in art. Timeless and sobering, Death speaks to us wordlessly of the ineffable human condition. 
War, by John Moody