Friday, March 27, 2015

Going Over -- soft as a sigh

Charles GD Roberts
 Wilfred Owen wrote of the "doomed youth" of the First World War, but not all soldiers were young.  The oldest known British soldier to die in the war was a man of 67 who had joined to fight with his three sons (this link to the Telegraph tells the full story). 

Charles G.D. Roberts, honored as the father of Canadian literature, was one of the older poets to serve in the war.  Born in 1860, he had to lie about his age to join the army; he served as a troop instructor in Britain and as a war historian on the Western Front. 

His sixteen-line poem "Going Over" repeats two lines in an evocative patterning that alternates between reality and dream.  The poem is a variant of the French verse form the villanelle.    

Going Over, by Charles G.D. Roberts

A girl's voice in the night troubled my heart. 
Across the roar of the guns, the crash of the shells.
Low and soft as a sigh, clearly I heard it.

Where was the broken parapet, crumbling about me?
Where my shadowy comrades, crouching expectant?
A girl's voice in the dark troubled my heart. 

A dream was the ooze of the trench, the wet clay slipping.
A dream the sudden out-flare of the wide-flung Verys.
I saw but a garden of lilacs, a-flower in the dusk. 

What was the sergeant saying? – I passed it along. –
Did I pass it along?  I was breathing the breath of the lilacs.
For a girl's voice in the night troubled my heart. 
For a girl's voice in the night troubled my heart. 

Over!  How the mud sucks!  Vomits red the barrage.
But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs.
For a girl's voice in the night troubled my heart.
Tender and soft as a sigh, clearly I heard it.   

French WWI postcard
The poem speaks with two voices: the soldier in battle and the lover in a garden may be the same man, but the war has put an impenetrable barrier of experience between them.  It is nearly impossible to reconcile the two identities in the body of one person, and so the poem asks us to enter into a world of alternating realities. 

We see the gulf between the two worlds open up in the white space that lies between the title "Going Over," with its charge into the clamor of battle, and the first line's faint call of the "girl's voice in the night."  In the second line, the "roar" and "crash" of war again intrude, but fade into background noise when the girl's voice, "low and soft as a sigh," is clearly heard above the din of the fighting.

Clearer than the call of war, the girl's voice speaks of a deeper reality, one that causes the "ooze of the trench" and the "wet clay slipping" beneath the soldier's feet to fade into "a dream."  The soldier, as if drunk on the scent of lilacs "a-flower in the dusk," not only cannot hear his commanding officer – "What was the sergeant saying?" but is unable to remember if he has passed on the order to go over the top.  A part of this man has left the trenches and is fully alive in another moment, "breathing the breath of the lilacs." 

The war desperately fights to gain the soldier's attention:  in the time it takes to read the poem's thirteenth line, we feel the sucking mud and are deafened by the barrage of artillery and machine gun fire that "vomits red" in a shower of blood and bone.  During the First World War, the noise of the shelling was so loud that historian Paul Fussell notes those in the southern counties of England, "could literally hear the war" in France and Belgium.  Robert Traynor, in his article "Hearing Loss in the Trenches," explains, "During a bombardment the noise was loud enough to split the eardrums, and it quite commonly caused permanent hearing loss."*

But the horrific presence of the war lasts merely for a line before consciousness is pulled back to the only thing that can really trouble this man's heart: the voice of a girl in the night.  The poem closes with the repeated refrain.  Like a meditative whisper, the lines attempt to assure both the soldier and the reader that life and hope wait beyond the trenches and going over the top, whether that life and hope lie in this world or the next. 

*Francis Itani's World War I novel Deafening is a powerful and poignant book that explores sound and silence in the war. 

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