Friday, May 29, 2015

May 1915: Like a divine surprise

By May of 1915, the war that was to have been over by Christmas of 1914 had dragged into its tenth month.  That spring, the horror of the first use of poison gas on the Western Front occurred in April, and the list of dead and wounded grew to staggering numbers following the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (March 1915), the 2nd Battle of Ypres (April 1915), the start of the Gallipoli campaign (April 1915), and the 2nd Battle of Artois (May - June 1915).  Charlotte Mew's poem "May 1915" provides a snapshot of that moment when both soldiers and those on the home front began to recognize that for this war, there was no end in sight.

Enjoy listening to Mew's "May 1915," read by Alexandra Burton.  The text of the poem appears below for those who wish to read along. 

May 1915 by Charlotte Mew

Let us remember Spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where the wounded trees
Wait with their old wise patience for the heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun, and even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please,
Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit today with their great Dead, hands in their hands
Eyes in their eyes
At one with Love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered things
And changing skies.

The poem opens with an imperative command:  "remember Spring."  Speaking for the grieving  -- the widows, children, bereft mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, and soldiers themselves – the poem points to the "scorched, blackened woods" as a visible reminder of the war's destruction, but also as an exemplar for responding to that destruction.   

The woods and the wounded are joined by the repeated alliterative w's that intertwine them both in the effort of waiting for healing and renewal.  The word "Wait" itself is capitalized and cut off from the "wounded trees" and the sense of line two by enjambment (when line endings separate words that work together to create meaningful phrases), highlighting both the importance of waiting as well as its isolating loneliness.   

"Solitude," Percy Smith
Three times the word "sure" is repeated in lines 4 and 5, underscoring the trees' faith in Nature and in God, sure that Spring will return, confident that the changing seasons will bring new growth and life, certain of the repeated miracle of nature's rebirth that is always a "divine surprise." 

The poem shifts its focus in line 5 and again in line 8, when the wounded trees are compared with humans who grieve, with "those who sit today with their great Dead" – the "us" of the first line.  The bereaved who clasp the hands of the fallen, who stare into their eyes ("hands in their hands/Eyes in their eyes") are one'd with the "great Dead," united with Love and with Grief.  These are mourners who have lost themselves because of the ways in which they are intimately joined to those who have died.  In this world of loss, the mourners exist in a place where time itself seems to have stopped.   They are blind to the fragments of life that surround them in their brokenness, unable to see or believe that anything will change. 

While the first half of the poem looks to the promise of Spring, its second half is blunt and unsparing in describing the mindlessness of grief.  Yet even these last lines hold out hope for the future, looking ahead to "when God shall please," when regeneration will arise even out of the blasted brokenness of the war. 

Charlotte Mary Mew
Tim Kendall, editor of Poetry of the First World War, has called Charlotte Mary Mew "scandalously underappreciated" as a poet.  Admired by other writers such as Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, and Siegfried Sassoon, Mew writes of sorrow with both honesty and grace.  

The tone of "May 1915" speaks like the comforting touch of a friend's hand on a shoulder, offering the greatest gift of sympathy: a patient willingness to walk alongside in the anguish, no matter how long it lasts.    

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Coupled to life

On May 23rd, 1915 Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary, joining the Allies in The Great War (Italy would not declare war on Germany until 28 August, 1916).  In August 1914 when the war began, despite Italy's alliances with Germany and Austria-Hungary, it remained neutral.  Both the Central Powers and the Allies worked to persuade Italy to join their side, and in the secret Treaty of London of April 1915, the Allies promised Italy significant territorial gains held by the Austria-Hungarian Empire, including parts of Tyrol and Dalmatia, as well as the port of Trieste. 

Italian Front
Hours after declaring war, on 24 May 1915, Italy fired the first shells on what became one of the harshest fronts of the war: the Alpine border between Austria-Hungary and Italy.  Both armies attacked on impossibly steep mountain passes, and trenches were dug into the rocks and glaciers of the Alps at altitudes of nearly 10,000 feet.  By November of 1915, after the first four battles of the Isonzo (there would be eleven), nearly 25% of the mobilized Italian men had either been killed (60,000) or wounded (150,000).  One of Italy's most famous modernist poets, Giuseppe Ungaretti, served with his country's infantry on the lower Isonzo Front.  

by Giuseppe Ungaretti

Italian soldiers 
A whole night long
crouched close
to one of our men
with his clenched
grinning at the full moon
with the congestion
of his hands
thrust right
into my silence
I've written
letters filled with love

I have never been
coupled to life.

Cima Quattro, 23 December 1915
Translated by Jonathan Griffin -- here is the poem in Italian.

Numerous poems from the First World War describe the experience of lying with a dead comrade (Rickword's "Trench Poets" is just one example).  Ungaretti's poem is unsettling when it portrays the dead comrade as less than human:  like an animal, he has been "butchered," and his clenched mouth "grinning at the full moon" seems more like that of a gargoyle than a man. 

But the last lines of the poem are the most shocking, using metaphors of romance to capture the experience, comparing it to the outpouring of emotion in "letters filled with love." With tenderness and deep feeling, the night has been seared into the surviving soldier's memory as one in which a corpse profoundly demonstrates what it means to be alive.  In his vigil with the dead, more than ever before, he recognizes himself like a lover "coupled" to life.  
Giuseppe Ungaretti

Monday, May 18, 2015

When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead

 What would Charles Sorley and his last poem make of First World War centenary commemorations?  "We will remember them"?  Impossible.  "Lest we forget"?  The dead do not care if they are forgotten.  This sonnet, written in pencil, was found among the twenty-year-old Sorley's personal effects after he was killed at the Battle of Loos, just one of 59, 247 British casualties in the three-week battle.    

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
"Paths of Glory" by CRW Nevinson
(Imperial War Museum)

Mouthless, deaf, gashed, and blind – the poem flatly catalogues the dead of war as a mutilated mass of millions, silenced and cut off from all sight and sound.  The pale battalions that march across survivors' dreams recall Dante's words when he descends into the hell of The Inferno: "I had not thought death had undone so many." 

Each young man once full of life and promise has been transformed into a "spook," and "None wears the face you knew."  The men are no longer linked to loved ones; neither are they their own.  They have been given to "Great death" for evermore. 

And what are survivors to do?  The poem counsels, "Say not soft things," and adds two more negative commands:  do not shed tears for the dead – do not attempt to honour their sacrifice.   Instead, "Say only this, 'They are dead."  The poem asks us to gaze upon the consequences of battle, to search the mutilated faces of the "o'ercrowded mass," and to acknowledge the cost of war without sentimentality and without attaching glory to the loss.  There is nothing new or special in personal grief, in this or in any war, for "many a better one has died before." 

Sorley wrote to his mother in April of 1915 to share his sense that Rupert Brooke's poetry was "overpraised," explaining, "He [Brooke] is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable, and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances…. He has clothed his attitude in fine words: but he has taken the sentimental attitude."
Charles Hamilton Sorley

Sorley's poetry evidences an unsentimental view of war, and so it is worth considering how he might wish to be remembered, one of the youngest of the poets who failed to survive the First World War.   His poetry speaks eloquently of the unfulfilled promise of the young man who was shot in October of 1915.  In a letter home, Sorley wrote of his own desires if he were to survive:  "Indeed I think that after the war all brave men will renounce their country and confess they are strangers and pilgrims on the earth." 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Horrifying or happy? Grenfell's "Into Battle"

British recruiting poster
In Poetry of the First World War,  Tim Kendell describes "Into Battle" as "one of the finest and most problematic poems of the war," (108), while John Stallworthy in Anthem for Doomed Youth writes, "This is in many ways a horrifying poem" (27). 

"Into Battle" is difficult for modern readers because it is that rare thing -- a"happy" war poem.  Grenfell's verse celebrates war, and in the tradition of ancient Greek poetry such as The Iliad, it finds beauty, glory, and meaning in fighting, killing, and dying. 

Into Battle*
(Flanders, April 1915)

The naked earth is warm with Spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun's gaze glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze;
And Life is Colour and Warmth and Light,
And a striving evermore for these;
And he is dead who will not fight;
And who dies fighting has increase.

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from the glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run,
And with the trees to newer birth;
And find, when fighting shall be done,
Great rest, and fullness after death.

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their high comradeship,
The Dog-Star, and the Sisters Seven,
Orion's Belt and sworded hip.

The woodland trees that stand together,
They stand to him each one a friend,
They gently speak in the windy weather;
They guide to valley and ridges' end.

The kestrel hovering by day
And the little owls that call by night,
Bid him be swift and keen as they,
As keen of ear, as swift of sight.

The blackbird sings to him, “Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you may not sing another;
Brother, sing.”

In dreary, doubtful, wailing hours,
Before the brazen frenzy starts,
The horses show him nobler powers;
O patient eyes, courageous hearts!

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only Joy of Battle takes
Him by the throat, and makes him blind,

Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

Praising war, the poem asserts that fighting and dying in battle give life purpose and meaning.  It paradoxically argues that choosing to fight is choosing to live, while "he is dead who will not fight." In this, Grenfell's work recollects Tennyson's "Ulysses," the hero who laments, "How dull it is to pause, to make an end,/To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!" and who longs for the days when once he had "drunk delight of battle with my peers/Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy."

Writing home from the Western Front, Grenfell said of his battle experiences, "It is all the most wonderful fun; better fun than one could ever imagine.  I hope it goes on a nice long time; pig-sticking will be the only possible pursuit after this, or one will die of sheer ennui.  The first time one shoots at a man one has the feeling of 'never point a loaded gun at anyone, even in fun,' but very soon it gets like shooting a crocodile, only more exciting, because he shoots back at you…."

The poem gives voice to that excitement -- the constant threat of death infuses each sight and sound with meaning and poignancy.  Sun, breeze, woodlands, birds, horses, and stars:  as comrades, they give the warrior a heightened awareness of "Colour and Warmth and Light."

But when "the brazen frenzy starts," when the "burning moment breaks," then like an ancient berserker possessed by the "Joy of Battle," the warrior becomes blind to all that lies outside the field of combat.  This focused and altered vision assures him that he can die only if it be "Destined Will." For while "in the air Death moans and sings," the soldier in the midst of fighting is held fast to the Day and enfolded in the Night.  He is one with Nature and intensely alive until that moment when fate calls him to death and gives him "increase." 

In another letter home, Grenfell wrote, "I adore war. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I’ve never been so well or so happy."

On May 13th, 1915, Grenfell skull was pierced by shrapnel after a shell exploded nearby.  Taken to a nearby casualty clearing station, he wrote to his mother, "We are practically wiped out; but we charged and took the Hun trenches yesterday.  I stopped a Jack Johnson with my head**; and my skull is slightly cracked.  But I'm getting on splendidly." He died on May 26th, and his poem "Into Battle" appeared in The Times on May 28th, the same day as the notice of Grenfell's death.  The poem was immensely popular during the First World War, receiving much critical acclaim. 

Today, combatants who boldly state that they are willing to die for glory or those who admit to finding joy in killing are more likely to be associated with terrorist organizations than with national military service.  Writing for The Atlantic, Jay Winter has argued, "The Great War discredited the concept of glory, a word that many Europeans simply could not swallow." Grenfell and his poem, however, echo the spirit of ancient wars, a spirit and attitude that many of us now find disquieting, if not slightly horrifying. 

*Two manuscript versions survive of the poem, and these differ slightly from the version published in The Times on May 27, 1915.  Grenfell's mother, Ettie, made several minor revisions, such as changes in line 3 (from "sun's kiss" to "sun's gaze"), line 26 (from "keen of ear" to "keen of sound" and line 37 (from "And Joy of Battle only takes" to "And only Joy of Battle takes").  The version I've shared is that as published in The Times.  

**Jack Johnson was the first black American heavyweight world boxing champion, and the name became a slang term used by British soldiers to refer to German heavy artillery shells.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Are there any happy war poems?

A friend who has been reading my blog asked a few weeks ago, "Aren't there any happy war poems?  They're all just so….depressing."  So I've searched for a poem that might be considered "happy," and I've thought about the question a lot.  For now, I've provisionally reached the conclusion that a Happy War Poem would most likely be grotesque or offensive.  I find it hard to imagine how a poem can be "upbeat" about war.* 

However, war poetry is often described as inspiring or uplifting (Studdert Kennedy's "Lighten Our Darkness" and Colwyn Philipps' "Release" come to mind), and black humor is frequently used to satirize war or to cope with the unimaginable (Rickword's "Trench Poets" is an example). 

The anonymous poem "Faith"** makes yet a different point -- sometimes, no matter how dire the circumstances, we can choose hope.  In the midst of evil and suffering, we can affirm beauty and goodness.

Serbian children

I heard the cannon’s monotone
A mile or two away;
But in the shell-torn town I saw
Two little boys at play.

From what was yesterday a home
I heard the cannons booming;
But in the garden I could see
A bed of pansies blooming.

Along the weary, dreary road,
Forspent and dull I trod;
But in the sky of spring I saw
The countenance of God.

*If anyone can think of a happy war poem or has another response to the question, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments. 
**I found the poem in YANKS A.E.F. Verse (1919), a book I picked up at a second-hand bookstore, and I can find no other record of its publication or its author.