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Thursday, July 16, 2015

What may quiet us

WWI grenades in the forests of the Argonne
It's difficult to imagine the destruction that laid waste to the lands and villages where the First World War was fought.  Farmers in France and Belgium continue to unearth bodies and weapons of war, and school children are instructed to avoid unexploded shells and grenades that are found in forests and fields.  Estimates say it will take at least seven hundred years to clear the land from the toxins, weapons, and bodies that remain. 

Leslie Coulson, courtesy of
Leslie Coulson, the son of a London journalist, wrote only one short book of poetry:  From an Outpost was published by his father the year after Coulson's death in 1917.  The poem "Who Made the Law," discovered among his belongings at his death has been reprinted in several anthologies.  The rest of his work is largely unknown.   

In the summer of 1916, billeted near one of the devastated villages of France, Coulson wrote, "I have seen men shattered, dying, dead – all the sad tragedy of war.  And this murder of old stone, and lichened thatches, this shattering of little old churches and homesteads brings the tragedy home to me more acutely.  I think to find an English village like this would almost break my heart."  The heartbreak of a world destroyed echoes in the lines of Coulson's poem "The Rainbow," as it contrasts the ugliness of war with the beauty of nature, considering the ways in which both can be found in the men who fight.    

The Rainbow
Leslie Coulson

I watch the white dawn gleam,
To the thunder of hidden guns.
I hear the hot shells scream
Through skies as sweet as a dream
Where the silver dawn-break runs.
And stabbing of light
Scorches the virginal white.
But I feel in my being the old, high, sanctified thrill,

And I thank the gods that the dawn is beautiful still.

From death that hurtles by
I crouch in the trench day-long,
But up to a cloudless sky
From the ground where our dead men lie
A brown lark soars in song.
Through the tortured air,
Rent by the shrapnel's flare,
Over the troubleless dead he carols his fill,

And I thank the gods that the birds are beautiful still.

Where the parapet is low
And level with the eye
Poppies and cornflowers glow
And the corn sways to and fro
In a pattern against the sky.
The gold stalks hide
Bodies of men who died
Charging at dawn through the dew to be killed or to kill.

I thank the gods that the flowers are beautiful still.

When night falls dark we creep
In silence to our dead.
We dig a few feet deep
And leave them there to sleep -
But blood at night is red,
Yea, even at night,
And a dead man's face is white.
And I dry my hands, that are also trained to kill,

And I look at the stars - for the stars are beautiful still.

The screams of the shells and the stabbing light of the artillery scorch all before them, yet they cannot fully obliterate the skies "sweet as a dream" or the "silver dawn-break."  The air is torn and tortured by the sounds of battle, and yet above the shrapnel's whine and the bodies of the unburied, the lark still "soars in song" and "carols his fill."  Over death-strewn fields, poppies, cornflowers, and fields of wheat continue to grow and blossom.  The poem is unflinching in its vivid depiction of the horrors of war, and yet it searches to find and praise the beauties that somehow endure. 

In the last stanza, as darkness and silence descend, the soldier himself appears as both a thing of beauty and horror.  There is something beautiful about the man who sacrifices his own safety to crawl into No Man's Land and tenderly bury his friends who have died.  He looks to the heavens and his gaze brings the beauty of the stars to the moment.  Yet even the darkness cannot hide the blood and ghastly paleness that mark their bodies, and he recognizes that his own hands "are also trained to kill" and are likely responsible for the death of others.    

Leslie Coulson, Grove Town cemetery
Coulson spent five months on the Somme in 1916, until on October 7th, his company was ordered to make yet another of the costly attacks along the Western Front, this one at Transloy Ridges.  In the first wave of the assault, Coulson was shot in the chest.  He was carried to a nearby first aid station, then "thanked the stretcher bearers and sent a last message home to his family" (Powell, A Deep Cry).  He died the next day at Grove Town casualty clearing station, south of Albert, France.  No trace of the first aid station remains today, except the British cemetery where 1,392 men are buried. 

 In the early fall of 1916, Coulson wrote to his father, "If I should fall, do not grieve for me.  I shall be one with the wind and the sun and the flowers."  The epitaph that the family paid to have inscribed on his headstone reads "Nothing but well and fair and what may quiet us in a death so noble."  He was twenty-seven years old. 

1 comment:

  1. Coulson is a great favourite of mine after finding a copy of his poems in a junk shop. "Who made the law?" is so powerful. I have visited the lonely Grove Town Cemetery. It features a solitary private memorial put there before the graves were all installed. To their great credit the IWGC left this in situ and tolerated the damage to the perfect symmetry of the place. I think Coulson would have approved.