Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fading Post Cards

Postcard from Picasso to Apollinaire, 1918*
 War constantly reminds both soldiers and those who love them that life is short and change is constant.  The brief, six-line poem "Post Card," by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, delicately illustrates the beauty and terror of living moment to moment. 

Post Card

I write to you beneath this tent
A Star Shell, CW Nevinson
While summer day becomes a shade
And startling magnificent
Flowers of the cannonade
Stud the pale blue firmament
And before existing fade.
            Translated from the French by Oliver Bernard

Everything in the poem is fleeting: blink and you might miss the moment when twilight turns to night and the summer day becomes a "shade," a punning play on the two meanings of the word, evoking both evening shadows and ghosts. 

Like fireworks, artillery shells light the sky, startling in their unexpected flashes and in the magnificence of the air-born explosions.  Many soldiers wrote home and described the haunting beauty of the deadly shells; Apollinaire condenses the thought into a single image, comparing the cannonade to flowers in bloom. 

The brief poem doesn't march to a conclusion, but rather gently dies out: the illumination fades before it ever really existed.  Only two rhymes are used in the poem, and the poet is sparing even in his use of syllables:  the first three-lines contain eight syllables each, while the last three lines subside to only seven syllables.  It is as if the scene of the poem appears for only a second in the light of a candle before it is snuffed out.  Life in wartime is ephemeral, and ironically, the postcards written during the First World War have become collectible ephemera. 

Apollinaire mailed the poem "Post Card" to his friend Andre Rouveyre on August 20th, 1915.  Wounded by shrapnel in March of 1916, Apollinaire never fully recovered, and he died of the Spanish flu on November 9th, 1918, just two days before the war ended. 
Apollinaire, wounded 1916
*An actual postcard sent from Picasso to Apollinaire in 1918 was sold in June of 2015 for the record amount of $188,000.  Ironically, Apollinaire never received the postcard, and it was marked "return to sender." 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Soft and slow in wartime

Ledwidge (on right) with his mother
As I wrote in an earlier post ("It is terrible to be always homesick"), the poetry of Francis Ledwidge is strikingly different from the better-known works of other trench poets.  His imagery yearns towards beauty and serenity, and his poems written on the front lines are pastoral and melancholic, just as true in their own way to the experience of war as anything written by Owen or Sassoon.   

Born on August 19th, 1887, the "Poet of the Blackbirds," like many men in the muddy trenches of the First World War, coped with the tragedy and tedium of life on the Western Front by dreaming of home and imagining himself returning there. 

Ledwidge memorial 

A burst of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.

And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.

This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.

The poem revels in quietness.  Rising above the din of battle, "faint voices" and "mist and murmurings" speak louder than shell bursts and cannon fire.  The trill of a single robin on a blasted tree echoes for hundreds of miles, recalling bird song from across the Irish Sea. 

The poem also moves with deliberate slowness.  The sheep meander on uphill paths, and the leisurely movement of the day shifts from dawn to noon, then from evening to night.  Time will not be hurried, but moves purposefully through the seasons, from "summer sounds" to "harvest green." 

Frances Ledwidge
War and its frenzied tempo seem very far away – and that is the beauty and gift of this poem, written in mid-July of 1917, during a pause in the bombardment that preceded the Third Battle of Ypres.  Ledwidge was killed two weeks later on July 31st

Friday, August 14, 2015

Violets from oversea

"Summer & trenches don't go together somehow," Roland Leighton wrote to his sweetheart, Vera Brittain in April 1915. 

Later that month, Roland wrote to Vera and described a discovery he'd made while walking in Ploegsteert Wood (known to the Tommies as "Plug Street Wood").  Roland had found "the body of a dead British soldier hidden in the undergrowth a few yards from the path.  He must have been shot there during the wood-fighting in the early part of the War.   The body had sunk down into the marshy ground so that only the tops of the boots stuck up above the soil. His cap & equipment beside him were half-buried and rotting away."  Leighton ordered that the body be covered with dirt, "to make one grave more among the many in the wood" (Chronicle of Youth, 25 April 1915). 

The next day, Roland started a poem, and while on leave that August (during which time he and Vera became engaged), he showed Vera the finished villanelle that he had titled and dated: "Violets," April 25, 1915.  Her journal records, "I remembered how on that day he had written me a letter – he was then in Ploegsteert Wood—enclosing some violets from the top of his dug-out which he said he had just picked for me." 

by Roland Leighton

From the film Testament of Youth
Violets from Plug Street Wood,
Sweet, I send you oversea.
(It is strange they should be blue,
Blue, when his soaked blood was red,
For they grew around his head:
It is strange they should be blue.)
Violets from Plug Street Wood
Think what they have meant to me--
Life and Hope and Love & You
(And you did not see them grow
Where his mangled body lay
Hiding horror from the day;
Sweetest it was better so.)
Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.

The poignancy of the poem lies in the tension between two voices: a man writing to his sweetheart in a "dear, far, forgetting land," and a soldier talking to himself, trying to puzzle out how the horrors of war can coexist with simple flowers that recall "Life and Hope and Love and You" (this is the voice that speaks in the parenthetical comments). 

The soaked blood and mangled body of the dead man are literally entwined with the violets that are gathered for the "Sweetest" and sent to her in memory.  But in memory of what?  Do the violets recall the golden age of innocence and romance before the war?  Or are they sent in memory of the dead man whose body has lain forgotten for months?  There is a bittersweet irony in the poem's last line as it vows she "will understand." He knows she cannot fully grasp what he faces, because his darling "did not see" where the violets grew, hiding the horror of the neglected corpse. And yet the soldier is grateful for her ignorance:  "Sweetest, it was better so."   

By August of 1915, Roland was having difficulties in finding beauty anywhere on the Western Front.  He wrote to Vera, "I used to talk of the Beauty of War; but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful.  Modern warfare is merely a trade." In September, he was even more direct about his altered opinion of the war:  "Let him who thinks that War is a glorious golden thing…let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been Its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand & glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence. Who is there who has known and seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these?" 

Roland and Vera were to have been married during his Christmas leave that began December 24th, but while waiting expectantly for his arrival, she  received a telephone call informing her that Roland had died of wounds on December 23rd.   He was buried in France in the Louvencourt cemetery.  The inscription on his headstone reads, "Goodnight though life and all take flight – Never goodbye."  The lines are a reference to a W.E. Henley poem that Roland had shared with Vera in a letter in May of 1915, describing how as he crossed a field in the starlight, a little poem of W.E. Henley's came into his head:  
            Goodnight, sweet friend, goodnight!
             Till life & all take flight
             Never goodbye.
He again alluded to the poem as he was returning to the Western Front after his August leave, sending Vera a telegram that read "Till we may live our roseate poem through," and a brief letter that read, "Nearly at Folkestone now.  I am trying not to think of it, but the thought will come.  Oh damn, I know it—
            Goodnight, sweet friend, goodnight!
            Till life & all take flight
            Never goodbye."

Vera Brittain visited Roland Leighton's grave twice, once in 1921, and again in 1933.  I'd like to think that she left violets.  

Roland Leighton, Louvencourt cemetery

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Speak of glory, sing of home

St George, Alston
St. Augustine's, Alston

Nowell Oxland, the son of the vicar of St. Augustine's parish church in Alston, Cumbria, was killed in action in the Gallipoli campaign at Sulva Bay on August 9, 1915.  He is memorialized in the church's painted altar screen, where his face was used as the model for two warrior saints, one of whom appears to be St. George.  

What must it have been like for his father and the other villagers to see Nowell's haloed image as they approached the communion rail each Sunday?

Oxland's memory also lives on in his poetry.  Here is an excerpt from his poem "Outward Bound," written as he was sailing for Gallipoli (verses 1, 4, 7, and 8).  In these verses, he imagines the British troops following the route of ancient warriors, while longing for the English countryside that they may never see again.  

Outward Bound

There's a waterfall I'm leaving
Running down the rocks in foam,
There's a pool for which I'm grieving
Near the water-ouzel's home,
And it's there that I'd be lying
With the heather close at hand,
And the Curlew’s faintly crying
Mid the wastes of Cumberland.
Nowell Oxland

Now the weary guard are sleeping,
Now the great propellers churn,
Now the harbour lights are creeping
Into emptiness astern,
While the sentry wakes and watches
Plunging triangles of light
Where the water leaps and catches
At our escort in the night.

Though the high gods smite and slay us,  
Though we come not whence we go,
As the host of Menelaus*
Came there many years ago;
Yet the selfsame wind shall bear us
From the same departing place
Out across the gulf of Saros
And the peaks of Samothrace.

We shall pass in summer weather, 
We shall come at eventide,
Where the fells stand up together
And all things quiet abide;
Mixed with cloud and wind and river,
Sun-distilled in dew and rain.
One with Cumberland forever
We shall not go forth again.  

The penultimate stanza speaks of glory; the first and the last verses sing of home.  I hope that somewhere in Cumberland today, a walker passes in summer weather and comes at eventide to where "all things quiet abide."  Perhaps he or she will pause to remember the men of the First World War who loved these hills.     
Alston Moor
*The warrior who led the Spartans in the Trojan War (Saros and Samothrace are places in the Aegean associated with the Trojan War).