Tuesday, November 24, 2015

An intimate death

Written at the time of the American Civil War, Emily Dickinson’s poem “Success is counted sweetest” describes the frustrated longing of a soldier who dies on the field of battle minutes before the victory is secured.   Just over fifty years later, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote of a similar moment in the First World War.  However, his poem “Victory” is far more intimate: the grand campaign of the war appears trivial and meaningless when compared to the death of a single ordinary man.  As Joseph Stalin was reputed to have said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”

Last Message, F. Matania © IWM

I watched it oozing quietly
Out of the gaping gash.
The lads thrust on to victory
With lunge and curse and crash.

Half-dazed, that uproar seemed to me
Like some old battle-sound
Heard long ago, as quietly
His blood soaked in the ground.

The lads thrust on to victory
With lunge and crash and shout.
I lay and watched, as quietly
His life was running out. 
                        -- WW Gibson

In twelve short lines, the poem deftly sketches a moment in which the world is forever changed for two men, while the war rushes on without taking notice.  As in his poem “The Question” (previously shared on this blog), Gibson eschews the epic and heroic, and instead explores the experiences of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances. 

As “the lads thrust on to victory,” they leave behind two injured comrades-in-arms, one of whom is dying.  Apart from the din of battle, with its crashes, curses, and shouts, a man helplessly watches as the blood quietly oozes from the wounded body of his friend. 

The form and the language of the poem are unassuming, using only four rhymes, common diction, and repetition (lines 3 – 4 are echoed in lines 9 – 10).  Lacking heroic language and vivid imagery, the poem simply represents the inherent contradictions of the war: deafening battles are punctuated by moments of quiet focus, and underpinning every thrusting charge is the resigned acceptance of stasis and loss. 

There is a reverence in this one death among thousands, for it is witnessed, shared, and thus sanctified by the presence of a friend.   Perhaps the greatest irony of the poem is its title, “Victory,” for what the poem wants us to see and remember is the death of one common and nameless soldier. 

WW Gibson
Gibson repeatedly tried to volunteer for the army, but was rejected four times, until he eventually succeeded in being accepted as a Private in the Motor Transport Corps.  Later in the war, he served as a medical officer’s clerk, but was never sent abroad. Gibson wrote not from first-hand experience of the war, but instead shaped his poems from news accounts and the stories of soldiers he encountered.   His writing often displays a strong sympathy with the poor and the underprivileged, and he wrote his poems, he said, to “get at people” by highlighting the war’s personal tragedies.*

*Cited in Kendall’s Poetry of the First World War (64).

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Last of the leaves

Autumn Leaves, Millais
Melancholy and beautiful, “The Leaf Burners” is one of my favorites of the lost poems of the First World War.  The poem’s meditative tone, alliterative sounds, and kennings – compound words used to rename nouns, such as “tree-shaker” for the wind – recall the poetry of the Anglo-Saxons, a distant warrior culture that found meaning and solace in the natural world.

The Leaf Burners

Under two oak trees
      on top of the fell,
With an old hawthorn hedge
      to hold off the wind,
I saw the leaf burners
      brushing the leaves
With their long brooms
      into the blaze.
Above them, the sky
      scurried along
Pale as a plate,
      and peered thro' the oaks,
While the hurrying wind
      harried the hedge.
But fast as they swept
      feeding the leaves
Into the flame
      that flickered, and fumed,
The wind, the tree-shaker,
      shaking the boughs,
Whirled others down
      withered and wan —
Summer's small folk,
      faded, and fain
To give up their life;
      earth unto earth,
Ashes to ashes,
      life unto death.
Far on the fell,
      where the road ran,
I heard the men march,
      in the mouth of the wind:
And the leaf burners heard
      and leaned down their heads,
Brow upon broom,
      and let the leaves lie,
And counted their kin
      that crossed over sea,
And left wife and wean,
      to fight in the war.
Forth over fell,
      I fared on my way ;
Yet often looked back,
      when the wind blew,
To see the flames coil
      like a curl of bright hair
Round the face of a child —
      a flower of fire,
Beneath the long boughs
      where, lush and alive,
The leaves flourished long,
      loving the sun.
Much I thought then
      of men that went forth,
Or dropt like the leaves,
      to die and to live;
While the leaf burners
      with their long brooms
Drew them together
Connaught Road Cemetery, photo by Julie Thomson
      on the day of their death.
I wondered at that,
      walking the fell —
Feeling the wind
      that wafted the leaves
And set their souls
      free of the smoke,
Free of the dead,
      speeding the flame
To spire on the air —
      a spark that should spring
In me, man of men;
      last of the leaves.
            -- Ernest Rhys

The poem describes a simple country scene as winter approaches: leaf burners use long brooms to push fallen leaves onto a bonfire.  As the leaf-burners work, they are watched by a sky that scurries along, “pale as a plate,” by the hurrying wind, and by a solitary wanderer or fell-walker (fell is a dialect word used in northwest England to refer to a hill or area of high land). 

As fast as they sweep, the leaf-burners cannot keep up with the leaves that are continually dropping, whirled by the wind, “withered and wan.”  Fallen leaves, and fallen men on the battlefield -- the poem joins the two.  The brown leaves that were once young and green, “Summer’s small folk,” are now faded, and yet they are willing – even pleased – to “give up their life.” The phrase “ashes to ashes,” although describing the burned leaves, also recalls the Anglican burial rite and reminds us that in the midst of death, there is the promise of resurrection: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12: 7). 

From the hillside, the leaf-burners hear on the nearby road, "in the mouth of the wind," the marching steps of men walking to war.  The sound causes the leaf-burners to pause, resting “brow upon broom,” as they remember their loved ones who have “left wife and wean” to fight in the Great War (wean is a Northern English/Scottish term for an infant).  The lonely hill walker also pauses to remember the millions of missing soldiers who, like the leaves, were once “lush and alive…loving the sun.”  The wanderer likens the men to the leaves, hoping that the countless soldiers’ sacrifice was not meaningless, but that they dropt “to die and to live,” their souls set free from their bodies to soar like sparks above the bonfire.  

Ernest Rhys, a Welsh-English writer, published “The Leaf Burners” in 1918.  Better known as the founder of the Everyman Library, Rhys is largely forgotten as a poet, with the exception of “Lost in France,” (or “Remembering Jo”) a short poem that was included in the 2014 Poems on the Underground.  I can find no record of “The Leaf Burners” ever having been reprinted. 

Ernest Rhys

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Our mutual dead

French and British women

In 1916, following the death of her older brother, Lt. Gilbert Sackville (killed Dec. 16, 1915), Margaret Sackville wrote a poem imagining a future time when the fighting and killing would cease.  Men had made the war – and now it would be left to the grieving women to make the peace.   


Youth Mourning, George Clausen
When all the stress and all the toil is over,
And my lover lies sleeping by your lover,
With alien earth on hands and brows and feet,
   Then we may meet.

Moving sorrowfully with uneven paces,
The bright sun shining on our ravaged faces,
There, very quietly, without sound or speech,
   Each shall greet each.

We who are bound by the same grief for ever,
When all our sons are dead may talk together,
Each asking pardon from the other one
   For her dead son.

With such low, tender words the heart may fashion,
Broken and few, of pity and compassion,
Knowing that we disturb at every tread
Our mutual dead.
            --Margaret Sackville, published in The Pageant of War, 1916

In this imagined future, soldiers once again become lovers who lie not beside their sweethearts, but in the alien earth beside the men they killed.  At their lovers' graves, the bereft women meet:  German and French, Russian and Austro-Hungarian, British and Ottoman. 

Margaret Sackville
Quiet and sunshine have returned to the world, but the dead soldiers’ wives and mothers stumble through cemeteries with “ravaged faces,” greeting each other in a language for which there are no words.  Shared tears and gazes acknowledge a pain too great to be fully expressed.  The halting speech and uneven steps of the women are echoed in the poem’s structure, for each stanza begins with three lines of eleven syllables, then ends abruptly with a last terse line of four syllables that mirrors all that is broken, lost, and unspeakable.

Forever separated from the men they have loved, these women from enemy countries find themselves “bound by grief.” Speaking for their “mutual dead,” the women ask one another’s forgiveness:  Your son shot mine. My son gassed yours. I am sorry. 

In the Preface to Margaret Sackville’s Selected Poems (1919), Wilfred Scawen Blunt wrote, “Her war poems are not mere experiments in realism, but genuine laments for the pity of such things, the ugliness of rage and the waste of what is noblest.” 

What lessons of peace were learned from the waste and violence of World War I?  The “Reconciliation” imagined in Sackville’s poem failed to occur -- I have fruitlessly searched for any account of former enemies meeting on fields of battle or in cemeteries in the years immediately following the Armistice.  A better predictor of the future, Siegfried Sassoon would write in his poem “Aftermath,” composed just five months after the war ended,
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
            Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench—
            And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
            Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

They fell like snowflakes

The war that began in August of 1914 was supposed to have been over by Christmas of that year.  By November of 1915, it was clear to nearly everyone that peace was nowhere in sight.  In 1915 alone, the French lost over one million men, the Germans more than 600,000 and the British more than a quarter of a million[i]. 

Margaret Postgate Cole’s short poem “The Falling Leaves” evokes a dreary day in late autumn, an afternoon awash in loss and regret --  and tinged with anger.   

The Falling Leaves
November 1915

Today, as I rode by,
I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree
In a still afternoon,
When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky,
But thickly, silently,
They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon;
And wandered slowly thence
For thinking of a gallant multitude
Which now all withering lay,
Slain by no wind of age or pestilence,
But in their beauty strewed
Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.
            --Margaret Postgate Cole

The brown of the foliage recalls the khaki of British military uniforms: both autumn leaves and gallant men drop thickly and silently.  Neither leaves nor men are borne skyward, but instead lie “withering” and decaying on the cold ground.  So many have fallen that the light of the sun seems obscured, and the noon-day is wiped out. 

But unlike the falling of the leaves, the death of the soldiers (who are romantically – and perhaps ironically –labeled as “gallant”), is not natural.  Neither disease nor old age has killed these young and vigorous soldiers.  Instead, struck down at the height of their beauty and potential, the men lie carelessly tossed or “strewn” on the frozen fields of Flanders. 

Alternating between long and short lines, the rhythm of the poem itself halting staggers to a lonely conclusion, and the rider wanders slowly on, stunned at the overwhelming and incomprehensible losses of the war. 

Margaret Postgate Cole became politically involved in The Great War when her younger brother Raymond refused to be drafted into the British army.  Without a religious reason for his refusal to fight, he was denied status as a conscientious objector and was imprisoned.   Margaret wrote about her response to his trial in her 1949 memoir, Growing up into Revolution:

…when I walked away from the Oxford court room…I walked into a new world of doubters and protesters – and into a new war – this time against the ruling classes and the government which represented them, and with the working classes, the Trade Unionists, the Irish rebels of Easter Week, and all those who resisted their governments or other governments which held them down….Once the state had taken my brother, it lost his sister’s vote automatically.

Her poem “The Falling Leaves” is one of the first anti-war poems written by a woman. 
Margaret Postgate Cole