Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Song of the Air, Part II

WWI German aeroplane, the Taube
In her lifetime, Jessie Pope was one of the most popular writers of humorist verse in England.  As a recent article from the BBC News Magazine  indicates, however, she has since become “the war poet students love to hate….She is the villain of the war.” In British schools, Pope’s poem “Who’s for the Game?” is widely studied and derided for its jingoist views as it is contrasted with Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” (in an early draft, Owen dedicated his poem “to Jessie Pope, etc.”).

Not all of Pope’s poems, however, are blind to the darker side of war.  In her poem describing a German airplane (“To a Taube”), she notes the beauty of the plane as well as its destructive power.  Pope acknowledges that modern technologies can be shaped for terrible ends; man has fine-tuned the art of slaughter, and people can now be killed from a distance with cool detachment.

To a Taube

Above the valley, rich and fair,
On flashing pinions, glittering, gay,
You hover in the upper air,
A bird of prey.

Aerial Bombs Dropping on Montmedy, 1918
Edward Steichen, Smithsonian Museum of Art 
Snarling across the empty blue
You curve and skim, you dip and soar,
A dove in flight and shape and hue –
The dove of war.

Above the soldier and the slain,
An armoured bird, you hang on high,
Directed by a human brain,
A human eye.

A thirsty hunter out for blood –
Drinking adventure to the dregs –
Where hidden camps the country stud
You drop your eggs.

Thus, man, who reasons and invents,
Has inconsistently designed
The conquest of the elements
To kill his kind.
            – Jessie Pope

Like Alchin in his poem “Song of the Plane,” Pope also celebrates the new and astonishing miracle of flight: the German Taube (the word is translated as dove in English) glitters as it glides above the earth, and light reflects off its wings.  Yet there is a sinister double identity to the Taube: the soaring dove is also a bird of prey, a “thirsty hunter out for blood.” With ruthless precision, the plane discovers hidden camps upon which to drop its bombs, deadly eggs that hatch not life but death and destruction.  During the First World War, German airplanes dropped over 120 tons of explosives on England*; it is estimated that British pilots dropped over 600 tons of explosives on Germany.**
Vaux #2 After Attack, photo by Edward Steichen
Metropolitan Museum of Art 

The plane snarls, dips, and soars in a world far removed from the bloody carnage it has caused below.  But Pope’s poem does not hold the machine to blame: the plane is directed by a human brain and human eye.  Humans have invented the plane to subdue the heavens and to kill their own kind. The aeroplane just one of the many inventions of mass destruction developed or refined for slaughter during the Great War (others include armored tanks, modern hand grenades, machine guns, and poison gas).

Although Pope is remembered for her nationalistic war writing, this poem seems to condemn not just the Germans, but humans on all sides who create only to kill.  

*Raymond H. Fredette, The Sky on Fire: The First Battle of Britain 1917–1918, pp. 265 -266.
**Scott Addington, The Great War 100: The First World War in Infographics. 

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