Friday, October 5, 2018

Denial


The Kensingtons at Laventie by Eric Kennington © IWM ART 15661

“The Soldier”— written in 1914 while Rupert Brooke was on leave at Christmas, before he boarded a troop ship bound for Gallipoli, before he died en route—is one of the best-known poems of the Great War.  Brooke’s poem famously begins,
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed….
Researcher Sarah Wearne estimates that there may be over 100 allusions to Brooke’s poem “The Soldier” in epitaphs for British Commonwealth war dead.*

Poetry responds to poetry, and Roderick Watson Kerr’s “Denial” vehemently contradicts the ideals expressed in Brooke’s poem. Kerr was a Scottish soldier who served with the Royal Tanks Corps until seriously wounded near Bapaume in 1918.  His poem begins with an allusion to “The Soldier,” but deliberately adopts a colloquial, fatalistic tone.

Denial
Levens  Roll of Honour

If I should die—chatter only this:—
‘A bullet flew by that did not miss!’
I did not give life up because of a friend;
That bullet came thro’, and that was the end!

Don’t put up a cross where my dung will be laid,
But scatter some wheat—and bread will be made;
Don't say I'm a hero because I was shot;
A bullet won't make one what one is not.

Don't scribble my name upon Honour's scroll
And plaster it up on the Churches hall:
What honour is there in being forced to die?
We slaughter a pig—but we make it a fry!

And what are the odds ‘tween the pig and I?
The pig can't help dying—he is forced to die;
And so with myself, when a bullet comes thro’
I simply must die—then why the ado?

Oh! if I should die—chatter only this—
‘A bullet flew by that did not miss’;
I did not give life up because of a friend; 

That bullet came thro’ and voilà, the end!’
            —Roderick Watson Kerr

Kerr’s poem argues that there is no glory for those killed in war. As he imagines his own death, Kerr denies that he has sacrificed his life for a noble cause, not even to save the life of a friend. If he dies, it will be simply because he was shot by a bullet that found its target. As American soldier-poet Brian Turner writes nearly 100 years later in his poem “Here, Bullet” (recalling his experience in the war in Iraq), “If a body is what you want,/ then here is bone and gristle and flesh.”

Kerr also dispels any attempt to reference the language of ancient epics, of men cut down like wheat in the harvest of battle (the image first used in the Iliad 11.67-71). Soldiers corpses will enrich wheat crops sown over the dead, yet the bread made from that wheat will be eaten by others who are wholly unaware of the decaying bodies that fertilized their food. (Some of the same themes can be found in Alice Corbin’s poem “The Harvest.”)

Men Resting Bapaume Road, William Orpen
© IWM ART 2375
The first and the last stanzas of “Denial” close with the blunt declaration that death is simply the end—there is no honor nor heroism when soldiers are “forced to die.”

Kerr dedicated his volume of poetry War Daubs (1919) “To my brother George, Killed in Action in Gallipoli, May 3rd, 1915. He lives, embalmed, unchanging, and apart.” George John Kerr's body was never found; he is listed on the Helles memorial to the missing.  

Booklist promoted Kerr’s poems shortly after their publication and remarked in its one-line review that they presented “Stark war pictures which remind one a little of the strength of Sassoon.”** The New York Times review elaborated,
“War Daubs,” by R. Watson Kerr, is a book of verse occasioned by the war that suggests the Sassoon attitude at times. There is no glorifying of the picturesqueness of battle…. This is all well enough, for we can stand it without undue shuddering, but it has been done sufficiently for one war.  Besides, it has been done much better, with a more vivid appreciation of its values.  We hardly need to have the lesson rubbed in any longer.  War has lost its beauty for all time.”***
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* Sarah Wearne, Epitaphs of the Great War website and the three-volume book series, Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, Passchendaele, and The Last 100 Days. 
** “Kerr, R. Watson. War daubs,” Booklist, Oct. 1920, p. 23.
*** “British and American Poets—A Contrast,” New York Times Book Review and Magazine, 27 June 1920, p. 16.

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