Monday, June 13, 2005

The Poetry of War, Part III

The Next War

Many of the best and the brightest of Britain’s young men failed to return from the Great War, but they left their memorial in literature and poetry. After the war intellectual opinion turned to anger over what had happened. But while the war still raged, even after disillusionment had set in at the appalling and pointless slaughter, poems from the front tended to be doom-laden and fatalistic, as opposed to active protests.

Witness, for example, the remarkable quatrain by Edward Thomas, written in 1916:
In Memoriam
The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.
As an indirect evocation of senseless loss, this verse is a thousand times more effective than a polemic against war. Thomas, like so many others, met his end on the battlefield, killed by an exploding shell at Arras in 1917.

But his poems and those of the other Great War poets had a profound effect on intellectual culture in Britain after the war. Literate opinion between the wars tended towards pacifism, and in the runup to the Second World War successive governments had to contend with widespread pacifistic sentiment, which made rearmament and preparation for the inevitable conflict with Hitler politically very difficult.

When the next war finally broke out, a new generation of war poets emerged, prepared for their poetic task by the example of the martyrs of 1914-18. Needless to say, youthful idealism and enthusiasm were much less likely to be found in 1940 than in 1914.

The following poem was written by Alun Lewis while still in Britain, before his deployment overseas.
All Day It Has Rained
All day it has rained, and we on the edge of the moors
Have sprawled in our bell-tents, moody and dull as boors,
Groundsheets and blankets spread on the muddy ground
And from the first grey wakening we have found
No refuge from the skirmishing fine rain
And the wind that made the canvas heave and flap
And the taut wet guy-ropes ravel out and snap.
All day the rain has glided, wave and mist and dream,
Drenching the gorse and heather, a gossamer stream
Too light to stir the acorns that suddenly
Snatched from their cups by the wild south-westerly
Pattered against the tent and our upturned dreaming faces.
And we stretched out, unbuttoning our braces,
Smoking a Woodbine, darning dirty socks,
Reading the Sunday papers — I saw a fox
And mentioned it in the note I scribbled home;
And we talked of girls and dropping bombs on Rome,
And thought of the quiet dead and the loud celebrities
Exhorting us to slaughter, and the herded refugees;
As of ourselves or those whom we
For years have loved, and will again
Tomorrow maybe love; but now it is the rain
Possesses us entirely, the twilight and the rain.
And I can remember nothing dearer or more to my heart
Than the children I watched in the woods on Saturday
Shaking down burning chestnuts for the schoolyard’s merry play,
Or the shaggy patient dog who followed me
By Sheet and Steep and up the wooded scree
To the Shoulder o’ Mutton where Edward Thomas brooded long
On death and beauty — till a bullet stopped his song.
Notice the deliberate invocation of Edward Thomas’ memory: the precedent from a generation earlier would forever change the way a young poet confronted the horrors of war. But, once again, the reaction does not take the form of protest; instead we are handed a bitter and poignant sorrow.

Alun Lewis also became a martyr to poetry: he was killed fighting in Burma in 1944.