Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Poetry of War, Part VII

 
Conclusion of a Series — Previous Installments:   I   II   III   IV   V   VI

The Survivors: “Dead as the Men I Loved”

Them that dies, they’re the lucky ones!

The old saying might have been coined by the veterans of the Great War. No one who lived in the hell of the Western Front ever really left it. Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome had not yet been identified in 1918, but the war left us its own term for the same condition: shell-shock. To one degree or another, all the returning combat veterans suffered from it.

The poets who returned preserved and honored the memory of those who did not. Edmund Blunden was an accomplished poet who survived the war, and it fell to him to edit for publication the verse of his late comrade, Wilfred Owen.

But he left his own record. The following poem, with its haunting and melancholy imagery, was written at a point when he was far enough away from the war to be able to look back:
    1916 seen from 1921
Tired with dull grief, grown old before my day,
I sit in solitude and only hear
Long silent laughters, murmurings of dismay,
The lost intensities of hope and fear;
In those old marshes yet the rifles lie,
On the thin breastwork flutter the grey rags,
The very books I read are there — and I
Dead as the men I loved, wait while life drags
Its wounded length from those sad streets of war
Into green places here, that were my own;
But now what once was mine is mine no more,
I seek such neighbours here and I find none.
With such strong gentleness and tireless will
Those ruined houses seared themselves in me,
Passionate I look for their dumb story still,
And the charred stub outspeaks the living tree.
I rise up at the singing of a bird
And scarcely knowing slink along the lane,
I dare not give a soul a look or word
Where all have homes and none’s at home in vain:
Deep red the rose burned in the grim redoubt,
The self-sown wheat around was like a flood,
In the hot path the lizard lolled time out,
The saints in broken shrines were bright as blood.
Sweet Mary’s shrine between the sycamores!
There we would go, my friend of friends and I,
And snatch long moments from the grudging wars,
Whose dark made light intense to see them by.
Shrewd bit the morning fog, the whining shots
Spun from the wrangling wire: then in warm swoon
The sun hushed all but the cool orchard plots,
We crept in the tall grass and slept till noon.
The Cenotaph © 2003 Mary Ann SullivanRemembrance of the war — the collective process of coming to terms with its horrendous carnage — was a preoccupation in the years after the Great War. With the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, plans for an appropriate monument in London were drawn up, and the Cenotaph was unveiled the following year. It became the focus of the annual Remembrance Day on 11 November, and the symbol of British sacrifice in the war.

Siegfried Sassoon, another prominent war poet who survived the conflict (and lived until 1967), had a more sardonic view of the monument:
    At the Cenotaph
I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
     Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
     Means; their discredited ideas revive;
     Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
     Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
     Men’s biologic urge to readjust
     The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
     Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
     And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace
.
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.
The ink on the Treaty of Versailles was scarcely dry when it became evident that another global conflict was on the way. “The War to End All Wars” did not do so; the West was facing two decades of strikes, revolutions, depression, dictatorship, and genocide, followed by another unimaginably brutal war.

But nothing comparable to the Great War has happened since. The stupid and senseless slaughter of the trenches has not been repeated. The hundreds of millions of innocent victims of Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Saddam were not victims of war, but of something more banal, and therefore more horrifying: the brutal and cynical calculation of absolute dictators.

We should thank God that in our time, when wars must come, they at least have meaning.

7 comments:

a4g said...

An incredibly thought provoking series of posts. There are ideas that are so profound that one is left in stunned silence, unable to contemplate the myriad ramifications.

I have not given much thought to The Great War; it lacks the heroic vigor and black-and-white moral purity of WWII, and seems an endless Gehenna of muck and trenches. Yet you correctly identify it as a choke point of human history, on its far side a wealth of poetry and art, on the other, an attenuated drizzle of twisted and incomplete souls.

I've been asking myself 'why?' since you began this series. Almost reflexively, I think of 'modern warfare' as the responsible party in the deflowering of mankind.

Yet there have certainly been conflicts that were as personally and societally devastating as WWI for those that fought; there were enemies whose ruthless abandon produced corpses just as dead as those choked on mustard gas. Yet where in history is the moral vacuum that WWI left in its wake?

What changed? Could it have been inadvertantly the fault of the United States? In our largesse, when we provided the crucial tipping point in the war, instead of planting our flag of conquest, and building the aqueducts of the New Caesar, we shrunk back magnanimously to our shores, leaving behind not a victorious power, but a angry little boy whose older brother had saved him from the schoolyard bully?

Could Sartre and Derrida be the children of a secret, collective shame?

Baron Bodissey said...

I think you've identified part of the cause. But I think the uniqueness of the Great War -- the unprecedented mass slaughter of conscripts, for no meaningful tactical, strategic, or political reason -- was what gave birth to the 20th century epidemic of anomie, cynicism, meaninglessness, and unbelief. Call it cultural shell-shock.

Eric Blair said...

Yes, well. You've completely missed it.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol-Pot, Hussein.

They are all a consequence of WWI.

In fact, I'll assert that our current situation is, in fact, a ripple from that conflict.

Baron Bodissey said...

Eric, I haven't missed anything. I said way back, probably at the beginning of the series, that the Great War created the modern world. Everything we had to endure in the 20th century flowed out of it.

Since we agree, I'm not sure why I'm arguing with you.

Eric Blair said...

Hmmm...Ok, I admit I didn't go back and read your first post, if that was your point.

But I wouldn't describe it as "for no meaningful tactical, strategic, or political reason". That's taking the poet at his word, and poets always have an agenda.

There were definitely reasons why those battles were fought the way they were--Its quite hard to see how they would have been fought substantially differently.

Come to think of it, Furst Bismarck had a hand in creating the conditions for WWI. I'd question wether the thing would have happened absent the German Empire he created.

Baron Bodissey said...

Eric, you're quite right. But I was only going to go so far back looking for a primum mobile. Basically, it all started when Eve handed Adam the apple...

Dymphna said...

It was *not* Eve, I keep telling you. It was the darn snake. Ask any herpetologist, she'll tell you.

And Adam was a little slow on the uptake if you ask me.