Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Poetry of War, Part II

Poppies That Were Ever Dropping

The first spring following the onset of the Great War saw a profusion of poppies growing in the fields of Flanders, both among the graves where the newly-buried soldiers lay, and in No-Man’s Land between the entrenched armies of the Allies and the Kaiser. The poppies became a symbol of the war, and are still used to mark Remembrance Day each year on the 11th of November.

The Canadian poet John McCrae popularized the symbol with his well-known poem:
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
           In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
           In Flanders fields.
Written in 1915, the poem still embodies the Victorian ideal of war. Idealism has not died; the patriotic fire still burns. Verdun and Ypres are over the horizon, and the awful, pointless carnage that will rage until 1918 has not yet become evident.

But by the following year, the English poet Isaac Rosenberg wrote about poppies in quite a different tone:
Break of Day in the Trenches
The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens ?
What quaver — what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe —
Just a little white with the dust.
Notice that the Victorian voice has disappeared: here we have a thoroughly modern poetic style and sensibility. Just two years into the war, and the blazing youthful innocence is gone.

Neither of these poets was to survive the Great War. McCrae died of pneumonia in 1918, and Rosenberg was killed in battle the same year.

The First World War cut through the intellectual flower of the British Empire like a gigantic scythe. Educated and well-bred young men who rushed to volunteer in the idealistic autumn of 1914 were shot down, blown apart, gassed, and killed by fever in their thousands before the armistice came in 1918. Brilliant men, destined to be authors, poets, magazine editors, university dons — wiped out before their lives really began.

Even now, almost a century later, it is heartbreaking to contemplate the utterly pointless waste of youthful talent that was poured down the shell-holes of the Western Front.

It was this dreadful slaughter of the literate classes that turned elite opinion towards pacifism in the years after the war. The working-class victims in the trenches were mute; all they left were grieving widows and parents, and fatherless children. But the losses to English literature and poetry were felt in the highest reaches of the culture, and are reflected in the conventional wisdom even today.

Later posts will feature more of the Great War martyrs of English poetry.


Always On Watch said...

"If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields."
What a glorious expression of the ideals of freedom!

"In Flander's Fields" is one of my favorite poems, and I mentioned it to my class a few weeks ago when we were studying "The Charge of the Light Brigade."

Today, many Westerners are "sleeping through an invasion," as Dr. Shorrosh puts it. I'm glad that my parents and various veterans in my family have not lived to see what the Islamists are doing, much of their insidious propagandizing and undermining within our own borders.

Jude the Obscure said...

'When you go home, tell them of us and say,
For your tomorrow, these gave their today.

Went the day well? We died and never knew,
But, well or ill, freedom, we died for you.'
(A translation of the poem by Simonides (557-476BC) written to commemorate the three hundred who fell at Thermopylae (480BC)
The second verse also occurs in the anonymous poem of the Battle of Britain:
'Sweeping squadrons filled the summer sky,
White trails across a brilliant blue,
We met head on five miles high,
There were so many, we were few.

Went the day well? We died and never knew,
But, well or ill, freedom, we died for you.
And left the vivid air signed with our honour,
And now, do you remember us
They called The Few?

We need to know that we are not alone,
That here and now our sacrifice is known,
And we are not forgotten.'
(Second World War - I know.)

Does anyone remember Enoch Powells' Rivers of Blood speech in the British Parliament when mass immigration to that country was first mooted?

Baron Bodissey said...

Jude, WWII is OK -- I'll be covering a little of that eventually in later posts.

TigerHawk said...

Will there be great poets of the Iraq war? Probably not, because the art is lost among ordinary people. Today poetry is largely the province of the self-consciously intellectual.

Baron Bodissey said...

TigerHawk, you are quite right. The art of poetry is not exactly lost, but the publicly expressed aspect of it is. What are published and studied in academe are the degraded and demotic forms of “expressive verse”, without the art and discipline of times gone by.

But good work is still being done. I can recommend Pattiann Rogers, or the noted poet E. S. May. The latter has blogged his poetry at The Voice of the Turtle.

truepeers said...

Baron, you are right about the effect of the war on British high culture - devastating. One might also mention, however, that the interwar years saw a very important and under-appreciated phenonemon: a massive flowering of what became known as "middlebrow" (the term was only coined around 1920) literature.

The "middlebrows" who people like Virgina Woolf, traumatized by the war, wrote so scathingly about, maintained a large number of publishing houses. Their works carried forward the torch of Edwardian times; in narratives pre-occupied with the war, they refused to give up on English conservative values of patriotism, duty, etc., and sought to redeem the sacrifices in the trenches accordingly - and many of these writers had been there and suffered greatly. In their conservative response which the highbrows so righteously decried as being oblivious to the war's violence and supposedly fraudulent ideals of nation and self-sacrifice, they did not take the road to the modernist esthetic which accompanied, by no means accidentally, the totalitarian politics of modernism. I have often thought if it were not for this middlebrow literary tradition, keeping a faith on which Churchill relied, Britain would have rolled over in 1939 or 40. Those who refused to take the modernist road out of the trenches quite possibly saved us from a thousand year reich. The situation seems to me somewhat akin to today when America's "highbrows" opposed a war which "middlebrow" Americans, refusing the MSM's and ME's take on "the next Vietnam", accepted, in the majority, as a necessary fight for the security that only a freer world can provide.

The publishing industry that produced Britain's middlebrow works was located in London's east end and was largely destroyed in WWII by the bombing. Here is a link to the work that brought this fascinating history to my knowledge, though I am saddened to see that even the publisher's blurbs continue the tradition of highbrow condescension: Merchants of Hope

Baron Bodissey said...

truepeers -- an interesting thing about Rosenberg is that he probably would not have been considered "high culture". He was Jewish, and his family was not well-off. Since he wrote well, the tony salons of London might have accepted him, but only grudgingly.

For that matter, Sassoon was Jewish, too.

El Jefe Maximo said...

Don't forget Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier."

Parts of Jude the Obscure's quotations appeared in the London Times, and in the Times Literary Supplement for 1918 -- apparently both by John Maxwell Edmonds.

World War I, in my opinion, was truly the Big Mistake of the 20th Century, opening the door to the Nazis, the Communists, modern socialism and numerous other horribles.

Baron Bodissey said...

It was definitely the "Big Mistake", since it destroyed the world that had gone before and replaced it with something more horrible and brutal than had ever previously been imagined. Yeats had it right: "What rough beast...?"

truepeers said...

Baron, that's a really interesting poem, Rosenberg's. What to make of the fact that he seems to proclaim the rat a wandering, cosmopolitan Jew: "you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder" ?

The imagery of crossing no man's land to touch the hands of English and German reminds us that for an educated English Jew, there had to be a strong identification with German/Austrian Jewry, the great cosmopolitans fairly numerous in the other trenches (many fewer Jews on the British side); Rosenberg seems to have been rather conflicted amidst the wars of nations who claim their great athletes, the strong bodies unquestionably tied to the whims of nations, while the questionable rat/jew scurries by, inwardly grinning that he is still alive.

The Brits were much more of a multinational empire than the Germans, if not the Austro-Hungarians; so the Jew is not the only national exception among the ranks of Englishmen, though I don't think there were any Jewish regiments and most British soldiers tended to identify as English, Scottish, even Canadian, Kiwi, etc., not simply British, in the moment when they were called to perform in the name of their ultimate loyalty. But Rosenberg may be empathizing with the German Jew who is part of a less heterogeneous army, and hence, I imagine, in a position more likely to fuel nationalistic resentments of what we would come to know as the Hitler variety. Whether I've got it right or not, I think we can say that the whole thing makes R. feel like a rat.

Anyway, by thematizing the wandering Jew - the theme whose (early) modern discovery allows for Jewish artists to emerge from their anesthetic religious tradition with a secular identity - and noting that for him nothing has changed since Druid times, Rosenberg gives us the mystery of Jewish survival amidst the savagery of the peoples among whom they have lived.

Now you raise an interesting question whether this should be considered high culture. I won't bore you with a lengthy analysis. But if high culture encourages us to identify with the tragic victim and thus to seek to defer our violent desires through ascetic forms of transcendence, rather than to seek the satisfaction of our desires in, say, some boisterous entertainment/feast, the image of the inwardly grinning rat/jew suggests a curious ambivalence as to the degree of his identification with the victims, at least with the bodies that are decidedly bonded/branded national and are not cosmopolitan.

It's not that R. wants a lot of people to die in order to realize his poem, it is not his desire that this should happen, as would the writer of, say, a Schwarzenegger film; but R. is seemingly aware that many had to die en for him to have this ironic feeling with which some aspect central to his identity is starkly revealed.

The poppy then becomes a symbol of the torch that is passed from generation to generation in an ascetic identification with the fallen victim. But while gentile poppies are rooted in men's veins and are dropping all over the place, the wandering Jew's poppy remains safe, curiously, as it becomes uprooted to put in his ear.

High culture, at least since the emergence of the neoclassical age, is generally identified with a specific national tradition. If high culture is that which transcends the context of its production to appeal to universal themes, as the basis for distinguishing a transcendent national from an ethnic culture that does not transcend the specific context of its emergence, the curious position of the Jew is revealed. For if the Jew has a high culture, as a Jew and not as an Englishman, etc., it is because of his high religion, not any secular culture (save perhaps “the cosmopolitan”) a religion that can survive anywhere in the world and that, unlike Christianity or Islam, is specific to a single nation. Judaism is not an ethnicity in the sense of belonging to a particular place and to a people primarily defined as the inhabitants of a specific territory.

IOW, if all the European nationals belong to nations defined by their development of secular high cultures, the Jews who also have a national identity that can "take root" anywhere – just as English poetry can be appreciated anywhere around the world – have to come to terms with the fact that their national identity is guaranteed by a religion and not by a secular high culture (compare the Jew as the wandering creator of popular culture in America) then Rosenberg, the wandering Jew who aspires to be a high secular artist necessarily feels his curious position. Hence the comforting, sophisticated, myth of the cosmopolitan – but is there really such a thing apart from the Jew, is there a cosmopolitan highbrow who can successfully appeal to universal values while forgetting his national origin? This is the question that remains central to our analysis of, say, the UN and EU bureaucracies and their media friends today. Perhaps the cosmopolitan myth becomes a way of trying to avoid seeing his position in its full starkness; and hence the guilty grinning of the rat.

I would close by saying that it is a mistake to equate too neatly high culture with high society. They are only loosely equated, as many of the wealthy and aristocratic in Europe and America have been barbarians only thinly veneered and with a limited interest in matters cultural. And many an artistic contributor to national high cultures have begun their careers from modest origins. The high culture belongs to the nation and eventually to all of humanity, though many are not able to appreciate this. Interesting to note that the alternative to the high/low divide, the middlebrow, was only conceptualized as such around 1920. In the 19thC., the mass of the bourgeoisie identified with the romantics who led high culture, even if many bourgeois were not able to appreciate all the finer points of the art the highbrows produced. It was only in the 20thC that the mass of the bourgeoisie, especially in the Anglophone world, consciously turned against the artistic models proposed by the intellectual elite, and sought out a middlebrow cultural product that refused modernism’s violent quest for the ever new.

Cobalt Blue said...

Siegfried Sassoon is one of my favorites. Recently I posted a short piece about him on my blog My favorite by him is "The Kiss."