Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Wilfred Owen and the Poetry of War

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was the hour that the guns fell silent on the Western Front in Europe in 1918, and the Armistice ending the First World War came into effect.

They called it “The War to End All Wars,” which sounds like an almost pathetic label now. So presumptuous and supercilious. “The War to End All Wars” was followed, just twenty years later, by a greater and even more deadly conflict. Then second half of the twentieth century witnessed one war after another, all across the globe: Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East Nigeria, Mozambique, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan-- to name only a relative few. The Iraq-Iran War fought during the 1980s cost somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million lives, and accomplished absolutely nothing. Most wars, if we look at them historically, accomplish little—certainly little positive (there may be exceptions, of course). As Dr. King once said, "Wars are very poor tools for carving out better tomorrows." Today, the First World War is remembered, when it is remembered (which is seldom), not as “The War to End All Wars”, but as the conflict which spawned Hitler and led to the tragedies of World War Two.

“If ye break faith with us who die,” John McCrae wrote in Belgium, just hours before his own death, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.”

How do we keep faith, on this Veterans’ Day, and every day, with those who have died?

We keep faith by remembering. We truly remember the fallen when we make part of our reality what they actually went through, and how they actually suffered. Only those who have witnessed war firsthand can speak the truest word against war. The political machinations that gave the world that first Great War may lie largely forgotten, discarded on the ash bin of history. But the voices of the poets of that war—the “War Poets” as they are called—McRae, and Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke, and Isaac Rosenberg, and Charles Sorley, and Wilfred Owen, and others, continue to speak to us still.

Wilfred Owen was the son of a railway worker who was born in Shropshire in the English midlands in 1896. He hoped to enter the University of London, but after failing to win a scholarship he found work as a teacher of English in the Berlitz School in Bordeaux. Although he had previously thought of himself as a pacifist, in October 1915, in the patriotic fervor of the moment, he enlisted in the Artists' Rifles and joined the Manchester Regiment in France in January, 1917. While in France, Owen began writing poems about his war experiences.

Life on the Western Front was bitter indeed. In the summer of 1917, during the Battle of the Somme, a shell landed just two yards away from Owen and he was forced to spend several days trapped in a bomb crater with the mangled corpse of a fellow officer before assistance could pull him out. Following this experience, Owen was diagnosed with shell-shock, and was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital where he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who encouraged him to keep on writing, as did another writer at the hospital, Robert Graves.

Shortly after the outbreak of the war, Sassoon had written:

Soldiers are citizens of death’s grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time’s to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.

Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.

I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.

Later, Sassoon took aim against the Church and the Establishment back in England as well:

The Bishop tells us; “When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”

“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”

Over the next several months, out of the horror and pain he had experienced, and the futility of the conflict in which he was engaged, Owen wrote a series of war poems, including “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young”:

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Owen then hurled his own experience of the hell of war against a poem called "Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori” written by a woman named Jessie Pope, a pro-war propagandist back in England. The facile words of the Roman poet Horace-- Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.— “Sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.” – had been a lie in ancient times, Owen declared. Even more was it a lie in his own time:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!--An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

There was no beauty in war, Owen knew-- as only one who had experienced the hell of war firsthand could know. (Owen was later “cured” of his shell shock, and sent back to the Front, and was killed on the fields of France in November of 1918, during the last week of the Great War. He was 26 years old when he died.)

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden once wrote (in a poem). Wars go on. More young men—and women—and children—will die. New tyrants will rise. There will perhaps always be that endless struggle for power and position and wealth and resources.

Yet the voices of the War Poets—of World War One, and of all wars, too-- sing deeper and stronger with the passing of the years. Their hopes may be unfulfilled, but their vision abides. That is why so often it is the voice of poetry that presents the clearest picture of those human endeavors (and all too often, follies) that matter most. Poets witness to the deepest reality of the world, be that a physical reality or a spiritual one. They pull our eyes toward that which is within, and beyond.

To observe truly this day of remembrance, and to honor those who have fallen, we must never lose sight of those things for which they died. As Archibald Macleish wrote at the end of the next Great War:

 “We were young, they say. Remember us… They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning.”

It is the meaning inherent the blessed vision of which a poet sang:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away . . . O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

The singing will never be done, and our vision for peace may well never be realized. But we must never stop seeking it, not if we are to be true to those who have come before.

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