Archive for October, 2018

H V Morton: A Traveller in Rome

October 30, 2018

518hprFDaQL._AC_US218_I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of books by Morton, who wrote around the middle of the last century. His travels in the footsteps of Christ and of St Paul are careful, detailed and thoughtful visits to the places, with conversations, encounters and personal responses; I learnt a lot from them.

As I’m thinking about a trip to Rome – which I’ve never visited – I thought it would be interesting to read his take on the Eternal City. A good deal of it was interesting and informative, though I’m sure wildly out of date in places, but there was a great deal that I skimmed through, concerning people and history which didn’t really interest me, Renaissance power-politics and the English visitors of the early nineteenth century and the like.

I realised fairly early on that this book was rather different from the earlier two I’ve mentioned above. They derive their unity from the fact that Morton is following in someone’s footsteps and so in some ways he’s merely an observer, and where he goes is dictated by someone else (a historical personage), whereas in this book the central characters are the city and himself, and so the focus is subtly but clearly different. His interests didn’t always coincide with mine.

Useful things I learned: the city is walkable; lots of detailed information about togas which I’d never known, in spite of my studies, and similarly on the Vestal Virgins, and the pagan origins of the new fire ceremony that is part of the Christian Easter vigil.

I’m glad I read it as part of the preparation for my eventual trip, but it’s an interesting historical curiosity rather than a traveller’s ‘must read’.

On hubris

October 29, 2018

Warning: politics ahead…

As I’m in my sixties, I lived through the dangerous times that were the Cold War, old enough to have vague memories of my parents’ worried-looking faces at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, during my bedtime ritual, which always ended with Radio Newsreel at 7pm. I can remember being part of the enormous demonstrations against cruise missiles in the 1980s. And yet, I feel a much more profound sense of unease and anxiety nowadays at the state of the world: Gorbachev was an intelligent man, I tell myself, and Reaganonly’ had Alzheimer’s…

I struggle to think of a world leader worthy of any trust or respect nowadays, except perhaps for the redoubtable Angela Merkel, streets ahead of anyone else, but even today under threat from the rapidly changing political climate in Germany. And I wonder what on earth is going on in our world, that so many ordinary people do seem to have taken leave of their senses.

It was less than 30 years after the end of the Second World War when I was demonstrating against Reagan’s missiles; now it’s over 70 years since that war ended, and those who experienced those darkest days of Europe and the world are sleeping in the sleep of peace, unable to warn us any longer.

I’m not looking back through rose-tinted spectacles at the politicians of yesteryear; there were many then as vile and incompetent as most are now. But politics is now a money-making career more than anything else, it would appear, and the idea of serving the public, a nation or the world has gone out of the window. In a world in many ways more ‘connected’ than it has ever been, we are more disconnected from everyone else by technology; in a world where Amazon Prime and Netflix provide entertainment, millions can live for days, weeks even, without stumbling across the news, which one had to on terrestrial television; one can surf the web and live in a social media bubble in which no news need ever figure. How many people are aware of the unspeakable slaughter going on in the Yemen, for example, aided and abetted by British industry? And who reads newspapers? Once it’s possible to avoid knowing about what is happening in the world, all sorts of manipulation is possible.

What am I worried about? Terrorism that isn’t called terrorism by world leaders unless it happens in Western cities and carried out by certain narrowly-defined groups: the world was not like this in the 1960s. Nuclear proliferation: now that the US and the Soviet Union don’t exert the control they did, who is developing nuclear weapons? Why is Israel allowed to pretend it doesn’t have them? In the crazy cauldron created by the West that is the Middle East, who can say what may happen? Climate change that doesn’t exist because it gets in the way of billionaires’ profits… The fragmentation of Europe, hastened and worsened by the maniacs behind Brexit, and many Europeans sleep-walking into it. A united Europe was built on the ashes of the last war, to ensure it never happened again. Memories are short.

What has happened? Memories of war are too distant in time. Economic chaos only affects a relatively ‘small’ segment of the population – the poorest, or ‘unimportant’ countries like Greece. The illusion of prosperity comes from shiploads of random stuff arriving from China at rock-bottom prices, along with unlimited credit and the pillaging of the environment; never mind, let’s ban plastic straws… and those of us with some money – which is the majority, and this is a democracy, after all — can and do carry on pretty much as before.

Collectively, we all must share the blame. We are living in very dangerous times: we think that everything is fine (more or less) whereas it may very well not be, and most of us are not prepared to think about the consequences of that. That is a very false sense of security. Equally the leaders of the world are at fault. Our system allows us to delegate power to those we elect and trust to make decisions on our behalf, which we lack the time, the competence and ability to make. We have been remiss too long, and we have been blinded by the media power of the wealthy, and allowed unsuitable people to lead us. And we have been taken in by the shiny-shiny offerings of big business and their mass media for so long that we are addicted. Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad…

How do we get out of this mess? I wish I knew. Do you?

Svetlana Alexievich: Last Witnesses

October 24, 2018

51ry8viRY5L._AC_US218_This is a book I don’t think I can bear to read again, so harrowing is the subject-matter; I was conscious of deliberately distancing myself as I read it. Svetlana Alexievich deservedly won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of years ago. This Belorussian writer is determined that there are certain things that must not and will not be forgotten; she has collected testimonies from those who dealt with the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet women who fought in the Second World War, those who remember life in the Soviet Union, and here, the children who lived through the Second World War.

She collects testimonies – a couple of pages, up to half a dozen; there are no questions, the witnesses remember, and speak, reliving their trauma as they do. In this book she tell us the name of the speaker, their age when war broke out in 1941 and their current profession. She took over twenty years collecting these testimonies. There are some who have challenges her methods and suggested she edits to exaggerate effects; I’m sorry, but faced with testimonies like these, I do not have time for such nit-picking.

It’s a truism that children suffer the most in a war. Here, we learn just what they did have to go through in this most brutal of wars, invasion by the Nazis, who regarded Russians as subhumans and treated them as such. There are so many random killings, so many slaughters of innocent villagers in revenge for partisan attacks, burnings of villages, torturings; there are children who live in the forests with partisans for years. So many orphans: small children see their parents gunned down, unable to comprehend. And – though I thought I was inured to this, but I wasn’t – so much random sadism and viciousness by German soldiers.

I’m not going to go into any more detail than this, apart from to mention one particular detail: the testimonies of starvation, particularly from children who managed to survive the 900 days of the siege of Leningrad. Peeling off the wallpaper to suck out the glue I just about coped with, but I was genuinely speechless when I came to a section titled ‘We ate the park’… some children, evacuated after the siege to a small town, saw a park, swooped on it and devoured every bit of living greenery in sight…

Here in the privileged West we are accustomed to see Russians as dangerous, potential warmongers to be kept in check; we have no comprehension what it would have been like to live through such times and therefore no understanding of their determination to be secure enough for nothing like it ever to be visited on them again.

I can’t imagine any of my readers are wanting to read this book for yourselves, but if you do, I’m afraid my searches have not succeeded in finding an English translation. I wonder why…

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time

October 22, 2018

I’d just finished the last of my current series of posts on various poems from the First World War which have spoken to me lately, when this timely article appeared on my laptop; I’ve linked to it for the new poem by Carol Ann Duffy which will obviously be copyrighted, so I don’t reproduce it here. I think it’s a marvellous response from our time to a century ago.

I’ve always felt an affinity with Duffy: I’ve always admired her poetry and taught it whenever I could at school – which was most years – and she and I are of an age. After I’d graduated I discovered that she and I had been students in the English Literature department at the University of Liverpool at exactly the same time; our paths had never crossed because she had read English & Philosophy and I’d read English & French…

The post of Poet Laureate had always seemed to me uniquely British and utterly redundant until she took up the post. She hasn’t produced fawning drivel for state occasions and self-important people as other laureates did: she did what in my mind a poet ought to do, which is react in a personal way to public events and commemorations so as to offer the people of the nation an opportunity to pause and think about the subject in a new way. This she also does with the centenary of the 1918 armistice which is fast approaching.

Her poem is a sonnet, as were many of the best-known poems from the war-poets, but it’s a twenty-first century sonnet: there are the fourteen lines and there is the rhythm of the sonnet but none of the traditional structure of the Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet: she offers us the concept and its potential for a certain kind of reflection and meaning, as she has done many times previously in similar poems.

The title brings together the idea of a wound as a lasting scar as well as a physical injury and links it with the passage of time, perhaps reminding us of the idea of time healing all wounds, except that she will go on to develop her idea that this has not happened.

Read the poem aloud in your head and savour the sonorous beauty of Duffy’s use of language and imagery: that lapidary opening half-line, for starters, and the linking of time and tide in that line. Death’s birthing-place is wonderfully compact, the linked images of birthing, nursing and hatching so much more effective as a threesome. Listen to the power of those alliterated bs as the men sail off to France or Flanders, and the end of God as so many men lost their faith during the slaughter.

The latter half of the poem is quieter, calmer as Duffy acknowledges the intention behind the men’s sacrifice – love you gave your world for – even thought that was not the actuality. And then come the lessons not learned, reinforced as she moves into the present tense: we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice: war continues unabated a century later; the futility of it all.

There are a couple of clever echoes of earlier poems, I think: to Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est in Poetry gargling in its own blood, and to Philip Larkin’s fiftieth anniversary poem MCMXIV in the town squares silent, awaiting their cenotaphs.

I know that this is an instant reaction, but I think this is a very fine poem and a worthy commemoration of those times; I think Duffy balances the horrific waste with the good intentions and reminds us that it’s our – contemporary – responsibility that nothing has changed.

Wilfred Owen: Futility

October 22, 2018

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

I think Owen gets pretty close to despair in this poem, which reflects on the corpse of a soldier, presumably a villager, a rural fellow, newly killed: what is the point of the human species’ existence at all? It is pretty grim.

The sun frames the poem, both stanzas. In the first it is a kindly force, in the second almost a stupid one, and this personification shocks through its incongruity. The first stanza is hushed, as we often are in the presence of death, with the gentleness of being awoken by the rising sun, wherever you are, until you are dead and this cannot happen any more. Look at Owen’s use of the mournful-sounding long ‘o’ sounds in awoke, home, sown, and the way those sounds frame the third line, as well as ending so many lines in that first stanza. Notice also how Owen has used consonants which are quiet and soft-sounding; nothing harsh at all until the final couplet where the shock of the plosives in fatuous and break emphasise the poet’s anger.

Owen’s use of imperfect rhyme often contributes to creating a slightly unnerving or uneasy effect, and I think it works well in this poem: look at line endings sun/sown, once/France, seeds/sides, star/stir, tall/toil. Devices like this are so easily overlooked because they do not impinge as evidently as full rhyme, but that subtlety does not mean that they have no effect, just that the effect is less consciously received.

Owen’s knowledge of planetary formation as shown in the opening of the second stanza, with the idea of the sun warming a cold planet and thus generating life, is obviously completely wrong, but that’s not the point here. The poet is focused on the sun’s life-giving properties which are due to radiated heat, germinating seeds in the springtime – an idea that our dead soldier from his rural background would surely have been familiar with – and the idea that the sun might be able, via its warmth, to revive the body not yet gone cold, briefly calls to Owen. Were humans, formed from the dust of the ground according to Genesis, created to be killed like this?

Thus the despairing cry that rises from that final couplet: the long ‘o’ sound again, the fatuous sunbeams – what an idea, as jarring as Sassoon’s glum heroes – the sun is foolish or silly to have bothered bringing forth life on the planet in the first place… And by the time this poem was written, I can see why someone with Owen’s experience of the Western Front would think like this. Indeed, with the state of our world today, I quite often experience the same feeling…

Rupert Brooke: Peace

October 21, 2018

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

For me, Brooke typifies the gung-ho attitudes of so many at the outbreak of the Great War. It’s easy to be critical more than a century later, for hindsight is a wonderful thing; it takes an effort of the twenty-first century mind to imagine both the innocence and the patriotism of those distant days. So why the welcoming of the war? A country relatively speaking at peace for the best part of a century, apart from the Crimean War and various minor skirmishes in the Middle East, South Africa and India? Pride in what Great Britain had achieved with its Empire that painted a quarter of the globe red on world maps? Public school ethos? A pride in a homogeneous nation, in the days before refugees and mass migration? Possibly a combination of all of those things…

I don’t think I have been deliberately picking out poems which are Petrarchan sonnets in this recent series of posts on poetry of the Great War, but it is striking how many poets used this form, which is most often associated with love poetry.

I always found it useful in my teaching to approach a poem in three stages: what is the poet saying? how is the poet saying it? how successful is the poet in saying it? You can see a progression in terms of reader involvement there, gradually more demanding, moving from the simple ‘story’ if you like, to poetic technique and then personal response.

So: thanks to God for offering the youth of the nation something real to do, something that surpasses the trivial and everyday, the mundane. And the worst that can happen to you is to be killed… unlike in The Soldier, the d-word is used, and capitalised too, but here it’s still a distant and rather vague experience. For me, Brooke creates a similar feeling to Herbert Asquith in The Volunteer. We are still light-years away from the horrors of Dulce et Decorum Est.

The form is that of a love poem, which surely is significant, particularly as towards the end of the octave Brooke will mock love itself as inferior to the coming experience of war, which is more concrete, more masculine, perhaps. There is a sense of thrill in the first quatrain, perhaps like the realisation that one is in love, then a sense of something new and refreshing in the second, after a long period of tedium reflected in the long vowel sounds in old, cold, weary, dreary. I do find love described as a little emptiness rather disturbing, and the glibness – to me – of the entire sestet is shocking, revealing a total lack of awareness of the actual effect of modern weaponry and warfare.

Evaluating, I think Brooke is successful in saying what he wanted to say, but I am too far from his time and his attitudes to be able to get inside what he actually means, and if I were to choose a word to sum up his poem, I think unpleasant would fit the bill…

On visiting ruins

October 13, 2018

I visited my favourite place in Yorkshire, possibly my favourite place in the country, the other day: the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey near Helmsley. Yorkshire has many ruined abbeys and castles, but I have always particularly loved the way Rievaulx is nestled in a valley, surrounded by hills and woodland, off tiny minor roads where two cars can barely pass each other. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like to be a monk there five or six hundred years ago, isolated from the cares of the world…

And I found myself wondering, what is it that attracts me to ruins? For this year I have spent a week wandering the Roman remains of Hadrian’s Wall, as well as various places in Roman Provence. But then, I suppose, it’s not only ruins, but also ancient places in general: I love cathedrals and churches and castles, though I’m not quite so attracted to stately homes.

Ancient places remind me of my insignificance: I’m on the earth for three score years and ten, by the traditional reckoning, a century if I’m very lucky (or unlucky?), and the places I’m writing about have either survived as remains, or intact, for many centuries, in some cases thousands of years. They remind me of the different kinds of existences which I have read about, which went on there long ago. And they have endured, which I won’t in the same way, and which I can’t see many of our contemporary constructions doing, either: we don’t build to last any more. You might imagine we would have access to better and more durable materials: maybe we do, but don’t use them. How long before the Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool – for example – crumbles away or is demolished? It was only consecrated in 1967…

Many years ago I used to live in east London and often travelled on the train to Broad Street Station (it no longer exists); there was a plaque somewhere on an outside wall that said that the station had been built on the site of the original Bethlehem(=Bedlam) Hospital, around about 1850, and the hospital had been there for about five or six centuries previous to that. Reading that used to give me a headache: something being there for so long, serving the same purpose all those years.

There is something romantic about ruins, of course, as the Victorians discovered, and they excavated and tidied everywhere up, as well as wandering the world stealing bits of others’ ruins. And it wasn’t only the Brits, as you will realise if you visit various museums on the Museum Island in Berlin. Ruins are often seen in peaceful and rural settings, tidily manicured for the discerning visitor. They fit in with certain aesthetics of beauty, and arouse what may be termed spiritual responses in the spectator. Certainly this is part of my response to such places; often their isolation is conducive to reflection and meditation on all manner of things.

And yet… ruins are in many ways the detritus of past ages. In countries where there is plenty of space, old buildings that have served their purpose are abandoned, left to decay, and new ones constructed; it’s easier and cheaper to leave the old behind rather than to demolish and tidy away (in crowded Britain this is often not possible). Sometimes old materials may be re-used. Travel writers have sometimes been shocked at locals’ dismissive and cavalier attitudes to their unwanted remains. Dozens of Roman cities apparently lie buried under the sands of the Sahara, awaiting the attentions of archaeologists – or not. Does any of this matter? I enjoyed visiting the Roman city at Moulay Idriss in the Moroccan desert, but it was miles from anywhere, and forgotten, I suspect, until it was realised that crazy westerners would visit, and there was money to be made.

We are interested in the past: we explore, excavate, research, write up reports; we learn how our ancestors lived and died. Perhaps we are wiser, perhaps thereby we understand ourselves and our behaviours and impulses better – I don’t know. But something draws us back to the past, as something which can be known, after a fashion, and which is gone, too: not as fearsome or unknowable or unpredictable as the future into which we are all inevitable moving…

Stefan Brijs: Post for Mrs Bromley

October 10, 2018

51E9jdRvQIL._AC_US218_This is an astonishing new novel set during the First World War, but sadly not yet available in English, though there is a sample here. At first, I wondered when I read ‘translated from the Dutch’ on the cover, but then I actually realised Brijs is a Flemish writer, and all fell into place, Flanders, the Western Front and everything: a writer from the area, fascinated by what happened there a century ago. And the final sections are set in Poperinghe and feature Talbot House, which I visited earlier this year…

It’s interesting because it’s a novel about Britain at the very start of the war, and its early days, a time of confusion and bewilderment as well as growing patriotism and propaganda, a time before the horrors with which we are all familiar became widely known. This is an aspect I haven’t met in other fiction, to the same degree. The first part is set in the working-class areas of the East End of London, and to me Brijs seems to create a very detailed and convincing picture of life there, with very credible characters and settings. It centres on two ‘milk brothers’ (i.e. one was wet-nursed by the mother of the other): their backgrounds and aspirations are very different, however, and they grow apart, one a true and patriotic proletarian who wants to join up at the outset, thought too young and undernourished and therefore having to resort to subterfuge, the other – John – more questioning, academic, and by his own eventual admission, more cowardly. His father is a bookaholic postman, and it’s through his experiences delivering official letters and messages that the awful truth about the war gradually emerges; he feels increasingly like an angel of death, and begins to conceal rather than deliver official mail.

John chooses to go to university to study literature rather than join up, and makes a very good friend who is finishing a degree in German, and who questions everything he hears about the war.

As the story develops we encounter a powerful portrayal of how the tentacles of support for the war spread, gradually affecting more and more people; we see the hero’s attitudes and emotions changing as he reflects and questions his own stance and behaviour, in response to other people as well as to events. Particularly well described is the terror of the early Zeppelin raids on London and how these crystallised anti-German feeling; equally we see the effect of atrocity propaganda. Ultimately, as a result of events as well as reflection on his apparent cowardice, our hero signs up, and eventually ends up at the front, in the Somme region towards the end of 1916, in quest of the truth about his childhood ‘brother’, who he knows is dead.

His experiences as orderly to a lieutenant who has clearly been badly mentally affected by his experiences is very sensitively and thoughtfully developed, and I was reminded at various times of the characters in Susan Hill’s Strange Meeting. John is loyal to his officer, both sensitive to and horrified by his affliction. We are not spared the suddenness and meaninglessness of death at the front. Brijs manages to bring to life men who are utterly trapped by their circumstances, their sense of duty, mentally deranged by their experiences in so many different ways, small and large. At times I wasn’t totally convinced by the levels of deceit John resorts to in his quest for truth, but realised that in the enormity of the chaos surrounding him, anything was possible: all are suffering in a true hell that spares no-one. Without giving anything away, I can truthfully say that I found the denouement very powerful indeed.

So here was a novel about Britain and the British Army during the Great War, written in Flemish, translated into French and German so far, but not English: what’s going on?

Philip Pullman: La Belle Sauvage revisited

October 4, 2018

51zrG9f2dVL._AC_US218_I’ve come back to Pullman’s novel a year after it was published and in anticipation of the rumoured appearance of the next one in the series in the spring. If you want to read my reaction first time round, you can find it here.

I usually find a re-read quite different from the first read and this was no exception: apart from the main plot characters and outlines of the story, I’d forgotten many of the details; this is quite natural in my experience, since that first reading is so driven by wanting to know the plot, the whole story. Now it was time to slow down, and focus on what else the author was doing.

The first thing I have to acknowledge (again!) is what a really good story-teller Pullman is: the plot grips from the outset and carries you along; once again I found myself side-lining other activities to sit on the sofa with the book. And the book is well-written, too, as you might expect from an ex-English teacher, perhaps.

I found myself thinking about alternate universes, which is what Pullman created in the original trilogy His Dark Materials, and what is so effective is its plausibility. I’m sure Tolkein’s Middle Earth is a coherent whole but Pullman’s alternate universe is populated with humans with whom we can identify, even though their being, consciousness and experience of the world is split between themselves and their external daemons; the technology of their world resembles ours in many but not all ways and its nomenclature is interesting, too (there is Pullman the English teacher playing again). So that world absorbs us from the start, in all its detail and complexity, with its different history and yet similar concerns to those of our own world: freedom of thought, the power of religion, climate change…

In this novel, Pullman clearly gains from his readers’ familiarity with that universe from his previous trilogy, and from the reappearance of some characters with whom we are already familiar, even though this novel is chronologically set some ten years earlier.

Pullman again uses young characters at the heart of his story, and not because he’s specifically writing for a child or adolescent audience – he’s not – but this aspect of the novels intrigued me this time around. In His Dark Materials we have Lyra and Will, roughly of the same age, not quite adult, but adolescents on the cusp of adulthood, and Pullman highlights this crucial age by having the transition to full adulthood as the point in life where one’s daemon becomes fixed as a single creature which it will remain for the rest of that person’s life, rather than being capable of constant change as it is during pre-adulthood. Behind this concept, as well as what particular creature an individual’s daemon fixes as, lies deep reflection of the process of development of the personality, and all the influences on the individual during her or his formative years. And in La Belle Sauvage we have two similar, yet slightly different characters: Malcolm is younger by several years than Alice, who is rather more worldly-wise and experienced but still not quite an adult…

Pullman puts his characters in very challenging situations where they are often faced with difficult and complex moral choices, sometimes able to reflect before acting, sometimes not, and it seems to me that there are lessons offered here, not in any didactic or exhortatory sense, but lessons nevertheless to be experienced through the characters and then reflected on by the reader whatever age s/he is, as it were: Pullman’s characters have to learn how to live right, and to live with the consequences of the choices they make, and he is reassuring to the reader and to his characters about the outcomes for his young characters…

I think this aspect of his work is one that I shall return to in future readings of his works: as well as being a stunning story-teller, Pullman is also a very moral writer.

Eleanor Farjeon: Easter Monday

October 2, 2018

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now –
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’

That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

The poet was a personal friend of Edward Thomas the poet and his wife Helen; the poem remembers him, killed on Easter Monday 1917.

This is a fourteen-line poem: is it a sonnet or not? It doesn’t follow the rules for Petrarchan or Shakespearean. Does that matter? It’s clearly a love poem, and a very moving one, too. It’s also a very personal one. The poem (sonnet?) falls into two parts, like a traditional Petrarchan sonnet: the last letter, and the consequence, but doesn’t divide into an octave and sestet. Look at the two meanings in that phrase last letter: most recent, and final; necessary, clever, and so easily overlooked, particularly as the words are almost at the start of the poem we are eagerly reading. The intimacy and love between the couple comes through in the gift she hid for him, and the little detail of his liking to munch apples – not just eat, but munch. How well she knows – knew him. Although her husband is dead she still addresses him as if her were with her, alive, as she shares, indirectly, the contents of that last letter with the reader. The weight of the words, ‘This is the eve. Goodbye.’ is ominous.

Then there is the shift in the second part of the poem, which would be the sestet in a traditional Petrarchan sonnet. From before to after.

Although the whole poem is written in the past tense, it is only as we move into the second section that we are fully aware of it, and it begins to have a sharper effect. That Easter Monday – the distancing demonstrative article separates them, whereas they were together before and she spoke to him as alive – was a day for praise. She talks of what she did that day, while they were apart, no doubt thinking of him as she saw the ripening apple-bud. She was joyfully alive, enjoying the spring: he was dead. There is the echo, with the change of tense now, from present to past: It wasthe eve, that is, both of Easter Monday, and the day he was killed. And in response to his final request, ‘And may I have a letter soon.’ comes: ‘There are three letters that you will not get.’ What is not said, what we are forced to notice for ourselves, is unbearably sad, and I think it is so sad because we are forced to make that simple connection ourselves, as she will have done, thinking of those letters she had written.

Women’s poetry of the Great War which I have read has a totally different quality from that of the men who were actually away at the war. That is a blindingly obvious difference; the men suffer away from the world they knew, at the front, seeing almost indescribable horrors whereas the women suffer quietly at home, in the world they have always been part of, usually in silence and often alone, sometimes knowing but often not knowing. The men’s poems often shout with anger, rage, fury; the women’s are understated, not in an apologetic way, but because there is nothing that can be said, once the terrible news is known. One cannot say whose lot was worse, but I am reminded of the chilling line in Philip Larkin’s MCMXIV ‘The thousands of marriages lasting a little while longer’…

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