Archive for the 'First World War' Category

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…

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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?

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’…

Siegfried Sassoon: Base Details

October 1, 2018

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say — “I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

Sassoon is at his angry best here, and here is another war poem that begins with ‘if’. Hmm. Looking at the title again, I’m struck by the multiplicity of possible meanings in ‘base’ as in military base, or base as in morally low; ‘details’ as in military punishment detail, or minor aspects as in unimportant?

Why are the Majors ‘scarlet’ – a reference to medals and uniforms or the ruddiness of complexion that comes from high-living? ‘Speed’: does this mean to hurry up, as in the conveyor-belt of young men shipped off to be slaughtered at the front, or do we imagine it as part of the phrase ‘God speed’ a wish of good luck? And, what is a ‘glum’ hero? That’s a marvellous oxymoronic phrase that I’ve always wondered about whenever I return to this poem. Surely our picture of a hero is of someone contentedly, patriotically doing his duty.‘Glum’ suggests reluctance, as if the men have been told they’re heroes, and don’t actually want this role, this label. Sassoon certainly tuned in to the multiplicity of meanings our language offers in this poem.

Look at the mockery of the top brass emphasised by the alliteration of ‘puffy petulant’ and ‘guzzling and gulping’, and then the officer’s patronising tone when talking about the ‘poor young chap’ – somehow ‘chap’ seems far too informal and dismissive, especially coming from a man who doesn’t actually know the dead soldier, only his father long ago – perhaps at public school? And to refer to a bloody battle as a ‘scrap’ shocks as well. Then there’s the final, jaunty rhyming couplet, with ‘done’ before the caesura somehow adding more weight to ‘dead’ at the end of the line… and the childishness of ‘toddle’ which takes us back to the overeating of the early lines of the poem: perhaps the major is so obese that he must walk that way?

Base Details is one of a number of similar poems in which Sassoon expresses his anger about what the war is doing to men, along with The General, The Hero, Does it Matter? Glory of Women and Memorial Tablet, to name a few.

Sassoon and Owen both, though in very different ways, highlight the indifference of both military high-ups and those at home to the death and suffering endured by the ordinary soldiers at the front, an indifference that seems to grow as time passes: only those directly affected by the death of a loved one perhaps shocked out of that indifference? A century later, it is hard to know for certain, but I think both poets are keenly aware that it is old men who start wars and send the young off to be killed and maimed. And though I find it even harder to understand, I have nothing but respect for two poets who nevertheless continued to do their duty, as they understood it.

May Herschel-Clarke: The Mother

September 29, 2018

The Mother – May Herschel-Clarke (1917)

If you should die, think only this of me
In that still quietness where is space for thought,
Where parting, loss and bloodshed shall not be,
And men may rest themselves and dream of nought:
That in some place a mystic mile away
One whom you loved has drained the bitter cup
Till there is nought to drink; has faced the day
Once more, and now, has raised the standard up.


And think, my son, with eyes grown clear and dry
She lives as though for ever in your sight,
Loving the things you loved, with heart aglow
For country, honour, truth, traditions high,
Proud that you paid their price. (And if some night
Her heart should break — well, lad, you will not know).

A reasonable first reaction is that this is a very clever poem, parodying so carefully and so completely Rupert Brooke’s famous sonnet The Soldier. And it is that, but so much more besides.

Yes, there is the cleverness of the echoing, with a different slant, of so many of Brooke’s actual words. But there is also the way in which, though the whole poem is about death and dying (like Brooke’s), the d-word is never mentioned, as neither is the horror of death in warfare. And it is death, not the (statistically far more likely) mutilation but survival. There is the same sense of Brooke’s picture of young men relaxing, laughing, which comes over so strongly in Peace, another of his sonnets, with ‘men may rest themselves and dream of nought’, the use of euphemism in drained the bitter cup’, and the patriotic pride in the raising up of the standard, almost in a Roman sense: echoes of Herbert Asquith’s The Volunteer and the oriflamme, and the men of Agincourt…

Battlefield death imagined – only as a possibility: ‘if’ at the opening of the octave, just like Brooke’s opening, and the mother’s private and quiet response in the sestet. She has wept, and come to terms with her grief: eyes grown clear and dry, patriotically accepting her boy’s sacrifice loving the things you loved’, and proud that you paid their price’note the alliterations which feel to me just a little too glib, and hint perhaps at the falseness or forced-ness of her public sentiments there…

And then the parenthesis, which is very powerful indeed, I feel. Setting it apart like that is significant in itself, side-lining her true feelings as somehow less important – than what, though? – the mother’s affection in ‘lad’, and the silent relief that he will not be able to witness her grief.

What a distance women’s poetry has come since the simple-mindedness of Jessie Pope three years earlier…

Klaus Mann: The Turning Point

September 25, 2018

41zmqD9SlKL._AC_US218_This post also begins with a confession: many years ago, I tried to read a novel by Thomas Mann, and gave up. Then I had to read one as part of my master’s degree: Death in Venice bored me. Nevertheless, I was attracted to his son Klaus’ autobiography when I came across it in a bookshop in 1987 and bought it. Finally, I read – most of it…

There’s an awful lot of self-indulgent rambling in the 600+ pages, as well as a huge amount of name-dropping, a great many of which names have completely fallen off anyone’s radar by now. So, it’s not an easy read, and I found myself skimming certain sections; I also took a two-week break from it, but then decided I’d better get on.

Mann is interesting in his description – and realisation, with hindsight – of just how much intellectuals, and intelligent people generally, were looking the wrong way all the time in post-First World War Germany, whilst anarchy reigned in politics and public life, and the far right was rumbling away, first in the background and then much more overtly and confidently, and this made uncomfortable reading in these times. I found myself beginning to understand the German feelings of betrayal in 1918, and the idea, so effectively used by Hitler and the Nazis, that they hadn’t lost the war.

Mann is clear about not wanting to succeed as a writer by hanging onto his father’s (or indeed his uncle Heinrich’s) coattails, but there is no denying that it helped a lot. The breathlessness of his youth and travels comes across very well, and I was interested to learn of his friendship and travelling with Annemarie Schwarzenbach, whose travel journals I have dipped into. At times I had the impression of reading about the German equivalent of the British Bloomsbury group, with all the interconnected names and relationships.

Mann was gay, but nowhere does his sexuality or its effect on his life receive overt attention in his writing, perhaps understandably from the times. I was shocked by his, and his friends’ near-obsession with suicide, and how many of them, including Mann himself, took this option.

Chronicles of life within Germany during the time of the Nazis I have always found interesting, because I strive to understand how such a death-focused and poisonous ideology could have gripped an entire nation, and Mann’s account is no exception. The fact that for so long intellectuals just could not take the Nazis seriously, expressed total incredulity towards them, is revealing: Mann describes sitting at the next table to Hitler and his cronies in a Munich cafe a year or so before they came to power, and the description of the would-be führer troughing through one strawberry cream tart after another makes him seem utterly ridiculous…

Mann and his family left Germany very quickly after the takeover; his vehement anti-Nazism (and that of his sister Erika, who I have written about here) is never in doubt; he ended up striving to enlist in the US army even before he had been naturalised an American citizen, and his account of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War is also very illuminating, especially about the sordid compromises very rapidly made by the Allies with the remnants of the old regime, and the way suddenly every German had secretly been an anti-Nazi all along…

Overall, for our time, the book is far too long and rambling, and I did find myself skimming sizeable sections, but I’m glad I bothered, for the various illuminating sections I’ve mentioned which I’ve fitted into my overall jigsaw of those times…

 

August favourites #30: Wilfred Owen poem

August 30, 2018

This one is a bit of a cheat, if you’ve been following this series, as I already named Owen’s poem Disabled as my favourite war poem, and yet I’m about to name another, and different poem by Owen in this post. But hey, it’s my blog so I can do that. And I wrote about it last year, so I shall suggest that you have a read of that post

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

Why this one? Because it shows a different side from the usual Owen, a more thoughtful and a cleverer one, in playing with what would have been a very familiar story to his contemporaries from their Sunday school Bible stories, and making a powerful message out of it.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #11: Comic novels

August 11, 2018

51VdgF+uEDL._AC_US218_516u8jzrppL._AC_US218_There are two novels which I’ll name equally here; having re-read them a number of times, both still have me laughing out loud, uncontrollably at times – though those who know me will acknowledge that isn’t actually that hard to achieve – Jaroslav Hasek’s amazing comic novel The Good Soldier Svejk, set in the Great War on the Eastern Front, with a congenital idiot as its hero, and A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, again featuring a buffoon, who brings chaos in his wake wherever he goes and whatever he attempts. It’s also very sad that Toole took his own life, having failed to find a publisher for his manuscript, which then went on to become a cult classic.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #8: Sherlock Holmes

August 8, 2018

Sherlock Holmes has become a legend over the years; I think Conan Doyle was sharp enough to realise in his own real, and Holmes’ imaginary lifetime. Obviously we know that the great popularity of the stories in Victorian and Edwardian England was sufficient for the writer to bring his hero back from his supposed watery grave in the Reichenbach falls, but I think the friendship, companionship and partnership between Holmes and Watson goes even deeper than the sleuthing. In his imaginary retirement bee-keeping on the Sussex Downs, Holmes’ reputation endures, and he goes on to serve his country in the immediate run-up to the Great War, in the very last story (chronologically speaking), which has a far chillier atmosphere than crime-laden Victorian London. Holmes’ final patriotic act as the shadows darken over Europe is the outwitting of the German master-spy Von Bork in the story His Last Bow, which I think is a real masterpiece.

August favourites #2: War Poem

August 2, 2018

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Wilfred Owen: Disabled

There’s a full-length post and the text of the poem here.

Again, I have met so many war poems – lyrical, angry, satirical, in your face, you name it – and I always come back to this one of Owen’s, which seems to me to encapsulate so much. At nineteen, one is immortal; to be immortal and reduced to the state of Owen’s character is too bitter and cruel to contemplate. In the poem he sums up forever, for me, the utter pointlessness and waste of war, in a world where old and shrivelled men compel younger and fitter ones who haven’t had the chance to enjoy life yet, to be maimed and killed, and sentence their families to years of sadness and irretrievable loss.

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