Archive for the 'First World War' Category

Not a very intelligent species…

November 11, 2018

Ten million soldiers killed; millions more civilians still to die from Spanish flu, part of a population physically weakened by four and a half years of conflict. And were any lessons learned? It is hard to think so, for the ‘peace conference’ at Versailles set in motion the seeds of an action replay twenty years later, in which far more were to die, and further unspeakable horrors were to be perpetrated.

Having visited various areas of France where the Western war took place, I can understand why the French sought to exact reparations from a defeated Germany, an approach which was to contribute to resentment, economic collapse and the eventual rise of Hitler. Numerous peoples who had suffered under foreign yoke for years achieved independence, (including Poland, my father’s country), but as multi-racial countries which could not easily learn how to deal with their new-found freedoms; again this contributed to weak democracies collapsing into dictatorships and feeding the rise of fascism. I only have to look at what happened in Poland, where my father grew up in those inter-war years, to see the problems that had to be faced. And the ‘victorious’ powers, the British and the French, presumed to impose on the Middle East a ‘settlement’ the consequences of whose idiocies are still being visited on the entire world today. Finally, the United States emerged onto the world stage as a superpower, relatively stronger because of its much shorter participation in the conflict.

I watched a series of BBC documentaries this week, with testimonies from participants in the Great War, who spoke about the effects on themselves, families and friends. And I was shocked at the anger I felt: all these people endured all this suffering and death at the behest of their masters who themselves went through very little of it: had there been any need for the build-up to and outbreak of the war other than competitiveness between nations and futile ideas of national pride?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing… but in a world where ordinary people are asked to put their trust in politicians through a ballot-box, one ought to be able to expect intelligence from rulers, the ability to think through the consequences of their actions and decisions, otherwise what is the point? Having sown the seeds of 1939, those politicians then bowed to the common people who had no wish to see a repeat of the Great War, appeased fascism until it was too late, and we know what the end result was.

As I grow older I am torn between two competing views of humanity: collectively we are capable of astonishing achievements, and individual genius testifies to our capabilities, and yet we really do not seem to be a terribly intelligent species, for all that. We allow greed, violence and inequality to lord it over us, and allow ourselves to be diverted from reality by lies, bread and circuses… I have long been convinced that violence and war do not solve anything. I will acknowledge that the Second World War had to happen, but a truly intelligent species would never have allowed the causes of it to develop and flourish in the first place.

For me, today is a day for sober reflection, and respect for the memory of those who were killed.

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Literature and the two world wars

November 7, 2018

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be so much more literature from the Great War than from the Second World War. That’s an impression I have, rather than any carefully calculated conclusion. I also have the feeling, that I think many readers would probably agree with, that the literature from the earlier war is more powerful, and more effective. And no, I’m not forgetting Second World War classics like Catch-22 and Life and Fate

Thinking about this a little more deeply: there was poetry written during the Second World War; I have an anthology (which I don’t dip into very often, I’m afraid) and a few poems collected loose-leaf over the years, but I’ve rarely used any of them in my teaching. They are so different, so much more low-key, with almost an aura of, ‘well, here we are again’ about them, rather than the shock, anger and outrage of the likes of Owen and Sassoon, whose power could not be equalled.

I have read fewer memoirs of the Second World War, although I found Keith DouglasAlamein to Zem-Zem as interesting as those of Sassoon, Graves et al. There is much more humour – novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms trilogy spring to mind, and again I know of no parallels from the earlier war; Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is much more slapstick, although as brilliant in its own subversive way as is Heller, I feel. And there is good drama set in the Great War – Hamp, and Journey’s End for starters, but no plays leap to mind from the later war.

And yet, when you turn to look at both wars from a historical perspective, 1939-45 makes 1914-18 pale into insignificance in so many ways: the genocide of the Jews, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vastly greater casualty figures, especially among civilians, the vileness of Nazism per se…

In many ways the Great War seems to have been so unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound that Europe drifted into, not quite out of boredom, a war that came to an unresolved conclusion out of attrition and left unfinished business that led to the next war a generation later. Recently, I have been reading about how the ending of that war came as such a shock to the Germans: lack of a sense of defeat of their armies made it easier for the Nazis and others to perpetrate the myth of the stab in th eback and the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles…

Reading the literature, what comes across most strongly to me is the utter shock of what the Great War became, the pointless hell of trench warfare in the West, with images that still cannot fail to appal, where the destruction, annihilation even, is actually far greater than that at Hiroshima: look at photographs of what (doesn’t) remain of some of the villages on the Somme or Passchendaele and you will see what I mean. And of course the determination that this should never happen again meant (after 1939) blitzkrieg, swift occupation and plunder of nations, the ability to plan extermination of whole races and peoples. And the weariness and the absolute necessity of putting an end to Hitler and Nazism led to a different kind of war, all-encompassing and far more destructive.

It is so wrong, and so unhelpful to the future of the world, that in the West we do not realise, cannot comprehend, what that war did in the east. If you have stomach, watch Elem Klimov’s film Go and See. I saw it once, over 30 years ago and still cannot face seeing it again. Read Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War, or the interviews in Last Witnesses if you can. The Second World War cost Britain a great deal, but we got off oh so lightly compared with almost every other nation, and we still behave in a cavalier fashion towards our near neighbours who have striven to ensure that should be the last war on our continent…

Philip Johnstone: High Wood

November 5, 2018

2013-09-21 09.44.12 sommeLadies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

When I first used this poem in school many years ago, I imagined it must be some sardonic reflection from long after the Great War, and I was rather shocked to discover that it had been written in 1918. Certainly, tourism of the former Western Front took off pretty rapidly after the end of the war, and the removal of corpses and obvious unexploded munitions; there are Michelin Guides from the early 1920s (some of which have been reprinted by Smiths of Easingwold, if you are interested).

The poet focuses on a real spot – I took the photo on a visit a few years ago, and the site is privately owned and not accessible to visitors – and a real battle, the Battle of the Somme. He mimics perfectly the patter of a bored tourist guide who has done this dozens of times before: the ‘Observe’, and ‘here is wire’ suggest a lecture, and there is the slight frisson implied by the reference to ‘This mound on which you stand being…’ Equally there is the concern for keeping the exhibits in good condition – ‘kindly not to touch’ / ‘the path, sir, please’ – and the references to ‘the Company’s property’. The idea of guaranteed souvenirs is macabre, perhaps, as is the suggestion that the remains of an actual corpse is on display. The ground was secured ‘at great expense’: to what expense and whose exactly is our guide referring here? And then the alliteration of the refreshments at a reasonable rate’ rounds it all off…

Except that this has not been my experience of British visitors to the war sites. I have seen coachloads of teenage schoolchildren stunned into silence at the Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres and been moved by floral tributes left at many war cemeteries by school parties, including flowers and cards placed on German war graves. I have seen people hunting down the names of relatives on the Thiepval Memorial, seen a wreath from my former grammar school at the Menin Gate, and talked with many people involved in projects where their village had decided to hunt down and photograph the last resting-places of those war dead listed on the war memorials in the village. I noticed that it was no longer just the British who were coming to find the graves of their forebears, Germans were beginning to do the same. The only time I have ever been surprised by what I felt was inappropriate behaviour was by French visitors at their national ossuary at Douaumont near Verdun: some were noisy, loud and disrespectful.

So, although I can understand the poet’s cynicism, the idea that all the horrors would soon be forgotten, I am heartened that he has been proven wrong in his imaginings, and that ordinary people’s responses are largely silent and reverent. When I have stood in any of these places, I have been lost for words, unable to believe what I know to be the truth about what happened, faced with the reality and the enormity.

In memoriam

November 4, 2018

2013-09-19 10.17.45 sommeWilfred Owen is etched on the collective British memory of the Great War in a way that no other poet is. I first came across Anthem For Doomed Youth and Dulce Et Decorum Est in the fourth form at school, in the late 1960s, long before I met any other poetry from that time. So what is it that makes Owen stand out, and is he better than the others?

His own tragic story adds poignancy to his legacy; certainly he was not the only poet to be killed in the war, but the story of his death in battle only a week before the Armistice, and the receipt of the dreaded telegram by his parents in Shrewsbury on Armistice day as the rest of the townsfolk celebrated the end of four and a half years of insanity cannot fail to move us. He died a hero, and he died young; who know what he may have become had he survived? There is a chilling moment near the end of the film O What a Lovely War, which I also met in the late 1960s when it was first released: we encounter the last soldier to die in the war. He is asked, ‘Are you the last?’ and a shot is heard. The shock is our realisation that someonehad to be be last one, and the horror of being killed at 10.59am, just before the armistice takes effect, is more chilling than any of the other deaths…why?

He suffered alongside his men; letters home attest to that, and he suffered shell-shock and was treated at the well-known hospital for officers at Craiglockhart near Edinburgh, where he met Siegfried Sassoon, a poet who encouraged a fellow-poet to give words to his experiences. The building is still there, now part of the Napier University campus, and there is a small exhibition well worth a visit if you are passing. I feel a connection with Owen because he spent his last weeks before his return to France attached to the enormous army camp on the outskirts of Ripon, where I used to live and teach. He rented a room in a small cottage in the city and made the last revisions to his poems while there. I was present at the inauguration of a memorial plaque at the cottage about twenty years ago. I also have family connections with Shrewsbury, where Owen grew up. His name appears on the enormous memorial tablet of the Manchester Regiment in the Abbey Church there, and there is an austere modern sculpture in the grounds commemorating his death on the Sambre Canal near Ors on 4 November, 1918.

And of course, I have visited the battlefields where he fought, the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau where he spent his last days, now converted into a splendid museum and installation of his poetry, the French having recognised his greatness too. The municipal graveyard in Ors houses a section of Commonwealth war graves, almost all of them killed on the same day as Owen. A place to reflect and remember.

Owen’s time at the front, at Craiglockhart and at his death on the Sambre Canal is movingly imagined in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy.

And Owen the poet: what of his work? He gives words to the incomprehensible, the inexpressible, which our more fortunate generations have not had to experience. We cannot tell if he exaggerated for effect; we can feel his anger, at the way he felt the suffering of the men at the front was not understood by those at home, the fact that the agonies and deaths and mutilations were unnecessary. And yet he never shied from his duty, never protested publicly in the way that Sassoon did, for instance. The power of his poetry resides both in his choice of words to express his feelings, and his stunning use of the English language in ways he made his own: I’m thinking particularly of his muted use of rhyme, half-rhyme and part-rhyme, and assonance and alliteration in lesser-known poems such as Exposure, for example, which puts across the sense of forlornness and being forgotten while doing one’s duty, and in Strange Meeting, among others. The Great War produced an immense and varied wealth of literature, poetry in particular, and I cannot imagine that Owen’s powerful voice will ever be forgotten.

Balance sheet of the First World War

November 3, 2018

Earlier this year I did a series of posts which were a translation of a 1930s French poster detailing the true and lasting costs of the Great War. I’ve now created an easy page of links to access them all, if anyone’s interested in such a resource. The last one, for me, was in a strange way the most shocking…

On another centenary…

November 2, 2018

My father was born a subject of the last Tsar, of a nationality without a nation. My researches have shown me that he will have spent the early years of his life pretty close to the lines of the Eastern Front during the Great War. And then came November 1918, the end of the war, and the re-establishment of an independent Poland, after well over a century of non-existence. The Second Republic was born.

You can read about Polish history elsewhere; if you need a recommendation, the excellent books by Norman Davies are the best I know in English. Although only half-Polish, I do feel some pride in the history of the nation, once the largest on the European continent, in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Somewhere I read, the first country to abolish corporal punishment for children; not quite sure how that actually worked. But a nation which elected its monarch? A great idea in theory, perhaps, but which was one of the factors leading to its downfall. A country with a nobility where membership went with your name, not your status and wealth and importance: though my origins are in the peasantry in the middle of nowhere, our name is in the book, the Index of Polish Nobility. It doesn’t do me any good; the Second Republic abolished the nobility in 1919, I think.

Re-creating a nation after over a century is a pretty impossible task, and the Second Republic didn’t do terribly well, torn between those who wanted Poland to be for the Poles and those who hankered after the old, vast commonwealth encompassing many peoples, and much wider territory. It didn’t take long before Poland was another of the fairly grubby semi-dictatorships that spread over much of central Europe. And then there were the Jews, getting on for a quarter of the population, and not always popular, in a country full of poor peasants who saw some prosperous Jews. Because they couldn’t own land, Jews turned to trade and property to make their living; my father said they sometimes taunted poorer Poles: “You may own the land, but we own what is built on it.”

My father was called up in August 1939; living in the eastern part of the country, his section of the army was not involved in trying to hold back the Germans. On 17 September he and his mates were taken by the invading Russians before they could leave their barracks, and shortly after, Poland once again ceased to exist. He and his fellow-soldiers were marched off to Siberia like many thousands of other Poles, where they endured appalling conditions in various camps for more than two years. Enough has been written about the bestiality of the German occupation; what the Soviets did is less well-known. Once Hitler invaded Russia, Poles were grudgingly allowed to leave and make their way to the West to join Allied forces for the struggle against the Nazis. It wasn’t easy; disease and semi-starvation took their toll. But my father ended up in England, joined the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade and was trained to be dropped as part of the liberation of his country – which never happened. He was part of the abortive Arnhem operation, and then Poland was sold down the river by the Western allies.

Newly ‘liberated’ Poland shifted a hundred miles or so to the West and my father’s homeland became part of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which meant that technically, were he to return home, he would be a Soviet citizen. But Soviet citizens who had been in the West were dangerously suspect, so he did not return, one of many thousands in that plight. He knew some who did return, and who then vanished.

Under the Soviet umbrella, Poland attempted to become a nation again, with a certain amount of success, in the sense that there was stability of a kind for the next forty years or so, and also an ethnically homogeneous nation, almost entirely Polish. However, as recent events have begun to show, that has not been a wholly good thing: Poland does not welcome refugees which, given its own past, is rather sad. And the fact that opposition to the Soviet-imposed regime was centred on the Catholic church has created other difficulties, too, for a nation now free of one set of shackles but seemingly unsure of its future direction…

I’ll not apologise for that personal take on Polish and family history. I’ve wrestled with my origins for over sixty years now, and in many ways I’m as English as they come; I was an English teacher for my entire career. I’ve visited Poland five times, and I would not want to live there, not because I don’t like it – I do – but because I’m English too. I’m entitled to Polish citizenship and a Polish passport if I stump up about €1000, and I’ve been briefly tempted, because of all the Brexit insanity. But I think that currently Poland is in a different kind of mess because of its past. Collectively, though Poles are justifiably proud of their record in the Second World War, they seem as yet unable to come to terms with the fact that not every Pole behaved with honour or decency towards his Jewish fellow-citizens. And I’m not casting any stones here, because the English have not a clue as to what life under Nazi occupation for Poles, whom the Nazis also regarded as an inferior race, was like. Poles have yet to face up to the anti-semitism fostered and fanned by the Catholic church in the inter-war years.

But Poland is a free and independent nation, and has been free of the Soviet shackles for nearly thirty years, even if it has found others instead. I try to imagine what my father would have made of it all. Though he saw the successes of the Solidarity movement, and eventually free elections in Poland, he died a month before the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, six months before the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union, which had so radically altered his life…

On the centenary

November 1, 2018

It’s coming up to a century since the Great War – ‘the war to end all wars’ – ended; I’ll be writing one or two specific posts about that closer to the time. But I’m very conscious of how my life has been shaped by war, and also that I spend rather more time than many people reading about war, thinking about it, and visiting places that have been at the heart of conflict. Some of you may have read some of my posts about visiting Verdun and the Somme battlefields.

Why do I think it’s so important to remember war, and its effects on us? I first visited the city of Gdansk – formerly Danzig, and where the Second World War began – in 1970 as a teenager. There were plenty of ruins left over from that war then; there are still some. I recall being intrigued by some graffiti painted somewhere on the waterfront, and asked my father to translate. “We have not forgotten. And we shall not forgive.’ I was shocked.

There is the truism that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it; we forget at our peril the horrors of the twentieth century, and the further away we get from those times, as we lose those generations who were actually alive through those events, the greater the dangers become, it seems to me: there are figures in public life whose comments are far too glib and cavalier. My mother remembers the Second World War as a primary school child, hiding under the kitchen table during air raids and knitting scarves for convoy sailors at school, but she is now 88; my father was taken prisoner by the Soviets in the first weeks of that war, and without his and his comrades sufferings and adventures on their perilous journey to freedom and England, I would not exist… his home village was burnt to the ground and the rest of his family taken off to be forced labourers by the Nazis. So I suppose I personally have plenty of grounds for my preoccupation with that war. And I have since discovered how close to the Eastern Front his home was during the Great War.

But the issue is broader. I’m also interested in human progress; I’ve read many utopias and know that there are many people who dream of a better world, and the disappearance of war from it would be a start. Yet, we never seem to be that far from war. Although, mercifully, mainland Britain has been spared during my lifetime – apart from acts of terrorism connected with wars elsewhere — there is warfare all around the world, and aided and abetted by Britain which makes so much money selling weapons to anyone who has the money to buy them… I’m truly sickened both by those who wring their hands about the terrible plight of refugees while ignorant of how we contribute to turning people into refugees, and by those who would turn them away on the grounds they are nothing to do with us.

From both political and religious conviction, I firmly believe that wars solve nothing, but make existing situations even worse. They serve the interests of the rich and the powerful, who generally do not suffer, and indeed often make tidy profits. I know some would say that mine is a simplistic attitude, but when I look at the interconnectedness of everywhere and everyone, I am ever more convinced that wars and armaments are an inevitable part of the capitalist system. I also find it sickening that there are many people who earn their daily bread from the manufacture and sale of the machinery of death.

The centenary of the end of the Great War ought to be a time for serious reflection on how the coming century might be made more peaceful; there is no place for jingoistic pride or for appropriating the deaths of millions as some kind of patriotic sacrifice – it was all an unspeakable waste of life and potential, as well as a prelude to even worse things.

 

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…

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