Archive for the 'poetry' Category

Charles Hamilton Sorley: When you see millions

June 20, 2018
When you see millions of the mouthless dead 
Across your dreams in pale battalions go, 
Say not soft things as other men have said, 
That you'll remember. For you need not so. 
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know 
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head? 
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow. 
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. 
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto, 
Yet many a better one has died before.' 
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you 
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, 
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew. 
Great death has made all his for evermore. 

A grim Petrarchan sonnet, this one. The alliteration in the open line shocks, with the enormous number, as well as the idea that the dead cannot speak; pale suggests ghostliness, too. Say not soft things: are these the whispered words of condolence, uttered out of embarrassment? Things hints at the speaker lost for what is appropriate to say in the circumstances, rather like the man in Owen’s Disabled who thanks the boy and enquires about his soul… Or is there a hint of the colloquial meaning of soft, as stupid? The poem will carry both. And anyway, the words you utter are for you, not those who are dead, and that is the point the poet is now going to hammer home: it’s too late now for you to do or say anything that will do any good or make any difference: this is the entire force of the octave.

They do not need praise; they are unable to distinguish it from curse; neither do they need tears, or honour – perhaps reminding us of Falstaff’s famous speech about honour in Henry IV Part 2: honour is just a word. Notice too, how Sorley has the dead first mouthless, then deaf and finally blind too; there is a sense of helplessness as well as being beyond help: it is easy to be dead. This was surely very true in the Great War.

Things shift slightly in the sestet: at first they are still a mass, indistinguishable, a crowd, until the hearer spots one that s/he loved heretofore. This is always the way to make the reader think, to narrow down and personalise, and explains why so many of the most memorable poems that came out of that war are focused on the fate of a single individual: look at any of Sassoon‘s or Owen’s most well-known and well-liked poems. It is a spook. Those four monosyllables, with added effect from their place at the start of the line, bring us up short, as perhaps also does the unexpected word spook – a ghost, a spirit, something that shocks or frightens. Though the hearer recognises the dead man, at the same time, it is not the person he knew. And the final line, all monosyllables until the final word, hammers the message home: death is final and forever. Sorley uses the caesura very effectively four times in the poem, too: a pause for thought after a brief sentence at the beginning of a line.

Re-reading this poem as I write this post, I’m struck at how many of the words are monosyllables, emphasising to me the simplicity and the finality of its message.

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Herbert Asquith: The Volunteer

June 6, 2018

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

Hindsight means it’s hard for us nowadays to get our minds around the idea that anyone might volunteer for the hell that was the trenches of the Great War, and yet we know that hundreds of thousands did, before conscription came in, and went to their deaths, doing what they believed to be their duty for King and country. Asquith’s anonymous subject is one of them: in a careful and regularly structured poem, we get the before and the after, the volunteering and the death.

The man is bored with his humdrum life: no difference here from the feelings expressed in Brooke’s sonnet Peace: Now God be thanked who hath matched us with his hour… war offers a change, the potential for being really alive, not toiling (note the choice of word: why is it better than working, which would also fit the metre? Listen to that oi sound in the middle of the word: what does it do?). And yet his imagination is back in an Arthurian or mediaeval world, thinking of lance and tournament. Look at the repetition of of the g sound in gleaming, eagles, legions (almost!) – and what is the effect of the assonance in the long ea sound in each of those words… emphasising eagerness and excitement to get involved, perhaps? There is a stunning and colourful visual picture conjured up in the clerk’s mind, to contrast with the city grey

And now: a subtle shift of mood here, at the start of the second stanza, hinted at in those two words: we know it was an illusion and the man is dead. But in the mediaeval setting of his imagination, he is a hero, for the halls of dawn are surely Valhalla, where the Norse heroes went after death. The man is content with what he did, the poet tells us, having done what he wished: fought and died. We may feel he needs no hearse because there may be nothing left of him to put in it, but that is our hindsight and twentieth-century cynicism speaking; the mention of Agincourt links him immediately and irrevocably with that speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and there is a slight sense of irony – or appropriateness? – because the village of Azincourt is in Picardy, on the edge of the Somme battlefield.

What is the poet’s attitude, in the end? What is the tone of the poem: is the volunteer mocked for his futile actions and innocent beliefs, or is his choice and his deed accepted for what it was? I find it hard to judge: I am so far from those times and the ways they thought back then, and the text reflects the times. But I do think this poem had to have been written in the early months of the war.

Sara Teasdale: There will come soft rains

June 5, 2018

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

 

When I first came across this poem, my instant reaction was that Teasdale was imagining the aftermath of nuclear war, and the subsequent disappearance of humanity. However, much later, I discovered two things: that she died in 1933, and that the poem was a response to the Great War.

What strikes me first is its quietness, its unassuming-ness: half a dozen couplets, rhyming, completely anchored in nature. The whole poem is a single sentence, first picturing a world without humans and then pointing out, almost by-the-way our unimportance in the grander scheme of things. No fancy tricks with poetic devices, it moves with a calm pace, building up the picture in an almost Whitman-esque manner as the details are painted in. The soft s and c sounds dominate the first couplet, drawing in sounds and smells; the ands at the start of the next two lines develop the picture of rural tranquility.

War slips in subtly in the third couplet: don’t miss the hints, for that is all they are, really. It’s a robin, not any other bird; robins known for being aggressive birds fiercely defending their territory, with red breasts – the colour of fire and blood. The feathery fire clearly describes the robin, but might equally suggest machine-gun fire, particularly with the whistling in the next line, the alliterated w, and finally the fence-wire, not barbed in the poem but open to the suggestion.

The power of nature and the relative insignificance of humans comes in the fourth couplet: the idea that, despite our self-importance, the rest of the natural world would not actually notice our disappearance, does not notice that we are involved in an earth-encompassing war and equally does not notice when it ends… the triple not one emphasises our over-weening sense of self-importance as a species, as does the sentiment not one would mind – the phrasing there echoing the vagueness and relative triviality of our phrase ‘I don’t mind’ meaning I don’t really care either way. It is sobering that Nature can look at us in that way. There is a musicality to the fifth couplet that, for me, further emphasises this: the tree/-ly rhyme, and the cadence of man|kind |per|ished u|tter|ly.

There is war poetry that is in-your-face with grim and horrid details, there is poetry that springs from anger, and there is this more subtle third kind. It is also a good example of how a poem can have a significance beyond the writer’s original intentions, given that Teasdale wrote in the aftermath of the Great War; its meaning as a picture of our world after a nuclear war is still more powerful to me.

Philip Larkin: MCMXIV

June 3, 2018

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s ,restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

This is one of my very favourite (if that’s a useful word) of all First World War poems, and I can imagine it being inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Great War, back in 1964. It is so good for many reasons, which I’ll come to as I write about the poem, but the Larkin’s great achievement lies in successfully capturing an era which has gone for ever, and the idea that the war irrevocably changed our nation’s consciousness…

In the first stanza he pictures the men queuing up to volunteer as if they were queuing up for a football or cricket match; there’s the touching detail of the hats and also the moustaches that were so fashionable in Edwardian times – hunt out any old family photo from the that era and you’ll notice it. The lightness of the idea of the August Bank Holiday lark is very touching, and accurate, as the traditional British holiday fell on the first rather than the last Monday of that month until relatively recently, and war was declared on August 4th, 1914.

Larkin carefully paints the picture of those days in the second stanza. The shops are shut (all businesses used to close on bank holidays until recently); they have the old-fashioned pull-out roller blinds to provide shade and keep the sun off the goods displayed in the windows, and shops would proudly display how long they had been ‘established’, perhaps as a mark of enduring quality. Farthings and sovereigns, two coins roughly the same size, one copper, the other gold: the vanished money of a vanished era. The children are dark-clothed – cheap colourful dyes and pigments were not yet invented. Very occasionally even now one may still see an ancient advertisement board in enamelled tin on the side of a building in long untouched areas of a town or city; a visit to Beamish museum would show you all the scenes Larkin describes so carefully and economically; back in the 1960s the details he mentions would, like Proust’s madeleine, have brought back quite vivid memories to many of his readers. Cocoa and twist (tobacco); pubs today are open when they choose, but strict licensing laws governing their opening hours were first introduced during the war to prevent key workers getting drunk during the working day when their work might be vital to the country’s war effort. As a student I remember my evening entertainment being quite strictly curtailed by those troublesome licensing hours…

After that, in the third stanza, we move out into the countryside not caring, unchanged for hundreds of years, it is suggested, the alliteration of all the s sounds evoking the wind gently blowing the crops ripening for harvest. The servant class that helped Edwardian England to function vanished almost completely with the war. Dust behind limousines because most roads were not yet metalled…

The title is interesting. Why Roman numerals, which I have discovered are now as impenetrable to younger generations as Sanskrit? I often used to ask my students this, and we ended up deciding that it was another device Larkin uses to take the poem into a distant and vanished past, which the Arabic numerals ‘1914’ would not do.

Consider also the way the poem is structured: four even stanzas of eight lines each, that we only gradually perceive to be actually a single, carefully structured and punctuated sentence… why? What is the effect of this? It means that the poem flows, but reads quite slowly, that pace creating a kind of dreamy feel to the images, again suggesting glimpses of a vanished past: so many different elements are working towards this single purpose. You need to read the poem aloud fully to appreciate this. The second and third stanzas both begin with and, contributing to the effect. The poem starts with the queues of men and the holiday atmosphere, moves on to the town itself in the next stanza, then to the countryside, and then onto the gradual shock – if I may put it like that – of the final stanza, which is very different.

The lapidary repetitions of never, always in that powerful and emphatic position at the start of the line, and the idea of innocence, in the opening line and again at the very end are so effective, but it’s the ideas and the way Larkin only hints at such shocking events that we must notice: the idea of things changing, vanishing, present becoming past without a word – you don’t know it’s happened until it’s too late – and I find the image of the men leaving the gardens tidy so utterly chilling: “I’ll just cut the lawn, and then be off to the war, my dear…” sort of thing, and the thousands of marriages | Lasting a little while longer – again, nobody knew, and the heartbreak and loss so lightly yet so effectively touched upon… in this, as in so many of his poems, Larkin demonstrates such mastery of the subtleties of our language.

This is an astonishingly powerful poem in my opinion, and one that could not have been written until a long while after the war. Larkin pays tribute to those early volunteers, as well reminding his contemporary readers that things can vanish almost before our eyes, as it were.

Siegfried Sassoon: Glory of Women

June 2, 2018

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,

Or wounded in a mentionable place.

You worship decorations; you believe

That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.

You make us shells. You listen with delight,

By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.

You crown our distant ardours while we fight,

And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.

You can’t believe that British troops “retire”

When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,

Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.

   O German mother dreaming by the fire,

   While you are knitting socks to send your son

   His face is trodden deeper in the mud.

A Petrarchan sonnet – oh the irony! – written to women about their attitudes towards menfolk at the front. The alliteration of heroes, home seems to set the tone: the man has to have done something worth talking about to validate himself; what about the mentionable place? Are you allowed to say what part of the front he’s been fighting on, or is it the other kind of mentionable? You can tell your neighbours your husband was wounded in the arm, but every part of the body is equally vulnerable, and talking about emasculation isn’t quite so easy…

There’s a softness in the sounds: worship, chivalry that nudges us towards the superficial, and the idea of redeems seems to legitimise what’s going on: it’s worthwhile, a balance, a pay-off.

And then the entire first quatrain is undermined by the monosyllabic half-line that hits you at the start of the fifth line. It’s a statement of fact, direct, linking home and front with you and us. What about that word shells? Another double meaning – the artillery munitions, obviously, as the womenfolk make their contribution to the war-effort, each side’s women making the weaponry that kills the other side’s menfolk, but what about man as an empty shell, unable to communicate or deal with his experiences in the lines? What is he to do with himself, and those feelings? But after that brief interruption we’re back to the jauntiness again – delight rhymes with fight, life in the trenches is mere dirt and danger, and the women are fondly thrilled. They hear tales; we’re linked to childhood, innocence and fairy tales. Fondly is a lovely word, the affectionate meaning married with the Yorkshire meaning foolish… We’re almost back in mediaeval times with ideas like ardour, and laurelled memories. Sassoon was frequently enraged by the attitudes of those back home who didn’t know or care to contemplate the reality of what he and his comrades were going through, and we can see this anger seeping through every line of the poem.

Things shift quite seriously as we move into the sestet. We’re with the military-speak now, the word retire in inverted commas because you never use the real r-word about your own side, of course, but Sassoon forces his home-front reader to face a little of the truth through the triple alliteration of hell’s…horror, trampling…terrible, blind…blood. There’s a half-rhyme, too in that last pair.

And then, for the final tercet, another camera angle: shift to Germany. Why? All in this together, mate? A lovely peaceful image, reinforced by the assonance German, mother, dreaming, behaving in exactly the same way as her British counterpart Sassoon has been excoriating, knitting socks for her son (how powerful are the simple tools of alliteration and assonance!) demolished by the utter brutality of the image in that final line.

Whilst Owen is often angry, there is a bitterness about Sassoon that bleeds through into his anger, a cynicism (perhaps?); anyway I can see why he threw his medal into the Mersey in disgust. There is a public side to war and warfare, to which all are party, and there is a quieter, darker, private aspect which, if we are fortunate, we do not have to share.

On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?

La Grande Guerre des Ecrivains

December 15, 2017

5156FKt5BOL._AC_US218_I have spent a lot of time reading literature of the Great War, in French as well as English; sometimes it has felt almost like an obsession. I’m searching for something – understanding? To make sense of it all? And I’ve visited quite a few of the key sites on the Western Front. I have come to realise how differently the French inevitably viewed that war, a war which invaded and destroyed their territory. This anthology has been very interesting in a number of ways.

There’s an excellent introductory survey by Antoine Compagnon – an academic essay, really – from a French perspective, naturally, and which remind me of Paul Fussell’s writings on the war. He presents a full survey of literature on and about the war from then up to the present day, taking in poetry, prose and drama, including writing from a wide range of different countries, too. In French, novels and short stories were the primary literature of the war, whereas in English literature we have stunning and powerful poetry and a wide array of memoirs. After reaching the end of the collection, my feeling was that the range of writing in English is richer than in French.

Although I have used various – shorter – school examination anthologies, I’ve not come across a similar, wide-ranging (over 800 pages) anthology in English, and I think that’s a pity.

The editor is a translator too, and I was astonished to read some of his excellent translations of the most well-known English poems of the war; his translation of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier outshines the original in one respect, with a fortuitous but wonderfully effective internal rhyme in the final line, which isn’t there in the original… there are stunning translations of Owen and Sassoon too, faithful to the original metre as well as the meaning and sense.

What does the collection add to what I’ve read before? The unspeakable vileness of conditions in the trenches conveyed even more graphically; the nature of fear and what you do, what it makes you do, and what it teaches you; how rats set about devouring a corpse – Giono is grimmer than any other wirter I’ve ever read; Hemingway on the decomposition of corpses and how bodies are blown to bits; a chilling piece by Barbusse – author of the grim novel Le Feu/ Under Fire (1915); a story by Jules Romains on a day in the life of a general, which draws out what Sassoon succinctly conveys in his poem of that name.

I also became aware of how a number of French war heroes and writers were later drawn into extreme nationalism and anti-semitism in the ugliness of the nineteen-thirties, and sometimes into collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War; in fact several of the writers anthologised were executed for that offence…

I came to realise too, that whereas now we read memoirs of the Great War or novels set at the time, the war had a much more pervasive effect on literature in the years immediately afterwards, as writers struggled to come to terms with what Europe had done to itself, alongside their fellow-citizens living with its consequences: effects of the war and its victims and survivors crop up as characters in a wide range of novels and stories that would in no way be classified as war novels.

It was a gruelling read and a useful one, although not all the extracts spoke to me.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

Siegfried Sassoon: A Working Party

August 13, 2017

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.


He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out. 

Inevitably I pair Owen with Sassoon, in lots of different ways. Sassoon was Owen’s mentor at Craiglockhart, and in so many ways the pupil outshone the master. That’s not what I’m really interested in, though; what catches my eye and ear are the similarities and the differences, given the closeness of their experiences. And my writing about my chosen Owen poems over the last few days has called this particular one of Sassoon’s back to my memory, because it’s one of those where Sassoon seems to me to come closest to Owen’s way of writing.

It has the same feel in its structure as Disabled: a series of moments both connected and not, like slides, but there is a major difference, which for me adds to the poem’s power and effectiveness. Halfway through the poem we’re told of the man’s death, and then the poem shifts almost into slow motion, or action-replay mode as Sassoon shows us just how easily and swiftly a single life is ended on the western front. Notice the almost repetition of the opening line at the start of the fourth section. And there isn’t even any actual fighting going on…

The pace of the poem is slow, matching the painful trudging up to the front to repair the wire: lengthy lines and occasional incomplete rhymes develop the effect. Present participles ‘sliding… poising… groping‘ show us the difficulty of moving, as do long vowel sounds ‘lurched…pawed‘. He uses alliteration peered…puffing…point, swallowed…sense…sight…stooped…swore…sagging – why?

Two sections set the scene in considerable detail. I’m reminded of Owen’s The Sentry here, too. Then all is illuminated – look at the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘shining whiteness‘ – and then the flare dies out: ‘the slow silver moment died in dark‘. Onomatopoeia echoes the rifle-shots through short, sharp vowel-sounds: ‘split…crack…sing; how do shells come ‘calmly? and burst with ‘hollow bang? I’m really aware of Sassoon using the language to its fullest extent, in terms of poetic techniques, in the same way as Owen does, in this poem.

Somehow the man is killed: look at the stresses ‘now…never, and the now is at the start of the line and gets extra emphasis from its position. Depersonalised in death: a ‘jolting lump‘, and then humanised again briefly: ‘beyond all need of tenderness and care‘.

Then we are into the second half of the poem and Sassoon is magnificent here. Like Owen, the focus is on a single individual and that’s where the full power of the poem comes from, just as in The Sentry, Dulce et Decorum Est, or Disabled especially. It’s the ordinariness that Sassoon stresses in his detailed description in the fourth stanza – a ‘decent chap‘, looking forward to a drink and a sleep; again the alliteration makes this more appealing ‘draughty dug-out, frowsty…fumes.

The final stanza is slow-motion until the suddenness of the last two lines, with the effective combination of the rhyme ‘head/lead and the alliteration of ‘split… startled and ‘life..lead and the permanence of ‘all went out.

Although Sassoon does the bitter and sardonic very well in lots of different short poems where he rubs his readers’ faces in the horrors that they don’t know and can’t imagine, I find him much more moving and effective in longer poems where he takes the time to create a sense of time, place and atmosphere, and makes us care about the fate of an individual, just like his pupil Owen; in a war where casualties are counted in telephone numbers, we need this personal angle to draw us in and make us realise the full horror.

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