Posts Tagged ‘Birdsong’

Wilfred Owen: The Send-off

August 12, 2017

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

A very low-key poem, this one, and another of my favourites, but for personal reasons. I’ve tracked Owen’s life and death over the years: he was born in Shrewsbury, which is where my other half comes from; in fact the Owen family home was not that far from hers. So I’ve visited the Abbey many times, in which is the original war memorial from straight after the Great War. The huge tablet on the wall lists the fallen of the Manchester Regiment among others, and Owen’s name figures there. And then in the Abbey grounds is a more recent, rather brutalist monument commemorating the attempt to cross the Sambre Canal, where Owen was killed.

I’ve visited the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau Cambrésis in northern France, which is the house in the cellar of which Owen spent his last few nights alongside his men and from where he wrote his last letter home; it’s been turned into a a very moving memorial installation. And then there is his grave, one among dozens of others all killed that same day, in the nearby village of Ors.

And for a good number of years I lived in Ripon, which during the Great War boasted a huge army camp, larger than the city itself, where Owen spent his last weeks in England, recuperating, training and polishing his poems, living in a small rented cottage near the river. From its ‘upland camp’ he headed back to France and eventually, some weeks later, to his death.

So I always referred to this one as the Ripon poem when we studied it; a small detail perhaps, but then it’s often the small details which get through to us…

Structurally it looks like a poem of four five-line stanzas and the rhyme-scheme supports this, but Owen has divided it differently. It’s only something one would notice looking at it on a printed page, unless a reader made it very obvious. But he must have had a reason: what was it? That was another thing we could do in practical criticism classes: speculate, imagine what went on in a writer’s head; no way of knowing with any certainty, of course, but we were opening ourselves up to that crucial idea, informed personal response…

The pace of the poem is noticeable: does it echo the tired march of the men on their way to war? Alliteration makes itself felt from the start. And think about the conciseness of the phrase ‘grimly gay’, how much more powerful it is than talking about putting a brave face on things… Positioning of words can be important: look at the way ‘dead‘ ends that first stanza, at the end of a half-line, so we are brought up short as we notice it, and it gains extra power from the rhyme with ‘shed‘ – maybe we’ve anticipated the word? no less powerful if we did.

Owen creates the banality of the situation. We need to recall the excitement and the cheering crowds of 1914 to get the force of the contrast: here it’s evening, the porters are ‘dull‘, the tramp ‘casual‘ and already missing the free cigarettes. The railway signals, personified in silent conspiracy against the men, are particularly chilling: ‘unmoved‘, ‘nodded‘, ‘winked‘: it’s all so casually done, because done hundreds of times before; we are in 1918 now, remember. The men are anonymous, ‘they were not ours’.

And the final stanza has an air of prophecy about it, the few that will return, the poet not among them. I’ve always found the story of Owen’s parents receiving the telegram announcing their son’s death on the day everyone else was celebrating the Armistice unbelievably sad. It matches that chilling sequence in the film O What A Lovely War which reminds us that someone had to be the very last soldier to be killed and takes us through that scene… Those who returned ‘creep back‘ – why? so marked and scarred by their experiences they wish to hide, remain unknown, undisturbed? Their lives will never be the same again. And I’m reminded by how skilfully Sebastian Faulks captured some of this mental and emotional trauma in Birdsong.

So, that was a few of my personal reflections on several of Owen’s poems that particularly speak to me.

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The staircase (concluded): Themes & Ideas

January 25, 2016

I suppose, in terms of my teaching, the themes and ideas were the optional extra, as I explained in that introductory post: there don’t actually have to be any, and plenty of novels are successful enough without them. It’s where works of fiction become more complex and demanding of their readers, and novels which are set for examination or other kinds of study will normally be chosen because they contain ideas and issues for the student to explore.

Clearly, it’s possible to read a novel and ignore or skate over the ideas because what you are interested in is the plot or the characters, particularly in that first reading; maybe they are not particularly noticeable or evident; perhaps you will deliberately look for them later. I’ve always enjoyed and responded to what I call the literature of ideas, not that I don’t enjoy fiction to relax and unwind with, like my collection of science fiction and detective novels. But – and I don’t know whether this came about because I turned into a student of literature – writers have usually made me think, at the same time as entertaining me.

Here I realise we come on to another idea which isn’t perhaps widely considered, that once an author has published a book, it is public; that is, the author no longer has sole ownership of it and what it says or contains. A reader may find something, interpret something in a way that the author didn’t originally intend, or didn’t think of when writing: that is a valid idea, or interpretation nenetheless. So, these themes or ideas that I’ve been writing about may be deliberately intended to form part of the work by an author, or they may be accidental, and this is not always clear; it has seemed to me that the more time that elapses since the first publication of a novel, the more open it becomes to a wider range of interpretations and meanings than the author may originally have intended. Her or his novel is in the public domain (I’m not meaning the legal sense of the term here), in the wild, as it were, with an existence and potential for understanding that are its own. Some authors openly acknowldege this, some may have not even thought of this possibility…

I’ve written theoretically thus far about the concept of themes and ideas, the third step of my staircase; now I’ll consider two texts in the light of the theory, by way of illustration.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a story. A brother and sister grow up, in a single-parent family, with their father who is a lawyer and who undertakes a particularly challenging defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman, in the racist society of 1930s Deep South USA. He loses the case. That’s the novel, and yet we can look at it from a number of other angles: it’s about growing up in a racist society and the different ways people respond to this; it’s about parenting and how parents shape your life; it’s about the relations between parents and children; it’s about adults and children; it’s about growing up and how you change in the way you see and respond to the world. All of those are the bigger ideas or themes lurking in the novel, and surely there cannot be many readers who have not noticed some of them.

Birdsong is a story of the First World War, the horrors of the trenches and how men survive or not, set against he background of the Battle of the Somme. And yet… it’s a novel about comradeship; it’s a novel about how men react when pushed to the absolute limits, when any minute might be their last, living amongst unspeakable horrors; it’s a novel about the power of memory, across the generations, and the power of memory to shape lives. Faulks very carefully weaves a number of different threads together to bring out each of these key ideas and more…

My reading of fiction has always seemed the richer for being able to see such connections, and an even broader picture than just those of the plot and the characters; if students are encouraged to look more widely, they will surely enhance their understanding of a text, write more intelligently about it, and glean higher grades.

Poetry: Wilfred Owen

December 14, 2014

Perhaps one is pre-disposed to warm to Wilfred Owen‘s poetry by his own tragic story: killed in action a mere week before the Armistice (but then, when you get to thinking about this, it is even crueller to realise that someone had to be the last person killed) and his parents receiving the telegram a week later, whilst everyone around finally celebrated the end…

Owen’s poetry has survived, and will, for a number of reasons. He writes about war in ways which others – equally effectively – do not: his best poems, it has always seemed to me, are especially powerful because they personalise the dreadfulness of war by zeroing in on a single individual and his fate: the blinded soldier in The Sentry, the dying man in Dulce et Decorum Est, or, most powerfully for me, the survivor in Disabled. When he focuses in close-up on the horrors, he comes from an unusual angle – the survivors in Mental Cases are unforgettable, and again, these are survivors. And in some way, these poems are filmic: a series of shots, from different angles, they link in for me with the grainy old monochrome newsreel shots of a century ago.

Owen is also capable of great cleverness in developing an idea, almost in the metaphysical sense of ‘wit’. The Parable of the Old Man and the Young is my favourite example of this: the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac and the sacrifice develops gradually, becoming subtly more and more warped and surreal as the location and the language mutates, from the deserts of Mesopotamia to the trenches of Flanders, and then blasphemous as the clever men of Europe defy God’s final command to show mercy.

But what is specifically poetic about Owen? Briefly and powerfully he draws us as far as we (safely at home) can be drawn into the horrors and shows us, through visual imagery and through his use of language, as much as we can ever know. The strangeness, the eeriness he creates through his subtle and persistent use of half-rhyme in poems such as Exposure and Strange Meeting are meant to haunt us, creating places we can see and feel and yet never understand, feelings we can imagine, perhaps, but never really know. Perhaps that is his greatest achievement: he takes us as close as we can be taken to the world he lived and died in, and in a way that no other poet of his time manages to do so forcefully.

And: if you are familiar with Owen’s poetry, next time you read Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, look out for how many very carefully and subtly woven-in back-references there are to Owen’s poems (and Sassoon’s too)…

Differences…

August 22, 2014

So, following on from my previous post, I tried to think of a couple of texts to compare, and came up with Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, and Pat Barker‘s Regeneration Trilogy. Both texts are set in the First World War, both were written in the 1990s. What differences are there to observe between a male and female novelist?

The central characters in the main part of Birdsong are male: it’s set in the trenches. The overture to the story features the hero’s passionate affair with the wife of his employer several years earlier, and the hero’s story is being researched by his granddaughter. There are rather more female characters in Regeneration, and more completely integrated in the structure of the story. Both novels contain graphic details of warfare, injuries, death and destruction. The mental effects of warfare appear in both.

In many ways, Birdsong feels like a more ‘traditional’ novel, with a fairly conventional structure, although the central narrative is framed by earlier and later years. The Regeneration Trilogy – which is therefore rather longer – is more complex, more diffuse, with a number of plots loosely converging and intertwined: treatment of shellshock at Craiglockhart, the relationship between Owen and Sassoon, the relationship between Sassoon and Graves and the former’s protest against the conduct of the war, various political intrigues during the FWW, the work of Rivers the psychologist, the relationship between the shellshocked Billy Prior and Sarah Lumb, women’s work during the war… Home Front and Western Front take on equal importance, it seems to me.

The central relationship in Birdsong is that between Stephen and his friend Weir, and we are constantly aware of Stephen’s distancing himself from what he is experiencing. The horrors of combat are foregrounded, and graphically described; the enduring and psychological horrors are revealed as his granddaughter gradually uncovers more and more of his story many years later. Although Barker can match Faulks in terms of graphic details of conflict and its consequences, it’s not her primary focus, which is the mental and psychological effects of combat and the stress of the frontline on officers and men, and the attempts to treat it, to rebuild the men who are suffering (so that they can then be shipped back to the front!). She explores a range of different relationships – peer to peer, superior to inferior, male/ male and male/female.

Both writers clearly researched their subject-matter in great depth; both adopt a no-holds-barred approach to unpleasant detail: there is not much to choose between them here. Yet, in a blind reading, if asked to decide which of the two was written by a man, I’m sure most would go for Birdsong. If asked to read Regeneration and then identify the gender of the author, I’m not so confident about readers’ ability to identify a female writer. Why? It’s very difficult to nail down. Is the tightness of Birdsong’s structure, and of Faulks’ writing, self-evidently masculine? Is it the openness of Barker’s treatment of both characters and subject-matter, the looseness or freeness of scope, structure, direction a more female trait?

If you’re interested in exploring these issues, I recommend these two novels, and will just append two others for you to think about: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, a classic from 1929 that most will have heard of, and Not So Quiet, a response by Helen Zinna Smith, from 1930, which is largely undiscovered. One recounts the FWW from an exclusively male perspective, the other from female one. Which is better/more powerful/more effective?

 

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