Posts Tagged ‘First World War poetry’

Siegfried Sassoon: Reconciliation

August 2, 2022

When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

I only came across this poem recently: what a powerful one it is, in the light of some of his others, and its theme. After the war, there is peace, and a coming to terms with what happened before, however difficult that may be.

Sassoon creates a situation that would have been familiar to his readers; British relatives would have to travel to France or Belgium to visit either the grave of a loved one, if a grave existed, or to see the dead soldier commemorated somewhere like the Menin Gate in Ypres, or the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. People are still making such visits today, seeking the last resting-place of an ancestor.

Is your hero in that first line innocent, or ironic, or both? (link to poem) What, exactly, is a homeless village? Do we imagine ruins, one of the lost villages of the Somme which were wiped from the face of the earth and never rebuilt? Sassoon allows the visitor, and the reader, a sense of pride in the sacrifice of a life, though he never alludes to the purpose of that sacrifice, or the meaning of that death.

The challenge is in the fourth line: think of the other side, the former enemy, too. And this is hard. I recall that in my innocent childhood days, our local parish priest had fought in the Great War and lost a leg; it was replaced by a tin prosthesis, and occasionally, if someone looked sceptical – though he walked with a limp – they would be invited to tap the leg, which sounded hollow and metallic. But what impressed me most profoundly about him was that on Remembrance Sunday he always solemnly reminded the congregation to pray for the dead Germans too. Those men also did their duty, were brave or cowardly, and died for their country as well.

The fifth line sums up the savagery of that war in a single line: humans behaving inhumanly, doing things that they no longer wish to remember. Listen to the leaden-sounding monosyllables of that line, interrupted only by the emphasis in the three-syllable hideous.

And then the judgement in the next line, directly addressed again – you – the juxtaposition of nourished and hatred, the alliteration of hatred/harsh, the lapidary blind at the end of the line: no escaping here. Yet the judgement is only implied; there is a hint that the poet understands such feelings. But we have also to remember: he was there, he saw.

The final two lines must be wrestled with. The Golgotha reference – ‘place of the skull’ in Hebrew, I think, from the gospel account of the crucifixion of Christ. Perhaps you’ll find – and perhaps only now do we reflect on the gender of the visitor Sassoon is addressing: is she female? A mother, a sister, a wife, a lover? What are those (German) mothers doing? (see Sassoon’s poem Glory of Women) Are they on the same errand? And if all are in the same situation, then the overarching humanity is surely emphasised, and we are brought back to the title of the poem.

Sassoon’s experiences in the trenches, his anger at what he saw, and the apparent indifference or lack of understanding on the part of those back home, gave him the right to challenge, to question, to confront. But what words would you use to describe the tone of this poem? For it surely is not an angry poem. Solemn? Reflective?

Think about the metre and the rhythm of the verse. Iambic pentameters, solemn; rhyming ABBA ABBA which slows down the pace of the poem as you must wait longer for the final rhyme. Only two stanzas; nothing too complex is being presented or explored here: it’s a very simple poem in a lot of ways, but the feelings and the emotions are rather harder to deal with. For me, it’s another example of Sassoon at his best.

Siegfried Sassoon: Does It Matter?

June 24, 2022

Does it matter? – losing your legs?
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.


Does it matter? – losing your sight?
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.


Do they matter-those dreams in the pit?
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they know that you’ve fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit.

Another poem from Sassoon designed to shock readers back home, more than anything else, I feel. Let’s start with the jaunty rhythm, the metre forcing you to sound jolly and cheerful as you read the poem aloud, even as the words themselves hint at real horror: such a mis-match between metre and subect-matter is both deliberate and very effective.

Three stanzas, and a repeated first line (more or less): repetition used to dramatic effect. Sassoon moves from the physical disability of being confined to a wheelchair to the arguably, for most of us, worse condition of blindness, onto the unseen mental horrors of shell-shock, nowadays hidden by the initials PTSD, which nobody thinks to unpick as they hear the letters.

The poem is about survivors – in a similar way to Owen’s Disabled, though the subject is treated in a totally different way. And the response of those around them is outlined in the shocking couplet that is the second and third lines of each stanza, the repetition in the second and third stanzas of the vague phrase people will always be kind. You need to stop and think: who are these people, and what does being kind mean, for a young person faced with the rest of their life in such a condition? The survivor’s life is then contrasted with the so very different lives of those back home, unaffected, in the final two lines of each stanza. Look particularly at the sadness implied in the last line of the second stanza, or the horrible effect of rhyming glad and mad in the final stanza.

Sassoon attacks the notion of patriotism in the final two lines, implying that the words fought for your country mean everything, while then implying that people soon forget.

It’s another very simple poem, in terms of language used: none of the complex and sometimes deliberately archaic language that Owen often uses, none of Owen’s very effective poetic devices either. It’s all done through suggestion and shock: the treatment of such a serious subject in such a casual and offhand manner stops the reader short; we are forced to reflect more deeply on the implications of what the poet is saying, of what lies behind the words. We are in the later years of the war here, and the early illusions everyone had at the outset have gone, only to be replaced by others,,,

Siegfried Sassoon: The General

June 23, 2022

Good-morning; good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
……
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

 

If Wilfred Owen is ‘in your face’ through his use of graphic detail in many of his war poems, Siegfried Sassoon is often brutally out to shock by saying a different kind of unspeakable thing. We see it here in a very short but vicious poem which goes straight to the heart of an issue that historians still argue about today: the competence or incompetence of the high command, those who ran the war and took the decisions that led to the deaths of millions of ordinary men on all sides.

There’s no specific form to identify, and the rhyme scheme is very simple; the hiatus between lines 6 and 7 is deliberate, and the final point is amplified by the third occurrence of the ‘-ack’ rhyme.

The metre is inescapably jaunty, jolly even, nursery rhyme-like, as becomes evident when you read the poem aloud, and the jolliness is designed to clash with the power and seriousness of the underlying message. It helps to visualise the scene: the general walking through a long line of soldiers at attention, with a repeated lively ‘Good-morning!’ every few yards. Sincerity? No.

The language is informal, casual, the language of squaddies among themselves, with slang thrown in. The third line is delivered in an almost throwaway manner, and the fourth line continues this feeling; the scene is personalised in the fifth and sixth lines when it’s narrowed down to two soldiers, being talked about by the anonymous speaker of the poem; their names are commonplace, Harry and Jack. They grunt to each other, they slog up the line with their kit.

And then the shock of their deaths – they were cheerful and alive last week, remember – is delivered in the same offhand way: he did for them both. The incompetence referred to in the fourth line has its results in a plan of attack. Interesting to notice that incompetent is the only complex word in the entire poem.

Effect? Well, I find it shocking in the manner in which Sassoon delivers such a simple tale, and one which must have been repeated countless times. And I also try and imagine the effect of such verse at the time of the Great War, when many people would have found the idea of speaking about death so casually extremely shocking, and the idea that the generals and other senior officers didn’t really have much of a clue what they were doing was also very shocking. We all have a tendency (perhaps not so much nowadays) to trust that those in power and control, above us, know what they’re doing…

First World War poetry: more for students

December 14, 2021

 

If you’re going to write intelligently about poetry and the First World War, you need to know and understand something about that war, to be able to judge how it affected the many writers who fought and were killed during those four and a half appalling years. You don’t need to read a history book, but you do need an outline that you understand of what led up to the war, the major battles, the aftermath, and the effects on those who survived. This link takes you to a short-ish account I wrote as an outline for my students. I’m not a historian; it doesn’t set out to be impartial, but to make you think, and if you are seriously interested, then you can search for more to read. I’ve also prepared a list of all sorts of reference material and other texts you might at least like to consider looking up.

Maybe you, or someone in your family, has visited some of the sites of battles in Flanders or France, perhaps in search of a relative who was killed. Ask them about their impressions of those places.

If you like listening to stuff, then this website – librivox – has a number of different accounts by people who took part in the war in many different ways, read by volunteers as audiobooks into the public domain (ie they’re free). Do a search.

Do some thinking about form. Why were there so many poets, or so much poetry written during that war? Far more, and it seems, far better than came out of the Second World War. Easier to scribble a few lines in a dugout or a trench, into a notebook? You can hardly write a novel or a play in an underground bunker. What can you do with in a poem, that you cannot do so easily in a novel or in a play? Equally, consider what you can do well in a play, or in a novel? If you’re sitting down to write something longer, having survived where your mates haven’t, then you have the time to look back, to think about and reflect on what you went through… What are the advantages of each of these literary forms? If you’re thinking at this level, and able to explain some of your ideas, then you are heading into the highest grade territory, not that that’s the only reason for doing it…

Take your thoughts to another level, and realise that there were many countries involved in what was a world war, and not only the British wrote about it: find out something about what the French, or the Germans wrote from their perspective. Think about the fact that although hundreds of thousands of British soldiers were killed, Britain wasn’t overrun and occupied by the Germans, whereas all of Belgium and large parts of France were. What difference might that have made?

Finally for this piece, do not be afraid of your own opinions and reactions: be ready to express them, as clearly as you can. As long as you can support your comments with evidence from the text you’re writing about, what you have to say is valid and worthy of credit. You can like something, or not like it, it’s doesn’t matter as long as you can explain and show why you feel like that.

First World War poetry: some help for students

January 14, 2021

I’ve noticed that a great number of people are looking up what I’ve written about First World War poems, and deducing that many of them are students who are preparing these poems for exams or assessments.

Do you need to write an essay about poetry? Here are some ideas to think about, and get you started. They are based on an idea of mine which I used when teaching, called the staircase. It only has three steps, and the idea is that the higher you get up the staircase, the more credit an examiner is likely to give you.

Step one: What is the poet saying?

This is the bottom step, the easiest to do, the one that will get you some marks but not move you very far up the mark scheme. It’s like understanding the plot of a novel. What is the poem about? What happens in the poem? What is the story of the poem, if you like. You are showing that you understand. Bear in mind that you will get very little credit merely for telling the story, unless that’s all the question asks you to do. If you do need to re-tell what goes on in the poem, other than perhaps a brief account at the start of an essay, make sure that you do this for a reason, connected with a part of the question you are answering.

Step two: How does the poet say it?

Now you are getting on to the second step, the real stuff. It is a poem, after all, not a novel or a play, and you are beginning to recognise this and explore detail, in particular acknowledging the poet as an artist or a creator who has set out to do something specific. You are thinking about how it all works, considering the tricks of the poet’s trade as they craft and create their poem.

You will be looking at form, at structure, at language. You will be finding various poetic techniques. The form is a poem, simple as that, although you may also recognise it’s a particular kind of poem, a sonnet for instance. Structure may involve looking at what kind of sonnet it is and how the different parts work, or it may be about looking at what happens as the poet moves through different verses in her/his poem: do they move on through different aspects of their subject?

You may notice rhyme, rhythm, metre. If you read the poem aloud (in your head, in the exam room!) does it move slowly, or quickly? This is the pace of the poem: does it make a difference to how you feel? What might the poet be wanting to do? Look for other poetic techniques. Are words repeated? Is there assonance, onomatopoeia anywhere? What effect do these techniques have? Notice pauses: are they in the middle of a line? At the end? Do the lines run on (enjambment)? What difference do these techniques make?

Again, you won’t get much credit for technique-spotting on its own: you need to say what the poet achieves by using the things you have noticed. Do not worry if you don’t have time to mention everything; there may well be too much. Go for what seems particularly effective to you.

Step three: How well does the poet say it?

This is the hardest part, the top step: your personal response to the poem and the poet’s (hard) work. Remember that there is no law that says you have to like a poem, to like every poem. But whether you like it or you don’t, you do need to try and explain why…

Go into detail. Say what you like and don’t like; explain why; give evidence – a short quotation – that shows the examiner what you’re on about. Don’t be afraid of you reactions to a poem: the examiner likes this part, and there are marks to be gained for a well thought-out and expressed opinion.

More thoughts

Do you need to compare two poems? In that case, your plan – you did write one, didn’t you? – should have the notes on both poems side-by-side so that you can look to move easily between the two poems when you need to, back and forth. A comparison isn’t writing about one poem, then writing about the second and then writing a sentence or two about both of them. It’s trying to consider them both at the same time, alongside each other. It means looking for similarities and differences between them.

Quotations

There isn’t a right number to include. Quotations are evidence, to support your comments, your analysis, your opinions. Ideally they are short, and frequent. You should not be copying in three or four lines of a poem when your point actually refers to three or four words: that’s time wasted that isn’t gaining you marks.

The end

I’m sure I haven’t actually said anything that teachers haven’t already told you. I’ve put it all down on paper, in one place, for you to read and think about, maybe in different words from your teacher. Sometimes that unfamiliar voice helps. Good luck!

If you have found this useful, you can find other posts about different aspects of poetry and literature by using the search box. If you want context or background information on the First World War, look under the ‘Pages’ heading on the left.

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time analysed

April 24, 2020

There is an earlier version of this post here. The poem itself may be found here. You may also like to read this.

The title

It’s always worthwhile spending some time reflecting on the title of a poem: we too often merely give it a cursory glance and then dive headlong into the text, but we should remember the poet will have given it time and thought, just as they did the poem itself. Here, it’s the wound in time: note the definite article – it’s a special or specific wound she means, not one of many. And we can see from the first line of the poem that Time is capitalised, so that word is also emphasised. What is she saying about time? A wound is usually something temporary, which heals eventually; it’s something physical in the way we normally use the word, so we are in metaphor territory here. We will return to this.

Form

Look at the form of the poem. It has fourteen lines, which normally says sonnet. A sonnet is traditionally a love poem, but many of the poets of the Great War wrote sonnets, so Duffy may well be paying a tribute to them in the form of this poem. Hatred, warfare, killing are as powerful as love.

Structure

If we consider the poem as a sonnet, then we are immediately confronted with the fact that it doesn’t obey any of the traditional rules of either the Shakespearean or the Petrarchan sonnet; it does not fall neatly into the usual sections, and there is no discernible rhyme scheme. Later twentieth century poets, Duffy included, have experimented with the sonnet form like this, and rhyme often disappears. There are rhymes – hatching/ singing, war/ shore, and a half-rhyme – brave/ love – but these are not part of a structured scheme. Read the poem aloud: does the absence of rhyme make any difference? Would rhyme be distracting from the message of the sonnet? Is the rhythm noticeable, despite the absence of rhyme?

Can we find any meaningful divisions in the poem? For me, what stands out it that the first four lines (roughly) speak of it, the next four address you, and then move on to we, before finally coming back to you in the ending. To me, it’s almost like the poet’s gaze moving around. That analysis tends towards the Shakespearean model. Or maybe the shift is in the eighth line where the poet moves to we, after the caesura. This allows us to think about the Petrarchan model. But it’s probably best not to get too hung up on either; it’s Duffy’s poem we are considering.

Language

This is the most important aspect, perhaps: the actual words the poet is using to convey her message and her feelings. How does the language help? The first half line stops abruptly, at the caesura. A compete thought, but containing a question: what is it, in that first word, and repeated at the end of l.2? Something unspoken? Something shameful, that we are unable to say? Notice the alliteration of Time and tides, the sense of regularity and repetitiveness. And then there’s the allusion to the old saying, time heals all wounds – except this one. Why is this one an exception? Bitter (l.2) recalls Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, and the psalms perhaps also recall the funeral anthems in Anthem for Doomed Youth. There’s also the more powerful suggestion that all the commemorative church services of thanksgiving at the time of the centenary are pointless, useless.

The war to end all wars (l.3) is the traditional way of thinking of the Great War, which of course led to an action replay only two decades later; the French have a similar phrase to describe it. Look at the position of Not at the start of the line, powerfully negating the idea. The position of a word in a line can often give it extra force.

Then we come to the powerful imagery of birth and death; putting death’s birthing alongside each other is very effective; the idea of the earth itself nursing ticking metal eggs – shells – about to hatch carnage is surely meant to be deliberately shocking. Think about how much meaning is crammed into very few words here, and recognise that this is something that poetry often does really well.

Next we shift to the soldiers themselves, whom the poet addresses as you, and emphasises their bravery through the alliterations brave belief boarded boats. They were singing: I find an echo of Owen’s powerful poem The Send-Off here. The next line is also meant to shock: The end of God? How could a deity allow such things? It was originally said a propos of the extermination camps of the Second World War that after Auschwitz there is no God; here Duffy boldly moves the idea forward in time a couple of decades. And the poisonous shrapneled air has the gas and the explosions jammed together. The reference to God also calls to mind for me the Sassoon poem Attack which ends O Jesus make it stop! There’s another powerful half line next: think how effective stopping halfway through at full line, at the caesura, actually is, forcing a pause for thought. And gargling is clearly meant to echo that famous line in Dulce et Decorum Est.

Now the poem calms down as the focus shifts to us. The silent town squares perhaps remind us of The Send-Off again, and the chilling awaiting their cenotaphs echoes for me the marvellous Philip Larkin poem MCMXIV, written on the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War.

Duffy is angry now, and bitter as she reminds us that there has been constant warfare ever since then, that all the horror of 1914-1918 has made no difference at all to the way we conduct our affairs. History as water? Ineffective? Disappearing as it sinks into the ground? But chastising – punishing – how? Why is the men’s sacrifice endless? And the final line so chilling and accusatory, drowning taking us back yet again to Dulce et Decorum Est, and the faces taking me back to one of the scariest poems of the Great War to me, Sassoon’s Glory of Women and its utterly shocking final line. And what about the pages of the sea? Think about how that image works.

Tone

Think tone of voice here; it’s important: imagine the poet reading her poem aloud to you. How would it come across? What words – try and be precise – would you use to describe that voice? I’m looking at anger, certainly, but bitterness comes over even more strongly to me. And why bitter? Because, as she points out (l.11) humanity seems to have learned nothing, changed nothing in a hundred years: we are still at it.

A female poet

Carol Ann Duffy is a woman. She was our Poet Laureate at the time she wrote this poem, so it’s specifically meant to commemorate the centenary of the Armistice, for the nation. It may not have been to everyone’s taste as a commemorative poem. Do you think a man would have treated the subject differently? How, and why? To me it’s significant that she brings in eggs (l.4) and birth (l.3): women bring life into being, men kill in wars. She doesn’t put it that starkly, but the thought is there (to me, anyway, and this is also important in interpreting a poem: whatever the writer’s intentions and meaning were at the time of writing, once a work is published, out there for anyone to read, it becomes capable of taking on meanings and shades of interpretation which the original writer may never have imagined or intended).

Your personal response

Although it’s Duffy’s poem, you are reading it and are allowed to have your own opinion, your own reaction and response. Indeed, this is most important, and you don’t have to like it just because it’s by a ‘famous’ poet. What is important it that you can articulate your response: you like or dislike it for these or those reasons. Does the subject matter move you? Do you like the way she uses language? Do you like the sounds, the poetical devices? When you explore your personal reaction to the poem, be sure to anchor it in examples from the text.

To finish: we have spent a long time taking this poem to pieces to try and understand it more deeply. Now stop and just read it aloud again, to bring it all back together as a piece.

If you have found this post (and the original one) helpful or interesting, I would appreciate it if you left a brief comment to say how and why…

A Corner of A Foreign Field

March 2, 2019

61qpI7in3oL._AC_US218_I thought I’d worked the Great War out of my system, for a while at least, with all the reading and re-reading I did over the last four years of the centenary. But this book was a present which I really enjoyed. Normally I avoid anthologies, but this was an interesting collection of poems, many of which were obviously the usual familiar ones, but there were also a goodly number which I hadn’t yet come across, despite my wide reading over many years. And the photographs, all taken from the Daily Mail archive of the war years, were wonderfully clear and well-presented.

What struck me: the number of poets blaming the older generation for the carnage, the real anger of many of the women, even if their poetry was not particularly good, and the sense of lasting trauma in many of the poets. It’s a truism about war which bears every repetition, that the older generations are the politicians and generals who make the disastrous decisions, and it’s the young who feel immortal because they are young who go off to be slaughtered. It’s the women who make the munitions and who lose brothers, sons, lovers, husbands. And once it’s all over, everyone quickly forgets, except the poor sods who were there and who saw it all and came back, to live with their memories for the rest of their lives…

Poems which particularly spoke to me: you can surely hunt them down online of you are interested: Now That You Too Must Shortly Go The Way, by Eleanor Farjeon; Warbride, by Nina Murdoch; Women At Munition-Making, by Mary Gabrielle Collins; The Ridge 1919, by Wilfred Gibson; To Germany, by Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Now that you too must shortly go the way
Which in these bloodshot years uncounted men
Have gone in vanishing armies day by day,
And in their numbers will not come again:
I must not strain the moments of our meeting
Striving for each look, each accent, not to miss,
Or question of our parting and our greeting,
Is this the last of all? is this—or this?

Last sight of all it may be with these eyes,
Last touch, last hearing, since eyes, hands, and ears,
Even serving love, are our mortalities,
And cling to what they own in mortal fears:—
But oh, let end what will, I hold you fast
By immortal love, which has no first or last.

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.

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time

October 22, 2018

There is a newer version of this post here. You may also like to read this.

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.

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