Posts Tagged ‘The Soldier’

Wilfred Owen: Anthem For Doomed Youth

June 21, 2022

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Form, first of all: this one is obviously a sonnet. Sonnets were traditionally love poems above all else, so what is Owen doing here? Is he sending up the idea of love poetry, using the sonnet in an opposite way (war=hate)? Or is he expressing a sense of love for those who are lost, killed in war? Or both, perhaps? Why not? It’s a Petrarchan, rather than a Shakespearean sonnet. Notice the rhyme scheme, and the shift in mood after the eighth line.

What is it about? Funerals. Except that Owen is drawing out a distinction, all the way through the poem, between the traditional religious funeral rituals of peacetime, and the total absence of anything like that when someone is killed at the front line. And it’s also interesting to think about the fact that Owen originally called his poem Anthem for Dead Youth, rather than Anthem for Doomed Youth. Is that significant, and is his final choice of title more effective? There’s a finality about dead, whereas doomed sounds more ominous, because the person is alive but not for much longer… And if you are interested in how Owen changed and revised his poems, then you can find drafts and revisions to look at online.

You need to pay full attention to how Owen uses language, and all the poetic devices that he crams into his poems; this one is no exception. Although I shall mention many of them, you may well find more.

The passing bells are those that would toll slowly at the church where a funeral was about to take place. They sounded very solemn and everyone would know what they signified. On the battlefield, the only sound is that of gunfire: look at how Owen presents this. The men die as cattle; contrast the lengthy vowel sounds early in the line with the short a of cattle, which brings us up short, as does the image of cattle, which conjures up the image of a slaughterhouse. The heavy two syllables of monstrous echo artillery fire, whilst the onomatopoeia of the stuttering rifles, and the alliteration (rifles, rapid, rattle) echoes machine-gun fire. This continues with the half rhyme in the next line (rattle, patter).

Orison is an archaic word for a prayer, a crucial part of any church funeral service. On the battlefield these are hasty – as if there would be any time at all for praying over someone killed there. Patter is remarkable in a number of ways. Firstly there is the echo of rattle I just noted above. Then there is the meaning of the word, in the sense of words used quickly without any real focus on their meaning, like the patter of a salesperson. Finally there would be, for readers in Owen’s time, the reminder of the Lord’s Prayer (which begins Pater Noster in Latin).

Into the second quatrain: such ritual would be a mockery on the battlefield. No prayers or bells then; no choirs such as would sing hymns and anthems (back to the poem’s title) at a funeral in church. Instead, the poet likens the sound of approaching shells before they explode; the word demented emphasises the utter craziness of it all. The bugles recall the training camps before the men were sent to the front (look at Owen’s poem The Send-Off) and the alliteration of sad shires reminds us of all the different local regiments which the men volunteered for, or were conscripted into. These ‘pals battalions’ often meant that entire communities of men were wiped out together in a single day’s fighting; there are monuments all along the Western Front to such battalions.

The noise and anger of the octave gives way to a calmer, more peaceful, sad and mournful mood in the sestet. Candles are an obvious part of a church service; in days gone by, special candles made from unbleached wax were often used to add solemnity (and gloom) to a funeral service. No alter servers or choirboys will be carrying these to funerals at the front. We need to remember that often there would be no physical remains after a death on the battlefield, as well as the government decision that all the war dead would be buried where they fell rather than brought back home. So the grief is internalised. The rhyming of eyes and goodbyes is very effective, very moving, as is the idea of holy glimmers.

A pall is the heavy embroidered cloth which was used to cover the coffin while it rested in church during a funeral; none of these at the front, obviously; and yet the idea of the pall is prefigured in the pallor of girls’ brows. Who are the girls? Girlfriends? Daughters? No flowers at the front either, although we may be reminded of the poppies of Flanders’ fields. And look at how the pace of the poem gradually slows down as the sestet develops, through longer vowel sounds until we reach the poignant alliteration of the final line: dusk/drawing/down/blinds. This is a reference to how blinds or curtains would be shut in a house from which a funeral set off.

It’s a powerful poem, which pays reading aloud, with attention to how the poet uses sounds and repetitions to create a solemn mood, a sad mood. We are reminded how serious a business a funeral was a century and more ago. If you need to compare this poem with another, you can do worse than pair it with another sonnet, Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier. Contrast the tone and mood of the two poems, and remember that one was written in the early days of the war, and the other when the war was part of everyone’s lives, and its awful reality had sunk in on the people of England.

Rupert Brooke: Peace

October 21, 2018

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there’s no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart’s long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

For me, Brooke typifies the gung-ho attitudes of so many at the outbreak of the Great War. It’s easy to be critical more than a century later, for hindsight is a wonderful thing; it takes an effort of the twenty-first century mind to imagine both the innocence and the patriotism of those distant days. So why the welcoming of the war? A country relatively speaking at peace for the best part of a century, apart from the Crimean War and various minor skirmishes in the Middle East, South Africa and India? Pride in what Great Britain had achieved with its Empire that painted a quarter of the globe red on world maps? Public school ethos? A pride in a homogeneous nation, in the days before refugees and mass migration? Possibly a combination of all of those things…

I don’t think I have been deliberately picking out poems which are Petrarchan sonnets in this recent series of posts on poetry of the Great War, but it is striking how many poets used this form, which is most often associated with love poetry.

I always found it useful in my teaching to approach a poem in three stages: what is the poet saying? how is the poet saying it? how successful is the poet in saying it? You can see a progression in terms of reader involvement there, gradually more demanding, moving from the simple ‘story’ if you like, to poetic technique and then personal response.

So: thanks to God for offering the youth of the nation something real to do, something that surpasses the trivial and everyday, the mundane. And the worst that can happen to you is to be killed… unlike in The Soldier, the d-word is used, and capitalised too, but here it’s still a distant and rather vague experience. For me, Brooke creates a similar feeling to Herbert Asquith in The Volunteer. We are still light-years away from the horrors of Dulce et Decorum Est.

The form is that of a love poem, which surely is significant, particularly as towards the end of the octave Brooke will mock love itself as inferior to the coming experience of war, which is more concrete, more masculine, perhaps. There is a sense of thrill in the first quatrain, perhaps like the realisation that one is in love, then a sense of something new and refreshing in the second, after a long period of tedium reflected in the long vowel sounds in old, cold, weary, dreary. I do find love described as a little emptiness rather disturbing, and the glibness – to me – of the entire sestet is shocking, revealing a total lack of awareness of the actual effect of modern weaponry and warfare.

Evaluating, I think Brooke is successful in saying what he wanted to say, but I am too far from his time and his attitudes to be able to get inside what he actually means, and if I were to choose a word to sum up his poem, I think unpleasant would fit the bill…

May Herschel-Clarke: The Mother

September 29, 2018

The Mother – May Herschel-Clarke (1917)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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