Posts Tagged ‘Western Front’

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.

R C Sherriff: Journey’s End

March 17, 2018

 

41vyJGXwb4L._AC_US218_It struck me that it’s a century since the start of the final German offensive of spring 1918, and consequently of the events R C Sherriff dramatised in his play Journey’s End, which I taught to more GCSE English Literature groups than I can remember…

It’s a very simple play, in many ways; a small troop of officers and soldiers holds a small section of the front line somewhere near St Quentin. We get to know them; they have to make a raid on the German lines to gain information, lose an officer and some men; the German offensive begins, and they are wiped out.

Sherriff was on the Western Front, and his experiences make the play ring true. The play was a sell-out in 1929 when it was first performed, and the novelisation of the play was a best-seller, although it’s now long been out-of-print. So how did Sherriff succeed?

At a time when most people in Britain would have a family member who had served, been injured or killed in the war, there was clearly an enormous amount of knowledge about and experience of the war, some of which had been shared with family members and some which had been deeply buried as ex-combatants sought to forget. The grotty conditions of trench-life, and little attempts to make it bearable, are there; humour is injected in small doses by Mason, the officers’ cook. The cameraderie of shared discomfort, when men who don’t know each other but are forced into intimacy by conditions, convinces. And the meaninglessness of the conflict is underlined – not through Sherriff’s desire to spread any kind of pacifist message, though after four years of war this might be understandable – by the isolation of the small group. They are somewhere on the front line; there are other companies alongside them; battalion HQ is somewhere, but they are disconnected from all that, somehow, anonymous and annihilated, and the audience is forced to ask ‘why?’…

Sherriff’s greatest success comes from his careful creation of a small group of officers, and the interplay between them; he clearly had a good eye to what would make effective theatre. Commanding the company is Stanhope, a young officer who has been in France for four years, is clearly very effective in his role but who has turned increasingly to heavy drinking to be able to cope with the horrors of what he’s involved in; his second is a schoolmaster in his forties, Osborne, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle’ by his fellows, and who seems to survive by talking with everyone, being friendly and offering fatherly advice. He has a wife and small son back home, is chosen to lead the raid on the German lines and knows it means almost certain death, but does his duty – and is blown to bits by a German grenade. Trotter is the only officer who is working class, and has clearly risen up through the ranks unlike the others; his interests and attitudes provide a contrast, and he clearly enjoys eating and drinking; after Osborne’s death he becomes second-in-command and focuses on doing his duty. Hibbert is a coward or malingerer or suffering from shell-shock depending on your point of view, and Stanhope’s efforts are concentrated on preventing him going sick just before the German offensive. Everything is complicated by the arrival of a young replacement officer fresh out of training – Raleigh – who went to the same public school as Stanhope, who was his hero. Will Stanhope stand up to the image he formerly had? And, of course, through Raleigh, Sherriff teaches the audience about the routines of life in the trenches…

An enormous amount is crammed into the ‘two-hours traffic of our stage’; much quiet, calm and waiting; shared conversation, reminiscence and genuine friendship; swift and sudden action; the crassness of the higher ranks comes across through the figure of the Colonel who arranges the raid, and the raid itself, which cannot, of course, be re-created onstage, is instead brought to life through sound and light effects. We are fully involved in the life and death of these few men from start to finish, and the closing moments are truly powerful.

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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