Posts Tagged ‘Wilfred Owen’

On ageing and growing older

May 20, 2021

At my age – I recently became a state pensioner, if you’re that curious – I quite often find myself thinking about ageing, growing older, and what that has in store, both generally, and for me in particular, and I’ve also been reflecting on what literature has to say about it all.

Way back in my teenage years, studying for A Level Latin, we met Horace’s famous ode “Eheu fugaces” to his friend Postumus (I always thought he was a particularly apt addressee, given the subject of the poem): the years slipping inevitably and unstoppably by, and nothing able to halt the remorseless slide towards senility and death: money, wine and pleasures were available, yes, but did nothing to stave off the end. Even at the age of seventeen, to me it was a powerful warning of what was to come, one day.

At the same time, I was also studying Shakespeare’s King Lear, which among other things presents old age as a time of loss of faculties; Lear loses his common sense and his judgement, before finally losing his sanity. He learns much during the unfolding of the tragedy, including what things are really of value in one’s later years, but at what an awful cost: he cannot survive the experiences.

And as part of my French literature studies, we read Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt, in which it is announced that the time has come for the king to die, but, of course, he wants none of it, and the play is his struggle with the inevitable, aided by the queen who wants him to see sense and accept the necessary and inevitable, and the other queen who urges him to resist and deny it. And of course, he dies in the end.

As I write, I’m struck by the fact that so much of my studies in my teens focused on these last things, and wonder if it was the product of an education provided by Catholic priests: not exactly a conspiracy, as I know that examination syllabuses were pretty narrow and devoid of choice in those long-gone days, but a kind of memento mori nevertheless, to get us stroppy teenagers into line…

Later, at university, I was to encounter Mr Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s ‘valetudinarian’ – (what a marvellous word that is!) father of Emma – someone who was old before his time, fearful of life and everything that might go wrong, and therefore too cautious to enjoy anything. In many ways he is a silly man, and the butt of much humour, but he does reflect a certain stage in our own story, the notion that we are not immortal, and that there are many ways to die, as was said about Cleopatra after her end. I’m also reminded of Wilfred Owen’s Disabled, where the young man lies about his age in order to sign up and returns from the front a tetraplegic; at nineteen we do not think about it all ending, nor at twenty-nine or thirty-nine perhaps, but soon after that the truth dawns.

One of the ways to die is from disease. This can be gradual, or announced almost like a death sentence. The most affecting, if not chilling, presentation I’ve come across of this is in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illich. There is the gradual unwellness, the realisation of doom and its confirmation by the doctors, and the reactions of those around him, who, while sympathetic, are not so immediately doomed and therefore must carry on with their ‘normal’ everyday lives; the suffering Ivan is ultimately alone in his dying.

One of the things associated (sometimes) with older age is wisdom; I think the jury is still out on my case, although I do feel less and less like voicing my opinions nowadays, partly because I feel they are of diminishing significance as the world changes so fast, and moves past me, partly because the world isn’t likely to change in tune with my opinions, and certainly not in time for me to enjoy it… I’m with Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes to some of you), the writer of my favourite book in the Bible, who focuses on the ultimate vanity of everything.

The older we grow, the more memories we accumulate, and the more memories we can and do recall. I’m always astonished at how much is actually filed away there on my internal hard drive, when a memory from years ago suddenly surfaces. The computer analogy works for me: I have about 0.7 of a terabyte of stuff on my backup hard disk, and I collect all sorts of stuff, and have scanned and saved vast amounts of old paperwork; how many terabytes of memories and information must be squirrelled away in my brain? And all to be effortlessly erased one day. Proust is the writer par excellence associated with memory, and that famous incident with the madeleine that is so astonishing, and so convincing when you actually read it. All sorts of weird and unexpected things trigger memories, and I think they become more poignant and more sad the older I become. The events were real pleasures once, back in the dim and distant past, now just recollections.

I’m not sure where all of this gets me, in the end. Perhaps I have to leave the last words to Shakespeare’s Jacques, in that famous Seven Ages of Man speech in As You Like It, which seems to sum it all up very well. Each consequent stage of life is new territory to explore; we bring some accumulated knowledge, perhaps wisdom, along with us from the earlier stages which is a little help, but there is always a certain measure of advancing into unknown territory…

On a century of Owen’s poetry

December 3, 2020

This month offers another opportunity to write about one of my favourite poets, and still the war poet par excellence, in my opinion, as we reach the centenary of the first publication of his poetry – posthumous, of course.

In a sense, of course, Wilfred Owen’s reputation is frozen in time because of his untimely death in the final days of the Great War: he left behind his personal story of bravery at the front, his struggle with shell-shock and his time at Craiglockhart. There he met and was encouraged by Siegfried Sassoon, and out of it all came the small volume which is his complete poems. There is no more: would he have gone on to greater things had he survived the war, or would he have faded into obscurity, his best work written in his twenties?

Can you remember when you first encountered his verse, and the effect it had on you? Two poems stand out for me, at school when preparing for my O Levels: the explanation of how the sonnet Anthem for Doomed Youth works, and the sheer horror of the images in Dulce et Decorum Est. They were the two poems everyone knew in those long-gone days, the 1960s, when interest in the Great War was re-awakened by the fiftieth anniversary.

These two poems re-appeared when I was teaching, in anthologies of poetry devised by examination boards to meet various arcane criteria, and later on A Level English Literature offered a unit on Literature and the First World War and there was the opportunity to read much more widely. For me, the Owen poem I have always found most effective and most powerful in the classroom is Disabled (you can read my analysis of it here).

Disabled is about a boy who lied and said he was nineteen in order to join up. You are talking about the age of many of the (male) students in the classes I taught. Subtly, the implications of his horrendous injuries are made clear, and it’s the fact that his age is the age of awakening sexuality which shocks most: you don’t actually need to say anything…

Or you can consider Mental Cases, which has as much of the graphic detail as does Dulce et Decorum Est, but with the added nightmare quality of mental derangement, insanity on top of physical injury. And in the latter poem, the man dies, whereas the men in the former poem survive and have to live with their visions.

There are many other Great War poets, as powerful in their use of graphic detail or in their ability to make the reader think: Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney to name several. What makes Owen stand out above the others? for he does, I am convinced. His bravery, his youth and his own tragic end are part of it. His astonishing use of the poetical power and expressive possibilities of the English language must not be overlooked: just read Exposure aloud, slowly and carefully. His stance on the war itself is also important. He was not unpatriotic or anti-British; he did not shirk his duty. He did not merely seek to horrify his readers through descriptions of atrocity. Like Sassoon, he wants his readers to feel very uncomfortable: Owen is writing, as he put it himself, about ‘the pity of war’. His poems say to his readers: these things are going on, these men are suffering and dying, in your name. Implied are such questions as ‘Why?’, ‘Do you approve?’, ‘Now that you know, what will you say?’.

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…

Literature and the two world wars

November 7, 2018

I’ve often wondered why there seems to be so much more literature from the Great War than from the Second World War. That’s an impression I have, rather than any carefully calculated conclusion. I also have the feeling, that I think many readers would probably agree with, that the literature from the earlier war is more powerful, and more effective. And no, I’m not forgetting Second World War classics like Catch-22 and Life and Fate

Thinking about this a little more deeply: there was poetry written during the Second World War; I have an anthology (which I don’t dip into very often, I’m afraid) and a few poems collected loose-leaf over the years, but I’ve rarely used any of them in my teaching. They are so different, so much more low-key, with almost an aura of, ‘well, here we are again’ about them, rather than the shock, anger and outrage of the likes of Owen and Sassoon, whose power could not be equalled.

I have read fewer memoirs of the Second World War, although I found Keith DouglasAlamein to Zem-Zem as interesting as those of Sassoon, Graves et al. There is much more humour – novels such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Evelyn Waugh’s Men at Arms trilogy spring to mind, and again I know of no parallels from the earlier war; Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk is much more slapstick, although as brilliant in its own subversive way as is Heller, I feel. And there is good drama set in the Great War – Hamp, and Journey’s End for starters, but no plays leap to mind from the later war.

And yet, when you turn to look at both wars from a historical perspective, 1939-45 makes 1914-18 pale into insignificance in so many ways: the genocide of the Jews, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the vastly greater casualty figures, especially among civilians, the vileness of Nazism per se…

In many ways the Great War seems to have been so unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound that Europe drifted into, not quite out of boredom, a war that came to an unresolved conclusion out of attrition and left unfinished business that led to the next war a generation later. Recently, I have been reading about how the ending of that war came as such a shock to the Germans: lack of a sense of defeat of their armies made it easier for the Nazis and others to perpetrate the myth of the stab in th eback and the injustices of the Treaty of Versailles…

Reading the literature, what comes across most strongly to me is the utter shock of what the Great War became, the pointless hell of trench warfare in the West, with images that still cannot fail to appal, where the destruction, annihilation even, is actually far greater than that at Hiroshima: look at photographs of what (doesn’t) remain of some of the villages on the Somme or Passchendaele and you will see what I mean. And of course the determination that this should never happen again meant (after 1939) blitzkrieg, swift occupation and plunder of nations, the ability to plan extermination of whole races and peoples. And the weariness and the absolute necessity of putting an end to Hitler and Nazism led to a different kind of war, all-encompassing and far more destructive.

It is so wrong, and so unhelpful to the future of the world, that in the West we do not realise, cannot comprehend, what that war did in the east. If you have stomach, watch Elem Klimov’s film Go and See. I saw it once, over 30 years ago and still cannot face seeing it again. Read Svetlana Alexievich on The Unwomanly Face of War, or the interviews in Last Witnesses if you can. The Second World War cost Britain a great deal, but we got off oh so lightly compared with almost every other nation, and we still behave in a cavalier fashion towards our near neighbours who have striven to ensure that should be the last war on our continent…

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.

Wilfred Owen: Futility

October 22, 2018

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

I think Owen gets pretty close to despair in this poem, which reflects on the corpse of a soldier, presumably a villager, a rural fellow, newly killed: what is the point of the human species’ existence at all? It is pretty grim.

The sun frames the poem, both stanzas. In the first it is a kindly force, in the second almost a stupid one, and this personification shocks through its incongruity. The first stanza is hushed, as we often are in the presence of death, with the gentleness of being awoken by the rising sun, wherever you are, until you are dead and this cannot happen any more. Look at Owen’s use of the mournful-sounding long ‘o’ sounds in awoke, home, sown, and the way those sounds frame the third line, as well as ending so many lines in that first stanza. Notice also how Owen has used consonants which are quiet and soft-sounding; nothing harsh at all until the final couplet where the shock of the plosives in fatuous and break emphasise the poet’s anger.

Owen’s use of imperfect rhyme often contributes to creating a slightly unnerving or uneasy effect, and I think it works well in this poem: look at line endings sun/sown, once/France, seeds/sides, star/stir, tall/toil. Devices like this are so easily overlooked because they do not impinge as evidently as full rhyme, but that subtlety does not mean that they have no effect, just that the effect is less consciously received.

Owen’s knowledge of planetary formation as shown in the opening of the second stanza, with the idea of the sun warming a cold planet and thus generating life, is obviously completely wrong, but that’s not the point here. The poet is focused on the sun’s life-giving properties which are due to radiated heat, germinating seeds in the springtime – an idea that our dead soldier from his rural background would surely have been familiar with – and the idea that the sun might be able, via its warmth, to revive the body not yet gone cold, briefly calls to Owen. Were humans, formed from the dust of the ground according to Genesis, created to be killed like this?

Thus the despairing cry that rises from that final couplet: the long ‘o’ sound again, the fatuous sunbeams – what an idea, as jarring as Sassoon’s glum heroes – the sun is foolish or silly to have bothered bringing forth life on the planet in the first place… And by the time this poem was written, I can see why someone with Owen’s experience of the Western Front would think like this. Indeed, with the state of our world today, I quite often experience the same feeling…

Siegfried Sassoon: Base Details

October 1, 2018

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say — “I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

Sassoon is at his angry best here, and here is another war poem that begins with ‘if’. Hmm. Looking at the title again, I’m struck by the multiplicity of possible meanings in ‘base’ as in military base, or base as in morally low; ‘details’ as in military punishment detail, or minor aspects as in unimportant?

Why are the Majors ‘scarlet’ – a reference to medals and uniforms or the ruddiness of complexion that comes from high-living? ‘Speed’: does this mean to hurry up, as in the conveyor-belt of young men shipped off to be slaughtered at the front, or do we imagine it as part of the phrase ‘God speed’ a wish of good luck? And, what is a ‘glum’ hero? That’s a marvellous oxymoronic phrase that I’ve always wondered about whenever I return to this poem. Surely our picture of a hero is of someone contentedly, patriotically doing his duty.‘Glum’ suggests reluctance, as if the men have been told they’re heroes, and don’t actually want this role, this label. Sassoon certainly tuned in to the multiplicity of meanings our language offers in this poem.

Look at the mockery of the top brass emphasised by the alliteration of ‘puffy petulant’ and ‘guzzling and gulping’, and then the officer’s patronising tone when talking about the ‘poor young chap’ – somehow ‘chap’ seems far too informal and dismissive, especially coming from a man who doesn’t actually know the dead soldier, only his father long ago – perhaps at public school? And to refer to a bloody battle as a ‘scrap’ shocks as well. Then there’s the final, jaunty rhyming couplet, with ‘done’ before the caesura somehow adding more weight to ‘dead’ at the end of the line… and the childishness of ‘toddle’ which takes us back to the overeating of the early lines of the poem: perhaps the major is so obese that he must walk that way?

Base Details is one of a number of similar poems in which Sassoon expresses his anger about what the war is doing to men, along with The General, The Hero, Does it Matter? Glory of Women and Memorial Tablet, to name a few.

Sassoon and Owen both, though in very different ways, highlight the indifference of both military high-ups and those at home to the death and suffering endured by the ordinary soldiers at the front, an indifference that seems to grow as time passes: only those directly affected by the death of a loved one perhaps shocked out of that indifference? A century later, it is hard to know for certain, but I think both poets are keenly aware that it is old men who start wars and send the young off to be killed and maimed. And though I find it even harder to understand, I have nothing but respect for two poets who nevertheless continued to do their duty, as they understood it.

August favourites #30: Wilfred Owen poem

August 30, 2018

This one is a bit of a cheat, if you’ve been following this series, as I already named Owen’s poem Disabled as my favourite war poem, and yet I’m about to name another, and different poem by Owen in this post. But hey, it’s my blog so I can do that. And I wrote about it last year, so I shall suggest that you have a read of that post

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

Why this one? Because it shows a different side from the usual Owen, a more thoughtful and a cleverer one, in playing with what would have been a very familiar story to his contemporaries from their Sunday school Bible stories, and making a powerful message out of it.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #2: War Poem

August 2, 2018

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Wilfred Owen: Disabled

There’s a full-length post and the text of the poem here.

Again, I have met so many war poems – lyrical, angry, satirical, in your face, you name it – and I always come back to this one of Owen’s, which seems to me to encapsulate so much. At nineteen, one is immortal; to be immortal and reduced to the state of Owen’s character is too bitter and cruel to contemplate. In the poem he sums up forever, for me, the utter pointlessness and waste of war, in a world where old and shrivelled men compel younger and fitter ones who haven’t had the chance to enjoy life yet, to be maimed and killed, and sentence their families to years of sadness and irretrievable loss.

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