He Sleeps Less Cold Than We Who Wake

C. R. W. Nevinson, "Paths of Glory"

C. R. W. Nevinson, “Paths of Glory”

Memorial Day 

Let the taps play, let the flag be lowered, and let a poem by Wilfred Owen be read. Sometimes Owen lashes out in anger against those who make war, but in “Asleep” he just gazes in sorrow, and even a little bit of envy, at a comrade who has died:

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars,
–Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas! 

Who cares whether he has gone to heaven or merely mingles with the earth, the narrator says. At least he sleeps “less tremulous, less cold,/Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!” There is a touch of Shelley’s elegy to Keats in these closing lines:

Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep,
He hath awaken’d from the dream of life;
‘Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings. We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay.

If you want proof of the horrors of war, it’s that sometimes our combat troops envy the dead.

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  • Memorial Day was a time of getting into my hot wool band uniform and parading through cemeteries to the graves of those who fought and died. Now my father is one of them. And uncle David. And Scott Bates. they were so young. How could a country demand such a thing?


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