We Have Chance the Gardener as Prez!

Peter Sellers in “Being There”


A twitter user had a devastating literary putdown of the president when he journeyed to California to assess the wildfires, which have claimed the lives of scores if not hundreds. Rather than empathize, Donald Trump once again chose to cast blame:

You gotta take care of the floors. You know the floors of the forest, very important… I was with the President of Finland… he called it a forest nation and they spent a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things and they don’t have any problem.

To which David Rothkpf responded,

Chance the Gardener

Chance, of course, is the protagonist of Jerzy Kosinski’s political satire Being There. I’ve compared Trump to Chance in the past (here’s the link), but Trump’s recent response cements the parallel.

Suddenly thrust into the real world when his employer and guardian dies, low IQ Chance can only apply gardening metaphors to the situations he encounters. Although there is no there there, people regard his gardening observations as profound analogies for the state of the economy and the country. These perceived analogies seem brilliant because they confirm them in their own opinions:

“In a garden,” he said, “growth has its season. There are spring and summer, but there are also fall and winter. And then spring and summer again. As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well.” He raised his eyes. Rand [his host] was looking at him, nodding. The President seemed quite pleased.

“I must admit, Mr. Gardiner,” the President said, “that what you’ve just said is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.”

In other words, they see in Chance what they want to see and reward him for it. Which is pretty much how Trump got elected.

Chance has one other ability that helps him negotiate the world: he has spent so much time watching television (his only other activity) that he can channel the most effective response to questions:

Thinking that he ought to show a keen interest in what EE was saying, Chance resorted to repeating to her parts of her own sentences, a practice he had observed on TV. In this fashion he encouraged her to continue and elaborate. Each time Chance repeated EE’s words, she brightened and looked more confident. In fact, she became so at ease that she began to punctuate her speech by touching, now his shoulder, now his arm. Her words seemed to float inside his head; he observed her as if she were on television.

By the end of the novel, he’s on his way to becoming vice president.

Unlike Americans in the book, however, most Americans in real life—certainly most Californians—see Trump as an idiot playing at forest ranger. Then again, he didn’t go to California to address Californians.

For the record, Finland’s president said he didn’t tell Trump that Finland rakes its forest floors. In point of fact, Finland’s forest management is aided by something California lacks: plenty of rain.

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A Whisper Will Be Heard in the Place

Vereshchagin, Prayer of Hannah (1864)

Spiritual Sunday

 Dan Clendenin, who monitors the indispensable webzine Journey with Jesus, features a poem in the latest issue that can help us heal from our bruising elections.  Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai first warns us what happens when we fall in love with our own self-righteousness and then shows us a way forward:

The Place Where We Are Right

By Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

In our righteous indignation we stomp the ground and harden our hearts. On the other hand, when we acknowledge our doubts and honor our loves, movement occurs. To hear the whispers, refrain from shouting.

What is the ruined house? Perhaps it is Jerusalem’s temple, which (so Jesus predicted in today’s Gospel reading) the Romans would demolish so that not one stone would be left upon another (Mark 13:1-2). I think also of Abraham Lincoln quoting Jesus (Matthew 12:15) that a house divided against itself cannot stand. America at the moment is more polarized than perhaps any time since the Civil War, and those who shout and trample will not bring us together.

Amichai’s poem also fits well with today’s Old Testament reading, which is about Hannah mourning her childlessness. The prophet Eli finds her praying for a son but, because she is not speaking aloud, he thinks she is drunk. He must listen to hear what she is really saying:

No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.

Eli blesses her and Hannah goes on to give birth to Samuel, one of Israel’s greatest prophets. If we listen carefully to others and let God guide us, flowers will bloom again. We can rebuild the house.

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An Incel Killer and an English Major

Barry, “King Lear Weeping over the Body of Cordelia” (1786-8)


My son Toby alerted me to a moving essay by the chair of Florida State’s English Department, who turned to Shakespeare to mourn the death of one of his students. After Maura Binkley and another woman were killed by an incel terrorist in a Tallahassee yoga studio, Gary Taylor found the language he needed in King Lear and Othello.

But not in Hamlet, as he explains:

Other Shakespeare scholars might be able to stand in front of a room full of traumatized students and quote Horatio’s response to the death of a young student named Hamlet: “Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” Other Shakespeare scholars might point out that, 400 years ago, the word “prince” was gender-neutral, and would therefore be perfectly appropriate for Maura Binkley. Other Shakespeare scholars might explain the traditional literary metaphor that equates death and sleep.

But although Shakespeare probably believed in angels, I do not.

I would argue that it’s not belief or non-belief in angels that makes the line inappropriate. Although the dying cancer patient in Margaret Edson’s play W;t does not appear religious, Vivian’s old teacher uses the line to powerful effect as she approaches her end. For souls like Vivian and Hamlet who are wracked with agonizing doubts, death may come as a final peace.

To capture our fury and bafflement at the death of a hopeful young college student, however, Taylor is right to cite Lear. The pounding use of “never” makes the passage one of the darkest in all of literature:

The Shakespeare quotation that first came to me, when I learned of Maura’s death, was something much more brutal: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.” King Lear speaks these words to his young murdered daughter, half-pretending to himself that she can still hear him. These are not words that any parent wants to speak, or to hear at a moment like this.

Then Taylor goes in a direction I did not expect: he focuses on Cordelia’s killer, comparing him to the man who shot Maura. Both are in the grip of a toxic masculinity, prizing their manhood over the lives of women:

Father Lear also says, to his dead daughter Cordelia, “I killed the slave that was a-hanging thee.” Shakespeare does not name the murderer, and unlike the press I will not dignify or memorialize the man who murdered Maura by repeating his name, or rehearsing his pathetic biography.

But Shakespeare does tell us something useful about the kind of man capable of murdering Cordelia, or Maura. In Shakespeare the unnamed “captain” explains, in an earlier scene, “I cannot draw a cart, nor eat dried oats; if it be man’s work, I’ll do’t.” Killing an innocent and defenseless young woman is, for that nameless captain, what distinguishes him from a mere domesticated animal. It is what defines his manhood.

Such men, Taylor says, are at war with generalities. This is what the Tallahassee killer had in common with the Pittsburgh, Kentucky and Orlando killers:

Unfortunately, anybody who is paying attention knows men like this, men whose identity and self-importance depends on their capacity for violence. The man who is accused of killing Maura was one of them. The man accused of killing 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue was one of them. The man accused of killing a random black man and a random black woman in a Kentucky supermarket, the week before, was one of them. The man who killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando was one of them.

These men were all trying to kill generalities. The man who stands accused of murdering Maura was not seeing a luminous living individual; he was seeing a specimen of the category “woman,” a category he hated. From his perspective, the category “woman” owed him something, something he as a “man” was entitled to have. The category “woman” had no right to choose to refuse him. Before the gun killed Maura, the generalization did.

Literature, and especially Shakespeare, does not allow us to remain in the realm of generalities. Taylor points out that, in the major Maura had chosen, above all we value

writers capable of telling many different stories, populated by many varieties of being, articulated in a kaleidoscope of styles. It’s why I, personally, have always been most fascinated by playwrights, from Aeschylus to August Wilson: Dialogue releases us from the monologues of one mind, clan, tradition.

Adapting a passage from Othello, Taylor talks of Maura’s luminous living individuality, which the killer could not acknowledge. “There was a daily beauty in her life,” he writes, “that made his ugly.”

As English majors, he concludes, what we can do is

 write about the particulars of her beautiful promise. What we can do, as Americans, is dedicate ourselves to erasing the ugliness that erased her.

Few of Shakespeare’s characters are empty abstractions. By reading him, we enter into our full humanity and push back against murderous ideology.

Further thought: 

I don’t recognize the other Shakespeare passage that Taylor applies to Maura: “brave, bold, and kind.” Three heroines who are associated with one or more of these words are Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermione in Winter’s Tale, and Miranda in The Tempest. All three are bullied by dictatorial men.

Previous post on an incel killer:

Browning Describes Incel’s Misogyny

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Read This Poem To Feel Better

Evelyn de Morgan, “Hope in a Prison of Despair”


Sometimes, after a spate of bad news, we need a hopeful poem to pick us up. This lyric by British poet Sheenagh Pugh quietly reminds us that “sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse”–which seems a particularly British way of expressing hope. The doomsayers may have had their day in recent years, but they are not always right.

The poem reminds of Bertolt Brecht’s wonderful “Compassion,” which I’ve shared here. “Sometimes” ends with a blessing.


Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.

A people sometimes step back from war;
elect an honest man; decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.

Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss; sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen to you.

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Refusal to Mourn a Death by Fire?!

Camp Fire is now the deadliest fire in California history


I explore today whether Dylan Thomas’s provocatively titled “Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” will help us in any way grapple with California’s Camp Fire, the nightmare blaze that as of this writing has killed at least 42 people, with hundreds more missing. As Thomas intends, I’ve always stumbled over this poem, but it helps me focus on the victims.

Let’s first acknowledge our desire to fit tragedy into a recognizable category. Although we remove some of the sting by doing so, we also distance ourselves from it. While not exactly dehumanizing the victims, we check a kind of mourning box and then move on.

At the risk of appearing heartless, the poet rejects this approach. He wants us to rethink our conventional responses to how we react to “the majesty and burning of the child’s death”:

I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Keep in mind that Thomas is referring to a tragedy that dwarfs the Camp Fire tragedy. Almost 40,000 Londoners were killed by the London Blitz during World War II, with another 50,000 seriously injured. One of these was the girl mentioned in the poem, who comes to stand in for everyone.

How does “a grave truth” murder “the mankind of her going”? Perhaps fatalistically pointing out that we will all inevitably encounter the truth of the grave diminishes the death So does a conventional elegy, which is sure to mention her innocence and youth. As we read the poem, we find ourselves struggling to put into words what is beyond words.

The poem’s final line also resists comfortable containment as it can be read two ways. Does “After the first death, there is no other” refer to Christianity’s vision of eternal life? Christian language can be found throughout the poem, including in the “stations of the breath” (cross) that we use to articulate our grief. Or does it express atheism’s belief that when we die, we just die?

The opening stanzas don’t make it any clearer. With images of our making and our final silence, Thomas could be referring to the Book of Genesis and Revelation. But maybe not. In any event, our own momentous life cycle—momentous at least to us—is just as momentous for this girl.

Despite the title, I sense that both the child and all who died along with her are indeed mourned. I find something comforting in her being with those who have gone before, as well as with nature in its eternal cycle. The Thames may not mourn, but we do. As with other great elegies (I think especially of Shelley’s Adonais, where he mourns Keats), we watch the poet struggle with meaninglessness. As with other great elegies, this one doesn’t allow this unnamed girl to slip easily from memory once we have put in the requisite mourning.

As I say, Thomas’s poem gets me to think more fully about all those who have died in California over the past week.

A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Burning, of a Child in London

By Dylan Thomas

Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness

And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn

The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.

Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.

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“Anna Karenina” Saves a Prisoner’s Life

Knightley as Anna Karenina


My dear friend Lois Stover alerted me to an extraordinary podcast episode (from Rough Translation) about Anna Karenina saving a Somali political prisoner from madness. Gregory Warner interviews both Mohamed Barud and the prisoner in the adjacent cell, Dr. Adan Abokor, who used morse code to tap out the entire novel to Barud letter by letter. You can listen to the episode here.

Newly married in 1981, Barud optimistically believed that Somalia’s dictator Siad Barre would respond to a letter complaining about poor conditions in a local hospital. Instead he was charged with treason and imprisoned to a lifetime of solitary confinement.

Cut off from all contact with the outside world and even other prisoners, Barud felt himself going insane. He was in a tiny cell that was three steps across and that was invaded by cockroaches, rats, flies, and millions of mosquitoes.

In his solitude, he began resenting and eventually hating his wife Ismahan for not visiting him, even though he knew visits weren’t allowed. He became frightened “of going to a certain area in my mind where I would commit suicide without knowing, without wanting to.”

After two months, however, Barud learned that the prisoners could communicate to each other through knocking on the walls. As he became proficient at the code, Barud would contact Abokor whenever he awoke from one of his ferocious nightmares. Diagnosing Barud’s condition as panic attacks, Abokor

explained to him through the wall that he’s not going to go mad and that he’s not going to die. But you can’t counsel a person through a wall.

After two years, the doctor was allowed a change of clothes and, while retrieving the items from his suitcase, asked the warden if he could choose one of the books he had brought. In a moment of unexpected leniency, the warden said yes, and he chose Anna Karenina as the thickest of the lot:

Warner as narrator: “Anna Karenina” is about 800 pages, 350,000 words, nearly 2 million letters, each letter a set of taps. So the doctor wraps a bedsheet around his hand to protect it.
Abokor: Because it would damage my wrist if I continued like that. So then I started knocking, and he started listening.

The next two months were spent communicating the novel. From the famous first sentence on, Barud was transfixed:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Barud hated Anna’s lover Varonsky at once, largely because Varonsky is a military officer and Barud was in a military prison. He identified intensively with Anna, however, especially when, after having run away from her husband with Varonsky, Anna finds herself alone in a room, having been shunned by society while hearing no word from her lover.

Like Barud with his wife, Anna both longs for Varonsky and wants him to suffer as she is suffering. She is crazily jealous and hates herself for being jealous. Barud says that he identified with the sentence, “If he loved her, he would understand all the difficulties of her situation, and he would rescue her from it”:

Warner: Anna is trapped by views about women and maybe desire, but you were trapped by real walls.
Barud: Yeah.
Warner as narrator: He says it didn’t matter how different their lives seemed on the outside.
Barud: She was suffering all the time.

Varonsky doesn’t rescue Anna and of course Ismahan couldn’t rescue Barud. But finding his condition named let him know he wasn’t alone. An author understood his plight.

The novel offered yet more insights and more comforts. When Anna throws herself under the train, Barud saw his worst fears realized and found himself crying. He realized, however, that his tears were not for himself but for Ismahan. He began asking himself whether he had been a good husband, treating his wife as she deserved. Why had he done something that had separated them? Wasn’t she imprisoned as well?  Perhaps she was suffering worse than he was.

From hating his wife, he came to see the world through her eyes. Empathy replaced resentment:

Warner as narrator: Mohamed realizes his tears are not just for Anna.
Barud: That’s when I remember my wife.
Warner as narrator: He’s thinking about Ismahan, his wife.
Barud: How much she’s suffering. And yes. The book’s the one that brought me back to think about her a lot.
Warner as narrator: Tolstoy is brilliant at showing a scene from one point of view and then shifting the frame, showing the same scene from a different character’s perspective. Mohamed credits Tolstoy and his perspective-shifting style with pulling him out of his mental prison.
Barud: It definitely helped – definitely, definitely. In a place like that prison, people become very selfish. You think, everybody has forgotten about me, and nobody cares about me like that. But when you think about other people’s situation, then you – it helped me survive. It helped me even sleep better.

The novel had yet another role to play. The prisoners were released six years later when the political climate changed, and Barud discovered that Ismahan had remained faithful, despite intense pressure to divorce him. She was in a refugee camp in Germany and they finally reunited.

While she wanted to rush into his arms, however, he maintained a distance—he had forgotten how to love her. This time Levin, the novel’s other protagonist, stepped up to help.

When he is preparing to get married, Levin is wracked with self-doubts about setting up a new life. Although Kitty is a wonderful woman who will prove a great wife, Levin is a restless soul. Only at the end of the novel does he learn to stand outside himself.

Barud said that Tolstoy taught him how to love his wife again. He realized that, like Levin, he was hard to live with—solitary confinement does that to someone—and having Levin as a model “made it easier for us to talk to each other. I knew that my heart wasn’t quite working yet.”

He concludes, “I should build a monument for that book.”

While Barud cites various passages from Anna Karenina, Dr. Abokor has not been able to return to the novel because of the associations it arouses. He did give it to an imprisoned journalist friend, however, telling him it was the best companion he could have.

Previous posts about literature in prison

Poetry Turns Prisoner’s Life Around 

Shakespeare Was Mandela’s Lifeline 

Shakespeare in the Prisons 

A Teacher, Lit, and a Jailed Student 

Seductive Balzac in Communist China 

Poeticizing the Pillory

Fighting Crime through the Classics 

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Blackburn Unsexes Herself over Guns

Sargent, “Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth” (1889)


About the Thousand Oaks shooting that claimed 12 lives: I have written far too many blog essays on mass shootings over the nine years of this blog, to the point that, at one point, I just began updating past posts. It was as though I had nothing new to say. Tayo’s grandmother sums up my feelings in a comment at the end of Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony:

“I guess I must be getting old because these goings-on around Laguna don’t get me excited anymore.” She sighed and laid her head back on the chair. “It seems like I already heard these stories before…only thing is, the names sound different.”

Now it’s Thousand Oaks, before that it was Squirrel Hill, before that Parkland, before that…

The Middle Ages captured this incessant repetition through the wheel of fortune, which rolled relentlessly on without any hint of progression. This is all very well for fatalistic times, but we who live in a scientific age believe that progress is possible. We still have faith, although it’s weaker now, that the tools of social science and empirical inquiry will show us how to build a better world.

It’s therefore particularly demoralizing that a few gun fanatics and a powerful lobbying group can lock us forever in a revolving wheel. Now our children regard lockdown drills as part of their normal landscape.

The past midterm elections saw some shift, the second of which I will write about today. On the one hand, liberal politicians are speaking out more forcefully against guns, and some with F ratings from the NRA bested those with A+ ratings. This didn’t happen as widely as I would have liked but it’s a start.

On the other hand, we have politicians who have hardened even more into pro-gun stances. I’m thinking particularly of the senator recently elected from my own state, who isn’t even bothering to send out “thoughts and prayers” to the victims. Asked about what should be done about mass killings following 1000 Oaks, Trump groupie Marsha Blackburn replied,

What we do is say, how do we make certain that we protect the Second Amendment and protect our citizens? We’ve always done that in this country.

Blackburn, incidentally, received over a million dollars from the NRA in her election bid.

Her callous remarks represent a monstrous although now predictable shutting down of empathy. Blackburn shows herself to be a Lady Macbeth.

As a woman, Lady Macbeth knows that she is expected to be more empathetic than men and so makes a point of rooting out any such feelings. Fearing that her husband is “too full o’ the milk of human kindness,” she will counter what she sees as a failing by setting herself as a counter example. She calls upon her murderous thoughts to “unsex me here” and to “come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall”:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers…

To shore up her faltering husband, she returns to the image:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

Whatever womanly compassion Marsha Blackburn might have for the shooting victims has been swallowed up, as with Lady Macbeth, in a blaze of ambition. She’s not herself dashing people’s brains out, but she’s supporting gun policies that lead to that result.

Before he died, GOP operative Lee Atwater repented for introducing a new kind of dirty politics into mainstream politics. These included race baiting and framing opposing politicians. Experiencing something akin to Lady Macbeth’s later moment of repentance—”all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”—may have saved his soul, but he set the country on a path from which it has never recovered.

Trump and Blackburn are his heirs, and whether they will ever become remorseful about the invisible blood on their hands remains to be seen.

Clarification: While empathy has traditionally been gendered female so that it seems particularly horrible when a woman shuts down her heart, I should clarify that men and women alike become inhuman when they refuse to empathize. Jesus was talking about both genders when he identified the unforgivable sin as spurning or violating the divine spark within.


Previous Posts on Mass Killings

Life Is a Reality TV Show, My Friend

Murakami and Labeling Survivors as Crisis Actors

In Support of Today’s Anti-NRA Marchers

Mass Killings, Our Most Dangerous Game

Stephen King Looks to Children for Hope

The NRA Preying on Anxious Men

Manchester Suicide Bombing: Grendel Evil vs. Beowulf Strength of Mind

Grendel Strikes in Orlando

This Time Grendel Chose Umpqua

Grendel Violence Never Ends 

Obama’s Eulogy and Morrison’s Baby Suggs

Grendel in Paris

Pennywise Kills North Carolina Muslims

The Killer Always Comes Back

Grendel as a Norwegian Christian Fascist

Dostoevsky and the Arizona Shootings 

Lost Paradise Syndrome in Tucson

Analyzing Loughner’s Booklist

Atwood’s Dystopias and the Gun Business

Satan Strikes Again, This Time in Aurora

Grendel’s Invasion of Fort Hood

A Modern Grendel on the Rampage

Can Humanitarians Stop Violence?

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When Will We Ever Learn?

Flanders cemetery in 1917

Spiritual Sunday – Armistice Day

For the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, I share an Alfred Noyes poem composed in 1916 when the war was still raging. Written partly from the point of view of soldiers who have died, the poem calls upon us to learn from their sacrifice.

“On the Western Front” is filled with religious language, some of it used ironically. Visiting a cemetery behind the battle lines, the speaker looks at the crosses and thinks of “the peace that is our everlasting life.” This peace, however, is not “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” Rather, it is the peace of the dead, and the dead do not pray.

Referring to the crosses as “the only sign on earth that saves” is multiply ironic. Religious jingoism seems out of place in this setting where we must struggle to find God at all. Nor is it entirely clear what is being saved. Perhaps these markers are all that save the dead from oblivion.

According to Wikipedia, Noyes was working for the British war office when he wrote the poem, his poor eyesight having kept him out of combat. While he supported the two world wars on the grounds of self-defense, he was a pacifist who had opposed the Boer War, and his earlier commitment to peace appears when he points to society’s warped priorities. The following stanza calls us to examine how our own bloated military budget cannibalizes our resources:

For we have heard you say (when we were living)
That some small dream of good would “cost too much.”
But when the foe struck, we have watched you giving,
And seen you move the mountains with one touch.

The silences mentioned in the poem are more powerful than overt judgment. The speaker hears only silence, even as war shakes the earth. Even if the living “betray our hope, to make earth better for mankind,” the dead will not say anything. They will not speak up if we continue to pour our money and technological intelligence into war. (Moving mountains may be another ironic religious allusion.) Their silence, in fact, will grow over time as we forget them.

The poet, however, invites us to imagine the scorn of legions if we fail to truly honor them. Simply decking their graves is not enough.

Think of that as you watch world leaders presiding over today’s ceremonies.

On the Western Front

Alfred Noyes

I found a dreadful acre of the dead,
Marked with the only sign on earth that saves.
The wings of death were hurrying overhead,
The loose earth shook on those unquiet graves;

For the deep gun-pits, with quick stabs of flame,
Made their own thunders of the sunlit air;
Yet, as I read the crosses, name by name,
Rank after rank, it seemed that peace was there;

Sunlight and peace, a peace too deep for thought,
The peace of tides that underlie our strife,
The peace with which the moving heavens are fraught,
The peace that is our everlasting life.

The loose earth shook. The very hills were stirred.
The silence of the dead was all I heard.


We, who lie here, have nothing more to pray.
To all your praises we are deaf and blind.
We may not ever know if you betray
Our hope, to make earth better for mankind.

Only our silence, in the night, shall grow
More silent, as the stars grow in the sky;
And, while you deck our graves, you shall not know
How many scornful legions pass you by.

For we have heard you say (when we were living)
That some small dream of good would “cost too much.”
But when the foe struck, we have watched you giving,
And seen you move the mountains with one touch.

What can be done, we know. But, have no fear!
If you fail now, we shall not see or hear.

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Wilfred Owen and the Hell of War

Otto Dix’s “Trench” (painted from his war memories, later burned by the Nazis)


This past Wednesday was the 100th anniversary of Wilfred Owen’s death, which meant that he died exactly one week before the official end of World War I. I’ve written many times about Owen, whom I consider the greatest anti-war poet, and I use one of his poems to honor those soldiers who continue to suffer the psychological horrors of war long after they leave the battlefield.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, 31% of Vietnam vets have PTSD, along with 10% of Gulf War vets and 11 percent of Afghanistan War vets. These numbers contribute to the high veteran suicide rate, about 16 a day.

As awful as these numbers are, statistics alone fail to fully capture what these men endure. That’s why we need poets, who push language as far as it can be pushed. Owen was uncompromising in his determination to show the world what soldiers experience. As he famously wrote in the introduction to his poems before he died,

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.

The Poetry is in the pity.

Owen memorably writes that those  suffering from “shell shock” (as PTSD was known then) are “men whose minds the Dead have ravished.” They have been “rucked too thick” in “carnage incomparable and human squander” to ever be extricated. Owen writes that “memory fingers in their hair of murders…they once witnessed,” and he points to how simple every day events bring these memories flooding back:

                                                                      …on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh…

As he does in “Strange Meeting,” the poet imagines himself in hell, with the stricken veterans reaching out at him as figures in Dante’s Inferno:

Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

Mental Cases

By Wilfred Owen

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ tongues wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, — but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hand palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

— These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a bloodsmear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh
— Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
— Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

Previous posts on Wilfred Owen

The Fellowship of Soldiers

He Sleeps Less Cold Than We Who Wake

Hagel: No Glory, Only Suffering in War

Memorializing Our Lost Innocence

Memorial Day: Anthem for Doomed Youth

Poetry Evolved During World War I

Lamentation and Weeping in Newtown

Weep, for You May Touch Them Not

Telling the Truth about War

Sacrifice Lamb of Pride, Not Isaac

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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