Poetry Changed during World War I

F. Matania, 'If you get through... tell my mother... ' Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/books/article-561310/The-battle-lines-drawn.html#ixzz39AlqUB00  Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

F. Matania, “If you get through… tell my mother…”

Many of the awful things that occurred in the 20th century can be traced back to “the war to end all wars,” which began 100 years ago this week. Would we have had a less bloody century if we had managed to avoid it? At the very least, we might have escaped Hitler and Stalin. But as a sign that the resilient human spirit can show itself in even the darkest of circumstances, World War I produced some great literature.

I’m using the anniversary as an excuse to read, for the first time, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, which I’ve somehow missed. I’m already taken with the epigraph:

This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.

Of course, the idea that war is an adventure is often used to inspire young men to put their lives on the line. In the early days of the World War I, before the horrors of trench fighting opened people’s eyes, much of the poetry that England produced was sentimental.

There was, for instance, John Freeman’s “Happy Is England Now,” which now makes one want to throw up. The second stanza, for instance, passes too easily over the deaths of the soldiers, which it describes as “faithfullest children”:

Happy is England now, as never yet! 
And though the sorrows of the slow days fret 
Her faithfullest children, grief itself is proud. 
Ev’n the warm beauty of this spring and summer 
That turns to bitterness turns then to gladness 
Since for this England the beloved ones died.

Rupert Brooke’s well-known “The Soldier” is only slightly better as it masks self-pity and a large dose mascochism with stoic resignation. Note how he makes death seem sweet and pastoral:

If I should die, think only this of me:   
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. 
There shall be   
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,   
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,   
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,   
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less     
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;   
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,     
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

And then there’s Alan Seeger, who has us thrill to glorious martyrdom. Note the contempt he pours on those who are “pillowed in silk and scented down.” It’s almost as though Seeger has been seized with Stockholm Syndrome, giving himself entirely over to the agenda of those who are sending him to his death:

I have a rendezvous with Death   
At some disputed barricade,   
When Spring comes back with rustling shade   
And apple-blossoms fill the air—   

I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.       
It may be he shall take my hand   
And lead me into his dark land   

And close my eyes and quench my breath—   
It may be I shall pass him still.

I have a rendezvous with Death   
On some scarred slope of battered hill,   
When Spring comes round again this year   
And the first meadow-flowers appear.       

God knows ‘twere better to be deep 
Pillowed in silk and scented down,   
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,   
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,   

Where hushed awakenings are dear…   
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,   
When Spring trips north again this year,   
And I to my pledged word am true,   
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Brooke died in 1915 and Seeger in 1916. It’s as though it took the entire war to produce one of the world’s greatest anti-war poets. Wilfred Owen would die in the last week of the war but, before then, he directly attacked the sentiments that had been drummed into, and accepted by, young soldiers like Brooke, Seeger, and himself. “Futility,” for instance, reads like a response to Brooke:

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
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?

Here there are images of growth such as one finds in Brooke, along with the same gentle tone. But instead of reaffirming an “English heaven,” Owen finds life to be theater of the absurd. What’s the point of the clay growing tall if death is where it’s all headed?

Meanwhile,  “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which I’ve posted on here, functions as a rebuttal to Seeger. Owen finds the old maxim, “Sweet and fitting it is to die for your country,” to be a lie. This is response to a man coughing up his guts following a gas attack:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood 
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, 
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, 
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest 
To children ardent for some desperate glory, 
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

There is no glorious barricade storming here. Just “death’s grin from ear to ear,” as the defining poem of modernism would put it in 1922.

Such powerful poems, unfortunately, did not prevent World War II or Vietnam, or Iraq. Young men continue to “boil bloody and be spilled “ (“Strange Meeting”) and “die as cattle” (“Anthem for Doomed Youth”). Poetry doesn’t appear capable of preventing the world’s great tragedies.

But at least poetry can help us find our bearings when we find ourselves lost in darkness. Owen’s verse, earned at a cost of immense suffering and death, is there for us to hold on to.

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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.

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