Friday, 11 November 2011

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

Wilfred Owen
I'm writing this a few minutes after 11.11.11 - and like many others, feeling the need to acknowledge the significance of the day and the hour. I'm currently teaching Wilfred Owen's poetry and remember as a fifteen year old schoolgirl encountering war poetry for the first time. I reacted as we all do to the absurd hubristic nonsense of human aggression and its justifications. The poem that struck me then more than any other was Owen's 'Futility'. More than the visceral horrors of 'Dulce et Decorum Est' or the plaintive Keatsian melancholy of 'Anthem for Doomed Youth', 'Futility', in its simplicity, brought home that essential message of WWI. The waste. Owen said that his subject was war and the pity of war, that the poetry was in the pity: well, it's here, in a poem that questions the purpose and meaning of individuals coming into the world, being nurtured to maturity - only to be slaughtered. He even questions the cosmic purpose of the sun in warming a planet into organic life - if all that results is pointless destruction.

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?

Owen's poetry is famous for its superbly shocking images: the soldier floundering in the 'green sea' of gas, the sentry reeling from the blast, his eyes 'huge-bulged like squids'', the God's eye view of the battlefield where lines of men are like 'caterpillars' and he sees how they 'ramped' on one another. His sensory language is muscular and gripping: the gassed soldier is 'guttering, choking, drowning', the weapons of war are spiteful and gleeful - 'How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood:/Blue with all malice'. The sounds of blast and gunfire echo over the decades to us with their 'rapid rattle' and 'whizz-bangs' through the 'shrieking air'. In 'Exposure' he shares with us the bone-aching cold and long suspense, waiting for the signal for battle:

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us ...
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent ...
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient ...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
     But nothing happens. 

He haunts us, as he was haunted, in the halls of hell in 'Strange Meeting', where he encounters the dead German he has killed and listens to the lesson we hear now, and every year, and yet never act upon:

For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.

He also, like his mentor Sassoon, lets us know how angered and bitter he feels, how nothing back in Blighty can match the camaraderie of the Front, how no immature concepts of romantic love and fleeting beauty can compare with the fellowship he has found: in 'Apologia pro Poemate Meo' he lists the paradoxes of finding exultation in the berserkr mood of battle, the 'passion of oblation' on the faces of his fellow soldiers, how he:

heard music in the silentness of duty;
Found peace where shell-storms spouted reddest spate.

Nevertheless, except you share 
With them in hell the sorrowful dark of hell,
Whose world is but the trembling of a flare,
And heaven but as the highway for a shell,

You shall not hear their mirth:
You shall not come to think them well content
By any jest of mine. These men are worth
Your tears. You are not worth their merriment.

It's ironic that when he died, one week before the Armistice, he was little known (ironic, but not unusual - so many times the long trajectory of fame only starts to climb after the artist's death) - and Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Rupert Brooke would have been better known back then. Nowadays, it's Wilfred who is the poster boy for the Great War - it's his words that are most familiar to us. This should not devalue them. I've taught these poems so many times but still somehow there's the shock of the new.

Siegfried Sassoon
I want to include in this post, however, one of my other favourite WWI poems - Sassoon's 'The General'. It's a wonderfully spiky little verse, dealing with one of the themes of the literature of war - that soldiers are 'lions led by donkeys':

"Good morning, good morning!" the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
"He's a cheery old card," grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

In our current conflicts, conflicts which we neither seem to understand nor see a way out of once embroiled, conflicts where all sorts of moral muddiness is stirred up in what seemed to be the clear pool of heroism,  the poets of nearly a century ago still have much to say. And it's sad that they still have to say it.

Harry Patch
Here's a link to the post I wrote in 2008 about the wonderful Harry Patch, who was one of the last survivors of the Great War. Now Claude Choules, who had emigrated to Australia, is gone too - and there's no one left to bear witness with living breath to what was done and seen and lost. But we have archive film and audio recordings and the printed word.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning, 
We will remember them.

No comments: