Sunday, 11 November 2012

Remembrance Day 2012

I read today that we are now as far in time from Passchendaele as Passchendaele was from Waterloo. A salutary thought on this, the day devoted to remembrance. All the cliches of communal mourning are aired once more - yet so terrible was that conflict that its horrors maintain their capacity to shock. I'm reposting two previous entries here: the first, from last year, is on Owen, Sassoon and First World War poetry; the second, from 2008, is about Harry Patch the much-loved First World War veteran, still alive at that time, who fought in the mud of Passchendaele.

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.

The Last Fighting Tommy - 21 November 2008

Well, you could argue that, as with all anniversaries the media lock onto, we've had overload - over the past few weeks the First World War has featured everywhere. It's certainly been useful to me professionally, as I'm currently teaching it as a literature topic. During the week I've been collecting The Guardian's series of booklets on the war and they've been fascinating. I paid more attention than usual to Sunday's Remembrance service and was so moved by the three surviving veterans, Bill Stone (108), Henry Allingham (112) and Harry Patch (110), visiting the Cenotaph on Tuesday with their wreaths of poppies. On Sunday I watched the programmes about Wilfred Owen and about Vera Brittain, who lost all the men she loved during the war, including her brother Edward, towards the very end of it. On PoemRelish, my other blog, I mentioned her memoir, 'Testament of Youth' among other books worth reading about WW1. On Sunday I found myself wondering why, among this plethora of 1914-18 nostalgia and analysis, the Beeb wasn't repeating the excellent serial version of 'Testament of Youth' first broadcast in the 1970s. It starred Cheryl Campbell as Vera and it was a truly powerful and poignant piece of television drama which brought me to the book, before I ever had to teach it. Now I've found out that, apparently, they're remaking it, so that's why the original was not shown. Hmn. Mixed feelings: it's good in a way that they are, as hopefully it will bring more people to awareness (and we have to rely on the TV screen more than the written word for this these days). There's no reason to assume they won't make a good job of it second time round. But on the other hand, there's that old saying 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' The original was brilliant - why not just re-show it?

I've just finished reading 'The Last Fighting Tommy', the biography of Harry Patch, who is the last man in Britain who actually fought in the trenches. He fought - and was wounded - at Passchendaele. Harry Patch featured on the BBC a few years back and has become famous for his longevity and his memories; his fame has grown as the number of survivors has declined and we all find ourselves unnerved at the prospect of the First World War sliding inevitably out of living memory. He is a man of immense spirit, who didn't really talk about his experiences until he was in his nineties. His eyes still fill with tears when he recalls what he saw and felt. At first I felt a slight disappointment with the book as the war experience (the thing that, essentially, is used to sell the book) doesn't take up all that much space. He undergoes training, he goes over there, he sees the bad stuff, he's wounded by shrapnel, he's invalided home, all in a matter of months. Is that it, then? Well, no. It dawned on me that that's the point: this is the story of an immensely old man, on whom those few months made a great and terrible and lasting impression. His memories lurked within him all through the decades that followed and they have never left him, though all the friends and fellow soldiers, two wives, two sons, and a whole way of life have departed. The book is worth reading because not only does it tell you about that war, it tells you of a century of British life and culture. Harry's childhood was Edwardian: no running water, little awareness of the outside world, little material wealth, harmony with nature. He was a child for whom news of the sinking of the Titanic was of little interest - it took place beyond the narrow limits of his West Country life. After the First World War and during the Second, where he served as a member of the local fire crew during the bombing of Bath, Harry was the sort of Englishman who just got on with life: he is and was, essentially, a decent man, uncomplaining, raising his family, going to work to earn his crust as a plumber, a man who believed in a right way of doing things, who has no patience with pretentiousness or self-indulgence. Bless you, Harry, and even longer life to you: we don't want to lose you, our twentieth century Everyman.

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