Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Poems of War and Loss

Its difficult to know if Downton Abbey revived an interest in things Edwardian and British or the interest in things Edwardian and British spawned the popular TV series.  But we are once again - as were were in the late 70s-early 80s with Upstairs Downstairs and Duchess of Duke Street -  in the throws of a love affair with the British Upper class, their servants and life before the Great War.

Not owning a TV I have only seen the first season on iTunes so I'm not sure how or when World War One will be handled on the BBC series.  There has been a tradition - which began with the war itself - of painting a rather romantic picture of "the war to end war".  We know now,  as many did then, that there was nothing romantic about the trenches, the gas, the disease, the destruction and the bodies that were the battlefields of 1914-1918.   As in all wars the media published what the governments of the time wanted people to know: casualty figures that were acceptable but less than accurate; successes were emphasised ignoring the minimal gains made and cost of life to achieve them.  The trains overflowing with eager - and as the war progressed younger - men headed for the front left Victoria Station in the bright glare of the sun, those returning with the maimed and wounded in body and soul crept into the station under the darkness of night.  The public need only see the glories of war - singers, performers, painters, writers, composers, poets, all were enlisted to keep the fight for King and Country on the boil.  And many of them did and they cannot be blamed for doing so - the truth of the misery of the front was not something that would inspire victory.  But from the front itself came the voices that showed the open wounds that would never heal.  The poets of the battlefield

Even when I was learning history - Canada having none to speak of any significance according to the curriculum of the 1950s so we still relived the glories of the Empire - the romance of the war was still firmly in place.  I recall being told that  A. J. P. Taylor's The First World War was an unreliable source and wasn't permitted to use it in an essay I was writing.  Though in literature class we were told that there were war poets such as Wilfred Owen the only work we read was his poem which begins "Move him into the sun".  It was not until I was looking it up yesterday that I knew that he called this fruitless appeal to the sun to warm the body of a dead soldier "Futility".  Nor were we told that it was the least representative of his poems.  Perhaps we were too close to the end of another war that was going to end war and was fought for the glory of a fading Empire to be allowed to gaze on the horror of that earlier conflict.

Had we been allowed to read more of Owen or Siegfried Sassoon or Robert Graves,  we would have seen  the pain and bitterness - and awareness - that these incredible soldier-poets recorded in their notebooks as they crouched in their trenches or sat in their tents listening to the whizzbangs and waiting for the sirens that told them to don their gas masks.

Most of Owen's poetry had none of the gentle melancholy of Futility;  much was an indictment of the people who had brought them to those foreign fields that were to be planted with their bodies and become "forever England" or Australia or Canada or New Zealand.  Rupert Brooke's poem made it all seem romantic and patriotic - Owen's poems took a colder look at the men who had sent so many young men to die.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and strops,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

University of Oxford© [Copyright notice]

In surfing - if that can be considered the word for going through the pages of University of Oxford's digital archive of First World Ward Poetry I came across the name of Vera Brittain - an author and poet unknown to me.  Her story is a fascinating one of repeated loss of those she loved during that First Great War. They were loses that were to remain with her all her life and also the inspiration for much of what she wrote.

In 1915 she left Oxford to become a VAD (Volunteer Aid Detachment) nurse; in 1916 while stationed on the hospital ship HMHS Britannic at Mudros Bay, Lemnos - a small but strategic island in the Aegean - she saw the graves of three Canadian nursing sister who had died at the hospital camp there.  Inspired by their unsung struggle to tend the wounded and dying she wrote a poem that begins in a romantic vein but that for all its slight floweriness does nothing to hide the brutal edge of truth.
Brittain also worked in the prisoner of war hospitals tending the dreaded and dreadful Hun - and her words in The German Ward, though perhaps thought by many to be verging on the traitorous, cry that suffering was not the fate of only one side. 


O Golden Isle set in the deep blue Ocean,
With purple shadows flitting o'er thy crest,
I kneel to thee in reverent devotion
Of some who on thy bosom lie at rest!

Seldom they enter into song or story;
Poets praise the soldier's might and deeds of War,
But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory
Of women dead beneath a distant star.

No armies threatened in that lonely station,
They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe,
But heat and hunger, sickness and privation,
And Winter's deathly chill and blinding snow.

Till mortal frailty could endure no longer
Disease's ravages and climate's power,
In body weak, but spirit ever stronger,
Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.

No blazing tribute through the wide world flying,
No rich reward of sacrifice they craved,
The only meed of their victorious dying
Lives in the heart of humble men they saved.

Who when in light the Final Dawn is breaking,
Still faithful, though the world's regard may cease,
Will honour, splendid in triumphant waking,
The souls of women, lonely here at peace.

O golden Isle with purple shadows falling
Across thy rocky shore and sapphire sea,
I shall not picture these without recalling
The sisters sleeping on the heart of thee!
University of Oxford© [Copyright notice]

Sadly the name of Vera Brittain is missing from this stone commemorating 16 World War I poets
in Westminster Abbey.  The quote is from Wilfred Owen's proposed preface to his poems. 

"My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity."

20 November - 1947: The Princess Elizabeth marries Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten,  at Westminster Abbey in London.

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David said...

Well selected, sir! There was an excellent TV series many moons ago about Vera Brittain, as played by Cheryl Campbell, based on her book Testament of Youth. Don't know whether the name Shirley Williams means much to you, but she's the daughter. I tried to read HER autobiog, having great admiration for the person, but found it very stiff and gave up after 50 pages or so.

Guess you know the extraordinary settings of Owen, Parable and Futility included, in Britten's great masterpiece War Requiem.

Debra She Who Seeks said...

I suspect we'll see even more fascination with Edwardian times and the First World War as we come to its centenary in a couple of years.

Have you read Pat Barker's novel "Regeneration" or seen the British movie made of it? It's great and involves Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon etc. and their treatment for shellshock during WWI. Homosexuality is a strong theme in it as well, of course. Very worth while reading/viewing if you can find it!