Friday, November 07, 2014

On the Wire

A left click on the cover of this first
edition of Rhymes of a Red Cross Man
will take you to the complete collection.
Last Sunday the Cantata Singers of Ottawa presented the premiere of a work written by conductor/composer Christopher Hossfeld in commemoration of the centenary of the beginning of the First Great War. As the text for his In Pace Hossfeld choose On the Wire  a poem by Robert Service from his Rhymes of A Red Cross Man.  Woven between the stanzas of this verse (a term Service used for his work which he did not regard as poems) were the various Lenten versicles, responsory and prayers from the Office of Compline,  The contrast between Service's harrowing cry of a wounded young soldier caught on the barbed wire at the Front and the liturgy's quiet reassurance of untroubled sleep,  and the final choral chant In pace, in idispsum dormiam et requiescam* alternating with an early music wind ensemble was both unsettling and immensely moving.  It's a work I hope to hear again as I, personally, found it a very emotional experience.

But as often happens it went beyond being a musical experience and led me to investigate something that was new to me:  the War verses of Robert W. Service, the British-Canadian poet.  I would think that most people who know of Service today think in terms of his two best known works from Songs of a SourdoughThe Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Cremation of Sam McGee.  That first book of verse proved to be his serendipitous road to fame and fortune.  Between 1907 and 1912 he wrote three books of verse based on life in the Yukon and the Gold Rush.  In 1912 he moved to Paris and after the outbreak of war the 41-year old Service attempted to enlist but was turned down.  In 1916, after a brief stint as a war correspondent for the Toronto Star,  he became a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver for the American Red Cross.  During a period in convalescent hospital he wrote his next book of verse and dedicated it to his brother Lieutenant Albert Service who had been killed in august of that year.   Rhymes of A Red Cross Man is unlike any of the Great War poetry I had read previously - even in their bitterness Graves, Sassoon, Owen et al had a certain elegance, I might even say romantic tone, that is foreign to Service.  There are verses that are boldly satirical as well as many that have a stark brutality about them that hide nothing of the horror that he saw or was told about by those around him.  Many seem to start off rather light-heartedly like The Little Piou-Piou but turn deadly serious; others such as A Song of Winter Weather reflect the obstacles the ordinary soldier faced beyond the enemy.  Over the Parapet takes a wry little twist right at the end with an audacity that is typically Service and  Afternoon Tea takes the mickey out of officers and the leaders who led some many men to the slaughter. 

On the Wire

O God, take the sun from the sky!
It's burning me, scorching me up.
God, can't You hear my cry?
'Water! A poor, little cup!'
It's laughing, the cursed sun!
See how it swells and swells
Fierce as a hundred hells!
God, will it never have done?
It's searing the flesh on my bones;
It's beating with hammers red
My eyeballs into my head;
It's parching my very moans.
See! It's the size of the sky,
And the sky is a torrent of fire,
Foaming on me as I lie
Here on the wire . . . the wire. . . .

Of the thousands that wheeze and hum
Heedlessly over my head,
Why can't a bullet come,
Pierce to my brain instead,
Blacken forever my brain,
Finish forever my pain?
Here in the hellish glare
Why must I suffer so?
Is it God doesn't care?
Is it God doesn't know?
Oh, to be killed outright,
Clean in the clash of the fight!
That is a golden death,
That is a boon; but this . . .
Drawing an anguished breath
Under a hot abyss,
Under a stooping sky
Of seething, sulphurous fire,
Scorching me up as I lie
Here on the wire . . . the wire. . . .

Hasten, O God, Thy night!
Hide from my eyes the sight
Of the body I stare and see
Shattered so hideously.
I can't believe that it's mine.
My body was white and sweet,
Flawless and fair and fine,
Shapely from head to feet;
Oh no, I can never be
The thing of horror I see
Under the rifle fire,
Trussed on the wire . . . the wire. . . .

Of night and of death I dream;
Night that will bring me peace,
Coolness and starry gleam,
Stillness and death's release:
Ages and ages have passed,—
Lo! it is night at last.
Night! but the guns roar out.
Night! but the hosts attack.
Red and yellow and black
Geysers of doom upspout.
Silver and green and red
Star-shells hover and spread.
Yonder off to the right
Fiercely kindles the fight;
Roaring near and more near,
Thundering now in my ear;
Close to me, close . . . Oh, hark!
Someone moans in the dark.
I hear, but I cannot see,
I hear as the rest retire,
Someone is caught like me,
Caught on the wire . . . the wire. . . .

Again the shuddering dawn,
Weird and wicked and wan;
Again, and I've not yet gone.
The man whom I heard is dead.
Now I can understand:
A bullet hole in his head,
A pistol gripped in his hand.
Well, he knew what to do,—
Yes, and now I know too. . . .

Hark the resentful guns!
Oh, how thankful am I
To think my beloved ones
Will never know how I die!
I've suffered more than my share;
I'm shattered beyond repair;
I've fought like a man the fight,
And now I demand the right
(God! how his fingers cling!)
To do without shame this thing.
Good! there's a bullet still;
Now I'm ready to fire;
Blame me, God, if You will,
Here on the wire . . . the wire. . . .

Service was honoured with medals for his service during the war: the 1914–15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal. It is interesting, if not a surprise, that, like Vera Brittain's, his is a name that is missing from the memorial to poets of the Great War in Westminster Abbey.  Though popular with the public his book was less so with the government and military of the time.

And Service ends his verses with a stanza that perhaps sums up his view of that Great War to end all Wars:
Oh spacious days of glory and of grieving!
Oh sounding hours of lustre and of loss!
Let us be glad we lived you, still believing
The God who gave the cannon gave the Cross.
Let us be sure amid these seething passions,
The lusts of blood and hate our souls abhor:
The Power that Order out of Chaos fashions
Smites fiercest in the wrath-red forge of War. . . .
Have faith! Fight on! Amid the battle-hell
Love triumphs, Freedom beacons, all is well.

* In peace and into the same I shall sleep and rest.

**Envoi: the usually explanatory or commendatory concluding remarks to a poem, essay, or book; especially :  a short final stanza of a ballad serving as a summary or dedication.

Previous Posts on Poetry and War:
                          Poems of War and Loss
                          The Poetry of War

November 7 - 1919: The first Palmer Raid is conducted on the second anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Over 10,000 suspected communists and anarchists are arrested in 23 different U.S. cities.


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Such a moving post, Will. I didn't know Service wrote war poetry either.

Chris said...

Thank you so much for your kind words about the concert and my piece. It's interesting to hear your reaction to Service's poetry from WWI. I had a similar reaction the first time I read it.