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Remembrance Day: Remarkable wartime poetry steeped in mourning

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I'm not sure why so much very good poetry came out of the First World War, but it did.

Perhaps this was the last war that began with some sense of war as a noble, aristocratic adventure. Perhaps it was the disjunction between this romantic vision and the realities of a war whose battles included relatively new technologies like barbed wire, machine guns, tanks, and most famously, poison gas that brought out the poet in so many young soldiers.

I'm not sure.

What I do know is that the poetry is remarkable and that, most often, is written against the war. Wilfred Owen's “Anthem for Doomed Youth” is probably the most famous. Owen was on the front lines of the war from nearly the day he enlisted. During a battle he was concussed and suffered shell-shock and sent to Edinburgh to recover. He was then sent back to the trenches in September 1918 and in October won the Military Cross by seizing a German machine-gun and using it to kill a number of German soldiers. On Nov. 4 he was shot and killed near the village of Ors. The news of his death reached his parents’ home Nov. 11—the day the war ended. So when Owen critiques war and what it does, he knows what he’s talking about. This is “Anthem for Doomed Youth.”

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them from prayers or bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of silent minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.

The bitter opening of the poem, with its designation of the soldiers as “cattle,” might remind us that one of Falstaff's cannon-fodder soldiers is named “Peter Bullcalf,” and it should also serve as notice that Owen is not a fan of the war he's writing about. The replacement, in the poem, of the traditional sounds of mourning with sounds of battle, and the replacement of the sights of mourning with the pallor of the women left behind and the coming of dusk, remind us that, in this war, there is no time or place to mourn. The war just keeps going. And yet Owen sounds, somehow, resigned here. The soldiers still are mourned for. There is still a sense of benediction in the end of the poem with that “slow dusk” that takes the place of a “drawing down of blinds.” He's not really angry. Not yet. He’s sad.

It takes his poem about the death of a fellow soldier from a poison gas attack for him to get angry. That poem, titled “Dulce et Decorum est” takes as its title from a quotation from Horace's Odes that translates as “It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country.” Written while he was serving on the front lines, the poem ends like this:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
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.

Now that's anger. Just as in “Anthem for Doomed Youth,” Owen contrasts the quiet solemnity of mourning practices before the war with the rattling noises and pale faces that substitute in wartime for these more formalized gestures of mourning—here he contrasts the classical and romantic representation of war with the truth of it. And he’s mad about the lies he’s been told, and the lies that are still being told. Wilfred Owen is thinking about the type of pro-war poetry written by people like Owen Seaman, who took part of the same line from Horace as the title for his poem “Pro Patria” (written three years before “Dulce et Decorum Est”), which starts:

England, in this great fight to which you go
Because, where Honour calls you, go you must,
Be glad, whatever comes, at least to know
You have your quarrel just.
and continues…
Forth, then, to front that peril of the deep
With smiling lips and in your eyes the light,
Steadfast and confident, of those who keep
Their storied scutcheon bright.

It’s not hard to see why poetry like this would make Wilfred Owen angry. If this is the sort of romantic approach to war that persuaded him to enlist—and by all accounts, it is—his actual experience of the war was nothing like this faux-peril that young men get through with smiling lips and eyes filled with light.

Interestingly Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” has become such a well-known piece, and is so effective an evocation of the brutality of war, that it has actually made it difficult to read Seaman’s poem and remember that it—and his reference to Horace—is NOT meant to be ironic. War has changed Wilfred Owen’s ability to approach Horace’s quotation as he used to, and Wilfred Owen’s poem has done the same thing to us.


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