Monday, November 20, 2006

Yet More Poems Of The Great War

This is the third and final instalment of poems of the First World War I’ve selected for posting on this august site. But unlike with the poems on my two previous postings (which you can read by clicking here, and here) some of the poems you’ll read below were composed by soldier-poets who did escape being killed in the trenches, and some are by poets who were women, who therefore didn’t serve in the trenches, since war is a manly pursuit, and is about the only manly pursuit today which women haven't invaded – well, not totally.

In the matter of the ending of World War One, it isn’t generally known that there was an agreed-upon elapsed time of six hours between the signing of the armistice agreement to end the fighting, and the time the guns were to stop firing. Despite the allied generals knowing they had won the war six hours before it was due to end, they continued ordering their men out of their fortified trenches to storm the German positions, simply to win extra ground which might bring the generals last minute glory. The result was that in the last six hours of the war, 10,000 men were killed who needn’t have been. Who said truth is stranger than fiction?

But has anything changed? Think about the nearly four thousand American soldiers, not to speak of the one million Iraqis who have died so far in a war cooked-up by George Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and others, so they could pose as heroic warriors, the better to banish to a corner of their minds that they, none of them, had not only never fought in a war, but had found ingenious ways, when young, to avoid the draft at the time of Vietnam. It’s not for nothing that the only person in the Bush inner circle who urged caution about going into Iraq was Colin Powell, a general who had actually fought in a war – in Vietnam.

When we consider the major wars of history, we think the side that won, did so, because its soldiers were braver, or its generals were smarter, or its peoples more resilient, than those of the side that lost. However, Paul Kennedy, in his book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, found that in all the major wars over the last 500 years, the victors had bigger economies and greater industrial productive capacities than those of the vanquished. Therefore, because of these non-military factors, it could have been predicted that in both the world wars of the twentieth century, the allied powers would win.

The First World War was arguably the last one welcomed, when declared, by the peoples throughout the affected nations. The first poem I’ve selected, by Robert Service, reflects this.

The Call

Robert W. Service

(France August First 1914)

Far and near, high and clear,
Hark to the call of War!
Over the gorse and the golden dells,
Ringing and swinging of clamorous bells,
Praying and saying of wild farewells:
War! War! War!

High and low, all must go:
Hark to the shout of War!
Leave to the women the harvest yield;
Gird ye, men, for the sinister field;
A sabre instead of a scythe to wield:
War! Red War!

Rich and poor, lord and boor,
Hark to the blast of War!
Tinker and tailor and millionaire,
Actor in triumph and priest in prayer,
Comrades now in the hell out there,
Sweep to the fire of War!

Prince and page, sot and sage,
Hark to the roar of War!
Poet, professor and circus clown,
Chimney-sweeper and fop o' the town,
Into the pot and be melted down:
Into the pot of War!

Women all, hear the call,
The pitiless call of War!
Look your last on your dearest ones,
Brothers and husbands, fathers, sons:
Swift they go to the ravenous guns,
The gluttonous guns of War.

Everywhere thrill the air
The maniac bells of War.
There will be little of sleeping to-night;
There will be wailing and weeping to-night;
Death's red sickle is reaping to-night:
War! War! War!

I gleaned the following about Robert Service (1874 – 1958) “Robert William Service was born in Preston, Lancashire, England. After spending his childhood in Scotland he came to Canada in 1894, working for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in the Yukon for eight years.

He is world reknown for penning "The Shooting of Dan McGrew", The Cremation of Sam McGee", The Call of the Wild" and "The Spell of the Yukon" .

Less well known, but worthy of note are three other poems:
"The Quitter", "Carry On!" and "Just Think!"

He was a newspaper correspondent for the Toronto Star during the Balkin Wars of 1912-13 and served as an ambulance driver and correspondent during World War I.

From 1914 on he lived in Europe, returning to Canada during WWII, to live in Hollywood and Vancouver, then again living in Brittany and on the French Riviera. He died in Lancieux, France.”

Although the next poem, The Old Vicarage Grantchester, by Rupert Brooke, isn’t a First World War Poem, I’ve included it because Rupert Brooke died as a soldier in this war, notwithstanding that it was from an infection; and that it may be his most famous poem; and that, in its evocation of a poetic and surreal rural England of fields and old churches and parsonages, it reflects the idealism and patriotism that spurred the young men of England to march off and die for their country.

The Old Vicarage, Grantchester
(Cafe des Westens, Berlin, May 1912)

Rupert Brooke

Just now the lilac is in bloom,
All before my little room;
And in my flower-beds, I think,
Smile the carnation and the pink;
And down the borders, well I know,
The poppy and the pansy blow . . .
Oh! there the chestnuts, summer through,
Beside the river make for you
A tunnel of green gloom, and sleep
Deeply above; and green and deep
The stream mysterious glides beneath,
Green as a dream and deep as death.
— Oh, damn! I know it! and I know
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
'Du lieber Gott!'

Here am I, sweating, sick, and hot,
And there the shadowed waters fresh
Lean up to embrace the naked flesh.
Temperamentvoll German Jews
Drink beer around; — and THERE the dews
Are soft beneath a morn of gold.
Here tulips bloom as they are told;
Unkempt about those hedges blows
An English unofficial rose;
And there the unregulated sun
Slopes down to rest when day is done,
And wakes a vague unpunctual star,
A slippered Hesper; and there are
Meads towards Haslingfield and Coton
Where das Betreten's not verboten.

ειθε γενοιμην . . . would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester! -
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
And clever modern men have seen
A Faun a-peeping through the green,
And felt the Classics were not dead,
To glimpse a Naiad's reedy head,
Or hear the Goat-foot piping low: . . .
But these are things I do not know.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
Still in the dawnlit waters cool
His ghostly Lordship swims his pool,
And tries the strokes, essays the tricks,
Long learnt on Hellespont, or Styx.
Dan Chaucer hears his river still
Chatter beneath a phantom mill.
Tennyson notes, with studious eye,
How Cambridge waters hurry by . . .
And in that garden, black and white,
Creep whispers through the grass all night;
And spectral dance, before the dawn,
A hundred Vicars down the lawn;
Curates, long dust, will come and go
On lissom, clerical, printless toe;
And oft between the boughs is seen
The sly shade of a Rural Dean . . .
Till, at a shiver in the skies,
Vanishing with Satanic cries,
The prim ecclesiastic rout
Leaves but a startled sleeper-out,
Grey heavens, the first bird's drowsy calls,
The falling house that never falls.

God! I will pack, and take a train,
And get me to England once again!
For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go;
And Cambridgeshire, of all England,
The shire for Men who Understand;
And of THAT district I prefer
The lovely hamlet Grantchester.
For Cambridge people rarely smile,
Being urban, squat, and packed with guile;
And Royston men in the far South
Are black and fierce and strange of mouth;
At Over they fling oaths at one,
And worse than oaths at Trumpington,
And Ditton girls are mean and dirty,
And there's none in Harston under thirty,
And folks in Shelford and those parts
Have twisted lips and twisted hearts,
And Barton men make Cockney rhymes,
And Coton's full of nameless crimes,
And things are done you'd not believe
At Madingley on Christmas Eve.
Strong men have run for miles and miles,
When one from Cherry Hinton smiles;
Strong men have blanched, and shot their wives,
Rather than send them to St. Ives;
Strong men have cried like babes, bydam,
To hear what happened at Babraham.
But Grantchester! ah, Grantchester!
There's peace and holy quiet there,
Great clouds along pacific skies,
And men and women with straight eyes,
Lithe children lovelier than a dream,
A bosky wood, a slumbrous stream,
And little kindly winds that creep
Round twilight corners, half asleep.
In Grantchester their skins are white;
They bathe by day, they bathe by night;
The women there do all they ought;
The men observe the Rules of Thought.
They love the Good; they worship Truth;
They laugh uproariously in youth;
(And when they get to feeling old,
They up and shoot themselves, I'm told) . . .

Ah God! to see the branches stir
Across the moon at Grantchester!
To smell the thrilling-sweet and rotten
Unforgettable, unforgotten
River-smell, and hear the breeze
Sobbing in the little trees.
Say, do the elm-clumps greatly stand
Still guardians of that holy land?
The chestnuts shade, in reverend dream,
The yet unacademic stream?
Is dawn a secret shy and cold
Anadyomene, silver-gold?
And sunset still a golden sea
From Haslingfield to Madingley?
And after, ere the night is born,
Do hares come out about the corn?
Oh, is the water sweet and cool,
Gentle and brown, above the pool?
And laughs the immortal river still
Under the mill, under the mill?
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915) was born in Rugby, Warwickshire. A graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, he was a familiar figure in literary and political circles. His first collection of verse, Poems, was published in 1911. He entered the war as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division, and following his participation in the Antwerp expedition he composed his five war sonnets. While sailing in the Aegean on the way to Gallipoli he died of acute blood poisoning, the result of a mosquito bite.

Wars are only made possible because men are prepared to fight in them. And they do so because, starting when they were boys, they grew up glorifying the profession of arms. The next two poems, by Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen, illustrate this:

The Next War

Robert Graves.

You young friskies who today
Jump and fight in Father’s hay
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Happy though these hours you spend,
Have they warned you how games end?
Boys, from the first time you prod
And thrust with spears of curtain-rod,
From the first time you tear and slash
Your long-bows from the garden ash,
Or fit your shaft with a blue jay feather,
Binding the split tops together,
From that same hour by fate you’re bound
As champions of this stony ground,
Loyal and true in everything,
To serve your Army and your King,
Prepared to starve and sweat and die
Under some fierce foreign sky,
If only to keep safe those joys
That belong to British boys,
To keep young Prussians from the soft
Scented hay of father’s loft,
And stop young Slavs from cutting bows
And bendy spears from Welsh hedgerows.
Another War soon gets begun,
A dirtier, a more glorious one;
Then, boys, you’ll have to play, all in;
It’s the cruellest team will win.
So hold your nose against the stink
And never stop too long to think.
Wars don’t change except in name;
The next one must go just the same,
And new foul tricks unguessed before
Will win and justify this War.
Kaisers and Czars will strut the stage
Once more with pomp and greed and rage;
Courtly ministers will stop
At home and fight to the last drop;
By the million men will die
In some new horrible agony;
And children here will thrust and poke,
Shoot and die, and laugh at the joke,
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers.

Robert Graves 1895 – 1985 served as an officer in the trenches of World War One, and was seriously wounded. His autobiographical memoir “Goodbye To All That” described searingly and graphically what life was like in the trenches. His prodigious literary output of poems, essays, and historical novels included the renowned “I Claudius” and “Claudius The God”.

Wilfred Owen

Arms and the Boy

Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
For his teeth seem for laughing round an apple.
There lurk no claws behind his fingers supple;
And God will grow no talons at his heels,
Nor antlers through the thickness of his curls.

Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) was born in Ostwestry, Shropshire. Educated at the Birkenhead Institute and the University of London, he was teaching abroad when war broke out. In 1915, he returned to England in order to enlist. In May 1917, while serving in the trenches in France, he was caught in an explosion. Diagnosed with shellshock, he was sent to England in order to recover. He returned to France in August 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross two months later. On 4th November 1918, he was killed by German machine-gun fire. The first collection of his verse, Poems (1920), was edited by his friend and mentor, fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

One reason men were so keen to go to war in 1914 was that their womenfolk wanted them to, not least their mothers. The next poem expresses this. As you read it, ask yourself how different the English mother in the poem is from those mothers in today’s middle-east who beseech their sons to become suicide bombers

A Mother’s Dedication

Margaret Peterson

Dear son of mine, the baby days are over,
I can no longer shield you from the earth;
Yet in my heart always I must remember
How through the dark I fought to give you birth.

Dear son of mine, by all the lives behind you;
By all our fathers fought for in the past;
In this great war to which your birth has brought you,
Acquit you well, hold you our honour fast!

God guard you, son of mine, where’er you wander;
God lead the banners under which you fight;
You are my all, I give you to the Nation,
God shall uphold you that you fight aright.

The reality of a mother’s learning of her son’s death in war is shown in the “The Hero” by Siegfried Sassoon, arguably the most famous of the First World War’s soldier-poets.

The Hero

Siegfried Sassoon.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the Mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt.
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

Here's another poem by Siegfried Sassoon


Siegfried Sassoon

He stood alone in some queer sunless place
Where Armageddon ends. Perhaps he longed
For days he might have lived; but his young face
Gazed forth untroubled: and suddenly there thronged
Round him the hulking Germans that I shot
When for his death my brooding rage was hot.

He stared at them, half-wondering; and then
They told him how I’d killed them for his sake—
Those patient, stupid, sullen ghosts of men;
And still there seemed no answer he could make.
At last he turned and smiled. One took his hand
Because his face could make them understand.

I gleaned the following biographical about Siegfried Sassoon (1886 – 1967) “With war on the horizon, a young Englishman whose life had heretofore been consumed with the protocol of fox-hunting, said goodbye to his idyllic life and rode off on his bicycle to join the Army. Siegfried Sassoon was perhaps the most innocent of the war poets. John Hildebidle has called Sassoon the "accidental hero." Born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1886, Sassoon lived the pastoral life of a young squire: fox-hunting, playing cricket, golfing and writing romantic verses.

Being an innocent, Sassoon's reaction to the realities of the war were all the more bitter and violent -- both his reaction through his poetry and his reaction on the battlefield (where, after the death of fellow officer David Thomas and his brother Hamo at Gallipoli, Sassoon earned the nickname "Mad Jack" for his near-suicidal exploits against the German lines -- in the early manifestation of his grief, when he still believed that the Germans were entirely to blame). As Paul Fussell said: "now he unleashed a talent for irony and satire and contumely that had been sleeping all during his pastoral youth." Sassoon also showed his innocence by going public with his protest against the war (as he grew to see that insensitive political leadership was the greater enemy than the Germans). Luckily, his friend and fellow poet Robert Graves convinced the review board that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock and he was sent instead to the military hospital at Craiglockhart where he met and influenced Wilfred Owen.

Sassoon is a key figure in the study of the poetry of the Great War: he brought with him to the war the idyllic pastoral background; he began by writing war poetry reminiscent of Rupert Brooke; he mingled with such war poets as Robert Graves and Edmund Blunden; he spoke out publicly against the war (and yet returned to it); he influenced and mentored the then unknown Wilfred Owen; he spent thirty years reflecting on the war through his memoirs; and at last he found peace in his religious faith. Some critics found his later poetry lacking in comparison to his war poems. Sassoon, identifying with Herbert and Vaughan, recognized and understood this: "my development has been entirely consistent and in character" he answered, "almost all of them have ignored the fact that I am a religious poet."

Vera Brittain, who served as a nurse behind the front lines, experienced losing in the First World War all the men in her life, including her brother and her fiancée. She wrote the following poem some years after the death of her fiancée, Roland Leyton (1895 – 1915):

Perhaps (To R.A.L)

Vera Brittain

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.'

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.

The wiping out of almost an entire generation of young men meant that millions of women of similar age would never marry and have families - an issue dealt with in the following poem by Vera Brittain.

The Superfluous Woman

Vera Brittain

Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Recalling words
Whose echoes long have died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.

But who will look for my coming?

Long busy days where many meet and part;
Crowded aside
Remembered hours of hope;
And city streets
Grown dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.

But who will seek me at nightfall?

Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.

But who will give me my children?

I gleaned the follwing on Vera Brittain (1893 - 1970) "She was the only daughter of Thomas Brittain, a wealthy paper manufacturer, and Edith Bervon, and was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1893.

Vera was educated at home by a governess and then at a boarding school in Surrey, where one of the teachers introduced her to the ideas of Dorothea Beale and Emily Davies. Brittain was also deeply influence by reading Women and Labour by Olive Schreiner. Vera wanted to go to university but her father believed that the main role of education was to prepare women for marriage. Eventually Thomas Brittain relented and Vera was allowed to go to Somerville College, Oxford.

In 1914 Vera met and fell in love with Roland Leighton, a friend of her only brother, Edward. On the outbreak of the First World War Roland and Edward Brittain joined the British Army. Vera also wanted to become involved in the war effort and decided to leave Somerville College and become a nurse. She joined the Voluntary Aid Detachment and served in England and in France. Vera became engaged to Ronald Leighton, in August, 1915 but four months later he was killed on the Western Front. So also was her brother, Edward Brittain, and several of her close friends.

After the Armistice Vera returned to Somerville College where she met Winifred Holtby. The two women graduated together in 1921 and they moved to London where they hoped to establish themselves as writers. Vera's first two novels, The Dark Tide (1923) and Not Without Honour (1925) sold badly and were ignored by the critics. Vera had more success with her journalism and in 1920s wrote for the feminist journal, Time and Tide. Vera also published two books on the role of women, Women's Work in Modern Britain (1928) and Halcyon or the Future of Monogamy (1929).

In the 1920s Vera's political views became more radical and she left the Liberals and joined the Labour Party. For a time she considered becoming a MP but after marrying the American academic, George Catlin, she went to live in the United States. Vera found it difficult to settle in America and after the birth of her two children, John (1927) and Shirley (1930) she moved back to England where she lived with Winifred Holtby. In her first volume of autobiography, Testament of Youth (1933) Brittain wrote about her struggle for education and her experiences as a nurse during the First World War. It was an immediate bestseller in Britain and the United States. Her companion, Winifred Holtby died in 1935 and Vera subsequently wrote about their relationship in her book Testament of Friendship. In the 1930s Brittain became a pacifist and in 1934 supported Richard Sheppard and his Peace Pledge Union and was one of its leaders during the Second World War. From September 1939 she began publishing Letters to Peace Lovers, a small journal that expressed her views on the war. This made her extremely unpopular as the journal criticised the government for bombing urban areas in Nazi Germany.

In 1943 Brittain attempted to explain her pacifism in her book Humiliation with Honour. This was followed by Seeds of Chaos, an attack on the government's policy of area bombing. After the war Vera wrote a history of the women's movement, Lady into Women (1953). Other books included a second volume of autobiography, Testament of Experience (1957), Women at Oxford (1960) and a biography of Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. A strong opponent of nuclear weapons, in 1957 Brittain joined with Kingsley Martin, J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Victor Gollancz, Richard Acland, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Vera Brittain remained active in the peace movement until her death in 1970".

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

More Poems Of The Great War

This continues my previous posting. So today I present more poems from the First World War. All the poems that follow are by poets who died in the trenches, which is why the war-poems by the likes of Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon – who did escape being killed - aren’t included. But I may include them in another posting.

All of these poets volunteered for the army, either because they were super-patriotic, or thought the war would be a cakewalk and so would be short and glorious. The guns began firing in August 1914, and most British soldiers thought they’d be home again by Christmas. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that millions of young men joined the army as volunteers, not least the poets.

They were all young, and filled with the bravado, foolishness, and idealism of youth. Had they been older, they may have contemplated that wars only happen because there are soldiers to fight them, and to the extent that men volunteer to fight, they make wars possible. While wars are, admittedly, fought mostly by conscripts, conscription is made respectable because lots of men enlist without being made to.

Wars are brought about by old men for young men to die in. But, to paraphrase the title of a film from around 1970, supposing they – the old men – gave a war and nobody came?

Here, then, are some more poems of The Great War:

Who Made The Law?

Leslie Coulson

Who made the Law that men should die in shadows ?
Who spake the word that blood should splash in lanes ?
Who gave it forth that gardens should be bone-yards ?
Who spread the hills with flesh, and blood, and brains ?
Who made the Law ?

Who made the Law that Death should stalk the village ?
Who spake the word to kill among the sheaves,
Who gave it forth that death should lurk in hedgerows,
Who flung the dead among the fallen leaves?
Who made the Law ?

Those who return shall find that peace endures,
Find old things old, and know the things they know,
Walk in the garden, slumber by the fireside,
Share the peace of dawn, and dream amid the dew –
Those who return.

Those who return shall till the ancient pastures,
Clean-hearted men shall guide the plough-horse reins,
Some shall grow apples and flowers in the valleys,
Some shall go courting in summer down the lanes –

But who made the Law? the Trees shall whisper to him:
"See, see the blood - the splashes on our bark !"
Walking the meadows, he shall hear bones crackle,
And fleshless mouths shall gibber in silent lanes at dark.

Who made the Law ? At noon upon the hillside
His ears shall hear a moan, his cheeks shall feel a breath,
And all along the valleys, past gardens, croft, and homesteads,
He who made the Law,
HE who made the Law,
HE who made the Law shall walk along with Death.
WHO made the Law ?

Leslie Coulson (1889 – 1916) was born in Kilburn. Before enlisting he was a well-known Fleet Street journalist. He survived being wounded at Gallipoli in 1915, dying at the Battle of the Somme. In 1917 a collection of his poetry, From an Outpost and Other Poems, became a bestseller in England.

To Germany

Charles Hamilton Sorley

You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
You only saw your future bigly planned,
And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,
And in each other's dearest ways we stand,
And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.

When it is peace, then we may view again
With new-won eyes each other's truer form
And wonder. Grown more loving-kind and warm
We'll grasp firm hands and laugh at the old pain,
When it is peace. But until peace, the storm
The darkness and the thunder and the rain.

Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895 – 1915) was born in Aberdeen, the son of a university professor. After attending Marlborough College he won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, but chose to defer entry to enlist in 1914. Less than a year later he was commissioned as a captain. He was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. A collection of verse, Marlborough and Other Poems, was published the year after his death.


Cyril Horne

Six of us lay in a Dugout
At ease with our limbs astretch,
And worshipped a feminine picture
Cut from a week-old ‘Sketch’.
We gazed at her silken stockings,
We studied her Cupid bow,
And we thought of the suppers we used to buy
And the girls we used to know,
And we all, in our several fashions,
Paid toll to the Lady’s charms,

From the man of a hundred passions
To the Subaltern child-in-arms.
Never the sketch of a master
So jealously kept and prized,
Never a woman of flesh and blood
So truly idealized.
And because of her tender ankle,
And her coiffure – distinctly French –
We called her ‘La Belle Dolores’ –
‘The Vivandiere of the Trench.’

Cyril Horne (1887 – 1916) was born in Scotland and was living in the United States when war was declared. He was killed by a shell while rescuing a wounded soldier near Loos. Songs of the Shrapnel Shell and Other Verse, a collection of his writing, was published in 1920.

Light After Darkness

E. Wyndham Tennant

Once more the Night, like some great dark drop-scene
Eclipsing horrors for a brief entr'acte,
Descends, lead-weighty. Now the space between,
Fringed with the eager eyes of men, is racked
By spark-tailed lights, curvetting far and high,
Swift smoke-flecked coursers, raking the black sky.

And as each sinks in ashes grey, one more
Rises to fall, and so through all the hours
They strive like petty empires by the score,
Each confident of its success and powers,
And, hovering at its zenith, each will show
Pale, rigid faces, lying dead, below.

There shall they lie, tainting the innocent air,
Until the dawn, deep veiled in mournful grey,
Sadly and quietly shall lay them bare,
The broken heralds of a doleful day.

E. Wyndham Tennant (1897 – 1916) was born in Glasgow. The recipient of a scholarship, he was studying in Oxford when war was declared when war was declared. He was killed at the Second Battle of Ypres, an early casualty of the war. His Poems was published by Oxford University Press in 1916.

The Soldier

Hamish Mann

‘Tis strange to look on a man that is dead
As he lies in the shell-swept hell
And to think that the poor black battered corpse
Once lived like you and was well.

‘Tis stranger far when you come to think
That you may soon be like him…
And it’s Fear that tugs at your trembling soul,
A Fear that is weird and grim!

Hamish Mann (1896 – 1917) was born in Broughty Ferry, Forfarshire, and was educated in Edinburgh. A veteran of the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded at Arras and died the following day. A collection of his war poetry, A Subaltern’s Musings, was published posthumously.

Returning, We Hear The Larks

Isaac Rosenberg

Sombre the night is.
And though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.

Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp-
On a little safe sleep.

But hark! joy-joy-strange joy.
Lo! heights of night ringing with unseen larks
Music showering on our upturned list'ning faces.

Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song-
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man's dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides,
Like a girl's dark hair for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.

Isaac Rosenberg (1890 – 1918) was born in Bristol to Russian immigrants. Though a talented poet – his first collection of verse, Night and Day, was published in 1912 – he considered himself a portrait artist. He was in South Africa – an attempt to improve his frail health – when war was declared. He returned to England and enlisted and was killed in close combat near the French village of Fampoux. The first posthumous collection of his verse, Poems, was published in 1922.

Last Song

Henry Lamont Simpson

All my songs are risen and fled away;
(Only the brave birds stay);
All my beautiful songs are broken or fled.
My poor songs could not stay
Among the filth and the weariness and the dead.

There was bloody grime on their light, white feathery wings,
(Hear how the lark still sings),
And their eyes were the eyes of dead men that I knew.
Only a madman sings
When half of his friends lie asleep for the rain and the dew.

The flowers will grow over the bones of my friends;
(The birds’ song never ends);
Winter and summer, their fair flesh turns to clay.
Perhaps before all ends
My songs will come again that have fled away.

Henry Lamont Simpson (1897 – 1918) was born in Crosby-on-Eden, Carlisle. A student at Cambridge, he became a commissioned officer in 1917. He was killed by a sniper at Strazeele, France. His only collection of poetry, Moods and Tenses, was published the year after the war ended.

Mental Cases

Wilfred Owen

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls' teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, - but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands' palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men's extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness

Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) was born in Ostwestry, Shropshire. Educated at the Birkenhead Institute and the University of London, he was teaching abroad when war broke out. In 1915, he returned to England in order to enlist. In May 1917, while serving in the trenches in France, he was caught in an explosion. Diagnosed with shellshock, he was sent to England in order to recover. He returned to France in August 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross two months later. On 4th November 1918, he was killed by German machine-gun fire. The first collection of his verse, Poems (1920), was edited by his friend and mentor, fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Poems Of The Great War

On the eleventh of November 1918, at eleven in the morning, eighty-eight years ago today, the guns fell silent, to end the Great War, the “war to end all wars”. This phrase sounds quaint, even cynical, when we think of all the wars that have happened since. But at the time, people actually believed there’d be no more wars, perhaps because they had welcomed the Great War when it started - men volunteering in 1914 for the army in their millions, and women cheering and throwing flowers at the men as they marched off to the trenches in France.

Perhaps this idealism, and naivete, was why so many poets joined up, for the Great War killed more poets than any war in history, which is no doubt why the Great War produced more poetry than any war in history. But the idealism and patriotism of the poets quickly dissipated in the trenches, as they wallowed in the rain, mud, and the overwhelming stench of death. It was a war that wiped out an entire generation of the young men of Europe.

Today we look back at this war, and wonder how people could have swallowed all the patriotic propaganda so that they willingly marched off to be slaughtered en-masse. But we wonder because we are not of that time. If we had been, we would have acted and believed the same as did the people then, because to be patriotic, and willing to die for your country was the way it was, and to some extent still is, despite today’s Globalisation.

When we nowadays consider the period 1914 - 1945 in Europe, we see it simply as a European civil war, given most of Europe, as embodied in the European Union, is now, for all intents and purposes, one country.

Now, to the poets and poetry of World War One.

The following poems were written by soldier-poets when they were in the trenches in France. All died there, and they all died young. The depth and beauty of the poems is such that we can only mourn the loss of what their creators might have achieved had they been allowed to grow old.

For more poems see also More Poems of the Great War and Yet More Poems of the Great War .

I Have A Rendezvous With Death

Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air—

I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand

And lead me into his dark land

And close my eyes and quench my breath—

It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,

When Spring comes round again this year

And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ’t were better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where Love throbs out in blissful sleep

Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,

Where hushed awakenings are dear …

But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,

And I to my pledged word am true,

I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Allan Seeger (1888 – 1916) was born in New York and spent much of his childhood in Mexico. Educated at Harvard, for several years he lived a bohemian lifestyle in Greenwich Village. He was visiting London, conducting research at the British Museum, when war was declared. He joined the French Foreign Legion and was killed in France at Belloy-en-Santerre. A collection of verse, Poems, was published a few months later.

The Soldier

Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke (1887 – 1915) was born in Rugby, Warwickshire. A graduate of King’s College, Cambridge, he was a familiar figure in literary and political circles. His first collection of verse, Poems, was published in 1911. He entered the war as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Division, and following his participation in the Antwerp expedition he composed his five war sonnets. While sailing in the Aegean on the way to Gallipoli he died of acute blood poisoning, the result of a mosquito bite.

When You See Millions Of The Mouthless Dead

Charles Hamilton Sorley

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his forevermore.

Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895 – 1915) was born in Aberdeen, the son of a university professor. After attending Marlborough College he won a scholarship to University College, Oxford, but chose to defer entry to enlist in 1914. Less than a year later he was commissioned as a captain. He was killed by a sniper at the Battle of Loos. A collection of verse, Marlborough and Other Poems, was published the year after his death.

The Shell Hole

Hamish Mann

In the Shell Hole he lies, this German soldier of a year ago;
But he is not as then, accoutred, well, and eager for the foe
He hoped so soon, so utterly, to crush. His muddy skull
Lies near the mangled remnants of his corpse – wars furies thus annul
The pomp and pageantry that were its own. White rigid bones
Gape through the nauseous chaos of his clothes; the cruel stones
Hold fast the letter he was wont to clasp close to his am’rous breast.
Here ‘neath the stark, keen stars, where is no peace, no joy, nor any rest,
He lies. There, to the right, his boot, gashed by the great shell’s fiendish whim,
Retains – O horrid spectacle! – the fleshless stump that was his limb!
Vile rats and mice, and flies and lice and ghastly things that carrion know
Have made a travesty of Death of him who lived a year ago.

Hamish Mann (1896 – 1917) was born in Broughty Ferry, Forfarshire, and was educated in Edinburgh. A veteran of the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded at Arras and died the following day. A collection of his war poetry, A Subaltern’s Musings, was published posthumously.

But A Short Time To Live

Leslie Coulson

Our little hour - how swift it flies
When poppies flare and lilies smile;
How soon the fleeting minute dies,
Leaving us but a little while
To dream our dreams, to sing our song,
To pick the fruit, to pluck the flower,
The Gods - They do not give us long, -
One little hour.

Our little hour - how short it is
When love with dew eyed lovliness
Raises her lips for ours to kiss
And dies within our first caress.
Youth flickers out like wind-blown flame,
Sweets of today to-morrow sour,
For Time and Death, relentless, claim
Our little hour..

Our little hour - how short a time
To wage our wars, to fan our hates,
To take our fill of armoured crime,
To troop our banner, storm the gates.
Blood on the sword, our eyes blood-red,
Blind in our puny reign of power,
Do we forget how soon is sped
Our little hour.

Our little hour - how soon it dies;
How short a time to tell our beads,
To chant our feeble Litanies,
To think sweet thoughts, to do good deeds,
The altar lights grow pale and dim,
The bells hang silent in the tower -
So passes with the dying hymn
Our little hour.

Leslie Coulson (1889 – 1916) was born in Kilburn. Before enlisting he was a well-known Fleet Street journalist. He survived being wounded at Gallipoli in 1915, dying at the Battle of the Somme. In 1917 a collection of his poetry, From an Outpost and Other Poems, became a bestseller in England.


Edward Thomas

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be for what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

Edward Thomas (1878 – 1917) was born in London to Welsh parents. He studied at Oxford on a history scholarship. In 1899, he married the daughter of James Ashcroft Noble, a nineteenth century literary figure. Encouraged by his father-in-law, he pursued a life in letters as an author, editor, and reviewer. His first poems were written in 1914, the year before he enlisted. He was killed by a shell at Arras. Several collections of his verse were published in the years immediately following his death.

A Kiss

Bernard Freeman Trotter

She kissed me when she said good-bye--
A child's kiss, neither bold nor shy.

We had met but a few short summer hours;
Talked of the sun, the wind, the flowers,

Sports and people; had rambled through
A casual catchy song or two,

And walked with arms linked to the car
By the light of a single misty star.

(It was war-time, you see, and the streets were dark
Lest the ravishing Hun should find a mark.)

And so we turned to say good-bye;
But somehow or other, I don't know why, --

Perhaps `t was the feel of the khaki coat
(She'd a brother in Flanders then) that smote

Her heart with a sudden tenderness
Which issued in that swift caress--

Somehow, to her, at any rate
A mere hand-clasp seemed inadequate;

And so she lifted her dewey face
And kissed me--but without a trace

Of passion,--and we said good-bye...
A child's kiss,...neither bold nor shy.

My friend, I like you--it seemed to say--
Here's to our meeting again some day!
Some happier day...

Bernard Freeman Trotter (1890 – 1917) was born in Toronto and spent much of his youth in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. His initial attempt to enlist thwarted by ill-health, he finally set sail for Europe in March 1916. A little over a year later Trotter was killed by a shell while serving as a Transport Officer at the Front. His only collection of poems, A Canadian Twilight and other Poems of War and Peace, was published the month after the Armistice.

Anthem For Doomed Youth

Wilfred Owen

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 now for them; no prayers nor 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 patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918) was born in Ostwestry, Shropshire. Educated at the Birkenhead Institute and the University of London, he was teaching abroad when war broke out. In 1915, he returned to England in order to enlist. In May 1917, while serving in the trenches in France, he was caught in an explosion. Diagnosed with shellshock, he was sent to England in order to recover. He returned to France in August 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross two months later. On 4th November 1918, he was killed by German machine-gun fire. The first collection of his verse, Poems (1920, was edited by his friend and mentor, fellow war poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Ruminations Of Rummy

In a world where carefully programmed, immaculately coiffed figures on our public stage, bore us to stupefaction with their soporific cliché-sodden speeches, Donald Rumsfeld, with his alligator smile, eyes glinting behind rimless spectacles, and arresting epigrams, stood out like an igloo in an Arabian desert.

Whether we loved or hated him, when Rummy spoke, we listened.

Now, as he rides off into the sunset, we’ll think of him with nostalgia, while we recall some of his spoken verse, including:

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

Glass Box

You know, it's the old glass box at the—
At the gas station,
Where you're using those little things
Trying to pick up the prize,
And you can't find it.

And it's all these arms are going down in there,
And so you keep dropping it
And picking it up again and moving it,

Some of you are probably too young to remember those—
Those glass boxes,

But they used to have them
At all the gas stations
When I was a kid.

—Dec. 6, 2001, Department of Defense news briefing

A Confession

Once in a while,
I'm standing here, doing something.
And I think,
"What in the world am I doing here?"
It's a big surprise.

—May 16, 2001, interview with the New York Times


You're going to be told lots of things.
You get told things every day that don't

It doesn't seem to bother people, they
It's printed in the press.
The world thinks all these things happen.
They never happened.

Everyone's so eager to get the story
Before in fact the story's there
That the world is constantly being fed
Things that haven't happened.
All I can tell you is,
It hasn't happened.
It's going to happen.

—Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing

The Digital Revolution

Oh my goodness gracious,
What you can buy off the Internet
In terms of overhead photography!
A trained ape can know an awful lot
Of what is going on in this world,
Just by punching on his mouse
For a relatively modest cost!

—June 9, 2001, following European trip

The Situation

Things will not be necessarily continuous.
The fact that they are something other than perfectly continuous
Ought not to be characterized as a pause.
There will be some things that people will see.
There will be some things that people won't see.
And life goes on.

—Oct. 12, 2001, Department of Defense news briefing


I think what you'll find,
I think what you'll find is,
Whatever it is we do substantively,
There will be near-perfect clarity
As to what it is.

And it will be known,
And it will be known to the Congress,
And it will be known to you,
Probably before we decide it,
But it will be known.

—Feb. 28, 2003, Department of Defense briefing


You may think it's something
I ought to know,
But I happen not to.
That's life.

(July 9, 2003)

On Reporters

If you do something,
Somebody's not going
To agree with it.
That's life.

(Feb. 19, 2003)

On the Budget

If you do anything,
Someone's not going
To like it and
That's life.

(May 7, 2002)

On Leaks

Look bumpy?
But you pick up
And go on.
That's life.

(May 17, 2002)

On Democracy

People elected
Those people to office.
That's what they think, and
That's life.

(Feb. 20, 2003)

On People

They're going to have
Some impact on
What happens in that country
And that's not wrong.
That's life.

(Nov. 16, 2001)

On Criticism

It makes it complicated.
Sometimes, it makes
It difficult.
That's life.

(Sept. 11, 2003)