Last week commemorated the centenary of the start of World War I, and all year events are taking place to mark the 100 years. For me, one of the most beautiful and impactful images is the moat of ceramic poppies created by Paul Cummins at the Tower of London.
When you realise each of those poppies represents a lost life, the scale of the devastation really hits home.
I thought this week I would look at two poems about the First World War, one written at the time, one just a few years ago; both capture the fallout but in very different ways.
Firstly, what I think is one of the greatest poems ever written, Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen (1917). You can read the whole poem here. Wilfred Owen sent a copy of this poem home to his mother with a simple note “here is a gas poem”. It’s a huge understatement; while the poem does describe vividly the effect of a chlorine gas attack on a soldier, Owen use the event to launch an attack of his own, on unthinking jingoism and contemporary British attitudes to The Great War.
He begins by describing the physical state of a group of soldiers:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue;
The total degradation of the soldiers is so vivid in these lines – young men, reduced to a walking death, defeated by the conditions of war if not the bullets. This somnambulant atmosphere maximises the impact of the second stanza, whereby Owen shifts the focus dramatically, beginning with a shout, signalling the immediacy of a movement from “we” to the “I” that is haunted by the soldier’s death:
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
That pause after “lime…” is just devastating. He forces the reader to fully consider exactly what it means – the pain, the terror, the torturous reality of this slow death – to be “flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…”.
I’m going to quote the final stanza in full, because it is completely shattering, as Owen places the reader directly in the trenches, unable to turn their face away from the horror:
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.
Owen was a hugely learned poet, his writing shows how to use fixed forms (iambic pentameter, sonnet form, rhyme schemes) to create something original and new. When he breaks the rhythm of the poem so completely in the final line you know he has good reason. By breaking the rhythm but keeping to the rhyme scheme, the mori/death of the soldiers, and death of the poem, seems simultaneously shocking, yet inevitable. His anger at the glorification of war is palpable, the poem’s power undiminished by the passing of time.
Secondly, The Last Post by Carol Ann Duffy (2009), which I won’t go into with nearly such detail in case you’re starting to feel drunk with fatigue as you limp on through this blog post. This was written to commemorate the deaths of the last surviving British World War I veterans, Harry Patch and Henry Allingham. You can read the whole poem here, or if you prefer here is the very talented (and beautiful, damn her) Vicky McClure reading it:
It shows the lasting impact of Owen’s poem that ninety years later, Duffy frames her own poem around it. Within this poetic legacy, she simultaneously shows how war poetry cannot offer false hope, but it can offer solace:
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud …
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home –
This is such a twenty-first century image, one Owen could never have used. We are so used to seeing film spool backwards, the dead springing back to life in front of our eyes:
Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too –
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert –
and light a cigarette.
There’s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home.
This premise captures how our knowledge of war is for most, gained through images rather than experience. At the same time, the use of personal names, the knowledge that these images as they run backwards are false, captures the desperation of real lives – family members and loved ones – irrevocably lost.
Like Owen, Duffy uses the impact of a short final line to dramatise fully the message of the poetry:
If poetry could truly tell it backwards,
then it would.
To end, a bit of light relief to help you recover and a reminder that not everyone likes war poetry, from Blackadder Goes Forth which managed to satirise the absurdities of war while driving home the immense human tragedy of it all. Here’s a quote from the inimitable Lord Flashhart (Rik Mayall):
“Just because I can give multiple orgasms to the furniture just by sitting on it doesn’t mean I’m not sick of this damn war. The blood…the noise…the endless poetry”