“The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” (Sir Edward Grey)

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.

Tower-of-Poppies-Blood-Flowing

(Image from: http://modernnotion.com/poppies-flow-like-blood-at-tower-of-london-to-commerate-the-fallen-of-wwi/)

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):

51378

“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”

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22 thoughts on ““The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time” (Sir Edward Grey)

  1. Wow. I like the Duffy poem, and had never read it before.
    When I used to teach Dulce et Decorum Est, I used to invite the students to think about what a devil would look like, sick of sin. The best image they came up with, I thought, was the image of a person who had been so drunk the night before that he didn’t want to think about drinking ever again.
    Although I was just in London, I didn’t make time to see the poppies in person. We kept meaning to, but there’s never time enough to do all the things one wants to do while in London. That’s why Samuel Johnson said that to be tired of it was to be tired of life.

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    • That’s a great image of a devil, it captures the desperation of it all, and the simultaneous psychological/physical experience.
      Johnson was absolutely right – I live in London & there’s still never enough time to do all you want! I hope you had a lovely time during your visit.

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  2. Great post! Dulce et Decorum Est has always seemed to me to be the epitomy of what poetry can do – it had far more effect on me than years of studying history, or any of the history or fiction books I’ve read about WW1. I haven’t heard the Duffy poem before – both powerful in its message and so skilfully done. Thank you! 🙂

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  3. I hadn’t come across the Duffy poem, thanks for posting about it. We’re going to London on Sunday for a few days so
    I’ll be making time to see the poppies, it is an amazing installation.

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  4. “His anger at the glorification of war is palpable, the poem’s power undiminished by the passing of time.”

    I reckon one can say that about all of Owen’s poetry. My favourite is Futility. That he can use such beautiful imagery to describe something to terrible. It’s a shame he only got to write so few poems and that he ended up like one of his subjects so close to peace.

    The Duffy poem is equally beautiful. Thanks for sharing it.

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    • You’re right of course, you can say that about all his poetry. Futility is just heartbreaking. Siegfried Sassoon struggled to find the muse after the war, but Owen was such an enormous talent I think he would have carried on successfully – we’ll never know.

      Glad you liked the Duffy poem, I thought she did a great job acknowledging the past but making something new.

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  5. Owen’s poem was one that I studied for part of my English Lit exam and this along with the other war poems really bought home what going to war actually meant and I’ve never forgotten them. It was lovely listening to the Duffy poem too, a modern reflection which is just so poignant. I found a poem written by a female poet during this period Jessie Pope which you might enjoy http://cleopatralovesbooks.wordpress.com/2014/08/04/first-world-war-centenary/

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    • That’s very interesting – Owen originally addressed Dulce et decorum est to Jessie Pope, as he was so infuriated by her jingoistic glorification of war, published in the Daily Mail. Those were the only types of poems I knew from her – Who’s For the Game I think is just sickening (and poorly written). But the poem you chose is so different, and shows if she’s writing about what she actually knows (the home experience of women) she can come up with something much more subtle. You’ve opened my eyes!

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      • I went and re-read Who’s for the Game and I have to agree with you on the fact that it isn’t the best example of writing and knowing what we know now it is sickening. I liked the Socks poem, because as you say, in this one she was writing about what she knew.

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        • Absolutely, and it’s good to be reminded of female voices in this period, as they tend to get lost. It’s understandable why this happens, as trench warfare was such an extreme experience that soldier poets give voice to, but the home experience was another side to the tragedy.

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  6. Ah, a topic close to my heart! The poppies are truly stunning and I’d love to see them in person.

    Owen’s poetry gets me *every* time. I did a ‘War in Literature’ module at college and looked at all kinds of stuff from World War One. Even after dissecting countless poems/stories for essays and exams, I still loved them all. Reading your other comments, I distinctly recall my skin crawling when we looked at Jessie Pope’s Who’s For the Game – ah, the memories! It’s one educational topic which has really stayed with me (I’ve even kept all of the booklets, handouts and paperwork from college).

    Excellent post as always!

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  7. Beautiful post. And yes – wow – the poppies are a powerful testament to the magnitude of our loss. I like these lines esp:

    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.

    I was a Classics minor in college and my 7-yr-old is learning Latin, too. =) I just put some of it to song so he could memorize it seamlessly.

    Xx

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      • Oh, you’d love it! And oh, he’s sticking with it LOL. He has no choice. ^^ =) It’s part of our Classical curriculum. But he said last wk he loves it. We were at the piano where I introduced the melody and we both needed to step away – to the kitchen and bthrm – but were enjoying ourselves so much we wouldn’t, ’til nature screamed lol. He caught me off guard when he said, “Mom, let’s continue this when I come back.” What 7-yr-old BoY would ask to resume the Latin again? So set those conjugations to a tune and go for it lol.

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