That In Me Sings No More

WWI
American Soldiers in WWI

Futility

by Wilfred Owen

Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?


 

Arms and The Boy

by Wilfred Owen

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-leads,
Which long to nuzzle 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.

 


It wasn’t until I was doing some research to prepare for honoring the 100 year anniversary of the end of World War I, reading a wide array of poets, that I realized the context behind Millay’s sonnet below. I have read it many times and incorrectly assumed it referred to spurned lovers. It was not until now I understood it as a homage to the men of her generation that went off to war to never return.

This deeper understanding totally changes the way I look at this sonnet. It had never been one of my favorite sonnets of hers, seeming more callous than sentimental, but now I look at it with whole new eyes, appreciating the sadness and fitting callousness that war brings to the generation caught within its fury.

Do you have a poem that you suddenly have experienced a change in contextual awareness that increased your appreciation for how it spoke to you? I welcome your feedback and insights in the comments section below.


What Lips My Lips Have Kissed

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.

The Monstrous Anger Of The Guns

Blunden
Edmund Blunden (1896 – 1974)

Anthem for Doomed Youth

by 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.


Sunday was the 100th anniversary of Wilfred Owen’s death. The insanity of World War I and the slaughter of young men on both sides of the war is hard to imagine today. Total casualties military and civilian is estimated at 40 million, 15 to 19 million deaths and 23 million wounded.

There is a large body of war poetry from WWI that is worth the time to seek out. The waste of brilliant lives makes these poems vibrant, tragic, sarcastic and human. Poets from different stripes and ages were just men desperately wanting nothing more than to go home. Owen denied that privilege and Blunden tortured for it.


Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau

by Edmund Blunden

‘And all her silken flanks with garlands drest’—
But we are coming to the sacrifice.
Must those flowers who are not yet gone West?
May those flowers who live with death and lice?
This must be the floweriest place
That earth allows; the queenly face
Of the proud mansion borrows grace for grace
Spite of those brute guns lowing at the skies.

Bold great daisies’ golden lights,
Bubbling roses’ pinks and whites—
Such a gay carpet! poppies by the million;
Such damask! such vermilion!
But if you ask me, mate, the choice of colour
Is scarcely right; this red should have been duller.

 

A Shropshire Lad

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

A. E. Housman (1859 – 1936)

Gas Masks WWI
Soldiers Donning Gas Masks in WWI.

A. E. Housman and Wilfred Owen both have childhood connections to Shropshire, England. It is there alone, separated by a gap of more than 30 years, that their lives intersect beyond poetry.  Wilfred only published 5 poems while alive and penned nearly all of his poetry in the 18 months prior to his death.  His friend and fellow soldier, Siegfried Sassoon, oversaw the editing and publication of his work in 1920 following Owen’s death.

Owen is revered as one of the great war poets of World War I, his poetic talents heightened by his harrowing experience.  Owen, in letters home, regretted returning to the front after recuperating in Scotland from injuries sustained in France the year prior, but kept his anti-war poetry to himself among the soldiers he fought alongside.  He lost his life at the age of 25 in battle, by all accounts, a brave and loyal soldier.

I do not consider A. E. Housman a war poet.  He lived comfortably, if unhappily, to the age of 77.  He published only 2 volumes of poetry during his lifetime. His first volume, A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896, enjoyed critical success.  Housman was an acclaimed Latin scholar and along with his success as a poet, landed several prestigious academic positions, which allowed him to retreat from the difficulties of life among the elite in Oxford. I don’t cast spurious judgement upon Houseman for being pampered, sullen, private and un-prolific, he earned his success.  However, his poetry lacks the tension of Owen’s in part because of his lack of real world experience. Owen risked much more in the creation of his art or was it the risk that created his art?

I am unable to find a single sonnet from Housman in his collected works. He wrote several 4 line poems that follow 10 syllables per line that could be considered the start of sonnets but were clearly complete in their simplicity. He seemed to prefer a structure of 8 syllables per line, with many of his poems either 12 or 16 lines in length.

Owen’s legacy is as a voice of humanity in the insanity of war.  Owen’s anti-war sentiments caution readers that governments will pander to men’s patriotic proclivity and entice them to enlist with promises of sacrificial glory.  Though both wrote during a period of nearly endless conflicts and foreign wars in which recruits were needed for the ascension of the British Empire, it is Owen’s poetry which stands out for me in its brave clarity. To die for one’s country or fellow soldiers can be a noble act,  but even the noblest of deaths are haunted by the questions from grieving loved ones if such a thing as a just war exists?  The history of humankind littered with wars fueled by madness and vanity when the spotlight of history is finally lit.

I did not recognize Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est initally as a sonnet. On closer reading, the poem is 28 lines written as two sonnets back to back.  The ending, Dulce et decorum est, Pro patria mori, translates roughly as “it is sweet to die for one’s country”.

Much has been written about the cruelty of mustard gas during World War I.  It was in some ways the first weapon of mass destruction,  though in the end it killed relatively few.  Mustard gas instilled terror and was as much psychological warfare as an agent of death. Mustard gas was first developed by German chemists who falsely believed it would end the war quicker and reduce loss of life on both sides.  2017 marks the one hundred year anniversary of the use of chemical weapons in artillery shells and the rapid industrialization of weapons of mass destruction. Germany is not alone in its shame, with England and the United States both following suit, deploying chemical weapons as a precursor to the greater insanity of nuclear weapons. Our ability as humans to deceive ourselves as to what is justifiable is fathomless.  Owen captures in Dulce et Decorum Est the inhumanity of chemical weapons. The poem is an anti-war testament for why no nation should ever deploy them again.

Dulce et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

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.

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.

___________________________
©2017 Original material copyright T. A. Fry.  Other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

Songs More Sweet Than Possible Things

The Soldier's Tale.jpg
Graphics by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, 2013

Music

by Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)

I have been urged by earnest violins
And drunk their mellow sorrows to the slake
Of all my sorrows and my thirsting sins.
My heart has beaten for a brave drum’s sake.
Huge chords have wrought me mighty: I have hurled
Thuds of gods’ thunder. And with old winds pondered
Over the curse of this chaotic world,-
With low lost winds that maundered as they wandered.

I have been gay with trivial fifes that laugh;
And songs more sweet than possible things are sweet;
And gongs, and oboes. Yet I guessed not half
Life’s symphony till I had made hearts beat,
And touched Love’s body into trembling cries,
And blown my love’s lips into laughs and sighs.

Igor Stravinsky’s L’Historie du Solat was first performed in 1918, the year that Wilfred Owen died.  It was written in collaboration with the Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz. The Soldier’s Tale is part ballet, part drama, part chamber music, performed by three or seven instruments.  Here is one of several outstanding recordings that can be found on YouTube. What’s soldier’s tales are in your family that Stravinsky reflects between the camaraderie of the violin and the clarinet?

 

Uploaded by The Ducasse Trio, March 3, 2016.

Bid Them Be Patient, No More

Wilfred Owen
Wilfred Owen

Anthem For Doomed Youth

by Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918)

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.

It’s Veteran’s Day, November 12, a day of red-orange poppies on lapels.  My Grandfather served in both World War I and World War II, his skills as a civil engineer well regarded in wartime.   There is an obvious ridiculous irony in that fact.

What did we learn from the war to end all wars?  How do we honor our veterans, those that fought and those that sacrificed their lives?  Do we honor them by making it legal to own in peace time the very munitions used to kill their enemies on the field of battle?  Is gun ownership the hope of soldiers who come home?  Or do they wish for the guns of war to fall silent?

We celebrate this Veteran’s Day in the shadow of another senseless mass shooting with 26 lost lives in Texas.  Some politicians say it is not time to talk of gun control after Las Vegas, after Sutherland Springs.  Instead, these politicians choose to serve the interests of weapons manufacturers and the shrinking minority that want assault rifles to remain legal.  When will it be time to talk of sensible gun laws? Are we at an impasse where meaningful change in our gun culture is impossible? I don’t believe anything is impossible.  I believe that honoring our veterans can co-exist with laws that make the guns of war illegal and inaccessible in our communities of peace.  I say it’s possible to keep bolt action hunting rifles legal and make semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifles illegal, along with the extended clips and bump stocks that can easily modify them into machine guns. I say that bringing home a war mongering culture of death after the armistice is not the cause for which soldiers fought and died.  I say, bid them be patient, no more.

The poppy as a symbol of remembrance comes from the poem In Flanders Fields,  by John McCrae.  McCrae was a battlefield doctor who did not see the end of the World War I.  The Anxious Dead was the last poem he wrote before he died from a severe asthma attack.

1200px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae,_M.D.
John McCrae

The Anxious Dead

by John McCrae (1872-1918)

O guns, fall silent till the dead men hear
Above their heads the legions pressing on:
(These fought their fight in time of bitter fear,
And died not knowing how the day had gone.)

O flashing muzzles, pause, and let them see
The coming dawn that streaks the sky afar;
Then let your mighty chorus witness be
To them, and Caesar, that we still make war.

Tell them, O guns, that we have heard their call,
That we have sworn, and will not turn aside,
That we will onward till we win or fall,
That we will keep the faith for which they died.

Bid them be patient, and some day, anon,
They shall feel earth enwrapt in silence deep;
Shall greet, in wonderment, the quiet dawn,
And in content may turn them to their sleep.