November 02, 2005

J is for John MacCrae

I'm not really that big a fan of Ben Jonson, though I've seen the case convincingly made that he'd have been viewed as a colossus if he'd lived in any other age. I was considering writing about Lewis Carrol's Jabberwocky, but when I checked the authoritative source (Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice I found seven pages of commentary, but felt no better understanding of the poem than when I first memorized it, at age 10 or so. Like Alice, it "fills my head with ideas - only I don't know exactly what they are". Gardner relates the poem to everything from group theory to Anglo-Saxon, but somehow, I like it better just as read, without too much thinking.

So instead, I'll use J as my entry to write about a group poets who wrote about the horror and tragedy they lived - and who, in many cases, never came back.

is for John MacCrae and the other poets of the Great War.

Poetry of WWI ranges from sublime to searing, sometimes within the work of the same poet, sometimes in the same poem. As L.M. Montgomery showed in her WWI story, Rilla of Ingleside, at least some of the soldiers in WWI went in believing they were there to root a terrible thing out of the world, once and for all, to keep faith with those who went before and to light a torch for those who followed:

In Flanders Fields

John MacCrae (1872-1918)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

They went in, perhaps expecting a difficult fight, but often with high ideals. Alan Seeger (1888-1916) wrote:

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.

But what they found in the trenches was obscenity, and their words departed from the romantic ballads, love songs, and ideals of earlier poets to show it starkly. In one of the best-known poems of the war, Dulce Et Decorum Est, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) wrote of a man "drowning" in mustard gas:

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.

Ideals were shattered, in some cases never to be rebuilt, and lives were ruined. Isaac Rosenberg (1890-1918) wrote of the miasma of a rotting God. Sigfried Sassoon (1896-1967) wrote of living with wounds, both physical and mental :

Does It Matter

Sigfried Sassoon (1896-1967)

Does it matter? -- losing your legs? . . .
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter? -- losing your sight? . . .
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter? -- those dreams from the pit? . . .
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know that you've fought for your country,
And no one will worry a bit

The war was not kind to women, neither to those who lived in the war zones, those who watched and waited, nor those who tended the wounded and had to try to comfort the suffering:


Eva Dobell (1867 - 1963)

Crippled for life at seventeen,
His great eyes seem to question why:
With both legs smashed it might have been
Better in that grim trench to die
Than drag maimed years out helplessly.

A child so wasted and so white,
He told a lie to get his way,
To march, a man with men, and fight
While other boys are still at play.
A gallant lie your heart will say.

So broke with pain, he shrinks in dread
To see the 'dresser' drawing near;
And winds the clothes about his head
That none may see his heart-sick fear.
His shaking, strangled sobs you hear.

But when the dreaded moment's there
He'll face us all, a soldier yet,
Watch his bared wounds with unmoved air,
(Though tell-tale lashes still are wet),
And smoke his woodbine cigarette.

And afterward, the world was never the same even for those who served and survived:

from On Account of Ill-Health

Edward Shanks (1892-1953)

Men that have marched with me shall march to peace again,
Bringing for plunder home glad memories of pain,
Of toils endured and done, of terrors quite brought under,
And all the world shall be their plaything and their wonder.
Then in that new-born world, unfriendly and estranged,
I shall be quite alone, I shall be left unchanged.

Some of the poems I've quoted here are well-known, some are less known. They are only a small sampling. Additional collections of World War I poems can be found here, here, and here.

Posted by dichroic at November 2, 2005 12:48 PM
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