|Frederick Wm Darvell, missing, presumed killed|
In my last post, I shared Robert Service's poem "The Mourners" and its vision of a night sky filled with the faces of sorrowing women who had lost husbands, brothers, friends, lovers. One of the less remembered tragedies of The Great War, however, are the men who were literally "lost," those who were reported missing.
Over 70,000 British and Commonwealth men were never found after the battle of the Somme, and nearly 55,000 were missing in action after the battles in the Ypres Salient. Just outside the city of Verdun, the Douaumont Ossuary contains the bones of over 130,000 French and German men who were never identified.
Men were lost in collapsed tunnels that exploded during mining operations and buried in trenches after heavy artillery fire; others drowned and disappeared in the deep mud of No Man's Land; still others received injuries that were so severe that they couldn't be identified, men who were obliterated by the weapons of modern warfare.
Anna Gordon Keown's poem "Reported Missing" gives voice to the anguish of not knowing, of not being able to mourn.
My thought shall never be that you are dead:
Who laughed so lately in this quiet place.
The dear and deep-eyed humour of that face
Held something ever living, in Death’s stead.
Scornful I hear the flat things they have said
And all their piteous platitudes of pain.
I laugh! I laugh! – For you will come again –
This heart would never beat if you were dead.
The world’s adrowse in twilight hushfulness,
There’s purple lilac in your little room,
And somewhere out beyond the evening gloom
Small boys are culling summer watercress.
Of these familiar things I have no dread
Being so very sure you are not dead.
--Anna Gordon Keown
The poem is framed in denial: both the first and the last lines refuse to accept that this man "Who laughed so lately" can be dead.
His remembered laughter is echoed by her present laughter in line 8, repeated twice, as if to convince not only listeners, but the speaker of the poem herself that there is something left in the world to laugh about.
The beat of her heart, the flowers gathered for his room, the abundance of the rapidly growing summer watercress are held up as evidence of the vitality that surrounds her. These are set against the "flat things" and "piteous platitudes of pain" that call her to confront a horrible juxtaposition: familiar things become dreadful when they continue on, as if in blithe indifference to shattering loss and death.
She cannot allow herself to mourn: her memory and hope keep him alive, and so instead, the speaker of the poem lives "adrowse in twilight hushfulness," suspended, only half-awake, in the gloom between day and night.
One-hundred years later, the missing of the Great War are still being found by farmers clearing land and ploughing fields, by construction crews laying roads and digging foundations. It's sobering to think how long their loved ones endured suspended lives, waiting for closure that failed to come within their lifetimes.