Thursday, April 30, 2015

Breaking Faith -- In Flanders Fields





While this blog has largely focused on the lost voices and lesser-known poems of the First World War, this post shares one of the most familiar and beloved poems of the Great War.  Written by Canadian John McCrae, surgeon and major in the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery, "In Flanders Field" was written on May 3rd, 1915 and is credited with inspiring the use of the poppy as a symbol to commemorate the dead of the war. 

Exceptionally popular during the First World War, the poem is both loved and disparaged today, reflecting the complicated legacy of not only "The Great War," but all of all wars.  What does it mean to "keep faith" with soldiers at war or with those who die in unpopular or wrong-headed wars?  The poem's question is as relevant today as it was one-hundred years ago.  You can listen to Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen read the poem here

In Flanders Fields
            by John McCrae
 
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. 

The poem speaks with the voice of ghostly warriors who solemnly proclaim, "We are the Dead."  Their stark wooden crosses mark recently dug graves where the churned earth and charnel richness of the soil have given birth to a carpet of flowers as scarlet as blood.  But there is no peace to be found at these gravesides:  birds sing in an effort to be heard over the din of a war that carries on and on and on.  The dead themselves seem restless, so much so that one wonders if they truly are dead, for their hands and arms are not stiff and immobile, but merely "failing" as they "throw/The torch."  Some critics have suggested that this symbol alludes to the Statue of Liberty, and its use may be an attempt to provoke America to abandon its neutrality or to shame America into entering the war on the side of the Allies.

These soldiers who have died in battle do not protest the war, nor do they grieve for what is lost.  Instead, the Dead of McCrae's poem urge the living to a fiercer fight, exhorting them to "Take up our quarrel with the foe."  In death, these ghostly warriors lead a renewed attack, and they threaten to haunt any who "break faith" or retreat from battle. 

Paul Fussell, in The Great War and Modern Memory, argues that the last six lines of the poem "are a propaganda argument  words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far – against a negotiated peace" (250).  And yet many others love the poem, and it continues to be used in many Remembrance ceremonies.  On Veterans Day in 2011, the poem appeared on America's National Public Radio website as part of an appeal that we "pay tribute to our veterans, to the fallen, and to their families." The article asked readers to pause, to read the poem, and to remember the military, "to honor their contributions to our Nation," and "strive with renewed determination to keep the promises we have made to all who have answered our country's call."

The poppy-as-symbol has not escaped controversy either.  In the UK, in the weeks before Remembrance Sunday, poppies are distributed and donations are collected by the Royal British Legion to support current military, veterans, and their families.  In 2014, the Poppy Appeal successfully met its goal of raising 40 million pounds.  However, for many in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the wearing of the poppy implies support for the British military and acceptance of its actions during The Troubles.  As has previously been discussed on this blog (in the post on Thomas Kettle's poem "To My Daughter Betty"), remembering the sacrifice of Irish soldiers in World War I has always been complicated.  In 2014, Irish footballer James McClean  made headline news with his decision to not wear a poppy on his jersey during a Remembrance weekend soccer match.  In 2009, British television newsperson Jon Snow protested what he called "a rather unpleasant breed of poppy fascism out there – 'he damned well must wear a poppy!' Well I do, in my private life, but I am not going to wear it or any other symbol on air."   

One-hundred years later, waves of poppies still bloom over the battlefields of the First World War, and we are no nearer to understanding how to keep faith with soldiers who fight and die in controversial wars. 



Friday, April 24, 2015

Second-guessing the war with Achilles


One-hundred years ago, in April of 1915, Patrick Shaw-Stewart sailed with Rupert Brooke for Gallipoli.  After Brooke's death from blood poisoning, Shaw-Stewart was one of the fellow officers who buried Brooke on the island of Skyros, taking charge of the graveside gun salute (Elizabeth Vandiver in  A Companion to Classical Receptions, 456). 

Before Brooke's death, anticipating the fight at Gallipoli, Shaw-Stewart wrote, "It is the luckiest thing and the most romantic. Think of fighting in the Chersonese [the classical name for Gallipoli]... or alternatively, if it's the Asiatic side they want us on, on the plains of Troy itself! I am going to take my Herodotus as a guide-book."  
Patrick Shaw-Stewart also took with him a small book of poems, AE Housman's A Shropshire Lad, and on a blank page of that book, he wrote this poem: 

I Met a Man This Morning (by Patrick Shaw-Stewart)

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days' peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o'er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

The poem is prompted by the sight of a fellow soldier "Who did not wish to die."  Written while on leave that was abruptly ended when his company was called back into action, Shaw-Stewart's poem circles around one central question: am I ready and willing to die in battle? 

From UK Huffington Post, April 14, 2015
Throughout the poem, we can almost feel the visceral tension pulling this man between two imaginary wars: the noble heroism of ancient battle it appears in the Greek myth The Iliad -- and the anticipated test of the looming fight at Gallipoli.  Neither is fully real to this soldier.  He has read the ancient stories, and he can anticipate his own headlong rush into battle, but neither are fully real.   What is real is what he knows he must leave behind:  a peaceful morning overlooking the Dardenelles, the narrow body of water that joins the Mediterranean and Black Sea.  Although he is soon to return to the war, the speaker pauses to notice the soft breezes and the "cold sea shells" of early dawn near the lapping waves of the shore.    

Yet even the sight of the sea shells draws his mind inexorably to what awaits him in just a few days' time:  "Shrapnel and high explosives,/Shells and hell for me."  The present moment is touched by both the promise of glorious war and the threat of blood and death. 

Like the Greek epic and tragic story it references, the poem and its speaker seem obsessed with a lack of control: fated to follow the "Fatal second Helen," the men approaching battle feel as if they, too, have no real choice in the matter.  The country expects it of them, their friends are all joining up, it would be cowardly not to enlist – the reasons for fighting seem to change very little from the wars of ancient Greece to modern conflicts. 

In many ways, this is a poem of second guessing – was it right to enlist?  Am I ready to die?  Looking around him at the other young men who have signed up and are attempting to appear brave, gallant, and soldierly, the speaker of the poem most likely knows that answers won't be found within the ranks, and so instead, he turns to the ultimate warrior of his school studies, the Marvel super hero of the day – the ancient Greek warrior Achilles, who is driven by his thirst for glory. 


And what does he ask?  "Was it so hard, Achilles,/ So very hard to die?"  The soldier wants to be sure that he will have the strength not to fight – but to die.  He needs to know that he can endure any anguish that the looming conflict might bring.  The poem lays bare the heart of a soldier who is soul-searching, examining himself to see if he is strong enough to relinquish not only his life, but all his future hopes and dreams, leaving them on the desolate shore of the Turkish coast. 

The question is asked, but no answer is given.  Achilles remains silent, but asking the question allows this soldier to move forward and to go back to the war, with a last request:  "Stand in the trench, Achilles,/Flame-capped, and shout for me."  As he prepares to face the enemy and looks ahead to his own hour of testing, he asks that Achilles stand in the trench with him, shoulder-to-shoulder, as a comrade-in-arms, crowned in flames as when the mighty warrior showed himself to the enemy troops, protesting the death of his friend Patroclus in Book 18 of The Iliad.  

Hell, shells, shrapnel, and death:  all can be borne with the spirit of Achilles as a companion, a spirit that cannot help but inspire other soldiers like Achilles to "stand in the trench" and protest each man's death. 

Shaw-Stewart's poem reassures fighting men with the knowledge that they are not numbers, but known to one another.  The poem cries out to the ancient Greek warrior, and in doing so, to every man who stands on the fire step ready to go over the top.  The protest is not against war, but against death and against the senseless loss of each man who meant something to someone, who was dear, who was loved, and who is lost. 

Patrick Shaw-Stewart
Although he survived the battle of Gallipoli, Shaw-Stewart was killed by an artillery shell on December 30, 1917 in fighting on the Western Front near Cambrai.  Writing of his death, an artillery officer reported, "It was early morning, about dawn; he was going round his line; the Germans put up a barrage….He was hit by shrapnel, the lobe of his ear was cut off and his face spattered so that the blood ran down from his forehead and blinded him for a bit.  The gunner tried to make him go back to Battalion H.Q. to be dressed, but he refused, and insisted on completing his round.  Very soon afterwards, a shell burst on the parapet, and a fragment hit him upwards through the mouth and killed him instantaneously." 

One can imagine the flame-capped Achilles' sorrow at the death of yet another soldier and the shouts echoing in the trench as Shaw-Stewart fell.  




Friday, April 17, 2015

Not one will care at last when it is done


In 1920, two years after the Great War had ended, American poet Sara Teasdale published a poem about spring rains. In 1950, science fiction author Ray Bradbury, inspired by her poem, published a short story with the same title.   

There Will Come Soft Rains by Sara Teasdale

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Like a fragile robin's egg, the 12-line poem breaks into two halves, the first six lines offering up the variety and vitality of spring, while the last six catalog emptiness and loss. 

The inverted syntax of the poem's title and first line places time in its future tense before the mention of rain, for this is a meditation on time, war, and memory.  The poem looks ahead to the future, and as it does so, it reinterprets many of the images that had been darkly associated with the First World War.  Unlike the "wild rain" of Edward Thomas's poem, the showers of Teasdale's poem are "soft." Unlike the "obscene, the filthy, the putrid" mud of Mary Borden's poem, in Teasdale's lyric, the "smell of the ground" carries the life-giving scent of the spring.  And unlike the "stiff and senseless" chum described in Rickword's "Trench Poets," whose unburied body recalls men who hung on the barbed wire of No Man's Land, in Teasdale's poem, robins perch on fence wire, "whistling their whims." 

In the shimmering sound of the swallows and the evening songs of the frogs, Teasdale asks us to listen as sweetness and harmony return to the world. 

But the second half of the poem echoes three times the words "not one":  not one will be left to know of the war, to care about the war, to mind "if mankind perished utterly."  While the first half of the poem suggests that spring and rebirth will bring healing to the wounds of war that have been inflicted on the landscape and the psyche, the tone of the second half of the poem is one of indifference rather than acceptance. 


Gassed, by Gilbert Rogers
Teasdale's poem now appears sadly prophetic.  Today in America, there are few who remember the First World War.  The Meuse-Argonne offensive is an unfamiliar name to many, despite the 26,277 American men who were killed and the 95,786 who were wounded in the battles.  The total American casualties of the war, estimated at 116,516 killed and 204,002 wounded, have largely been forgotten.  Teasdale's poem gives voice to the dead of the war in its final lines: "And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,/Would scarcely know that we were gone."  

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Waiting is the Hardest Part


Published in Paris in April of 1918 when masses of American troops were beginning to arrive in France and prepare for battle, Songs from the Trenches: The Soul of the A.E.F. (edited by Herbert Adams Gibbons) was a collection of poems "chosen from the thousand submitted in the New York Herald's Literary Competition.  The foreword of the book asserts that the poems were "a message from the American soldiers abroad to the home folks....Each writer speaks for thousands of his fellows."  

One of the poems included in the collection speaks to anyone who has painfully discovered, no matter what the circumstances, that in the words of the American singer Tom Petty, "The Waiting is the Hardest Part."  

To Those Who Wait
by Donald Sherman White
(originally published under the title "The Boys Who Live in the Ground")

Some sing of the glory of war,
Of heroes who die in the fight;
Of the shock of the battle, the roar of the guns,
When the enemies clash by night.

Some mourn the savagery of war,
The shame and waste of it all;
And they pity the sinfulness of men
Who heard not the Master's call.

They may be right, and they may be wrong,
But what I'm going to sing
Is not the glory of the war—
But the weariness of the thing.

For most of the time there's nothing to do
But to sit and think of the past;
And one day comes and slowly dies—
Exactly like the last.

It's the waiting  seldom talked about 
Oh, it's rarely every told—
That most of the bravery at the front—
Is waiting in the cold.

It's not the dread of the shrapnel's whine
That sickens a fighting soul;
But the beast in us comes out at times
When we're waiting in a hole.

In a hole that's damp and full of rats
The poisoned thoughts will come;
And there are thoughts of long dread days,
Of love, and friends and home.

Just sitting and waiting and thinking
As the dreary days go by
Takes a different kind of courage
From marching out to die.  

And I often think when the thing is done,
And the praises are all passed around, 
If, with all their words, they'll say enough 
For the boys who lived in the ground. 

The poem opens with an argument: it clears a place for itself by dismissing other poems that have come before.  The first two stanzas of White's poem assert that the real question isn't the character or meaning of the First World War.  It doesn't matter whether the war is gloriously heroic or savagely misguided and meaningless.  Instead, this poem dedicates itself to singing "of the weariness of the thing," the numbing tedium of warfare and perhaps life itself, in all its stasis, boredom, and enforced inactivity.   

The poem whispers a seldom talked of truth:  mastering one's mind when "poisoned thoughts" fester and "the beast comes out at times" demands a "different kind of courage" than the bravery needed to charge enemy lines.  Orders were given every morning to prepare for an attack, and the stand-to was typically followed by an hour of waiting until the stand-down order was given and breakfast followed.  This poem isn't concerned with the soldiers who leap "over the top," but instead with the much more real "boys who live in the ground." Their enemy is not only the Germans, but the damp, the rats, and the endless circle of their own thoughts.  

What "sickens a fighting soul" isn't the whine of the shrapnel – death is ever present and these are men who have literally and repeatedly stared death in the face.  What saps their spirits is the paralysis that has been imposed on them: every man has surrendered control of himself to a larger force that demands endurance                                                                                                                    more often than gallantry.  

In an instant, the boredom vanishes?
Ironically, although many of the boys will die far too young, the poem says that these soldiers are plagued with far too much time, time given to recrimination and regret as they contemplate the past.  Waiting diminishes the men.  They are literally buried alive, asked to live a half-life of repeated postponements while they wait for the order to challenge death.  

Advertisements of the time promised to alleviate the boredom: the portable gramophone was offered as an answer to life's existential question.  

But something bigger is at work here, and White's poem is as relevant today as when it was written.  The poem doesn't merely address life in the trenches during the First World War: it continues to challenge modern readers, asking us to consider our own capacity to accept the tediousness of waiting and enforced inaction.    







Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Easter Monday and Memory

Eleanor Farjeon

Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.) 
by Eleanor Farjeon (1917)

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now -
It was such a lovely morning’. Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.

Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’
That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.

There are three letters that you will not get.


Edward Thomas, from the Edward Thomas Fellowship
With direct and simple language, this poem celebrates life's simple pleasures:  apples, hidden gifts, and spring mornings.  The poem speaks tenderly of the "earliest seeds" and ripe buds, signs of growth and life.  Twice repeated is the sentence "It was such a lovely morning" (lines 7 and 11), and the sender of the box of apples and the soldier who has received them both glory in the first day of Holy Week: "I will praise Easter Monday now," and "That Easter Monday was a day for praise."  

The poem, however, foreshadows a darkness that is set against Easter, resurrection, and lovely mornings, when it repeats "This is the eve," and "It was the eve," premonitions of an ending felt by the man in the trenches and the woman in her garden.

In language that tells all without speaking directly of either war or grief, the poem's final line is gentle and yet blunt, delivering the news foreshadowed in the first line "the last letter that I had from France." The man who loved to munch apples, the friend who so politely begged the favor of another letter, is dead, and so "There are three letters that you will not get."  The form of the poem itself is incomplete, a 14-line sonnet, written in iambic pentameter, but without the pattern and fulfilment of rhyme. 

In its last line, the poem offers a stark statement that expresses the reality of death in a seemingly mundane detail:  letters will not be delivered nor read.  Just that quickly, all is ended and a dear friend is gone from this world forever.    

Eleanor Farjeon wrote the poem in memory of her close friend and neighbor Edward Thomas, who was killed at Arras on April 9, 1917.   An imaginative and versatile author, Farjeon wrote not only poetry, but novels, plays, and stories, many composed for children.  She is perhaps best known for writing the lyrics to the song "Morning Has Broken."  In his poem "The Sun Used to Shine," one can imagine Edward Thomas sharing an evening walk with a friend like Farjeon:

"Under the moonlight—like those walks
Now—like us two that took them, and
The fallen apples, all the talks
And silence—like memory's sands…."