Saturday, April 14, 2007

Three War Poems -- a National Poetry Month post

As promised in yesterday's post, here's a look at Wilfred Owen's famous poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est". The title of the poem comes from one of Horace's Odes, written in Lattin (of course): Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, which is quoted in full at the end of the poem. The translation for the Latin is, roughly, "It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country." This poem, one of the most famous of the War Poems from WWI, is a condemnation of war and its atrocities.

Dulce et Decorum Est

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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 floundering 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.

This is the sort of poem that really brings home the horror and desperation of war, the sort of poem that should give thinking men pause before committing troops to a conflict. Yet too few of the world's decision-makers read poetry, I think.

Owen was killed in combat just a week before the end of WWI. News of his death reached his home town in England as the bells rang out to celebrate the armistice.

Other famous War Poets include Rupert Brooke, who wrote far more "patriotic" war poetry -- most famously, a sonnet entitled "The Soldier":

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Brooke's poem was widely imitated, and, as the horrors of the war became widely known and the world fell into a general disillusionment in its aftermath, the poem became dismissed in some camps for its idealism. But oh, the aching beauty of it.

For those who keep track of such things, it's worth noting that Brooke mixed two sonnet forms in this one. The octave (first 8 verses) is in the Shakespearian vein (ABABCDCD), while the closing sestet is Petrarchan (EFGEFG).

A final favorite war poem is "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae. Flanders is, for those who aren't aware, Belgium. The poem is in the form of a rondeau, which explains (in part), the repetition of the phrase "in Flanders fields." McCrae was a Canadian, and part of his poem is on the Canadian $10 bill.

In Flanders Field

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.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your post very much. Thank you for encouraging people to read the Great War poets. I hope you will consider Sasson in your blog sometime. :)

Kelly Fineman said...

I will definitely consider Siegfried Sassoon in the future -- I didn't know much about him, I confess, but the bit I've learned since seeing your note has made me interested to follow up a bit!

Thanks for the recommendation, Vanessa!