Enjoying the one hour of television that I watch each week, Masterpiece on PBS, I began to reflect on the poetry that came out of The Great War, which provides the backdrop for this year’s episodes of Downton Abbey.
Can you imagine writing a poem in a trench? While I’m finding it difficult enough to concentrate on this blog with construction going on in the neighborhood, I can hardly imagine enduring anything, much less war, without carrying that which is more cathartic, if not mightier, than a bayonet.
Letters have always been a solace to soldiers. As if being far removed from kith and kin were not enough to bear, the often unbearable misery of battle necessitates expression beyond the ordinary vent. Arguably, for a poet, this necessity is heightened all the more. The urge to order and define fear and despair is, for a soldier poet, as natural as ducking at the sound of fire.
For Wilfred Owen, who died a week before the armistice, “The Poetry is in the pity.” (“These men are worth/Your tears.”) Describing a soldier back from the front, legless in a wheelchair:
Now, he will spend a few years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
Cambridge educated Rupert Brooke, who died of dysentery aboard a ship bound for Gallipoli, wrote his war sonnets while still in the fervor of idealistic patriotism. Never having witnessed the front lines, he sang a perfectly pitched ode to his beloved homeland.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed…
Having seen countless hours of combat, before he too died in the line of duty, painter-poet, Isaac Rosenberg, sang not of the glory of country, but, rather of the gory detail. Flooded, rat-infested trenches are the stuff of his lines, lines from the front, where horror was the order of the day, and “The drowning soul was sunk too deep/For human tenderness.”
From Greece, where Brooke was buried, in the land Apollo roamed, to France, where so many battle lines were drawn, “There shall (forever) be/…a richer dust concealed…”
These and many more lines from the front and elsewhere are revealed in the pages of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, on the shelf this week at Our Town Books.