Friday, November 10, 2017

Mired in the Mud ... Thoughts on Poetry and Fiction and War

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know that I usually write something about Remembrance Day in November. 

For many years, I taught at a school named for John McCrae, who wrote the famous poem "In Flanders Fields," so observing Remembrance Day was a big deal for us, teaching students about the meaning of Remembrance Day and at the same time showcasing student art, and music, and creative writing. Now that I'm retired, I'm no longer involved in helping my writing students to research and write about what this day means.Trying to help them scale down the melodrama, and the overt hero worship, to look at the reality of what the men and women who fought in wars, or were affected by war, endured. Helping them to uncover facts, and to write sensitively, and respectfully of our history in times of war.


Lest We Forget mural and monument
Photo of the monument at John McCrae Secondary School courtesy of Arlene Angel-Blair
But even though I'm no longer teaching, I've been thinking this past week of my abiding love for the poetry and fiction of the World War I era. That's partly because it's Remembrance Day, and partly because on a day-tour in England recently we visited the grave of one of my favourite World War I poets, Siegfried Sassoon. That was really special.


woman in churchyard beside a gravestone
Beside Siegfried Sassoon's grave in St Andrew's Churchyard, Mells, Somerset, England
I originally wrote this post back in June 2014, which was, of course, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. I love the poetry and the fiction that depicts this era, and wanted to commemorate the anniversary by talking about some of my favourite writers and their work. So on a sunny June day when I might have been out on my bike, or relaxing on the deck with a book, I was glued to my computer, absorbed by my research, totally immersed, one might even say mired, in the stories and the poetry of the First World War. 

Reading about writers like Rupert Brooke, seen in the picture below. Brooke died in 1915. His poem "The Soldier" is his most famous work, and the lines "If I should die, think only this of me/ That there's some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England" became, in a way, his epitaph. They're lovely words, patriotic, inspiring. But though Brooke was lauded as a war hero, he died aboard ship on his way to battle, not in it. Of blood poisoning from an insect bite. He is buried in an olive grove on the Greek island of Skyros. 

In the early years of the war Rupert Brooke was IT... the soldier poet, described by some as the "golden haired God of poetry." Apparently all of England mourned his death (source.)


I have a card I bought in London years ago that has a famous quote from Brooke's poem  "Old Vicarage, Grantchester," written before the war: "Stands the church clock at ten to three/ And is there honey still for tea?" I love those lines. Brooke is said to have captured in his work the mood of a pre-war world: peaceful, idealistic, confident in the old ways and the old values of heroism and honour. 

two men and two women sitting on the grass, pre WWI era
Noel Oliver, Maitland Radford, Virginia Woolf, Rupert Brooke. source
That's Brooke above on the far right. Gorgeous, eh? Virginia Woolf certainly thought so; that's her sitting beside him. This shot seems to capture the world that would soon be gone. That old romantic, idealistic one. 

As WWI progressed, Brooke's poetry...written by someone who was able to see death in battle as valiant and romantic because he had never actually been in battle, had never even seen the trenches... was criticized as "foolish and naive." Poor Rupert, forever captured on the page as the guy who got it wrong. Not his fault, really. If he had made it to Gallipoli (where he was headed when he died) and survived the battle, most assuredly he would have changed his tune. 


Siegfried Sassoon sang an entirely different tune from Rupert Brooke. Sassoon did see the trenches, in France. He was exceedingly brave in battle, becoming known as "Mad Jack" due to his apparent lack of fear under fire. Sassoon did not, however, remain  unscathed. He was invalided out of battle three times, once for dysentery, once when shot by a sniper, and a final time when he was shot in the head. Still he miraculously survived. 


officer in WWI uniform
Siegfried Sassoon  source
But each time Sassoon returned to England he was more and more disenchanted, and angry about the war. In 1917 he wrote his famous "Declaration Against the War" which vilifies the powers that continued to "prolong the sufferings of the troops" in a war he believed to be "evil and unjust." He accused the political powers at home of "callous complacency," "deception" and as having "not sufficient imagination to realize" the agonies that the soldiers endured. It's these callous, complacent leaders who are described in his poem "Base Details." He describes the "Majors at the Base" as "Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel" all the while sending "glum heroes up the line to death." You can read all about Sassoon and his poetry here.

Sassoon's anger and public denunciation of the war was, to say the least, embarrassing for the military. What to do about a decorated war hero who says such, well, unheroic things? 

So, Sassoon was committed for a time to the Craiglockhart War Hospital,  and treated for "neurasthenia," a controversial condition that involved a "collapse of the nervous system" (Wikipedia.) A symptom of which must have been the publishing of  inconvenient truths. 


Now here is the best part of this story. 

While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon befriended a young poet soldier named Wilfred Owen, pictured below, who was recovering from shell shock. Through their friendship and Sassoon's mentoring of Owen as a writer, Owen would go on to become the best known poet of his era. 


picture of smiling WWI soldier
Wilfred Owen
It's Owen who truly captures in his poetry the darkness, the foulness, of the soldier's existence in battle. His poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est," which means "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country", decries the hypocrisy of that sentiment, and those who used the "old lie" of honour and glory to deceive "children ardent for some desperate glory." Owen's imagery is vivid as he describes the soldiers who "marched asleep/... blood shod.../drunk with fatigue." And his tone is bitter, as he recalls a man choking and dying after a gas attack: "the white eyes writhing in his face/...the blood/...gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, /Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/ Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues." Phew. That's pretty powerful stuff.

But my favourite poem by Wilfred Owen has to be "Anthem for Doomed Youth." Its opening line "What passing bells for those who die as cattle" is, like "Dulce Et Decorum Est," both bitter and vivid. But seriously, if you want to really experience this poem, listen to Sean Bean read it...



Oh my. That's beautiful. 

And what's even more powerful, ironic, and sad ... is that, for a brief time at Craiglockhart, Owen wrote feverishly about his experiences in war and then, when he was deemed fit for duty, he went back to the front. And died on November 4, 1918, seven days before the war ended.

You can read Owen's biography and his work here. And one writer's journey to see where Owen died, and how, here

If poetry is not your thing there are some wonderful novels about WW I. My favourites include the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker.  I love that she writes about the real life friendship between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, and the older poet's mentoring of the younger. Much of Barker's first novel, Regeneration, deals with the two poets and their time at Craiglockhart. It's an amazing, beautifully written book. Really... you should read it. And then read the other two in the trilogy.  




     

I also love Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks. This book moves back and forth between the life of a soldier before and during the war, and his granddaughter many years later. It's a book about love, passion, sorrow, longing and a desire to understand the past... alongside the mud and horror of trench warfare. 

cover of Sebastian Faulk's book Birdsong 

Or, if you like mystery novels, especially well written, clever, erudite mystery novels and you want to read about World War I, try this novel by Reginald Hill. Hill is perhaps my favourite mystery writer. His books are smart and funny and engrossing. This one in particular, I love. Because there's not only the present day mystery, but also a secondary plot where Peter Pascoe unravels the mystery of his grandfather's death during World War I.  

cover of Reginald Hill's book The Wood Beyond

I'm not sure why I'm so enamored of the poetry and fiction written during and about World War I. Part of it is that I love the stories of these men and women who died or were forever changed by their experiences in the mud and the hell that was the First World War. Part of it is the sheer beauty and power of the language used by good writers to describe something almost indescribable, something that those of us who have not experienced it can never really understand. And part of it is that I think it's important that we try to understand. 

I mean more than a hundred years on....what's really changed? 






It's funny that even though I wrote most of this post three years ago, today, in revising it and checking sources etc, I've found myself caught up again in the stories of these writers, and the stories they tell in their work. Once again, even though it's a freezing November day this time, with a wind chill of -15°C, I'm mired in the mud of WWI... all over again. 











41 comments:

  1. How interesting!
    ~Sophia
    http://plaidismyfavouritecolour.blogspot.com/

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    1. Thanks Sophia. And thanks for stopping by.

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  2. That was very interesting, Susan, what a great roundup of some of the great literature and important people of the War.

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    1. Thanks. There are so many great works about WWI....important for us to read some of it, I think.

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  3. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain and Goodbye to All That by Rupert Graves.

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    1. Thanks for the recommendations. I've ordered the Rupert Graves from the library.

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  4. Really enjoyed this post. So many familiar names and poems but love how you've linked them together and the background stories. I remember being fascinated by this period of history in school and reading anything I could find at the time such as VB's Testaments of youth and experience which your reader refers to above. Read The Ghost Road but I'm not sure why I never read the other two. Like you I enjoyed Bird Song. Now interested to try out Reginald Hill, a new author for me. Thanks again for the recommendations. Iris

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    1. Glad you liked the post, Iris. I'll be interested in what you think of Reginald Hill.

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    2. I so miss Hill's writing, such a master. . . . do you ever speculate what Dalziel and Pascoe might have got up to by now? Or Wieldy? Not sure I could bear the distortions of fan fiction, but sometimes I wonder what else might happen with those splendid characters....

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    3. I miss his work too. He really was a master. And if not more of the novels, I would love to have someone write a follow-up television series, like Inspector Lewis is to the Morse series. I'd love to see Wieldy's life, Peter's daughter grown up, and what Dalziel gets up to in retirement.

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  5. You always know where all the good stuff is.

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  6. I don't suppose it's something you would have been much encouraged to talk to your high school students about, but it seems clear that some of these poets' sexuality figured in their feelings around war and and that period's conflation of military heroism and masculinity.. .

    Currently reading my good friend Alison Watt's book Dazzle Patterns -- set in World War I, in Halifax, the period just after the explosion. The protagonist is a young woman who's working as a flaw checker in the glass works when the explosion happens -- her fiancé is in the trenches at Passchendale, Arthur Lismer appears in the page (do you know his paintings of ship's camouflaged by dazzle patterns?) teaching at the School of Art, and there's a young man--a glassblower-- who's grown up in Canada but whose parents emigrated with him from Germany, so those complications you might imagine during wartime. . . . I think you'd like it.

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    1. I don't think I'd have been discouraged in an attempt to explore the idea of sexuality in these works. I always talked about sexuality when reading Tennessee Williams with my grade 12's. But I mostly did war poetry with grade elevens, and so many of them already struggled with poetry analysis. I tried not to lead them in their interpretation... partly because they needed to learn how to do the analysis by themselves. And partly because I was trying to banish that old myth that only an English teacher can figure out what a poem means.
      I'm going to keep my eye out for your friend's book, Frances. You're right, it sounds like one I'd enjoy.

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  7. Thank you for this post! I am Dutch, but live in Belgium. "In Flanders fields" so to speak. Today is a special day here, Armistice Day. It is dark and chilly, somehow it should be on a day like this. Belgium has suffered so much from WW I.
    A couple of years ago, returning from Paris, we stopped in Compiègne to visit the place where the Armistice was signed in a traincompartment. There is a small museum there as well. It is a bit hidden in the forest, a very special place! Thank you for the recommendations! There are also a few Dutch and Belgian novels that a set in that period.

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    1. You're most welcome. I should see if I can find any works by Dutch or Belgian authors writing about the World Wars. That would be really interesting to me, I think.

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    2. Yes perhaps they are translated in English! Three farmers on their way to a dance by Richard Powers is a very interesting novel about the first days of WWI. I read it many years ago.

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  8. Great post and thanks for the book recommendations. My paternal grandfather entered the British Cavalry in 1912 (12th Royal Lancers) and went to France in August 1914. He was there for the duration of the war (except for periodic leaves), amassing a number of medals and just one gunshot wound. At the end of the war, his regiment was merged with another and he was discharged in a downsizing of the British army. He retrained as a electrician and he and my grandmother emigrated to the US. He never talked about what he experienced but I have pieced some of it together from reading the accounts of others.

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    1. I can't imagine what it must have been like to fight in WWI. Well... I can imagine it a bit now that I've read about it. But to actually be there...no.

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  9. Your lessons must have been wonderful,Sue. The posts are !
    All the stories,all the poems.....
    Goodbye To All That by Robert Graves is translated in croatian,I've just spotted it last week
    Dottoressa

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    1. Thanks, Dottoressa. I still haven't read Good-bye To All That. I should attempt it again. I abandoned it when life became a bit too stressful in favour of murder mysteries.

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  10. I have read „Regeneration“, but I did not know there were more volumes. I’ll try and find them right away.
    My paternal grandfather’s elder brothers were killed in France in September and October of 1914, being 21 and 24 years old. Of course I know that Germany was in great part responsible for that terrible war, and I am sure that my great-grandparents’ family was just as nationalistic, arrogant and prejudiced as most of the members of the Prussian lower nobility of the time, but in spite of all that I just cannot help but wonder what it might have meant to my great-grandmother to receive those two letters telling her of the deaths of her sons within six weeks of each other. (Not to mention the fact that her third son, my grandfather, insisted on becoming a soldier, too, as soon as he was 18 years old. He survived.)
    When I think of my former students, I realize that they simply cannot imagine a war between Germany and France or Britain or any other neighbouring country. I think that is something we have to thank the European Union for.

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    1. It must have been so difficult to get those telegrams. Did your grandfather ever speak of his war experiences?

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    2. I never met my gandfather. He died in WWII, aged 46. True to family tradition, you could say. (That may sound sarcastic, I know, but I do feel a certain strangeness towards that branch of my family.)

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  11. Very serious subject this time , so I'll be serious . I read this the other day- I don't agree with him https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/09/no-more-remembrance-days-consign-20th-century-history Max & I are really interested in history & WW1 is his major period of interest . We have a bookshelf full of reference books of the period , he attends lectures by specialists , is a member of the Western Front association & , with friends , visits the battlefields every year . He finds the all the cemeteries , including the German ones , equally moving . His research includes following in his grandfathers footsteps in Ypres , the Somme & Passchendaele . As you might remember his grandfather was treated for gas poisoning at John McCrae's field hospital , Essex farm , before later returning to the front . The family feeling is that he never recovered from his war experiences , he would never discuss it , suffered deep depression & actually committed suicide later in life . It's difficult to understand now , but the mindset of the ordinary man , on both sides, their sense of duty to king , country & empire was totally different a hundred years ago . This was also felt in the ' colonies ' where volunteers readily stepped forward - your Canada especially . Max feels that the war poets view of WW1 is just one perspective & should be balanced by the consequences had we not entered the war . Although it was a tragic war it shouldn't be regarded as futile & it is important that we remember the sacrifices of all who took part , both military & civilian .
    This is just a précis of his feelings on the subject , I'm sure most of your readers have stopped reading already :)
    Wendy from York

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    1. I read that piece in the Guardian, Wendy, after I read your comment. It seems to me that the writer is making the assumption that those who observe Remembrance Day do so in ignorance of the reality of war. I thought that a very big presumption. And even if it's so maybe the answer is education, not forgetting about Remembrance Day.
      I know at our school we sent over two hundred kids each year on buses down to the national ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. We held the assembly I've mentioned and written about before for the other students, a ceremony written and conducted by the seniors. And in learning and writing about Canada's participation in its wars, never are the students encouraged to look at war as heroic, never is war glorified. I think that teaching kids about the sacrifice made in wars helps them to understand how tragic the effects of war are. And observing Remembrance Day doesn't have to glorify xenophobia, or create an us vs them attitude.
      I'd forgotten all about Max's interest in WWI when I met him that day in Bakewell. I would have loved to hear about some of his trips. But perhaps that was a good thing... or I'd have asked so many questions you guys would never have made it home that night:)

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  12. Sue, thank you for your thoughts about WWI poets and writers and those days -- in 2014 and now. Somehow, during the last 20 years I've wound up in Canada spending many Remembrance Days surrounded by poppies. I know pitifully little about the Great War or my American forbears' participation in it. You've helped me understand a bit more than I knew.

    And to Wendy of York, I'm sure there are many legitimate perspectives. Thank you for sharing Max's perspective.

    My own perspective is that war is many things, but none of those things is romantic.

    Ann

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Ann. I agree... war is many things but never romantic. Well said.

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  13. I think there are similarities between Canada and Australia's participation in wars, especially World War 1. We were a long way away, it was not our fight and yet it had a profound effect. In every Australian city and town you will find a World War 1 memorial with long lists of fallen soldiers. Then the memorials were modified to add the lists from World War 11. I find especially poignant where there are multiples of the same surname. I remember from my childhood many spinster aunts and great aunts. As a teenager I remarked to one, how romantic it was that she still wore an engagement ring, had stayed true to the memory of her fiancé who died in the World War 1. She replied acerbically, that so few of her generation of men returned from the war it was not a choice.
    On Remembrance Day I don't think of victories or defeats, rights or wrongs of war, I think of all the families on all sides who went on without their their husband, sons, father, brothers, friends, also the men who survived having seen and done terrible things in war and had to live with that.
    Lilibet

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    1. That's so true, Lilibet. When we were in France in 2015, near Arras there is a new, beautiful monument that we visited which displays all the soldiers killed in World War I, in alphabetical order, no distinction for nationality. It was touching to see the many Schmidts next to the long list of Smiths. The intention is to show how we all suffered great losses.

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  14. I'm a little late here! Just wanted to add how much I enjoyed this post Sue and the memories it evoked.
    Hope you're having a good week.
    Rosie

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    1. Thanks, Rosie. Hope your week has been good too. Seeing as how I'm three days late responding to this:)

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  15. Here in NYC two British clergyman wore red poppies in their lapels at Services on Friday night, so touching.
    Sue, please do watch the movie Gods and Monsters. As I said last year, it relates to this post.

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    1. I wasn't sure if the poppy was something everyone wears in the States. Here we feel guilty if we go out around Remembrance Day without our poppy on:)
      Akkk... I haven't watched that movie yet. Thanks for reminding me!

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  16. This is not something we do in the States. What I found touching is despite being overseas, those Britons observed the custom even though moat people here did not understood what they were doing.

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.