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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.
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.
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.
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.