Death


‘Dead Man’s Dump’

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

NOTES

A soldier going wiring— that is, setting up entanglements of barbed wire in No-Man’s Land— takes limbers (carriages) full of wire across the battlefield. These carriages, pulled by mules, pass near the bodies of the dying and run over the bodies of the unburied dead.

Dead Man’s Dump: Bernard Bergonzi, in ‘Heroes Twilight’, recounts the inspiration for ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ in this way: “Rosenberg described the genesis of this poem in a letter to Edward Marsh, dated 8 May 1917: ‘Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather by carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I don’t think what I’ve written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it Ill make it fine…’”. (sic) (p.113)

“The plunging limbers over the shattered track / Racketed”: In his novel ‘Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four!’ RH Mottram writes of “a string of square boxes on wheels, known as limbers… being drawn with a springless rattle”. In the events described in ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, the limbers are pulled by mules led by the soldier. Here the limbers similarly rattle noisily (note the onomatopoeia of the word “racketed”) as they bump along, “plunging” on the broken track that runs through the battlefield. Rosenberg begins this poem with a detailed, descriptive realism.

“rusty freight”: the limbers contain long spools or coils of rusty barbed wire, for use in defence against German attack.

“Stuck out like many crowns of thorns”: The barbed wire overspills the top of the limbers, their coils resembling the crown placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion. The simile recalls this torment, and with a conventional symbolism suggests the suffering inflicted on the common soldier in battle.

“the rusty stakes like sceptres old”: The limbers also carry the metal stakes which are rammed or, corkscrew-like, twisted into the ground to support the barbed wire: these, perhaps, have nub-like heads that remind the poet of “sceptres” (ceremonial staffs held by royalty as a symbol of authority). The contrast implied by the comparing a rusty metal pole with such a prestigious object ironically attributes to the fence-stakes a magical power or authority on the front line, demonstrating their power over men.

“To stay the flood of brutish men / Upon our brothers dear.”: To “stay” here means to stop. Bergonzi interestingly suggests that the image of an old sceptre holding back a flood recalls the “fruitless” actions of the legendary British King Canute (who tried to command the tides of the sea)— suggesting the wire may similarly also fail to hold the tide ( or “flood”) of the dehumanised enemy (“brutish men”) back.

“The wheels lurched over sprawled dead / But pained them not,”: The wheels of the limbers roll over the insensible bodies of the dead in No-Man’s Land. This horrible task, described by Rosenberg unflinchingly (“their bones crunched”), is the horrifying inspiration for the poem.

“They lie there huddled, friend and foeman…”: There is an equality or “kinship” (brotherhood) in death on the battlefield for all these “men born of women”.

“Shells go crying over them / From night till night and now.”: The shrieking sound of the shells that go “crying” over the dead men ironically recall the terrible cries of those who will mourn the dead. The repetition of “night” draws out and slows the following line: the unburied bodies continue to be exposed to the violence of battle.

“Earth has waited for them…”: Earth is personified here as a kind of monstrous goddess, famished and anxious (“fretting”) for the death of the men, “all the time of their growth”. This is a bleak vision of life as a brief time of vigour before inevitable death and decay— before being reclaimed by the dust.

“Now she has them at last!”: the earth has caught the fighting men at the height of their youth and strength (“in the strength of their strength”). Her power is greater than theirs, however, and they are “stopped and held”. Rosenberg also perhaps here suggests the frozen pose of men’s bodies half caught on the wire where they died— “suspended”.

“What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?”: Another typical Rosenberg question, much like the poet’s question to the rat—“What do you see in our eyes?”— in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. The phrasing of this question is difficult: It seems to speculate on Earth’s nightmarish obsession with reclaiming or consuming the dead men’s now “dark souls”.

“Earth! Have they gone into you?”: With urgency, the poet addresses Earth herself, desperate to know where the men’s souls have gone.

“…flung on your hard back / Is their soul’s sack”: the men’s bodies are compared to sacks lying on the “hard back” of the ground, “emptied of God-ancestralled essences”. This metaphor suggests that the men’s souls— their “God-ancestralled”, or God-created essences— have left the cheap and heavy material of their bodies.

“Who hurled them out? Who hurled?”: Rosenberg voices the essential horror of this casting out (“hurled”) of the precious soul from the body in the moment of death. Again, Rosenberg is not afraid of reminding us of the terrible lack of meaning that seems to be presented to man by the horror and death of the Western front.

“None saw their spirits’ shadows shake the grass…”: There is almost a sense of wonder at the easy passing of the insubstantial soul, and an easing of the hysteria of the previous lines. Note the softening sibilance of these lines.

When the swift iron burning bee / Drained the wild honey of their youth”: The pastoral imagery here— of a bee drinking honey— suggests the draining of blood from young men by the “swift iron” of bullets. To compare a bullet to a bee works aurally: both ‘buzz’ or ‘zip’ as they fly. The alliteration found in the phrase “burning bee” might also be intended to recall, at some distance, the sound of guns firing.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre…”: The poem turns its attention to the survivors who, bemused and guilty, continue living. A pyre is a pile of wood, burnt during ritual cremations, or as in ancient Celtic ceremonies, to sacrifice the living: here Rosenberg seem to be subverting the notion of sacrifice, transforming its transcendental Christian connotations into horrific images of the burning the living (continuing the metaphor of “burning” from the prior stanza).

Our lucky limbs on ichor fed, / Immortal seeming ever?”: Ichor was the golden blood of the ancient Greek gods (compare the earlier image of “wild honey” running through the veins of the youthful soldiers). This classical reference recalls Homer and verse composed in praise of heroes; though the questioning and irony here— that the surviving soldiers are far from immortal— conveys a sense of bemusement at the men’s survival.

Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us, / A fear may choke in our veins…”: The poet anticipates the burning of the survivors in the conflagration of battle, and this causing death through sheer fear.

The air is loud with death, / The dark air spurts with fire…”: the verse becomes regular at the start of this stanza, using iambic trimeter (“the AIR / is LOUD / with DEATH”). Rosenberg depicts an immediate, apocalyptic scene with an insistent, strident rhythm aided by strong alliteration and assonance: it is the relentlessness of the war that he seeks to convey.

Timelessly now, some minutes past, / These dead strode time with vigorous life…”: the stanza now changes rhythm, the lines lengthening. Time also becomes problematic here: the near past, only “minutes past”, when the men marched ‘in time’, is now gone forever, ended by the shrapnel of shells.

“Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home…”: almost a stab at sentimentality here– the dying men dream of distant home.

“A man’s brains splattered on / a stretcher bearer’s face…”: the open affection of the previous line (“dear things”) is immediately undercut by the grisly realism of a stretcher bearer, his face smeared with gore, attempting to lift the body of a dying man from the battlefield.

“His shook shoulders slipped their load,”: the revulsion the stretcher bearer feels as he realises that the man’s brains are on his face leads to an instinctive, horrified shrug– so that the injured soldier’s body slips from his grasp. The clever sibilance in this line seems to suggest both the bearer’s difficulty with the slick body (which falls from his grasp), and the dying man’s loose hold on life.

“The drowning soul was sunk too deep / For human tenderness”: the man dies. What remains becomes a lifeless thing, pitiful but inert. Note that Rosenberg uses images of drowning in this poem to suggest the moment of death.

“They left this dead with the older dead, / Stretched at the cross roads.”: the stretcher bearers leave the man with a pile of older corpses. The image of leaving the body “at the cross roads” here is haunting, recalling myth— the crossroads are a place for travellers on a journey, and here that journey marks the movement of the men’s spirits to another world. The act of leaving sacrifices at crossroads is especially associated with ancient and pagan myth; Hecate, a powerful Greek goddess of magic, death and rebirth, received dedications there. Rosenberg therefore uses what is known as a ‘liminal’ image, suggesting here an uncertain road from one state to another. In a sense this poem seeks to show that No-Man’s Land is a terrifying ‘liminal’ place, a strip of land where the living and the dead meet: a crossroads between life and death.

“Burnt black by strange decay, / Their sinister faces lie;”: in this hellish image the decomposing bodies— “burnt black” with their “sinister faces”— seem to threaten the living, though they remain inert and motionless, “joined to the great sunken silences” of the non-living.

“Here is one not long dead;”: the soldier’s roving eye alights on a body fresher than the rest. He imagines or recounts the dead man’s last living moments as he hears the “far wheels” of the limber-truck moving towards him. These moments are defined by a grasping confusion as the man clings to life, which Rosenberg suggests by using contradictory, paradoxical phrases and images that subtly undermine their own claim to meaning. So, for example, there is the dying man’s “dark hearing”, which uses colour to describe an aural process of diminishing hearing; a “choked soul”, describing the soul in terms of a strangulated body, reaching out; the wheels of the limber-truck speak “living words”; the dying man’s intelligence is “blood-dazed”; and so on. Cutting through this confusion is the pitiful terror of the man as he waits to be found, “crying through the suspense of the far-torturing wheels”.

“Swift for the end to break, / Or the wheels to break,”: the phrasing here continues to suggest confusion and a desperation to live (what will ultimately “break”? – “the end” or “the wheels”? If “the end” breaks, does that uncertain phrasing mean he shall live or die? Similarly, if “the wheels” break, does that mean an end to the torture of waiting, alone, for death?). This uncertainty is ended by quickly advancing death itself. Rosenberg describes this through an image of drowning beneath a tsunami-like diluvian flood, “the tide of the world”: it is this which finally ‘breaks’ “over his sight”.

“Will they come? Will they ever come?”: the desperation of the dying man reaches its greatest height as he waits for a fellow human being to find him.

“Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules…”: the poem moves towards its grim conclusion; the mules pulling the limber trucks draw close by. The visual perspective of the dying man, lying on the ground looking upwards, “with his tortured upturned sight”, is emphasised in these lines; he sees the mule’s hooves and their twitching (“quivering”) bellies, and the “rushing wheels” of the limbers. The repetition of the words “mixed… mules… mules… mixed” seems significant too, perhaps intended by Rosenberg to suggest the sound of the turning (perhaps squeaking) wheels that greet the soldier as they ride over the ground.

“So we crashed around the bend”: the sense of perspective suddenly shifts back again to the soldier who is out wiring. The adjective “crashed” suggests a clumsiness to the wiring team that is quite removed from the quietly tortured personal drama related just prior.

“We heard his weak scream, / We heard his very last sound…”: the anaphora (that is, the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a line) of “We heard his… We heard his…” seems to relate something of the mechanical response of the wiring soldiers to the horror around them as they work, their necessary desensitisation to the carts’ “wheels” grazing a “dead face”. The reader feels immediately the terrible pathos and irony of the moment, Rosenberg having effectively organised the narrative of the poem so that a response of horror or shame is unavoidable. On the other hand, it also seems that it is only by reconstructing and then reflecting on such a grim battlefield scene that the dehumanised battlefield can be made human once more. ’Dead Man’s Dump’ attempts to reclaim the thousands of anonymous deaths that took place in No-Man’s Land back to the world of memory and the living– reclaiming them from the insensible wheels of war that turn throughout the poem.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This long poem is one of the highest regarded of the war. It is also, plainly, one of the most detailed, explicit and therefore brutal accounts of the horror of the First World War. It is so because the reader is taken on tour of the battlefield, fresh with corpses and the cries of dying men, and is told of the necessary numbness of those forced to soldier on. Sassoon’s ‘The Rear-Guard’ (p.177) is another such a poem that uses realism to evoke the sometimes hellish nature of war on the Western Front; Owen’s poetry can work in a similar way, especially ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Exposure’ and ‘Insensibility’ (pp.188-92). While this poem is, I think, unlikely to some up in Section 1b, it does have many useful points of comparison to other poems that describe man’s inhumanity to man.]

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‘Break of Day in the Trenches’

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

NOTES

At dawn a sentry standing on duty pulls a poppy from the top of the trench he guards. A rat jumps over his hand. At first amused, the soldier reflects on the animal’s presence on the front line.

Break of Day in the Trenches: Dawn in the trenches was an important part of the soldier’s day: before dawn ‘stand to’ took place, when soldiers would man the fire-step in preparation for an attack. The speaker in this poem seems to be alone at dawn, however, and in a thoughtful or whimsical frame of mind. Rosenberg himself described the poem in a letter to his friend Eddie Marsh as “a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk” (Stallworthy, p.165).

“The darkness crumbles away.”: As the poem begins, the night is ending, and, like the earth at the top of the trench, “crumbles away”. This is a poem that constantly reminds the reader of the presence of earth and dust: from the perspective of the rat who scurries close to the earth among the corpses, to the soldiers who are in constant close proximity to the dirt of the front— in life as in death.

“It is the same old druid Time as ever,”: the druids were the priesthood of the ancient British pagan religion. In his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Stallworthy writes that here “we can see the figure of Old Father Time personified as a druid (standing perhaps before a druidic sacrificial altar)” (p.166). Dawn, Stallworthy explains, was the customary time for druidic sacrifice— which, of course, was also often human sacrifice. Yet all this is conveyed with what seems like a light, popular allusion— a reference to the familiar image of Father Time, sickle in hand.

“Only a live thing leaps my hand, / A queer sardonic rat”: A rat appears and runs over the soldier’s hand. The rat is described whimsically: the soldier’s sense of surprise is followed by clear amusement at the animal’s peculiar (“queer”) expression, which suggests a mocking or scornful (“sardonic”) look. The rat is the first of two symbols that Rosenberg uses to subvert the pastoral mode in this poem. In the pastoral nature is idealized and opposed to the corruption of the world of men: a typical example might be Shelley’s ‘To a Syklark’. In ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, on the other hand, it is the much-loathed rat who seems to be contemplating men— as Paul Fussell notes, “perfectly aware of the irony in the… [swapping] of human and animal roles”.

“As I pull the parapet’s poppy / To stick behind my ear”: The second focus of contemplation in the poem is a flower— a poppy growing out of the parapet (that is, the top of the trench wall). The soldier pulls the poppy from the earth and places it behind his ear. The poppy, of course, is a familiar symbol of war: its redness, above all, being associated with the blood of dead soldiers (see my notes for ‘In Flanders Fields’, below). There seems something romantic, amused, even devil-may-care about the soldier’s unsoldierly gesture: more suitable perhaps to the actions of a young boy, or a lover. Note the alliteration here, whose ‘pah-pah-pah-pah’ may suggest the sound of far-off gunfire.

“Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies”: The rat seems oddly amused (“droll’). Here the voice of the poem becomes directed towards the rat, addressing him wryly. The rat has more freedom than the soldier who is subject to military laws that forbid fraternisation with the enemy. If the soldier shared the same “cosmopolitan sympathies” as the rat— to be ‘cosmopolitan’ means to be careless of nationality or affiliation when approaching others— then he would be shot.

“Now you have touched this English hand…”: The rat is free to roam, and the soldier seems to take pleasure in its carelessness about Nationality. Remember that Rosenberg hated the war and the army with a particular passion, fighting only for money to help his family. Rosenberg, a working-class, Jewish poet-artist, was doubtless used to being an outsider, due to his class, race and creative inclination. His ironic identification with the hated trench-rat is very much a source of the poem’s power: it allows a kind of grim objectivity regarding human affairs to be expressed in an almost playful, leavened tone.

“Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure / To cross the sleeping green between”: Blake’s Songs are once again referenced here by Rosenberg, as in ‘On Receiving News of the War’. Here the reference to “the sleeping green between” recalls Blake’s poem ‘The Ecchoing Green’ (Blake’s spelling).  Note the easy colloquial tone of the writing here, with its affirmative asides: “…soon, no doubt, if…”.

“It seems you inwardly grin as you pass / Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes”: the rat seems aware of the irony that he, normally the subject to man’s dominion, now wanders freely amongst the bodies of the dead. These are the same idealised, classical bodies that Brooke seems to evoke in ‘Peace’: well-sculpted men of “sharpened power”, now broken in death. Their bodies here, lying in the dirt, seem to figure the end of one ideal of heroic manhood: but perhaps also the collapse of Western civilization.

“Bonds to the whims of murder”: the dead men were tied (“bonds”) to the seemingly  arbitrary commands of those who directed them to ‘murder’— a strong word, this, in connection with soldiering.

“Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, / The torn fields of France.”: the soldier’s corpses are metaphorically described as lying within the earth’s guts; a metaphor that seems extended by the image of France’s ‘torn’ fields, and the sense that the country has been violently eviscerated by the war.

“What do you see in our eyes…?”: the poem now becomes interrogative. This passage particularly recalls William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. ‘The Tyger’ interrogates how it can be that such a deadly creature as the tiger could be created by a ‘good’ God. The questioning here and the elemental imagery describing battle (“shrieking iron and flame / Hurled through still heavens”) echoes much in Blake’s poem, but most clearly perhaps the apocalyptic fifth verse after the creation of the tiger: “When the stars threw down their spears, / And watered heaven with their tears, / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. The rat is an emblem of death, like the tiger; but the heavier condemnation for both creature’s existence seems to fall on those agents in both poems that allow them to be or flourish— God in Blake’s poem, man’s violence in Rosenberg’s.

“What quaver— what heart aghast?”: Again, Blakean syntax here (that is, the line is constructed in such a way that it recalls William Blake’s writing). Does the rat see fear (a “quaver”) in men’s eyes? Or perhaps the rat sees terror (“heart aghast”) within?

“Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins / Drop, and are ever dropping;”: the poem concludes with a clever return to the flower which the soldier picked from the parapet at the poem’s beginning. The reference to poppies “roots” which are “in man’s veins” is a return to the old notion that poppies flourished whilst growing on the blood of dead soldiers. Like the poppy that the soldier in the poem picked (thus killing it), these poppies continually “drop”: like the dead soldiers who nourish them.

“But mine in my ear is safe— just a little white with the dust.”: for a little while, the poppy behind the soldier’s ear is safe, declares the soldier. There is an irony to this, however: the poppy plucked from the earth is now dying. The whitening of the dust seems to signify the beginning of this journey towards death. The soldier’s observation seems aware of the irony:  that man’s actions mean that safety is unlikely— that the “dropping” of another poppy is at best delayed for the short while this dawn scene lasts.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is one of the most richly associative in the whole anthology: Jon Stallworthy has himself written that this is one of his favourite First World War poems. It straddles many areas of interest for students: it plays with the pastoral mode; it subverts symbols conventionally associated with the war (rats and poppies); it does so in a realistic way, giving a strong flavour of everyday life for soldiers in the trenches; it contains its own implied critique of the classical, ‘heroic’, muscular values prevalent before the war; and it has strong mythic overtones. It is indeed one of the great masterpieces of First World War poetry, and expresses the momentary pleasures and everyday horror of the war without sentimentality. I always feel that ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is a key poem in Stallworthy’s anthology; it is a poem that can be linked to many of the other poems in the collection, both good and bad.]

Claude Chaules, 1901-2011.

Claude Choules, a Worcestershire man living in Perth, Australia, has died at the age of 110. This in itself would be a remarkable thing, but Choules’ great age is only preliminary to a greater distinction. In the words of his autobiography, Claude Choules was ‘The Last of the Last’– the last known man to see active service in World War One. He died in his sleep in a nursing home on Wednesday night.

Claude Choules’ story, like that of Harry Patch, the last of the British soldiers who fought on the Western Front to die, is part ordinary, part extraordinary. You can read an article about his death on the BBC website: and there is a good obituary of the man in the Sydney Morning Herald.

These deaths are, in one sense, historically insignificant. That sounds coldly objective, even cruel. Of course the lives of these men touched many others, and their families mourn them. And of course, in the profoundest sense, no life is insignificant: as John Donne once put it, “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved with mankind”.

Yet these were common men, common soldiers, like so many of the millions who died before November 11th, 1918. In many ways it is fitting that the last fighting men to die from the Great War were not men of rank or power. Claude Choules’ death reminds us of an event that is becoming ever more remote to us all: and while length of life alone does not demand remembrance, for those men who saw active service in the First World War, longevity is not a dry curiousity– it is a fortune, and an achievement.

‘The Silent One’

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two–
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes– and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line– to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice– a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied–
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole no way to be seen,
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing–
And thought of music– and swore deep heart’s deep oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated– and a second time faced the screen.
NOTES

In this poem a soldier takes cover while facing a barrier of uncut barbed wire in No-Man’s land. Two men lie dead on the wire, one of whom the soldier knows. A commanding officer points a possible way through the wire, one that would mean certain death to the soldier; the soldier refuses to take it.

The Silent One: The title refers first to the man dead lying on the wires— his silence obviously indicating his death. This is an example of metonymy— where one word is substituted for another that it suggests. It is perhaps unsurprising that Gurney, a composer, associates silence with death. Without wanting to see Gurney and his poetry simply through his other career as a musician, ‘The Silent One’ is very aware of what can (or can’t) be heard: of sounds, of speaking, and of silence.

STRUCTURE: The structure of ‘The Silent One’ is only partly organized according to rhyme: it begins with two rhyming couplets, but the end-rhyme thereafter is deliberately imperfect and sporadic. “Unbroken” and “unshaken” near-rhyme. ‘Seen’ weakly rhymes with the second unaccented syllable of “whizzing”, but does rhyme with ‘screen’ in the last line. In the midst of these half-rhymes “clothes” and “oaths”, either rhyme or half-rhyme, depending on how you read the poem.

The reason for the weakness of the end-rhyming in ‘The Silent One’ is, I think, because so much is going on within the lines themselves: you can find words and phrases repeated throughout the poem in quite a complicated way. We find “wires” and “unbroken wires” (twice), “chatter” and “chattered”; “accent”, “darkness”, “line”, “no”, “retreated” and “again” repeated likewise. Why does Gurney do this?  Perhaps because this poem is written in a colloquial style and, in the manner of everyday speech, parenthetical. What I mean by ‘parenthetical’ is to say that the poem contains lots of little asides, just as everyday speech has: and the extensive use of punctuation within the line (dashes, colons, semi-colons and brackets) designates the speaker’s leaps to other thoughts or linked observations. This creates a confidential and intimate air to the poem— which contains, suitably enough, a startling and frank admission— an informality perhaps at odds with a strong use of end-rhyme.

“Who died on the wires…”: The poem begins, unusually, as if running on from the title. The wire, of course, is barbed wire, used massively across Europe during the Great War as a defence on the Western Front (for illustration, see the thickets of barbed wire which I use as the banner for this site). The use of barbed wire is representative of the fact that for much of the First World War, armies were defending territory in a static manner. Barbed wire impeded the approach of attackers; many of the soldiers of both sides died collapsed and died on the wires (read more about the use of barbed wire in the Great War, here).

“Who… had chattered through / infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:”: the speaker, a soldier, knows the dead man facing him on the wires. The intimacy of his observation— referring to the man’s “hours of life” and “infinite lovely chatter”— contrasts powerfully with the directness of Gurney’s description of his comrade’s fate. Note the reference to the man’s Buckinghamshire accent as a kind of symbol of his humanity: there is again a strong contrast to be made here between the musicality of his voice and his silence in death.

“Yet faced unbroken wires;”: Before an attack, a major purpose of shelling was to break up the barbed wire defences of the enemy, and so clear the way for an assault. Teams of men would also be sent into No-Man’s Land to clear the wire. These attempts were often unsuccessful and to be entangled in or slowed by barbed wire in No-Man’s land was to be a sitting duck for enemy gunfire. The use of colons and semi-colons here draw the poem back to this fateful moment for the dead officer: leaping backward in time within a sentence like this is called analepsis.

“stepped over, and went  / A noble fool, faithful to his stripes— ”: continuing his description of the man’s journey into no-man’s land, we find that he is an officer (“his stripes” refers to the number of chevrons on his uniform, showing his rank). He was, the speaker says, a “noble fool” for following the order to attack, which meant his death: the odds were clearly against his survival.

“and ended.”: The conclusion of this sentence, Bernard Bergonzi writes, “matches anything in Sassoon and Owen in its terrible directness”. The terseness of this ending is indeed shocking— though it is the rather indirect nature of the sentence that leads up to the conclusion (encompassing observations about the man’s dead body, a reference to his “lovely chatter” and accent, and his part in the action before his death) that disarms the reader before this “direct” conclusion.

“But I weak, hungry and willing only for the chance of line— to fight in the line,”: the exhaustion of the speaker is admitted. This documentary honesty is a feature of the poem. The soldier is “willing”, despite his exhaustion, only because of the chance to fight. Again, the punctuation here is subtle: the dash seems to precede a necessary clarification or explanation that the soldier did indeed want to fight.

“But I… lay down under unbroken / Wires, and saw flashes and kept unshaken”: the soldier lies down before the wire, out of enemy gunfire. Here we find another mention of the wires, and the fact that they are unbroken— this fact, and the different responses of soldiers to this fact, dominates the poem. The soldier manages to keep control of himself as the bombs explode nearby.

“Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:”: this voice— the soldier’s commanding officer’s voice— contrasts strongly with that of the ‘silent one’. The officer is detached, particular, and his accent is overly refined (“finicking”) where the Bucks man’s was expressive of his humanity.

“‘Do you think you might crawl through there— there’s a hole.’”: the phrasing of the officer’s observation— a direction offered in the form of a question— betrays hesitation. Nonetheless disobeying a lawful command from a superior officer could result in imprisonment.

“Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied— ‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’”: the soldier’s refusal to follow the officer’s direction here is the dramatic heart of the poem. While this describes a grim scene, it is also possible to detect some of Gurney’s ironic humour here: as soon as the officer points a way through, the crack of a rifle in the dark is heard. This irony is clearly felt by the soldier (“I smiled”) who answers the officer in the same polite manner with which he was directed. There is something heroic about the soldier’s rational anti-heroism: indeed, ‘The Silent One’ is one of the few great poems of the First World War that courts the same grim, fatalistic humour that is found in many of the common soldiers’ songs (like ‘The Old Barbed Wire’: “If you want to find the old battalion / They’re hanging on the old barbed wire”).

“There was no hole… after tearing of clothes…”: the soldier’s observation regarding the impossibility of attacking through the ‘hole’ that the officer points to can be read here in a number of ways. Earnestly, as if in self-justification? With muted anger? Wearily, in disbelief at the uselessness of the order? With wry amusement as the situation is recalled? It is a mark of the clever balance of the poem that all these complex responses are plausible. In a sense, the soldier is responding to what would be, outside of war, an insane situation; to be directed towards what could almost certainly be a useless death. Gurney here humanely dramatises the fine line between the noble and foolish gesture.

“Kept flat, and watched the darkness…”: Gurney describes the soldier’s consequent actions in defiantly non-heroic terms: he lies prone, out of the line of fire.

“hearing bullets whizzing— / And thought of music— ”: the soldier listens in the darkness. This acuteness of hearing, and the ability to listen to others and judge accurately what precisely is being suggested or said, is important in the poem. The reference to thoughts of music imply that this is a poem composed by Gurney from personal experience.

“swore deep heart’s deep oaths / (Polite to God)”: the confidential yet frank tone of the poem comes through strongly here. The little aside here, in parenthesis, reads here like a joke after a heartfelt confession of fear (I didn’t blaspheme as I swore, he bluffly reassures the reader).

“…retreated and came on again, / Again retreated— and a second time faced the screen.”: the vacillation here— the quite open use of the word ‘retreated’ here, and the return again and again to the wire— effectively describes the actions of a man facing an insurmountable object (“the screen” of wire). On this inconclusive and definitely non-heroic note— the wire halting forward movement— the poem appropriately ends.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Silent One’ can be compared to any other poem that depicts or lauds heroism (or indeed condemns or describes cowardice) as it usefully injects a powerful and documentary sense of realism to the momentary dilemmas of the front line.]

‘Ballad of the Three Spectres’

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee,
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, ‘Here’s a right brave soldier
That walks the dark unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher,
And laughing for a nice Blighty.’

The second, ‘Read his face, old comrade,
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow,
Then look his last on Picardie.’

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
‘He’ll stay untouched till the war’s last dawning
Then live one hour of agony.’

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one – two – three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

 

NOTES

This poem tells the story of a soldier who one night meets three ghosts  while on duty in the trenches. They each prophesy a different fate for the man, and the soldier is forced to contemplate how the war will end for him.

STRUCTURE NOTE: The poem has a traditional ballad or song structure. It consists of an alternating rhyme scheme ABAB in quatrain form, simple and to the purpose of telling a supernatural tale, a common subject for ballads.

Ballad of the Three Spectres: While superficially lighter in tone than ‘To His Lover’, this is a poem that confronts the typical soldier’s anxiety about his unseen future and his fear of death. Gurney adapts traditional figures from literature and myth in his ballad, presenting three ghosts who prophesy or determine a man’s future. In Greek myth the Moirae, or Fates, were three terrifying goddesses who spun, measured and cut the threads of every mortal’s life— determining their fate. The witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are similarly fatal prophesiers: as, ultimately, are the warning spirits in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“As I went up by Ovilliers / In mud and water cold to the knee” : the poem begins with a realistic scene in France, as a soldier tramps through the flooded British trenches. The realism of the scene ‘grounds’ the fantastical element, making it more believable.

“three jeering, fleering spectres”: three laughing, mocking ghosts.

“That walked abreast”: The spectres march three in a line- they are the ghosts of soldiers. This martial discipline adds to the strange drama of the encounter.

“Here’s a right brave soldier”: the first ghost speaks sarcastically and insultingly about the speaker’s bravery.

“he’ll come back on a fine stretcher, / Laughing for a nice Blighty”: the ghost suggests that the soldier will manage to get a ‘Blighty wound’— a minor wound that will nonetheless have him sent him home to Britain (‘Blighty’ in slang) for the rest of the war. He is insinuating that soldier is a clever coward.

“No kind of lucky chance I see…he’ll freeze into mud to the marrow”: another note of grim realism. The ghost suggests that the soldier will end up dying of hypothermia— possibly stuck in one of the pond-sized craters in no-man’s-land, unable to scramble up the loose earth out of the freezing water.

“Picardie”: a French town.

“Curses the third spat venomously”: the last of the spectres is the most malevolent, and curses the soldier.

“He’ll stay untouched…then live one hour of agony”: this ghost predicts a soldier’s common and dreaded fear: that he will be forced to live through the hell of the war in its entirety, only to be killed in “agony” at its very end.

“at sloping arms by one- two- three”: the soldier is drilling. “Sloping arms” was one way of ‘presenting arms’ or holding his rifle. “By one- two- three” describes the action of moving the rifle during drill.

“Waiting the time…Whether the third spoke verity”: ‘Verity’ here means ‘truthfully’. The fate of the soldier is to wait until the last day of the war to see whether the third spectre’s prophesy will come true or not. All three options are unpleasant to some degree, but the first two spectre’s predictions have been proved false. The third prophesy is chilling, and sums up the uncertainty and anxiety the soldier must live with in war. The soldier must be resigned to his fate.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: An encounter with ghosts of the dead is a recurrent scene in war poetry— see Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’, and in this anthology, ‘When you see Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ by Charles Sorley (p.167), or ‘Strange Meeting’ by Wilfred Owen (p.193).]

‘To His Love’

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

NOTES

This poem is a monologue, in which one soldier speaks to the fiancé or girlfriend of a dead soldier of his death— mourning his loss and regretting that he will never have the pleasure of the dead soldier’s company again. The poem was inspired by the supposed death of Ivor Gurney’s best friend Willy Harvey in August 1916. Reality told a happier story than the drama described in the poem: Harvey was not in fact killed, but had been made a prisoner of war, returning to his fiancé Sarah Kane at the end of the war.

STRUCTURE NOTE: Four stanzas of five lines, comprising three lines of free verse (ABC) and a rhyming couplet (DD). One of the most interesting things about this poem, however, is its exemplary use of alliteration (repetition of consonants for effect) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds for effect). It is a musical poem, structured by soft sound, throughout using the ‘oh’, ‘oo’, ‘uh’ sounds denoted by the letter ‘O’, but also using ‘I’ and ‘E’ sounds to create different effects. For example, the effect of the varied ‘O’ sounds is mournful; the drawn-out vowels of ‘Ee’ slow the pace of the poem down. Alliteration, found in all four stanzas, also provides an elusive rhythm to the poem. In the first verse, for example, sibilance gives the opening a sound of susurration, of whispering.

Ivor Gurney: A Gloucester man, Ivor Gurney was a talented young composer before joining the army in 1914, seemingly destined for success. He was bipolar and suffered from manic depression. He loved the Gloucester countryside and would go on ecstatic walks there, but also had two major nervous breakdowns, the first before the war (1913) and the second at the very end of the war (1918). He was suicidal during both and was discharged in 1918. His life was tragic after the end of the war: he was admitted to an insane asylum in 1922 and stayed there until he died in 1937.

To His Love: The poem addresses the lover of the soldier who has died.

“He’s gone… useless indeed”: A blunt and mournful statement of loss; a sense that all earlier plans have been destroyed.

“We’ll walk no more on Cotswold / Where the sheep feed / Quietly…”: the Cotswolds are a famously beautiful part of the English countryside, near where Gurney grew up. Like many of the WWI poets, nature and the countryside provided consoling memories and inspiration, when contrasted to the horrors of war.

“so quick”: quick here takes its older meaning, ‘full of life’.

“His body… is not as you knew it”: The sinister connotations of this euphemism— that the soldier’s body has been maimed or blown apart— provides a grisly hint of what has happened to the soldier at the hands of mechanized weapons, probably shelling.

“on Severn river / Under the blue…”: A powerful contrast between this peaceful image and the horror of what has happened to the soldier. Peaceful and horrific memories struggle with each other here (the Severn is the river that runs through Gloucestershire. Gurney contrasted two rivers in the title of his first poetry collection, Severn and Somme, with broadly the same meaning).

“You would not know him now…”: The ellipsis here seems to suggest that the speaker doesn’t want to pursue that description of the soldier’s body when talking to his lover. Note the subdued tone the varying ‘O’ sounds give the line; and the way the the ‘n’s give the line a stuttering rhythm. This ingenious use of alliteration and assonance can be traced throughout the poem.

“he died / Nobly”: the speaker quickly turns from thinking of the dead body to the noble manner of his death– doing his duty with chivalry.

“cover him over / With violets of pride / Purple”: The flowers will cover him like a shroud. The purple of the violets, like the soldier “from Severn side”, symbolise pride as purple is a colour associated with kingship.

“Cover him, cover him soon!”: The exclaimed repetition of ‘cover him’ shows the desperation and revulsion of the speaker.

“with thick-set / Masses of memoried flowers—” The flowers must cover him ‘thickly’ to hide the horror of the body underneath. Memories of the man fight against the traumatic image of the maimed body: the flowers symbolising happier times on the Severn. This is also, in psychological terms, an account of what Freud termed repression: to turn away from, censor or bury a memory.

“Hide that red wet  / Thing”: The imprecision of description of the ‘red wet Thing’— his friend’s bloody and maimed body— suggests the unspeakable violence done to it.

“I must somehow forget”: The last word demonstrates the tension between remembrance and forgetting that the poem says is necessary for all soldiers who have seen the consequences of bloody combat.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Gurney is among the group of British Soldier-Poet ‘greats’ that Stallworthy places together in the middle of his selection of WWI poets. His biography seems important to this selection: Gurney’s subsequent madness makes this a poignant choice of a poem about dealing with the horrors of war; the musicality of the poem, with its use of assonance and alliteration, is also appropriate to the life of this composer.]

‘Rain’

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

NOTES

In this poem Thomas lies awake at night, listening to the rain falling onto the roof of the hut that he rests within. The rain and the poet’s solitude prompt thoughts of those soldiers who are exposed to danger and death in the world outside.

Rain: This poem lies within a tradition of Romantic poetry wherein the solitary poet, contemplating or moved by nature, finds himself in connection with a wider world. Romanticism is one of the most broad and influential of all artistic and literary movements, beginning during the second half of the eighteenth century, and placing great emphasis on individual insight, feelings and imagination as a means of understanding the world. The Romantics revered nature as a source of beauty and ‘numinous’ experience— in nature they sensed the sacred, or God. ‘The Sublime’ was the name that was given for this sensation of connecting with a broader, more profound spiritual reality.

The rain in ‘Rain’, then, is a part of nature that allows the thoughtful and inward-contemplating Thomas to connect with the wider world (just as, for example, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Eolean Harp’, the wind playing on harp strings prompts the poet to wonder if he responds to nature similarly). Like the Romantics, Thomas finds an inspiration in nature that leads him via his memories, emotions and thoughts to a new understanding of the world around him. Where he diverges most clearly from the Romantics in ‘Rain’ is an absence of the sublime, or an explicitly spiritual dimension. Instead, in the contemplation of his death and that of others, this late Romantic poem embraces existential questions and modern alienation– in other words, the problem of finding a meaning for human existence in a seemingly hostile world.

STRUCTURE: ‘Rain’ is written in blank verse— Iambic Pentameter without rhyme. This is one of the most common verse forms in English, but Thomas experiments with it very effectively. He plays with the rhythm and intensity of each line through a number of different means, each intended to give a sense of the increasing and decreasing intensity of the rain on the sounding walls of the hut, and the poet’s response to this. To create this effect, Thomas uses repetition, clever internal rhyming and also uses the spondee— a metre where two syllables within a foot have equal weight. Another feature of the poem is that it is a monologue, giving us entry into Thomas’ thoughts in solitude, in which the reader is an implied listener— ‘hearing’ the immediate fears and thoughts of the poet.

“Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain…”: The poem opens describing a rainstorm at night in the kind of plain, conversational language that is a feature of the poem. In lyric poetry the use of rain to suggest sadness and melancholy might ordinarily be thought clichéd: Thomas is careful, then, to convey his thought and sensations in deliberately pared-down, simple terms. The poem’s tone is as a consequence disarmingly open, even confessional. This line introduces two important technical features of the poem. The first is the repetition of words— “rain” here, but also “solitude”, and “love”— that becomes a feature of the poem. “Rain” alone is repeated throughout the poem seven times, and in this first line as later, the repetition conveys not only the insistent force of the rainstorm outside but the also heightened consciousness of the listener. The second feature is the rhythmical variation in this and other lines. The regularity of the iambic pentameter is often challenged by the use of repeated stresses. Here Thomas uses spondee, that is, stressing two syllables in a row, and in poetry the effect of this is often to slow down the pace of a line. Along with the pauses denoted by the commas in the opening line, this gives the effect of a quickening and slowing of pace— the sort of rhythm you might hear as you listen to sheets of rain against your roof or window in a blustery storm. So the line scans something like this: “RAIN, MIDnight RAIN, NOTHing BUT the WILD RAIN…”. Thomas connects this insistent and slow spondee rhythm with the word “rain”: as with “wild rain” here (repeated again at the end of the poem).

“On this bleak hut, and solitude…”: the poem begins with a melancholic, contemplative tone. “Rain”, “nothing”, “bleak”, “solitude”, “me”: these words suggest the introspective, lonely and rather depressed nature of Thomas’ thoughts. As critic Bernard Bergonzi points out in ‘Heroes Twilight’, Thomas talked of his “elaborate self consciousness” which one perceptive doctor recognized led him to depression and illness (p. 79). Note, indeed, the complicated elaboration on his thoughts and feelings over these first six lines: Thomas using enjambement to convey the flow of his conscious mind.

“…and me / Remembering again that I shall die…”: Thomas’ solitude, with a heightened consciousness of his surroundings and himself, brings about what is known as an epiphany— a sudden realisation of profound meaning— in Thomas’ recollection of his own mortality.

“And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks…”: the oblivion of death is contrasted to the gift of life. Thomas’ awareness of the falling rain leads to a heightened perception of the world beyond himself.

“For washing me cleaner than I have been / Since I was born into this solitude.”: The image used here is one of ritual cleansing, or ablution. Ablutions— cleaning oneself with intent to purify the self or honour a god— are common rituals in the world’s religions. In this sense the rain comes as a blessing to Thomas; it first awakens him to a consciousness of death, but then provides consolation as a sign of life. Thomas’ deepening sense of a life-long loneliness, however, is emphasised by his second reference to “solitude”.

“Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:”: Thomas pursues the idea of rain being an ablution with the image of rain blessing the dead, and thus cleansing them of sin. Note the spondee here, “rain rains”: conveying the weight of the rain through a repetition of sense and slowing of rhythm.

“But here I pray that none whom once I loved”: Thomas reverts in this line to regular iambic pentameter. The effect is to move from the heightened consciousness of the rain against the roof of the hut— the thrumming that is outside Thomas’ control while the “rain rains”— to a more measured prayer, thus conveying Thomas’ effort of self-control.

“Is dying tonight or lying still awake”: the internal rhyming here— “dying” with “lying”— subtly suggests the rhythmic sheets of rain on the roof, while Thomas’s mind is drawn to those caught outside in the deluge. Thomas is, of course, thinking of those soldiers serving abroad. The rain first led Thomas into isolated self-examination and thoughts of death: his spirit however rebelled, embracing the rain and the living world beyond. This feeling does not last long, however. He is forced into sympathy with those like him: awake in the rainstorm, and conscious of death.

“Solitary, listening to the rain, / Either in pain or thus in sympathy”: Thomas’ own isolation— “solitary” is repeated for a third time here— draws him into agonized kinship with soldiers whom he has known (“whom once I loved”) and the possibility that they are exposed to the rain, whether injured or alone on duty. Thomas again uses internal rhyming here— “rain” and “pain”— to create an echo of the sounding rhythm of the rain. The rhyme also perhaps signifies the growing linkage of the two ideas in Thomas’ mind.

“Helpless among the living and the dead,”: Thomas’s pity here, his reaching out to the exposed and the injured, contains a sense of self-consciousness too, of his own helplessness.

“Like a cold water among broken reeds… all still and stiff / Like me…”: a key simile here, where Thomas pictures those exposed in the rain on the battlefield as being “like a cold water”. This conceit develops the central figure of rain. Rain has brought Thomas to a consciousness of isolation and death, but it has also signified life, and his consciousness of it has encouraged his connection with the wider world. Yet opposed to its vital energy— with which Thomas has carefully suffused the poem and its rhythms— is this image of those whom the rain falls upon. They are imagined as water at rest, cold and without life, “among broken reeds”. These countless broken reeds (“myriads”) are themselves images of broken men (the image is biblical: from Isaiah 36:6). This is an image of abjection, that is, of having fallen to the lowest possible state, of being cast down into suffering. Thomas’ imagination encompasses both the dead and these dying men caught in the rain— he too shares this feeling of abjection. Note the alliteration and assonance Thomas uses— “all still and stiff”— to maintain the strong rhythms of this poem.

“Like me who have no love which this wild rain / Has not dissolved…”: Thomas expresses his kinship with the suffering (“like me”). Previously in the poem Thomas has dwelt on solitude and the rain that has awakened him to a consciousness of both life and death. At the end of the poem, Thomas becomes interested in the role of “love”, the word repeated twice in the lines following. Thomas asserts that the rain has “dissolved” his love: note the continuing use of watery metaphors, as the rain seem to lead to a dissolution of Thomas’ sense of self, of his capacity for love. In literary terms, this is an interesting turn: the rain at the end of the poem is not a clichéd Romantic symbol: it is a kind of solvent for the soul, dissolving the self.

“…except the love of death, / If love it be towards what is perfect…”: the idea that only a “love of death” remains after the self has been stripped away is disturbing, even doubtful (“if love it be”), but Thomas seems to accept oblivion with a cold appreciation of his emotional circumstances. The “love of death” would later, in fact, gain a place in psychological theory. After studying the trauma victims of the Great War, Freud became interested in this drive towards self-oblivion, which he called Thanatos, the death-drive. Freud later developed the idea that this secret drive within the self, opposed to the preserving instinct for life, sought the peace of non-being. Something like a wish for this “perfect” consolation of complete oblivion seems to be conclusion of Thomas at the end of the poem. This is not to say that this poem contains a suicidal wish at the end: rather a wish for non-being, for being out of the world— out of the rain.

“…and / Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.”: the rainstorm, or “tempest”, has brought Thomas a vision of the nature of both life and death— it has spoken to him (“tells me”) and given a glimpse of death that is at once bleak (because like “cold water” it is inert and without life and energy) and yet consoling (because it has “dissolved” conflict).

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Apologies to my A-level scholars for the length of these notes, but I have found this a very difficult poem to be brief on. As a poem that both uses and transforms the pastoral mode— contemplating war indirectly through natural forms— this poem bears interesting comparison to Robert Frost’s ‘Range-Finding’. Frost, of course, was a prime influence in Thomas becoming a poet: neither fought before writing their poetry about the conflict but nonetheless approached the war in novel ways. This poem can be compared with ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ by Charles Sorley and ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen for the different ways in which each of these poems philosophically examine the relationship of the living to death and the dead.]

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