First World War


I’m currently reading Frederic Manning’s ‘Her Privates We’ in an excellent edition published by Serpent’s Tail Classics. It’s a major First World War text, much regarded by great modernist writers such as Hemingway, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound– and I must say that, as I read, I haven’t enjoyed any piece of writing from the period quite so much since I read ‘Goodbye To All That’, long ago. I’m sure I’ll return to it on the blog at some point in the future (together with some posts about Jules Verne’s ‘The Begum’s Fortune’ and Jessie Pope), should I have the chance.

Anyway, I found that, as I read ‘Her Privates We’, I was having trouble with something that I think you, as A-level students, will also have trouble with as you start your course. If you’re studying ‘Journey’s End’, ‘Goodbye to All That’ or any other First World War text, it helps to know the hierarchy of the British Army; to know your Private from your Captain from your Major. I found a simple explanation on the structure of an infantry battalion on the always informative website ‘The Long, Long Trail’, here. Check it out if you want to know your Batman from your Band Sergeant.

The new BBC adaptation of 'Birdsong' brings the First World War to our TV screens. (Photo: BBC / Working Title)

The big news in TV in Britain this week is all about a new adaptation of Sebastian Faulk’s much-loved novel, Birdsong. ‘Sherlock’, it seems, has captured the nation’s hearts, and established the BBC as “the home of must-watch Sunday night drama”. ‘Sherlock’ is certainly doing something right– I’ve had one student ask me about reading the original stories, he so loved the newest Benedict Cumberbatch incarnation. I eagerly pushed him on. There is almost no reading pleasure as purely enjoyable as reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes mysteries.

I’m hoping that the TV adaptation of Birdsong will have the same effect on other students at Southfields– to run off and get the original book, or at least be inspired to learn more about the First World War and its literature.

Here’s a confession, though. I teach AS English Literature; I teach First World War literature. Yet I’ve never read ‘Birdsong’. I feel vaguely guilty about this every year. It is apparently the 13th most popular book that the British reading public has: there has to be a reason for that popularity.

So, I’m hoping that Abi Morgan’s adaptation inspires me too. The reviews seem to be good. I’m hoping that it’ll be something more than your average romantic historical drama– something more than some First World War booms and busts. We’ll see! Birdsong begins on BBC1 on Sunday at 9.00pm.

The HMS Hogue and HMS Aboukir, sunk on September 22, 1914: scavenged, 2011.

A disturbing story that first emerged in the Autumn has found new prominence in the pages of Private Eye this month. Concerning the fate of three British warships sunk at the start of the First World War, it has the capacity both to surprise and disturb. After the traditional acts of remembrance that take place in November, the ongoing story of the wrecks of HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy serve as a chilly reminder that, whatever the ethical standards the rest of us strive to live by, national and international commerce works by its own rules.

The three British battleships were sunk by a German U-boat not far off the coast of The Netherlands on the 22nd of September, 1914. In total 1,459 men were killed. The site where the ships sank might, you might think, constitute an internationally protected war grave. The reality is quite different.

In 1954 the remains of the sunken cruisers were sold by the British government (during an age of austerity greater than our own) to a German salvage company. Today, these rights to salvage have been bought by companies who have reportedly begun taking apart the British ships using “heavy duty claws”. The raw materials that make up the fabric of the ships– iron, steel, copper– are now so valuable that tearing up the ships for scrap is economically lucrative. The Eye follows up the work of the heritage campaign group Mortimer in bringing this issue to light, highlighting our current government’s lack of action to protect this resting place for the War Dead.

In doing so, Private Eye is following its own honourable tradition of pointing out hypocricy. The Eye is Britain’s most famous satirical magazine, a magazine for intelligent people who haven’t lost their principles or their sense of humour– and the earlier you start reading it, probably the better.

Crowds cheer and wave outside Buckingham Palace on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

If you’re starting at Southfields Community College as a Year 12 Student on Tuesday, congratulations: you’ve read your Starter Pack! Welcome to our AS literature course. You’ve been directed here because this is the blog that we use to help prepare you for your exam at the end of the year. We’re excited to have you on board.

Before you move on to the task set for you here, why not roam around the website. Start with our Welcome page at the bottom of the ‘Recent Posts’ column you’ll find on the right– it briefly explains the subject of the course and the purpose of this blog. Check out some of the articles on Move Him Into the Sun relating to the First World War, and note how last year’s students used them to engage in discussion (‘Poppy Wars’ gives you a flavour of the kind of interesting things we find ourselves debating). Click on words and phrases in the ‘Category Cloud’ and ‘Themes, Issues and Events’ boxes to introduce yourself to some of the recurrent themes in our study of First World War literature. If you’d like, you can even ask me a question by clicking on the ‘Ask Mr. Griffiths’ tab at the top of the blog. I can’t promise you a satisfactory answer, but I’ll do my best to help you! Take a look around– see what interests you.

We’ll be using this blog throughout the year to widen our reading and search for meaning in the poetry and prose that we read, its unifying subject: the First World War.

Now, I don’t know how much you know about the First World War. I don’t know anything about the First World War! you may be thinking. I’ve made a terrible mistake! might follow on from this. Goodbye, cruel world! would almost certainly be an excessive reaction, and if you’re thinking this, I’d call a doctor. But don’t panic. I find that most people who begin the course know little about the conflict: one year a student asked me if Henry VIII was king when the war started. She ended the year with a ‘B’ and went on to write one of the best A2 essays I’ve ever read. Ignorance is no crime: and why are you doing an A-level, if not to learn?

By the end of the year you’ll know the history of the war, through the study of the many brilliant poems, books, memoirs and plays written by those effected by it. The only crime is to be incurious– or to dismiss the subject before you start. I’m not interested in the First World War! you may object. Here I quote Yoda from Star Wars: “You will be. You will be”. Why? Because there is no aspect of your life, or that of countless millions of others, that has not been affected by this conflict. You just don’t know why yet.

Off you go. Take a look around.

Back again? Excellent.

In ‘Starter for 12′  I’m going to post some links to some websites that will help you get to grips with how the First World War started. We’ll begin at the beginning, with the origins of the First World War.

The origins of the First World War are, to someone new to the subject, very difficult to grasp. The war began almost a hundred years ago, in a world very different from our own. Nations handled their foreign policies in a way that seems, well, foreign to us. People felt patriotic in a way we find hard to understand. Many welcomed the outbreak of war: they were excited by it. These things can seem very strange at a distance. Yet, as difficult as it can be, I’d like you to try and acquaint yourself with some of the explanations for how the war began. It’s going to be tough, but… let’s try and be smarter than Baldrick!

"There must've been a moment when not being a war on went away, right, and being a war on came along."

Over at FirstWorldWar.com you’ll find a good summary of the events that led up to the outbreak of World War One. Read ‘How It Began’, ‘The Causes of World War One’, ‘Archduke Ferdinand’s Assassination’ and ‘The July Crisis’. Don’t worry if it’s all too much too take in at once; but make notes to help you understand the European Alliance system that so disastrously led to war. You’ll also find two articles on the BBC website that help explain the origins of the war: the first, by Dr Gary Sheffield, argues that war with an aggressive and autocratic Germany was inevitable: a little controversial, but well argued. The second, by Dan Cruikshank, conveys the fear of German militarism that existed in Britain before the war.

I’ll ask to see the notes you’ve made from these websites in the lesson we have on Wednesday.

If you have access to Youtube, you’ll find some interesting documentaries that can give you a broad idea of what life in Britain was like before the war. The best one for our purposes is Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain: The Road to War. Watch this to understand the social tensions in Britain from 1906 to 1914: and, if you’ve got time, you might even go on to watch its follow-up, ‘The Great War’. Again, as a matter of good practice, you should make notes to help you contextualise the poetry, books and plays that you are going to read.

I will, of course, give you further information and extracts that will help explain how ‘the War to end all Wars’ began. This ‘Starter for 12′ task, however, is a crucial opportunity for you to inform yourself on how it all began– and impress us with your enthusiasm and ability to take on this, your English Literature AS level.

We begin, as we must, with history. Yet within the week we’ll be reading together some of the marvellous poetry that the terrible and momentous First World War has given us.

Three big names from First World War literature feature this week after a trawl through the infosphere, looking for First World War literary tidbits. The BBC and the Guardian come up trumps again with features on two of the poets whose work is studied on the AQA AS English literature course, while a reminiscence of lost childhood provides us with an unexpected view of the life of Vera Brittain.

Edward Thomas.

Poems by Edward Thomas and Robert Frost can be found in Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry, and you can find notes for the poems on Move Him Into the Sun. Frost was an unregarded young poet and Thomas a prolific but frustrated critic when they met in 1913, beginning a friendship that would change the lives of both men. Frost received encouragement from a sympathetic Thomas, who gave Frost’s work supportive and perceptive reviews. Thomas, on the other hand, was coaxed by Frost to convert the poetic prose of Thomas’ writings on nature into an experiment in poetry. Each was a catalyst to the achievement of the other, and a Guardian article by Matthew Hollis, ‘Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the Road to War’, brilliantly outlines the dynamic of the relationship between the two men. Hollis writes as the author of a new book on Thomas, Now All Roads Lead to France, which is this week serialised by BBC Radio 4 as their Book of the Week. You can listen to readings from the book here on iPlayer.

We can also thank the BBC for a radio documentary that allows us an insight into the life of Vera Brittain through the reminiscences of her daughter, Shirley Williams. Vera Brittain’s ‘Testament of Youth’ is, of course, one of the great memoirs of life during World War One, recounting the experiences of an intelligent young woman who suffered appalling personal loss during the conflict. Baroness Shirley Williams– perhaps better known today than her mother, and a significant political figure in late twentieth century British politics– is a likeable and sympathetic narrator of her own childhood years in ‘The House I Grew Up In’, a documentary aired on Radio 4 this week. Her mother emerges as an incredibly principled woman– a pacifist, anti-fascist and feminist– if somewhat distant from her daughter: a woman for whom life was, it seems, never easy. This is a fascinating view of Brittain from the engaging Williams. Not to be missed.

Shirley Williams with her mother, Vera Brittain.

A remembrance ceremony, conducted at the very edge of the Lochnagar Crater.

Dead metaphors. Every English student should be aware of them: little zombie bits of language that once had a life all of their own, but now wander near and far, open-mouthed, vacant.

Metaphor, as your English teachers will hopefully have taught you, makes speech and writing vivid. It carries over meanings or concepts from one area of knowledge to another, giving life to the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar.

So, to explain, I used a metaphor at the beginning of this article: I compared Dead Metaphors to zombies, speaking about something perhaps a little unfamiliar to you (dead metaphors) in the terms of something more familiar (zombies).

Over time, however, these new figures of speech– these metaphors– themselves become familiar through use. They no longer surprise or delight. The original life of the metaphor seeps away.

Ultimately you’re left with a word or phrase that is either a cliche (“I’m over the moon”, says the footballer without thinking, meaning he is delighted) or something that has become so common or familiar that you don’t even think of it according to its original metaphorical meaning anymore (“can you grasp that?” says the English teacher to her student).

So why the waffle about dead metaphors?

Well, the word ‘undermining’ is a dead metaphor. Today most people don’t think twice about the word when they use it. In everyday speech, of course, it means to secretly weaken someone– but we never think about where the word came from. That’s natural: dead metaphors are everywhere and if we stopped talking every time we used one, we couldn’t hold a conversation.

Once upon a time, however, to talk about one person undermining another person would have been a vivid, threatening use of language.

Undermining, in its original sense, meant to build a mine underneath something– say, a wall– and to use that mine to destroy the object. Mining has been used by the military since ancient times, but undermining became an important military tactic in the middle ages. Besieging armies would build tunnels underneath castle turrets, undermining the foundations of otherwise impregnable towers. They would then build fires (or, later, set off explosives) that would bring the mine down, and the castle walls with it.

That’s what undermining was: the way to secretively bring down a city or citadel. The first time someone said, “he’s undermining her” or “they are undermining us” must have been a striking use of speech. So striking, in fact, that someone listening repeated the metaphor– as did the next person. Or, perhaps, this figure of speech occurred to a number of different people as this frightening technology became more and more familiar to people. Ultimately everyone understood it in its new sense: to secretly weaken another person or thing.

We very often think of the First World War as a war of innovations in technology, of the shock of the new. Yet it is a striking fact that because 1914-18 was a static war of trenches and fortifications, this old military technique of undermining the enemy experienced a grim resurgence.

The Hawthorn Ridge mine, exploding on July 1st, 1916, the same day as the munitions that created the Lochnagar crater. This was the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Today we’re going to take a look at a remarkable and horrifying example of undermining that took place during the First World War.

At the start of the summer it was announced that a new and extensive archaeological dig is to go ahead, mapping what is known today as the Lochnagar Crater. The Lochnagar Crater was created by what was the largest ever mine ever exploded.

The explosion took place on the first day of the Battle of the Somme– July 1st, 1916. The Somme has today become a kind of shorthand for a battle with massive loss of life for little obvious gain. Yet as the Somme began there were high hopes that this was the battle which, after the terrible failures of 1915, would lead to movement on the Western Front. A massive attack was to take place on German lines around the river Somme, in the hope of both breaking through those lines and so relieving pressure on the French army at Verdun.

The attack on the German line near La Boisselle was to be led by three British Brigades, part of the 34th division. Two were ‘Pals’ brigades– the Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish– raised from Irish and Scottish Communities in the North-East. The third, the 101st Brigade, was amalgamation of different companies and regiments that included the Grimsby Pals and other fighting units.

The German trenches had sustained a week of incessant bombardment from British artillery in the run up to the first day of the Somme. This alone was expected to have decimated the German defences and demoralised the soldiers sheltering below. Yet, in addition to this form of attack, the British generals wanted to punch a hole in the German line, and to do this they planned to explode a massive pair of mines beneath the German dug outs. The Royal Engineers were employed to dig beneath and undermine the German defences– setting 27 tons of high explosive to go off before the attack. In fact, 28 Royal Engineers were actually killed when the explosives went off at 7.28 on the morning of the 1st.

The explosion of the mine was devastating. It lifted the French earth and all those sheltering within it in a massive column 1,200 metres into the air. When the air cleared, what was left where the German dug outs had been was a crater 120 metres wide (that is, around twenty metres longer than a football pitch) and 20 metres deep.

You might think that what we today call the ‘shock and awe’ of such a massive explosion would alone result in a British victory in this sector of the battle of the Somme. What followed, in fact, was a disaster for the attacking British troops. The German trenches had been dug deep and those in them had been well sheltered from the hellish bombardment in the week prior. The many German soldiers who had not been killed by the mine explosion simply took their places again in the line once the British artillery ceased (allowing the British soldiers to go ‘over the top’).

The British infantry, doubtless expecting minimal resistance, calmly advanced in long lines– as they had been trained– into devastating machine gun fire. Over 6,000 British soldiers died in the attack for the slightest gain in ground. It is, in its own way, a typical story of the disastrously planned and bloodily fought first day of the Somme.

You can find out about the new archaeological exploration of the site and the hidden tunnels that run warren-like through the area by linking to this BBC Radio 4 Today news report. It’s clear that even those experienced archaeologists who have begun the task of finding the remains of humans and human activites underground are deeply moved by what they’ve found. You can also read an excellent report on the BBC website about the attack, ‘WW1 underground: unearthing the hidden war’, that contains an TV interview within one of the actual tunnels with historian Simon Jones, explaining what life was like as a miner. As a literature student, to get a sense of the claustrophobic horror that an ordinary soldier experienced in tunnels beneath the battlefields, you should read Siegfried Sassoon’s grim poem ‘The Rear Guard’ (found in the Stallworthy anthology if you are an AQA AS student). You can, of course, find my notes for this poem on Move Him Into the Sun: though as the poem is still in copyright, I can’t reproduce the actual text here. The events of Sassoon’s poem take place near Arras, not La Boisselle, but give a flavour of the sense of recoil a non-miner felt about these tunnels far underground.

Today, what came to be known as the Lochnagar crater is now a privately owned memorial that you can visit– and you can find its website here. The website provides shocking footage of a similar mine being let off at the Hawthorn Redoubt (pictured above) and its terrible effects. It’s a chastening lesson in the extreme violence all too common during the First World War. The word ‘undermining’ may never mean quite the same thing again.

‘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.]

‘August 1914′

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

NOTES

This poem reflects on the beginning of the First World War, questioning the consequences of its destruction: Rosenberg declares that a hard and cold age of fire, iron and death has been ushered in by the war.

August 1914: Though the title refers to the first month of the war, this poem was actually written in 1916, as Rosenberg trained as a private soldier for the front line.

STRUCTURE: This is, typically for Rosenberg, a poem of precise images that are also symbols that invite broader interpretation. ‘August 1914’ offers these images and symbols in fragmentary style.

“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”: The opening stanza begins with questions— anxious wonder about the consequences of the war. Rosenberg does not shy away from questioning in his poetry, and declaring a lack of knowledge, a limited insight. “This”, of course, is the war: Rosenberg wonders what is being destroyed by its “fire”. The word has hellish or sacrificial connotations, but also literally describes the firing of bullets, mortars and shells.

“The heart’s dear granary?”: the metaphor here, comparing the heart to a granary, seems to emphasise the emotional cost of war. A granary is where grain is stored for winter; if the heart has a granary, we might suppose it is where gathered affections are stored for sustenance— but have now been consumed, by the fire of war.

“The much we shall miss?”: An image of great (“much”) personal loss. Note the alliteration here and the stress placed on these two words that signify plenty and its loss.

“Three lives hath one life—”: A cryptic statement that I must admit I find difficult, This line perhaps imagines one life having three elements— those subsequently named. Note another typical Rosenberg archaism (hath for has).

“Iron, honey, gold.”: Another example of Rosenberg favouring the common noun over adjectives. Here the things named have a number of different associations that the reader may apply to them: Iron’s hard and cold nature, the sweetness and preserving power of honey, the preciousness of gold. Any number of valid interpretations can be made as to why these three substances are peculiarly inherent to a human life.

“The gold, the honey gone— / Left is the hard and cold.”: The references to gold and honey here are to me suggestive of a narrative common in human religion and myth— the story of man’s degeneration from an original paradisal state of absolute happiness, a “golden” age. Hesiod, an ancient Greek writer, described these Ages of Man as beginning with the Golden Age, moving then through the Silver, Bronze, Heroic then Iron Age. Each stage (besides the Heroic) traces a gradual fall from a higher state, until in the Iron Age man has become unjust, dishonest and tyrannical. “Gold” here might refer to that paradisal state, while “honey” seems to have more Biblical associations of plenitude, health and preciousness (Canaan is the “land of milk and honey”). August 1914, Rosenberg may be suggesting, is ushering the “hard and cold” Age of Iron, defined by callousness and cruelty.

“Iron are our lives / Molten right through our youth.”: The critic Bernard Bergonzi, writing about Rosenberg, refers to the “multiple associations of his images” which “can be construed both literally and figuratively” (p.109). Here is an example of this. Figuratively—which means a transformation of the world in language— “Iron are our lives” suggests the “hard and cold” nature of the struggle for life alluded to in the previous stanza. This metaphorical element of iron is then transformed, as we read on, into “molten” iron, or heat. This heated iron suggests the misplaced passion of the young men fighting, but also a fluid spirit of Iron within the young, in an Age of Iron. We can also read these words literally, however: because molten iron literally is flying right through the bodies of young men on the battlefield, as burning fragments of shrapnel pierce their skin.

“A burnt space through ripe fields,”: at harvest time in France in August 1914 there will have been many burnt fields, but this line can also, of course, be read figuratively. The  destroyed crops allude, of course, to the loss of young men’s lives, razing their “ripe” potential; yet the ripe fields also seem to recall the “heart’s granary” of the first stanza, and the emotional devastation that war has brought with it.

“A fair mouth’s broken tooth.”: the disturbing image of violence done to beauty closes the poem. Again this line can be read figuratively (a fine civilization is being thoughtlessly destroyed) or literally (the faces of handsome young men are being smashed in). Note the fragmentary nature of the sentences in this last stanza, its difficult syntax: and the striking nature of this fragmentation.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘August 1914’ begs to be compared to other poems that also consider the beginning of the war and its transformative effects. Within the anthology, all those poems welcoming the war at the start of the selection stand in contrast to this poem— Brooke’s sonnets, for example, or Asquith’s The Volunteer. Other poems which reflect on the change that the war brings, such as Larkin’s MCMXIV are relevant, as are poems like Hardy’s In Time of the Breaking of Nations, which purport to offer a longer view. And, of course, in its unflinching condemnation of the effects of the war, ‘August 1914’ can be compared (or contrasted) to the protest poems which Sassoon wrote.]

‘On Receiving News of the War’

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

NOTES

This poem describes Rosenberg’s reaction to the outbreak of the First World War, conveying the poet’s sense of anxious foreboding of the horrors ahead through a series of symbols of life, death and rebirth.

Isaac Rosenberg: Born in 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was a working class Jew who grew up in East London, the son of Russian émigrés. A talented artist, Rosenberg was nonetheless forced to leave school at the age of 14 because of his parents’ poverty (such an early end to education was typical, even encouraged for working class children at this time). He was indentured to a Fleet Street engraver and attended evening classes at Birkbeck College until some wealthy patrons clubbed together to enable him to attend Slade School of Fine Art. He completed his studies there in 1914, but moved in June to Cape Town, South Africa, due to illness. He was here when the Great War began. Rosenberg moved back to London in 1915 and joined up, primarily to provide money for his family. He was in France by early 1916 as a private soldier; like David Jones and Ivor Gurney (and in contrast to many of the most famous soldier poets) Rosenberg experienced the war not as an officer but in the ranks. Posted in France with the Kings Own Lancaster Regiment, Rosenberg was eventually sent to the Somme, where he was shot by a sniper at dawn on the 1st of April, 1918.

On Receiving News of the War: At the beginning of the First World War— and until he returned to England in March 1915— Isaac Rosenberg was living in South Africa. Suffering from chronic bronchitis in early 1914, he was told by his doctor to move to warmer climes. He relocated to Cape Town, where his sister lived. It was from here that he heard of war breaking out in Europe.

STRUCTURE: A precise and very regularly constructed poem, comprising five quatrains of simple, alternating rhyme (ABAB). Iambic trimeter (the six syllable lines, A, of three feet— hence trimeter) is followed by Iambic dimeter (the four syllable lines, B, of two feet— dimeter). This pared down, simple verse recalls the kind of verse structure that William Blake favoured in his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’: see ‘The Fly’ for an example of Iambic dimeter at work.

“Snow is a strange white word;”: As war is declared it is high summer in Europe, but it is winter in Cape Town, which is in the Southern Hemisphere. This is obviously a striking thing for a European like Rosenberg: snow remains alien to those in South Africa. The perplexing absence of the signs of winter chime with the poet’s alienation in Cape Town from events in Europe. Note in this first line we find the alliteration that is a strong feature of this poem.

“No ice or frost / Have asked of bud or bird / For Winter’s cost.”: in a European winter flowering plants die and birds migrate southwards. No such “cost” occurs in South Africa. This is a literal reading, of course: but underlying Rosenberg’s first verse is a metaphorical comparison of ‘Winter’ in Europe and Cape Town. Winter, of course, heralds death, just as war does. Winter is come in Cape Town, and metaphorically so in Europe: with inevitability death is on its way; yet in neither land is the cost of war yet felt. The assonance here— the repetition of long ‘O’ sounds, which persists throughout the poem— give this opening a soft and later, cumulatively, a mournful tone.

“Yet ice and frost and snow / From earth to sky / This Summer land doth know,”: The simple language typical of the poem is especially in evidence in this second verse. Common nouns are favoured instead of ‘poetic’ description. Rosenberg describes the arrival of the news of war as the arrival of “ice”, “frost” and “snow”. In choosing to describe the arrival of news of the war like this, Rosenberg lets mysterious things stand in for and symbolise events, rather describe the situation at length. The deliberately simple description gives the poem a feeling of being stripped down to essential images, a feature of Rosenberg’s writing. The “Summer land” is South Africa: its Winter is a summer to Rosenberg.

“No man knows why.”: the essential mystery behind the news— why has war erupted so strangely, even in this foreign land— is insisted on in this line. This seems to suggest that the meaning of the momentous news is impossible to know.

“In all men’s hearts it is.”: The poet begins to contemplate human motivation and the nature of the human soul. What is ‘it’ that is in all men’s hearts? Evil? Sin? What is it that causes the recurrent wars and murder in human history?

“Some spirit old / Hath turned with malign kiss / Our lives to mould.”: despite the fact that Rosenberg was Jewish, the suggestion that there is an ancient spirit of evil in man is to a European readership a particularly Christian (specifically Augustinian) one. The doctrine of Original Sin posits the idea that all humans after Adam are ‘fallen’ and, born sinful, require the redemption of Christ. The notion of a malign (or ‘evil’) kiss is also recognizably Christian: Judas of course betrayed Jesus to the Romans with a kiss. For Jewish people the personification of evil is not as pointed as in Christianity— it is not Satan who is responsible for evil but the errors of man: this too could be called a “spirit old”. The fungal (“mould”) nature of this spirit of malignity emphasises a sense slow decay rather than active evil, a spirit of entropy and death. Note another archaism here (earlier Rosenberg uses the old word “doth”)— an echo of Blake, perhaps.

“Red fangs have torn His face. / God’s blood is shed.”: ‘He’ is God. The image is an incredibly powerful, even shocking one. God, here, is very far from the one of mainstream Christian theology— omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (everywhere), a spiritual rather than physical entity. Here, God has been attacked: and he sheds blood. The implication here is perhaps that God’s blood is that of those who will die in the war; but the image is uncompromising, and emphasises the power of evil, and the vulnerability of God. The use of a short end-stopped statement emphasises this (end-stopping is when a line of verse ends in a full stop).

“He mourns from His lone place / His children dead.”: Again, an image of God that is far away from the speculations of mainstream Christian theology. The image of God here is of a deity distraught, alone and removed, who mourns the death of “his children”. The unorthodox Jewish Kaballah may have provided a source for this image of God in the concept of tzimtzum, in which God by an act of will in creation contracts and withdraws from the world so that it may exist. The nature of this speculation, which explains how evil can exist in a world made by a good God, is highly unsettling.

“O! Ancient crimson curse! / Corrode, consume.”: the interjection, “O!” emphasises the emotional weight of Rosenberg’s final (desperate) appeal. Is this a cry of pain, or horror? The language here— an “Ancient crimson curse”— clearly recalls William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (particularly ‘The Sick Rose’, which also perhaps influenced Rosenberg’s ‘A Worm Fed On the Heart of Corinth’). The “crimson curse” seems here to be that same “spirit old”; so that here Rosenberg seems to imagine the coming conflict as a kind of spiritual purging of evil that will act like water (“corrode”) or fire (“consume”) on man’s evil. Note the harsh insistence of the alliteration.

“Give back this universe / Its pristine bloom.”: The poem ends with a cosmic- spiritual perspective on human events; the coming suffering of men is placed at the very heart of the universe. The poet prays for a world renewed and returned to its original state, like to a spotless (pristine) flower. The image again recalls Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ (beginning, “O Rose, thou art sick!”), but also that poem’s companion in the Songs, ‘The Blossom’, which uses a flower bloom as a symbol of joy and regeneration. There is some consolation, even in the bleak vision of the world falling once again to war at the end of this poem. Rosenberg began his poem with a wintry word, “snow”: yet with this word “bloom”, he ends with a suggestion of spring— and possible renewal.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem can be nicely compared to many of the poems written at the beginning of the war which actively seem to have welcomed the fighting. As we have seen, Rosenberg both abhors the beginning of war, and hopes dimly for some sense of renewal that will come from it. Brooke’s enthusiastic ‘Peace’ provides a powerful contrast of tone. Stylistically, I think Edward Thomas’ simple yet profound poems ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ are interesting to compare with Rosenberg’s symbolic style with their ideas of loss and renewal, though Thomas is precise and realist where Rosenberg is more mythical and deliberately ambiguous.]

"I've got a cunning plan."

What a life it must be for Tony Robinson.

He’s been on British TV fronting ‘Time Team’ — a well-regarded archaeology program– for 17 years now. He’s been politically active his whole life, and involved in countless campaigning movements: indeed, for four years, 2000-04, he was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. He’s been vice-chair of the actor’s union, Equity. Everything points to him having lived a full and varied life.

Yet, and I guarantee you this, if you were to bump into him in the street, all you could think of saying to him, after a well placed nudge in the ribs, is this: “I’ve got a cunning plan”.

Yes, he may have last played Baldrick in a ‘Blackadder’ series in 1989, but it is– and perhaps always will be– as the unfortunate servant to Rowan Atkinson’s hereditary snake that the British nation will remember him. You last saw him (I hope, because the one-offs were dreadful) as Captain Blackadder’s unfortunate batman, Private Baldrick, in one of the finest series of Blackadder, ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. As a student of the Great War in literature and drama you will have seen this already, of course. Blackadder was, after all, the best UK comedy series of the past 25 years (no arguing at the back). If you haven’t seen it, you can learn how not to make a coffee in the trenches with Baldrick’s help, here.

Hmm. Too much talk of Baldrick. I was, rather, going to draw your attention to Tony Robinson’s longest-running role: as the presenter of ‘Time Team’. This week, ‘Time Team’ presented a special on ‘The Somme’s Secret Weapon’, a program that you can find over at Four On Demand.

The show usually follows a simple formula: Tony Robinson takes a team of archaeologists to a site which is suspected of hiding archaeological riches. ‘The Somme’s Secret Weapon’ does the same, taking us to a battlefield site in France near Mametz Wood where, on the 1st of July 1916, a terrible new weapon was used by the British as part of that most famous of ‘big pushes’, the battle of the Somme. The team goes in search of the remains of an experimental weapon called the Livens Flame Projector, a monstrous flame thrower used to empty the German trenches before the attack by British troops. I won’t spoil the show for you, but suffice to say: if you are not normally interested in archaeology, Robinson and his team do very well to bring this project– and the frontline trenches– alive for you.

One of the ways that they do this is through experimental archaeology. I only know the term from Ms. Thornton, the very intelligent woman with whom I teach English A-level at Southfields. Ms. Thornton, as well as being a brilliant English teacher, is an archaeology student at Birkbeck College, London (incidentally, Isaac Rosenberg’s university too). Experimental archaeology involves recreating the tools and tool-making processes used in the past, and she has done this as part of her archaeological work– smelting metal and making bronze arrow heads with little more than ore, baked mud, clay and dung. This to me sounds rather groovy, like MacGyver in the bronze age. Robinson’s team attempt something similar but larger, with the help of the Royal Engineers, 2,700 litres of Kerosene and diesel, bespoke pipeline and hoses– and two oxy-acetylene blow-torches. Don’t expect the kind of feel-good schmaltz that you normally get at the end of these ‘mission’ documentaries– what the Time Team recreate is something amazing, yet ultimately quite sickening.

This Time Team special certainly makes the First World War come alive– and in the most disturbing way. Here’s to you, Tony Robinson.

 

[Edited July 2011: Tony Robinson featured this week on Desert Island Discs, talking about his life and work. To learn a little bit more about the man who did more than just play Baldrick, have a listen to the show here.]

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