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I’m hoping to take a breather soon enough so that we can reflect on some aspects of the novel. Certainly I’d like to write something about Barry’s narration: its use of dialect, its lyricism, and thinking more broadly about omniscient and free indirect narration. The character of Willie, of course. Historical context, too, which still I’m somewhat shaky on, as the previous post admitted, and am currently trying to rectify by reading Diarmaid Ferriter’s fascinating history, ‘A Nation, and Not a Rabble’. All kinds of things suggest themselves. Onwards we must go, however, if we’re to get this book completed by exam-time.

Summary— Chapter Five

Willie’s battalion is on rotation from the front and, billeted in the French city of Amiens, he is finally given a few days of free time behind the lines.

Willie and Pete O’Hara decide to hit the town and are guided to a well-liked estaminet for private soldiers. They quickly get very drunk there. Willie’s head spins as he drinks away memories of Captain Pasley and Gretta.

He and O’Hara dance with two women who lead them both down into a basement. Willie, extremely drunk, finds that he is being propositioned by a prostitute. He is at first abashed by the woman’s approach: O’Hara, less naïve than his friend, quickly begins to have sex with the woman he entered with. Willie gives himself to the woman with wonder and lust, and thus loses his virginity. He falls asleep and, when he awakens with a headache, O’Hara tells him it is time to go. As they leave Willie notices a rash on the thigh of the woman O’Hara has slept with. They make their way back to their billet through the city night.

Willie, still working in the support trenches, writes a long letter to Gretta. He tells her he is now in a quiet sector of the front, though the weather is now icy. Though this is a longer letter, it has the same structure as his previous missive: Willie writes in careful detail telling of his life at the front, and ends with an outpouring of passionate declarations of love for her. He continues to have trouble ending his letters satisfactorily. As he writes, a wish to confess about his night with the prostitute weighs on him.

O’Hara, it transpires, contracts a sexually transmitted disease from his tryst with the prostitute. It seems that Willie, luckily, does not.

Willie’s company finds itself rotated back into the front line again. It remains a quiet sector. One day he is drinking tea in a corner of the trench when a soldier new to the front, a Private Byrne, carelessly lifts his head above the line of the parapet. He is shot in the eye: blood gruesomely jets from the wound. Willie wants to ignore the incident at first but then attends to the young man.

He is struck by his own uselessness in the face of this violence. The young man is tormented for hours as they wait for the medical corps to arrive. Willie responds to the incident with cold despair; he has become hardened by the war. He reflects that the youth would be better shot dead on the spot. His own anguish, however, tells of the compassion struggling to be expressed within him.

A few weeks later, rotated back behind the lines again, Christy Moran has good news for Willie. He has been given home leave for a few days. Delighted for the younger man, he pleads with Willie to stay alive until then.

Questions

A short but interesting chapter. Willie’s willie at last sees action and, unscathed, lives to see another day. Then a gruesome moment in the line conveys just how unexpected death could be in the trenches.

“But he liked the bolts to be loosened on his concerns like any other soldier” (p. 60). Research the world of the First World War estaminet. In what ways is the estaminet somewhere where soldiers could escape the war and the norms and disciplines of respectable society? In what ways does the estaminet attempt to reproduce something approximating a conventional or ‘normal’ life for the soldiers?

“Maybe there was a poison in this tepid water” (p. 61). What does this line suggest about the effect of the war upon Willie? In this chapter we find more examples of the way in which the war is beginning to take a psychological toll on Willie. From the moment when Willie’s hands begin to shake at the thought of the deaths of the men on the supply line (p.30), there are signs of Willie’s developing neurotic response to the war. Trace a timeline of these—noting where he displays significant signs of, for example, anxiety, depression, paranoia, anger and dissociation in response to events around him.

As the stupefied Willie gazes at the prostitute who offers herself to him, his response to her is revealing: “Thick, thick black hair like a smudge of night she had, and clear, clever eyes the colour of dark blue feathers in a magpie. My God, he thought, she was like a Goddess. She seemed to Willie more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. ‘Money for fuck?’ she said.” (p.62). What does Willie’s metaphorical language about the woman before him reveal about his feelings and attitudes towards women (A-level students may find their previous study in Love Through the Ages useful here, in particular ideas informing the Courtly Love Convention)? In what ways is there a gap between Willie’s understanding of the transaction taking place in this scene and that of the young woman? Barry uses a technique known as intentional anticlimax at the end of this passage. What effect does this have on the reader?

“Why you call Willie?” said the beautiful girl, giggling” (p. 63). It’s a good question. Can you think why Sebastian Barry named his hero Willie?

There is an obvious hypocrisy in Willie and O’Hara’s actions, one that catches up with O’Hara when he catches an sexually transmitted disease and needs to see a nurse. “Oh, yeh, that’s great Willie, I’ll go and bring this to the nurses. Nice Irish girls. They’ll only be thrilled” (p.66). Similarly Willie, in writing his long letter, “every inch of it thought should he say something about the fallen girl of Amiens?” (p.65). What does this sexual encounter say about the lives of men at the front and how they relate this life to that at home? How do you judge Willie and O’Hara’s time at the estaminet?

“There needed to be a new sort of line officer like a veterinarian, he thought, because there was too much of this screaming and suffering. There was too much of it, too much of it, and it wasn’t love or anything close to it to leave a young fella screaming on the ground for three hours. It wasn’t love and it wasn’t even like being at a war and it wasn’t fucking right” (p.68). Follow the logic of Willie’s argument here. Is this a reasoned or an emotional argument? Indeed, is it an argument at all? Barry’s use of structure and language in this passage is revealing. What does it tell us about Willie’s state of mind?

I thought this an interesting chapter that developed Willie’s character. I’m warming to Willie a little, vacant though he often seems. Willie’s loss of virginity is another episode in his gradual disenchantment at the front, the loss of his innocence. The hardening of his attitude to the injured youth at the end of the chapter seemed a logical extension of this growth within him of “cold despair” (p.68). I felt the juxtaposition of the two encounters was clever by Barry—and I’m sure that the latter event, so revealing of Willie’s anguish, moved me in part because of the author’s clever use of structure.

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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.

‘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.]

‘The Cherry Trees’

The cherry trees bend over and are shedding,
On the old road where all that passed are dead,
Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding
This early May morn when there is none to wed.

NOTES

This is another short but profound poem about the fallen cherry blossom on a road, prompting a meditation that links flowers, love and loss.

STRUCTURE: An elegaic stanza– see notes for ‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’.

The Cherry Trees: In this poem Thomas describes the cherry trees shedding their blossom. In England the flowers tend to bloom for three or four weeks after they flower in April, so once again, this a poem set during a late English spring, here in May— the associations of life and home here providing a strong contrast to the war abroad. This poem may be a response to an earlier poet’s short poem about the flowering of cherry trees: A.E. Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees, the cherry now’ (1896). You can read Housman’s fine poem at Bartleby, here. Hausman’s poem is full of humour and promise; Thomas’ dwells on tragedy and loss. Both are suitable to the story of Easter, in which Christ dies, and is born again.

“The Cherry Trees bend over and are shedding…”: The trees, as throughout the poem, are given human qualities; they “bend over” here, like old men or women, or perhaps exhausted soldiers. The ‘shedding’ of cherry blossom occurs just weeks after blooming; if they are a symbol of abundant and beautiful life, they are also a sign that life is fleeting.

“On the old road where all that passed are dead,”: the ‘old road’ again has symbolic weight. As in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’, Thomas is using traditional poetic symbols here for the journey of life; the notion of “passing”, so familiar to us now that it is a euphemistic cliché, derives from this symbolism. Thomas is quite literal, however: the soldiers who marched past on this road are indeed dead.

“Their petals, strewing the grass as for a wedding”: The blossom appears like confetti on the grass, as if scattered by human hands (“strewing”). This is a striking and powerful simile (“as”), mixing together images of life and love (flowers, a wedding), and death (the blossoms fall because flowering has ended).

“This early May morn where there is none to wed.”: The final line is devastating. The “early May morn” in the quiet English countryside becomes a reminder of the thousands of deaths occurring abroad, leaving “none to wed”.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Another poem by Thomas that contemplates the pain of absence and loss. It again features the motif of absent or disappeared lovers, as in ‘In Memoriam’ (p.79) and ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ (p.179). Ivor Gurney similiarly explores the effect of war on lovers in ‘To His Love’ (p.181) and the same subject is touched on in Owen’s ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ (p.188).]

‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

NOTES

This is a short poem of reflection: the presence of flowers in a wood prompt mourning for a richer and happier world, lost forever because of the war.

Edward Thomas: Edward Thomas was a prolific reviewer and writer before the outbreak of World War One— a man drawn to the beauty of the English countryside, who found in nature and rural life a source of deep inspiration for his work. Thomas lived in Earlsfield with his family after he and his wife defied their parents’ wishes and married. They were thrown into genteel poverty, and Thomas wrote copious literary reviews and books to sustain his family. Thomas wrote some notable books about rural life and the English countryside, only discovering poetry late on in his life, at the urgings of an American poet, Robert Frost (see ‘Range-Finding’). When war broke out Thomas (a middle-aged man of thirty-nine with a young family dependent on him) had doubts about joining up. In 1915 he did enlist, and was soon promoted to the position of officer. Before travelling to France, Thomas wrote all of the poems for which he is now famous; tragically, he was killed almost as soon as he saw action, killed in the Battle of Arras, 1917.

STRUCTURE: A simple poem of iambic pentameters in alternating rhyme, ABAB, known as an elegaic stanza (an elegy is a mournful or melancholic poem, most often written for the dead).  Part of the craft of this poem can be found in the suggestive rhyme. ‘Wood’ is rhymed with ‘should’. ‘Wood’, of course, is a homophone for ‘would’: and the poem is deeply concerned with what would have been— and what should have been. Similarly the rhyme ‘men’ and ‘again’ are linked; a hopeful possibility the poem ultimately closes off for the reader.

In Memorium (Easter 1915): ‘In Memorium’ shows this to be a poem of remembrance. Easter, when the death and resurrection of Christ is celebrated, is the most important date in the Christian calendar; a time for reflection on sacrifices made. As Professor Tim Kendall reports on his website, this title was an editor’s later addition, the poem originally going untitled.

“The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood / This Eastertide…”: A pastoral scene; Thomas felt an intense connection with nature, as did many of the Georgian poets. It is spring; the woodland floor is “thick” with life. “Nightfall” however hints at a shadow cast over the scene this Easter.

“…call into mind the men, / Now far from home…”: the presence of the flowers (and new life) reminds the poet of an absence: that of the soldiers who are abroad.

“…who, with their sweethearts, should have gathered them…”: the poet’s recollection of the soldiers who have gone becomes intensified by the recognition that the loss of men means an end to lover’s walks, or even the possibility of love. What is mourned here is the loss of those who, together, give to this beautiful scene meaning.

“and will do never again.”: A bleak conclusion, with a terrible sense of loss; some relationships are ended forever by the war, and some relationships that might have been, never shall be.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem has a haiku-like simplicity; its draws its power from its brevity and the profound observation that the presence of the beautiful flowers signifies the absence of lovers, and so a loss of profound meaning and happiness in the world. Thomas offers the reader a glimpse of a happier world, to make clearer the true horror of the war.]