So it is a hundred years since the declaration in Great Britain of war against Germany. One hundred years ago from 11pm tonight, the deadline expired that Britain had set Germany to end its invasion of Belgium and France. And as I walked the streets of London tonight, in the darkening evening, I thought back to the London of old, and a picture that seems emblematic somehow of the naiveté of the age, of ranks of men raising their hats in cheer in Trafalgar Square. And of course to Edward Grey’s apposite and prophetic words as dusk fell: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetimes”.
I won’t rehearse a long speech of familiar lessons to be drawn from the war. To be frank, I’ve found the commemorations alienating. The art has been misjudged, the television programs unmemorable, the newspaper articles a familiar recasting of attitudes of the present in the clothes of the past. The gatherings of the heirs of the British Establishment in our finest churches, and of European leaders standing in line before great memorials, “in stately conclave met”, seem to me to be a wholly appropriate repetition of the scene of the crime.
It also seems to me that far from lighting a candle— as some have suggested– to commemorate the war dead, should we wish to make a profound or meaningful connection to those past events, an effort should be made to de-ritualise the commemoration of the war. And as an English teacher, I can fortunately say that it is books, and reading, that are the way to do this.
The First World War was, and remains, a written war. Very many of the soldiers who fought were the product of the late Victorian education acts, and they wrote home to their families about their experiences; they wrote to their friends about their experiences; they wrote poems, plays and novels about their experiences. The raw and shocking and humbling stuff of the war is already out there. If you are reading this, you are a literate person: so, if you truly want to commemorate the war, don’t follow a timetable set for you by some sentimentalising politician, but read about it, read, read, read. Read the accounts of the men themselves, read the great writings that they produced, and read history books. Don’t have your thoughts about the war predetermined by me or anyone else. Read.
You’ll be a better person– and ours will be a better world– for it.
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.
You know you’re at the end of June when Tennis inexplicably hits the front pages of the red tops. When our supposedly paedophile-hating press publish front-page pictures of groups of pretty young schoolgirls celebrating exam results, it’s the end of August. And when the first appearance of a story about a council replacing festive decorations with Diwali lights appears in the The Daily Mail, you know the Twelve Weeks of Christmas are drawing to their end.
Just as the year has seasons, so does journalism. And, just as surely as the fall of the first leaf heralds the coming of Autumn, so the appearance of a poppy controversy in the press tells us we’re in the first week of November.
The England Football Team play Spain in a friendly football match at Wembley on Saturday. Friendly feeling towards FIFA– the world football governing authority– has been hard to find in the press, however. This year’s poppy controversy has revolved around the wearing of poppy badges, which the English FA proposed to have embroidered on players’ shirts for the game. The news broke last weekend, when it was reported that FIFA had refused the FA permission to do so. All hell broke loose as Fleet Street rallied to the poppy-wearing cause, and FIFA stubbornly stood by its position that the wearing of political and religious symbols is banned in international football (commercial symbols, it seems, being A-O-K).
By midweek, the government had got involved in the sporting spat, with the Sports minister writing a letter to FIFA stating “the British public feel very strongly about this issue which is seen as an act of national remembrance to commemorate those who gave their lives in the service of their country. It is not religious or political in any way. Wearing a poppy is a display of national pride, just like wearing your country’s football shirt.” To which FIFA, by letter, replied: “”We regret to inform you that accepting such initiatives would open the door to similar initiatives from all over the world, jeopardising the neutrality of football. Therefore, we confirm herewith that the suggested embroidery on the match shirt cannot be authorised.”
And yet, amidst the arm-wrestling, quieter voices were at risk of being drowned out. The director of the British Legion said, when it appeared that the key concession of the players being allowed to wear a poppy would not be made: ‘There are other ways to honour the poppy than by wearing it on a shirt… The Legion never insists that the poppy be worn or insists that others allow it to be worn. We are grateful when people wear it as a sign of respect, but the decision must be a free one – after all, the poppy represents sacrifices made in the cause of our freedoms.”
The issue has generated a lot of heat, but not a lot of light. To read some contributors to the Daily Mail making the case for the poppy being worn, look here. To find a different point of view, read Marina Hyde in The Guardian.
The central questions surrounding the poppy controversy are worth thinking about, however. FIFA refused to allow the poppy to be worn because it was, in its opinion, a political symbol. Many in Britain seem to think it is not.
What is politics, though– and what is political? A broad definition of the political would be those thoughts and actions which are related to the state, the people, and the power weilded by both. The question is whether the poppy can be seen as a symbol of a political world-view, or whether to see it as such a symbol is to distort its meaning.
The poppy, of course, began as a badge of remembrance for those who died fighting in the First World War. It has, however, become a more complicated symbol since then. Different people and different groups, often depending on their politics or worldview, apply different meanings to its wearing. So that for some it represents a remembrance of those who have died for Britain abroad; for others, all who have died in armed conflict, no matter what the country; some wear it with pride, some with regret. Some marginal groups actively seek to turn the wearing of the poppy into a political issue, like the racist EDF, or Muslims Against Crusades. The majority, however, probably prefer to leave its meaning a little fuzzy: to see it as an inclusive symbol, and live with the contradictions. Seen in this way, the yearly controversy about the poppy often seems to be a battle to establish just exactly what the poppy means– who should wear it, and why.
What do you think? What does the poppy mean to you? Is the poppy really politically value free (this vote in the left-leaning Guardian suggests not)? Is the act of remembrance of the war dead removed from politics– is it in some way higher than politics? Or is wearing a poppy an inevitably political act– a symbol that can represent a view of the world that others might reasonably reject or object to?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: 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).]
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.
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.]
In this poem an officer delivers a consolatory letter to a grieving mother concerning the death of her soldier son, Jack. She is proud of her son’s glorious sacrifice— but, on leaving, the officer reflects wryly on Jack’s cowardice and incompetence in the line.
STRUCTURE: Written in iambic pentameter, ‘The Hero’ comprises three stanzas of six lines length largely made up of rhyming couplets, save the first four lines of the second stanza, which have an alternating rhyme scheme. Rhyming couplets, of course, are particularly effective in relaying neat epigrams or moral statements. The simplicity of the rhyme scheme perhaps apes the newspaper poetry of the time, which often went in for sentimental attitudes about the heroism of the British ‘boys’ and their sacrifice. The first stanza could in fact stand alone as a very effective pastiche of such poetry. The second stanza sees a shift of narrative viewpoint, admitting a more complicated reality of appearance and lies. The third stanza contains the revelation of Jack’s true nature and death, subverting the sentimentality of the first.
The Hero: the ‘Hero’ of the poem is, of course, ironically termed so: Jack is the kind of malingering coward who earned the contempt of his comrades on the battlefield, especially in a well-disciplined regiment like the Royal Welch, in which Sassoon (and Graves) served.
“Jack fell as he would have wished / The mother said”: the stock figure of the grieving mother opens this poem: a familiar, emotive image of loss in war. Here, the mother uses an everyday euphemism for dying in war— “Jack fell”— that implies an honourable soldier’s death, falling in action.
“‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke…”: Colonels, those responsible for a regiment of soldiers, wrote letters of condolence to the bereaved on behalf of the regiment. As Graves relates in ‘Goodbye to All That’, these letters were often a duty.
“‘We mothers are so proud / Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face bowed.”: The mother speaks as if for all British soldiers: perhaps the consolation that she finds in doing so is in subsuming herself in the collective loss of all the mothers of the nation. At any rate, these words do seem more sentimental than authentic: their clichéd expression helping to repress, perhaps, the great grief of the woman.
“Quietly the Brother Officer went out”: ‘Brother Officer’ is an unusual term— an example of military language being used in a way that is jarring at the beginning of the stanza. The camaraderie of the army, the special fellowship of men in service is introduced into the poem here.
“…poor old dear …gallant lies”: these words imply a distance that the first stanza’s heartfelt scene did not hint at.
“While he coughed and mumbled…”: the officer’s awkwardness in passing on condolences is understandable. The reason for the officer’s embarrassment only later becomes obvious.
“brimmed with joy, / Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.”: the alliteration in these lines, expressing the devastation of the mother, is clever. The effect of the repeated ‘b’s is to convey her restrained tears and give a suggestion of tremulously spoken words— of repressing the need to cry, of blubbering.
“He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine, / Had panicked”: it is interesting to note the recurrence of the name ‘Jack’ in Sassoon’s poems. Sassoon was known as ‘Mad Jack’ by his men because of his almost suicidal bravery in battle. To name the coward and object of contempt in this poem ‘Jack’, then, is an interesting turn. Perhaps this ‘Jack’ is a kind of alter-ego for Sassoon, as, in a sense, was ‘Mad Jack’; a guilty idea of another self against whom Sassoon opposed himself (as a poet-warrior, with some success).
“How he’d tried / To get sent home”: Jack has attempted to get a ‘Blighty’ wound— an injury that would get him sent home to ‘Blighty’, or Britain, in the slang of the time. This act of desperation— shooting oneself in the foot through sandbags, holding a hand above the parapet in a sniper zone, and so on— was not an uncommon recourse to those desperate to escape the Western front.
“…and how, at last, he died, / Blown to small bits.”: the grisly contrast of the soldier’s death to the heroism supposed in the poem’s title is clear. ‘Jack’ is “blown to bits” by a shell or a mine: the plosive sound, ‘b’ echoing the sound of the explosive and its effect on the unfortunate soldier. The halting rhythm of the line, with pauses following each stressed word (“how”, “last”, “died”), lends a sense of inevitability to Jack’s end.
“And no-one seemed to care / Except that lonely woman with the white hair.”: The final couplet is explicit, objective and powerful. The illusion of the opening stanza is replaced two related scenes of devastation: the fragmented body of the dead soldier, Jack, and the tragic image of the “lonely woman with the white hair”.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Hero’, like ‘They’ and ‘Glory of Women’ contrasts the ignorance and sometimes willful delusion of those at home with the actual soldiers who have experienced front-line warfare.]
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
This poem is a eulogy to Major Robert Gregory, a man whom Yeats greatly admired. In it, the dead man (who was killed in action with the Royal Flying Corps over Italy) is given voice by Yeats. The airman’s joy in flight, it is found, transcends all other claims on him and provides his sole motivation and justification for going to war.
An Irish Airman foresees his Death: Yeats wrote four poems in total about Robert Gregory, two of which feature in the anthology (the other being the later, sourer ‘Reprisals’). Gregory’s mother, Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole, was a much admired friend of Yeats. She was an important figure in the Irish literary revival, a dramatist whose interest in the Irish language and Irish mythology helped convert her to cultural nationalism (which would in turn inform Yeats’ own outlook). Robert Gregory in his turn was admired by Yeats as a “painter, classical scholar, scholar in painting and modern literature, boxer, horseman, airman”. Yeats declared that “his very accomplishments hid from many his genius”. This poem is a eulogy to the dead man. The title contains a remnant of Yeats’ early mysticism— Gregory “foresees” his own death (Yeats had been fascinated by the occult as a young man). The notion of Gregory foreseeing his fate and choosing it nonetheless allows this poem to reflect on death, service and an Irishman’s sense of purpose in the British military.
“I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above”: A surprisingly romantic beginning to the poem, perhaps. The “clouds above” carry traditional associations of dreaming and sublime transcendence in the skies above: the sense that, in flying, we move into a realm beyond earth, and beyond material things.
“Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love;”: A renunciation of patriotic or xenophobic motivations for war. Gregory does not hate Germans, but neither does he love those he guards— the British, Italians, or even Irish people? The sentiment can be interestingly compared with Edward Thomas’ feelings for England in ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ (“I hate not Germans, not grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers”). In Yeats’ work– as in Thomas’– there is a strong sense of rhetoric in the parallel phrasing used.
“My country is Kilkartan Cross… Kilkartan Poor”: Kilkartan was a small town, part of the Gregory’s barony, and home to the Gregory family in Ireland. Two readings suggest themselves here: that the reference to Kilkartan is specific, and that Gregory feels he belongs not to a nation but a specific locality, Kilkartan; next, that Kilkartan stands for the whole of an ideal Ireland (in literary terms this would be an example of synecdoche, where part of something stands for the whole). The voice given to Gregory declares solidarity with the poor of this area. Yeats seems to be suggesting that the Gregory family’s relationship with the peasantry of the district is sympathetic and friendly (we are entitled to ask, however, how far this imagined solidarity really extended between landlord and peasantry. Is this a false note?).
“No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before”: the poor are so poor, the voice seems to declare, that they could lose nothing of material value; yet their fortitude in bearing their poverty is such that they cannot be made miserable. These lines suggest a number of things: that Yeats understood the peasants’ lives in the same fatalistic terms he conceives Gregory’s fate; that the poor in fact understood their lives in just the same way, fatalistically; and that despite poverty, the poor were happy. That this is an ideological rather than a realistic point of view seems likely, given the tendency of people the world over since money was invented to choose not to be poor— one presumes because it is not a particularly joyous state to be in. Again, there seems a romantic tone to Yeats’ eulogy.
“Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds”: The voice given to Gregory declares that neither conscription nor social obligation was a motivation to fight— nor ephemeral patriotism. The “public men” are politicians. There’s a hint of contempt here, perhaps, like Edward Thomas’ “hate for one fat patriot”.
“A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds”: Here we find expressed the true motivation for Gregory joining the Flying Corps, as ascribed by Yeats: “A lonely impulse of delight”. There is an almost instinctive personal need to experience the pleasure of flying. “Delight” emphasises some of the high, giddy joy of flying, an intoxicating pleasure in the new sensation (and it is interesting that the pleasure Yeats ascribes as a motivation to Gregory is, in a sense, the pleasure of the modernist artist— an aesthetic motivation, rather than simply martial or pragmatic).
“I balanced all…”: Here is a justification for ‘choosing’ death in the skies— Gregory weighs up his choice, accounting for his decision. Note the ‘balance’ is reflected in the line; the alliterative ‘b’ sounds and the repetition of ‘all’ establishes a formal balance that Yeats uses until the end of the poem.
“The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind”: The formal balance continues here with the use of a technique known as chiasmus. On your book, draw a line in the poem from “the years” to “the years”; then from “waste of breath” to “waste of breath”. Between the two lines you’ll notice that you’ve just drawn a cross. Now, ‘chi’ (pron. ‘Kai’) is what the ancient Greeks used to call the letter ‘X’. Chiasmus creates this ‘crossing’ structure, where the beginning of the first part of a line is repeated or rephrased at the end of the second; while the end of the first line is found repeated at the start of the second (you can find this structure in a well known phrase like “nice to see you, to see you, nice!”). Here, the effect Yeats creates is a balancing of the claims of the future with the past in Gregory’s mind: neither seem worthwhile, compared to the moment between the two.
“In balance with this life, this death”: The careful formal balance of the end of this poem (the word ‘balance’ is even repeated here) is retained until the end. “This life” is counterpoised with “this death”. The poem ends with this graceful and calm poise— reminiscent, perhaps, of a fearless man in a plane in flight who has chosen his fate.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is an interesting poem: the ending in particular shows off Yeats’ massive formal and technical skill. It particularly bears comparison with poems that examine soldiers’ motivation for fighting. From outside the anthology, Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ bears comparison; within, poems like Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ and Brooke’s ‘The Dead’.]