In Memorium (Easter 1915) – Edward Thomas

‘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.]

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The Hero – Siegfried Sassoon

A painting of Siegfried Sassoon by Glyn Warren Philpott. Painted in 1917, you can see the original at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

NOTES

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.]

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death – W.B. Yeats

‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’

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.

NOTES

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’.]

Sixteen Dead Men – W.B. Yeats

‘Sixteen Dead Men’

O but we talked at large before
The sixteen men were shot,
But who can talk of give and take,
What should be and what not
While those dead men are loitering there
To stir the boiling pot?

You say that we should still the land
Till Germany’s overcome;
But who is there to argue that
Now Pearse is deaf and dumb?
And is their logic to outweigh
MacDonagh’s bony thumb?

How could you dream they’d listen
That have an ear alone
For those new comrades they have found,
Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone,
Or meddle with our give and take
That converse bone to bone?

NOTES

This is an angry poem that addresses those who call for peace in Ireland, until the end of the First World War. Yeats dismisses those who call for dialogue, pointing to the ‘sixteen dead men’ executed by Britain as an example of British brutality and intransigence.

Sixteen Dead Men: After the nationalist uprising of Easter 1916 was suppressed, the British executed sixteen of those involved in the insurrection.

“O but we talked at large before / The sixteen men were shot,”: This begins in an exclamatory way, as if we have stumbled into an argument or speech. It has the conversational Irish tone that Yeats mastered. The words found in this poem are often plain, monosyllabic.

“But who can talk of give and take…”: ‘Give and take’, a colloquialism for an exchange of views with a view to compromise, is an important phrase in this poem, which points out that British actions have made ‘give and take’ impossible— by taking the sixteen men’s lives.

“While those dead men are loitering there / To stir the boiling pot?”: the imagery is unmistakably Shakespearian, and is taken from Macbeth. The men are like the witches by their cauldron, of course, but they also stand ghost-like in condemnation of the British, much as Banquo’s ghost condemns Macbeth by his own actions. Macbeth, remember, is a play that dramatizes unjust rule, just as the execution of the sixteen dramatizes the unjust rule of the British in Ireland.

“You say we should still the land…”: The second stanza begins with a direct address to those who say that those nationalists wanting self-determination for Ireland should not fight for it during the war.

“But who… now Pearse is deaf and dumb?”: Yeats points out that the British have killed the credible leaders with whom they could hold dialogue. Patrick Pearse, mentioned in ‘Easter 1916’ was a poet and schoolmaster.

“…is their logic to outweigh / MacDonagh’s bony thumb?”: How, Yeats asks, can reason be listened to when the death of one such as Thomas MacDonagh moves the Irish so passionately? The mention of the “bony thumb” is a striking image of death. Yeats particularly admired MacDonagh, a poet, pronouncing “he might have won fame”. Yeats’ admiration is turned into anger in this poem; the “bone” he mentions becomes a visual symbol of the destruction wrought by the British state.

“How could you dream they’d listen”: the poem gains in intensity in the final verse. Here the tone is incredulous, scornful at the foolishness of those British apologists who insist on dialogue.

“…Those that have an ear alone…Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone”: the actions of the British have reminded the Irish of the history of rebellions against British rule, going back centuries. Lord Edward Fitzgerald and Wolfe Tone were Irish revolutionaries who died in 1798. The line recalls that in ‘Easter 1916’, which talks of “hearts with one purpose”: the Irish will not now listen to or trust the British state.

“Or meddle with our give and take / That converse bone to bone?”: the final lines bring us back to the question of dialogue opened up at the beginning of the poem. The dialogue that now dominates Ireland, Yeats suggests, is not one between Irish nationalism and the British state, but the dialogue between Irishmen and the failed revolutionaries of the past. The Irish conversation is not rational now, but more basic, fundamental. It is captured in the ambiguous image of a conversation between bones; the bones of the dead, and the bones of the living.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘Sixteen Dead Men’ continues to document Yeats’ intellectual inquiry into and emotional response to the events and aftermath of Easter 1916. An angry rebuttal of British demands upon the Irish nation during the First World War, it nonetheless retains some of the same ambivalence about the members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood that was a feature of ‘Easter 1916’.]

Easter 1916 – W.B. Yeats

‘Easter 1916’

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman’s days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our winged horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone’s in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven’s part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse –
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

NOTES

Easter 1916 was written in response to the failed uprising of Irish Nationalists against the British government in the week of Easter Sunday 1916. Members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood attempted to take a number of important government buildings in Dublin, trying to start a revolution against a weakened, wartime Britain that would conclude in the foundation of an Irish Free State. The British army defeated the rebels who barricaded the Post Office buildings, and executed the leaders in May 1916. Hundreds were killed during the uprising, and sixteen men were executed after the rebellion, including the four named in the poem. ‘Easter 1916’ was written in September 1916, in response to these huge events.

STRUCTURE: The poem is written in four long stanzas with a simple regular rhyme scheme of ABAB, suitable for an extended narrative poem like this. You’ll note that because this is such a long and complicated poem, I will be analyzing it here stanza by stanza.

W.B. Yeats: Yeats was a proud Irish Republican. While he had qualms about violent rebellion against Britain, he was angered at the execution of the Irish leaders, who he believed had sacrificed themselves for Ireland.

Easter 1916: refers to the date of the rebellion.

Stanza One: This stanza relates the everyday encounters that the poet had with the rebels before the Easter rebellion. It paints a rather dull and disappointing city, and conveys the poet’s casual disregard for those who would become rebels.

“I have met them at the close of day…”: The poem begins by referring to the people Yeats knew or socialized with who were involved in the rebellion. He remembers them walking home from work, “from counter or desk”.

“Polite meaningless words” Those killed were only acquaintances of Yeats, and he did not get on well with all of them. Note the repetition of this line: as if to emphasise the everyday nature of their exchanges.

“a mocking tale or a gibe”: Yeats remembers that he often thought of his encounters with the nationalists only as an opportunity to scorn them to closer friends.

“Being certain that they and I / But lived where motley is worn”: ‘motley’ is the quarter-coloured dress of jesters or fools. Yeats plainly had a low opinion of the seriousness of his Irish contemporaries.

“All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born”: the poem’s famous and dramatic refrain, like an epitaph for the dead rebels, and the Ireland that once was. The words promise a painful birth for the new Ireland because of the rebels’ actions.

Stanza Two: This stanza writes of those actually involved in the rebellion, and Yeat’s own memories and opinions of the dead.

That women’s days were spent in ignorant good will…”: referring to Countess Georgina Markiewicz, an upper class socialite and nationalist, later a cabinet minister in the Irish Free State (1922). Yeats clearly thought her superficial (“ignorant good will”) and loudly argumentative (“shrill”). She was however once, he remembers, beautiful. Is this a sexist judgement? Markiewicz escaped execution by the British, unlike the three men mentioned following.

“This man”: this refers to Patrick Pearse, a central figure in the Easter rebellion and in Irish nationalism generally. Pearse founded a school, St. Edna’s: hence he “kept a school”.

“This other his helper”: this is Thomas MacDonagh, who was Pearse’s assistant headmaster at St. Edna’s. McDonagh was a promising poet and playwright who Yeats plainly admired: “He might have won fame in the end”.

“This other man… vainglorious lout”: John MacBride, who married Maud Gonne, a woman whom Yeats was inspired and obsessed by. MacBride beat Gonne during their marriage and ultimately left her, hence the mention of “most bitter wrong / To some… near my heart”. Nonetheless, Yeats must name or “number him” in the poem. It is a mark of the power of the transformation that Easter 1916 has caused, Yeats seems to suggest that “He, too” (twice repeated) “has been changed in his turn”, or the part he played in the rebellion.

Stanza Three: This stanza is more abstract than the other more literal stanzas. It introduces the symbol of a stone in an ever-moving stream. The symbol of the stone in this stanza can be interpreted in a number of ways. Symbols are not allegorical figures to which we can point and say, ‘This means exactly this’. It is in the nature of symbols to be ambiguous, multivalent (meaning they invite many interpretations), and rich in meaning. My reading of precisely what the symbol of the stone means must be limited, therefore: governed by my own interpretive limitations and the limited purpose of these study notes.

Hearts with one purpose alone…”: Yeats moves from considering the rebels to a more philosophical consideration of those who determine on one purpose in life. These people, through the changing seasons, Yeats suggests “seem / Enchanted to a stone / To trouble the living stream.” The first interpretation offered here is that this constant stone represents the Nationalist rebels’ steadfastness and determined purpose amidst the rapid change of life. Yet this stone might also conceivably represent the British state too, and hearts that have been turned to stone and “trouble the living stream” of Irish life. However, this stone could also be taken as a broader symbol of determined purpose amidst change. This may have positive connotations, such as toughness, a determined nature, constancy and truth; or negative associations, such as immobility, inflexibility, insensitivity.

“Minute by minute they change…”: A man rides his horse by the stream, while birds fly about, beneath a rapidly moving sky (“cloud to tumbling cloud”); these are all symbols of movement, of change. The detail of the poem here seems to involve a slow consideration of the tiniest detail, that mimics a subjective slowing of the mind, emphasised in the repetition of “minute by minute they live”.

“The stone’s in the midst of all.”: The stanza returns to this mysterious and enigmatic stone, whose persistence seems to speak to the poet. Is it possible that Yeats also associates the stone with Ireland itself, as an immovable nation, unmoved by the actions of those such as Pearse, McDonagh and MacBride?

Stanza Four: The final stanza reflects on the sacrifice of the men; whether it was necessary; and the purpose of writing the poem.

Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart.”: This is again an ambiguous phrase, but seems to allude to the long struggle and continuing sacrifice of the Irish, and how it hardens the heart. Yeats, remember, struggles against this callousness himself when considering the dead.

“O when may it suffice?”: or, ‘When will this sacrifice be enough?’— almost a cry to God, or “Heaven’s part”.

“our part / to murmur name on name / As a mother names her child”: the poet speaks of what the duty of the Irish (“our part”) is to the dead men. The act of remembering the dead should be compared to the familiar repetition of a mother repeating the name of a child. The mother bears comparison to Ireland itself, as the refrain “a terrible beauty is born” suggests.

“Was it needless death after all? / For England may keep faith”: the thought strikes the poet that the deaths of the men may have been unnecessary. In 1914 a Home Rule bill had been passed that had made provisions for Irish self-governance in Dublin. This was, nonetheless, the latest of a string of promises of home rule that had been postponed or unkept.

“We know their dream; enough / To know they dreamed and are dead”: Yeats puts aside doubts, asserting that the dream of the Nationalists is known to all the Irish (“We”) and that the men are dead because of these dreams. It does not matter if they acted rashly (“What if…?” means ‘what does it matter if?’).

“Now and in time to be, / Wherever green is worn / Are changed, changed utterly”: in actually invoking the names of “MacDonagh and MacBride / And Connolly and Pearse” the poem assumes an old role, that of the poem of remembrance of glorious death and sacrifice in war. The men will be remembered by the Irish nation for as long as the nation is celebrated and its colours worn.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem in fact contrasts with the message of Yeat’s first poem and is thus an interesting juxtaposition: it deals with the acts of “statesmen” and politics, and is an interesting non-British voice in the anthology. This poem by Yeats (and ‘Sixteen Dead Men’) sit uneasily with the rest of the collection, in terms of the AQA AS exam. They are not strictly First World War literature; they are products of an Irish uprising against the British state that took place during the First World War. It is unlikely that either will ever feature in the exam, and if they do, students will be entitled to an insurrection against the AQA Examiners Office on a similar scale to the events of 1916.]

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries – A. E. Housman

‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’

These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.

Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

NOTES

This is a poem in praise of the ‘Old Contemptibles’, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 1914— the professional British army that existed before the advent of Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ of volunteers. The BEF was sent to France at the end of that year to fight against the Germans.

AE Housman: Housman was a famous late Victorian poet, who wrote the renowned pastoral collection, ‘A Shropshire Lad’. He wrote this poem in 1917.

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries: Epitaphs are lines written on a grave, intended to commemorate the dead. ‘Mercenaries’ is a deliberately provocative word: these are the most despised sort of soldier, men who fight for money rather than country or honour. Housman utilises this word ironically, to subvert the language of German propaganda about the British army.

“…when heaven was falling”: An apocalyptic image: the end of the world. A description of the beginning of the war.

“followed their mercenary calling”: At the beginning of the war, Britain had a small army made up of those paid to fight, rather than the massive armies of conscripts that made up the German, French and Russian armies. This meant that on the outbreak of war, the average member of the BEF was a better soldier than his opposite (famously, at the Battle of Mons, the retreating BEF’s rifle firing rate was so fast that German troops thought they were facing machine guns); but he was also massively outnumbered. German propaganda called the professionals of the British Army mercenaries as an obvious insult: Housman takes up the insult ironically.

“…took their wages and they are dead”: a literal statement. The 120,000 BEF soldiers were more or less wiped out by 1916. ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ was published in The Times in 1917, three years after the First Battle of Ypres, where so many of the BEF were killed. The lines recall the Biblical axiom “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

“Their shoulders held the sky suspended”: the soldiers are compared to Atlas, the Titan who holds up the sky in Greek legend. Note the sibilance here, found throughout the poem.

“They stood, and earth’s foundations stay”: the BEF stood their ground, and thus saved Britain. Indeed, the German failure to press home their advantage against the BEF was even credited after the war by one German general for helping to halt their advance towards Paris.

“What God abandoned, these defended”: In a Godless world, the soldiers- the ‘mercenaries’- were those who defended the nation.

“And saved the sum of things for pay.”: it was for pay that the ‘mercenaries’ of the BEF saved the country as a whole (‘the sum of things’). Housman returns to the metaphor of wages and payment, reminding us that the British soldiers’ ultimate payment, or wages, was death.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a poem that directly addresses one of the earliest British actions of the war. Stallworthy introduces here a poem that reflects on the bloody passage of the early months of the war, and the sacrifices made by the BEF.]

When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead – Charles Sorley

‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

NOTES

This difficult poem describes a dream encounter between the living and those killed in the First World War, attempting to instruct the reader that they should avoid pity or praise when speaking to the dead: they have been transformed by death into ghosts of the people they once were, and there can be no meaningful conversation between the two.

When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead: Again, this title has been applied after the fact. This has become a famous poetic image and quotation related to the First World War: it encompasses the scale of human loss in a nightmare vision of powerlessless (‘mouthless’, of course, suggests their inability to speak— or have their voices heard by others).

STRUCTURE: This is a sonnet. To see previous notes which describe the sonnet’s traditional structure, see Rupert Brooke’s ‘Peace’, ‘The Dead’ and ‘The Soldier’. Sorley’s sonnet has an unusual structure:  ABABBABA CDCDCD. It retains a distinct octet and sextet, but as a sonnet it is nonetheless unconventional, not least in its uncompromising subject matter.

“When you see millions of the mouthless dead… pale battalions go”: The opening lines are immediately both shocking and haunting. The second person address (the use of ‘you’ rather than ‘he’ or ‘I’) immediately personalizes the nightmare vision of the millions dead. It is an interesting question as to whom the implied reader is in this poem: is it those at home who have not witnessed the horrors of the war? Or is the march of the dead soldiers across the dreamworld of the living a universal experience, something unavoidable? Greek myth, which Sorley knew well, sometimes made the gods of sleep (Hypnos), death (Thanatos) and dreams (Morpheus) brothers; in this sense, encountering those who have died in battle in dreams is not necessarily an unexpected meeting.

“Say not soft things as other men have said, / That you’ll remember.”: the speaker warns against polite consoling or pitying words to the dead. The warning seems to address feelings of shame or embarrassment that the implied reader might feel: introducing the submerged question of guilt about the deaths of the men.

“For you need not so. / Give them not praise.”: these short sentences of instruction are written in a peculiarly disjointed way. The souls of soldiers might be expected to draw from the living kind words or praise. Yet the words ‘not’ (and later ‘nor’) interrupt and negate such responses: they’re simply not an option. This sense of interruption of expectations and meaning within the style of writing is known as anastrophe– where the grammar of a sentence seems deliberately disjointed or strangely ordered for effect. Compare the greeting to the dead in Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’— where the speaker begins, “Strange friend” (p.194).

“For, deaf, how should they know it is not curses… gashed head?”: The horrific insensibility of the dead is compounded with the observation that they cannot hear what you have to say to them. The reference to ‘gashed heads’ here is deliberately disturbing: the soldier’s wounds persist after death.

“Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.”: with each line the insensibility of the dead to the living increases. “Tears”— pity— have no use here.

“Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.”: the repeated rejection of what might be thought as humane or proper responses to the dead soldiers in each instruction emphasises the distance and difference between the dead and the living. The idea that it is ‘easy to be dead’ is shocking, even if it does appeal to intuition (that it is harder to stay alive than stay dead).

“…‘They are dead’. Then add thereto. ‘Yet many a better one has died before.”: there is, again, something shocking about the matter-of-factness of these instructions. The instruction to add that better people have died than the dead in war is so unsentimental as to seem chilling. It is interesting to speculate why Sorley uses this objective tone when writing about this encounter with the dead. Why is he alienated by the solecisms (kind words and acts) of the living? Is it because they are useless once a man is dead? Does Sorley blame the naively sentimental, the kind and the patriotic for the war?

“scanning all the o’ercrowded mass,”: “scanning” means looking; “o’ercrowded” means overcrowded. There are, remember, millions of dead soldiers crowding this dream space. “Mass” suggests they have lost individuality: it is an interesting word in early twentieth century discourse. ‘The masses’ were people perceived as a scary and undifferentiated entity, rather than as a large group made up of individuals. It may have a sinister suggestion here.

“…should you / Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, / It is a spook.”: the lines mean ‘if you see someone you loved before, it is a ghost’. The contrast between the hopeful expectation of the bereaved viewer and the unsentimental speaker is again contrasted. The choice of the word ‘spook’ is interesting: it is careless, flippant, almost dismissive, having few of the high-flown religious connotations we might expect when talking about such a moment.

“None wears the face that you knew. Great death has made all his for evermore.”: a chilling tone continues to the end. The common personification of Death, as a ruler or king over all, that we have already found in Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ (p.164) makes a reappearance here. Note that, like Grenfell’s poem and the previous by Sorley, this is an unchristian poem. There is no consolation of heaven for the righteous dead, similarly no promise of hell; kind or thoughtful acts affect nothing, and are quite useless— they seem almost to be vanities; while the ‘mass’ of dead are regarded objectively, almost without discrimination. The inspiration for this vision is, similar to Grenfell, the classical idea of death and afterlife found in Greek myth. Hades ruled over the Greek underworld or afterlife; those who led unremarkable lives would wander the fields of Asphodel in Hades, having forgotten their previous identities, leading neutral, ghostly lives. Heroes of battle would live in the Elysian fields; but the afterlife of the ‘mass’ of dead that Sorley describes here fits far closer the fields of Asphodel. The lack of a sense of pity or consolation in the poem marries up with this bleak world of identity lost and disconnection from the world of the living.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is part of a long tradition of poems that describe the encounter between the living and the ghosts of the dead who have been killed in battle. It can usefully be compared within the anthology to Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’ (p.194) and, outside the anthology, with Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’.]