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’.]

In Flanders Fields – John McCrae

‘In Flanders Fields’

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

NOTES

This is a poem of remembrance, a call for those living not to forget the dead who are buried in a foreign land. It demands that the living remember why the fallen died, so that they did not die in vain. This is one of the most famous poems of the First World War.

STRUCTURE: This poem uses a specifically French form, dating back to the 13th Century, known as a rondeau. A rondeau traditionally has 13 lines of 8 syllables length; it has three stanzas, with rhyme scheme AABBA AABC AABBAC; and it features a four syllable refrain (marked C in the notation previous) that repeats the opening words of the poem. Check these against McCrae’s poem: you’ll find he follows the form quite perfectly. As writing a sonnet, composing a rondeau is demanding exercise for a poet.

John McCrae: A Canadian doctor who treated soldiers on the Western Front. He threw away the poem after first writing it, only fishing it out of his bin the next day.

In Flanders Fields: features the alliteration that helps structure this poem throughout.

“…the poppies grow”: poppies were a symbol for death in war before World War One, but it was McCrae’s poem that helped to popularize the poppy as a sign of remembrance for the Great War. Poppies have been associated with the battlefield since at least the Napoleonic wars, when poppies would thrive and grow on the fields freshly manured by blood. Poppies were also associated with sleep (opium being a poppy derivate) and McCrae, being a doctor, would have been conscious of this: the idea of sleeping under the poppies is revived in the last lines.

“We are the dead.”: the poem turns, surprisingly, to the dead, who are given voice by the poet. This is a powerful and emotive turn, a direct address of the living by the fallen.

“In the sky, the larks”: these birds, traditional poetic symbols of natural beauty and freedom, contrast strongly with the world below. As often, nature provides an idealized backdrop to the war that provides a contrast with man’s immoral actions.

“Take up our quarrel with the foe”: the message of the poem is to continue the war.

“we throw the torch… hold it high”: emotive image of passing on a burning torch to light the way forward. It must be held high— as a precious object of pride.

“if ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep…”: the suggestion is of a curse on those who do not remember the dead; an old and powerful idea.

Though poppies grow…” reminds us the somnolent (sleep-inducing) power of the poppy.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is the first of the poems in the anthology to give the war dead a voice that directly addresses the reader: the first of the powerfully emotive poems that try to express the ‘pity’ of the soldier’s situation.]

The London Victoria Memorial 2010

A-level meetings! Excitement and intellectual thrills. Further to my post on the 10th about the journey of the Unknown Warrior to his tomb in Westminster Abbey, it so happened that I wandered through London Victoria train station last week.

There, next to Platform 8, I found the plaque erected by the Western Front Association, commemorating the arrival of the Unknown Soldier’s carriage. Further along the railings, poppy wreaths had been lain by a number of different associations- from Tube and Train Drivers Unions, various army regiments, the British Legion, and even a Jewish servicemen’s organisation.

It was interesting to see the buffers that met the end of that famous journey. The Western Front Association has an interesting site with articles about the recent remembrance ceremonies, the Battle of Loos, Churchill, instructions in how deal with gas attacks, amongst others. It also has an article on the Victoria ceremony this year, here.

Armistice Day at Southfields Community College

They say that there is a First World War memorial in just about every city, town and village in Great Britain. Within those cities, towns and villages, there will often be more than one place set aside for reflection on the sacrifice of the dead. There are memorials that go unseen by casual eyes: in churches and cathedrals to dead parishoners, in town halls, post offices, schools. Here at Southfields we have our own First World War memorial, and it’s one of the more beautiful modern memorials that you’re likely to see.

A few years ago some of our younger art students were encouraged to make tiles depicting scenes and symbols of the First World War. They made brightly coloured tiles of poppies, soldiers, trenches, airplanes and pressings of barbed wire and iron. They coloured these and gave them a beautiful glossy glaze. Finally, they constructed a tableau out of the different elements, arranged around the words, ‘We Remember’. My picture really doesn’t do the bright simplicity of the arrangement justice: you can see it in the college’s reception hallway. It’s a favourite part of the school buildings.

The Southfields War Memorial, made by our own pupils.

Today the school stopped for its minute’s silence which, as usual, was observed impeccably. History classes lead up to Armistice day and our pupils are well informed about the reasons for observing the silence and respecting the dead. Remembrance Day at Southfields also takes in those affected by many of the contemporary wars that have ravaged the planet, and too many of our pupils have been forced from the lands of their birth by conflict and death. Remembrance Day is not an abstract moment of reflection for some at our school. The war memorial at the very entrance to our school seems to commemorate that.

My AS class met today and together we read about the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior (see my post yesterday), watched a film of the coffin’s passage from France to Westminster, and the discussed the last days of the war. Then we read extracts from Max Arthur’s excellent ‘Forgotten Voices’, the words of those who knew how it felt on the 11th of November 1918.

The answer is not romantic. In London celebrations ensued. Elsewhere, exhaustion and sorrow reigned supreme. As Sergeant Major Richard Tobin of the Hood Battalion testified:

The Armistice came, the day we had dreamed of. The guns stopped, the fighting stopped. Four years of noise and bangs ended in silence. The killings had stopped.

We were stunned. I had been out since 1914. I should have been happy. I was sad. I thought of the slaughter, the hardships, the waste, and the friends I had lost.

The discussion we had about these feelings was perceptive and, for me, moving. At the end of the lesson, the class and I (well, half of the class at least– the rest were on a trip) went down to visit our memorial and allow me to take a photograph. It’s not a solemn picture, and that’s as should be when your English teacher keeps messing up with his camera.

The Southfields AS English Literature class, sharing a moment. Left to Right: Solomon, Toni, Jarry, Aakanksha, Abdul and Ryan.

A good Remembrance Day.

The Unknown Warrior

London Victoria: the end of the line.

London Victoria: the end of the line. It is for me. If I want to go into London, as I occasionally do, chances are I’ll be arriving in this unlovely station, rail hub for the South of the city, nestled between Westminster Cathedral to its east and Buckingham Palace Gardens to the North. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Except Victoria was blighted by bombing during the Blitz, and many of the byways near to the station are lined by Sixties monsters, ugly buildings made of concrete and glass. The station itself is a depressing place. Always heaving with people, it’s a characterless zone of rubbishy commuter shops. My train pulls into platforms 9 or 10. Electronic barriers and concrete greet you. You’d never think history had profoundly touched this place.

Ninety years ago tonight, it did. At platform 8, at 8.32 p.m., November 10th 1920, a train pulled into the station, carrying something that would soon become immeasurably precious to those British people still mourning the dead of the First World War.

That thing was the body of an unknown British soldier. Previously, in act of elaborate symbolism, the bodies of four dead soldiers of unknown identity were exhumed from Ypres, Somme, Arras and Aisne. From these one was chosen ‘blindly’ to represent all the ‘unknown’ British soldiers– those soldiers without a name on their grave, or a grave at all. The body of this soldier, amidst much reverent ceremony, was shipped home to London. It arrived at Victoria the night before its transfer to a final resting place.

The Cenotaph, 1920. Note the coffin of the Unknown Warrior, bottom left.

The next day– the third Armistice Day– that soldier would be buried in Westminster Abbey. The coffin bearing the body was taken by carriage to Whitehall, where a new memorial to World War One, the Cenotaph, was unveiled by King George V. From there the king and the government’s ministers followed the coffin to the Abbey, where the body was buried in soil taken from the battlefields of Ypres, “where so many of [the soldier’s] comrades had lost their lives”.

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, its dedication inscribed into black Belgian marble.

The act of burying this ‘Unknown Warrior’ was profoundly moving for many in the country. Many families across the nation had lost fathers, brothers and sons in the four years of war; too many families had no grave to visit to mourn their losses. It is a horrifying Commonwealth Graves statistic (found on the excellent 1914-18 website) that of all those British and Commonwealth forces killed in the First World War, 526,816 men have no named grave. Furthermore, while these dead men are listed on WWI memorials, of that figure 338,955 men were never buried at all. Their identifiable remains were never traced. That sickening fact alone explains why the act of honouring this anonymous soldier drew tens of thousands into the streets on the 11th, and many thousands more to the grave itself in the months and years to follow. Some may have felt that it was their loved one who was buried at the entrance to the Cathedral; many more will have found consolation in the country’s deep gesture of respect for the unknown dead.

Westminster Abbey

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior was a profound moment in the mourning of many people in Britain in 1920, and it remains a focus point for remembrance today. Tomorrow, the grave of the unknown warrior will again be revisited with a wreath of poppies, signifying that the country has not forgotten the sacrifice of the body below the stones.

Tonight, as has happened every November 10th since 1920, a small ceremony was held at Platform 8, Victoria Station, London, to remember the arrival of the unknown soldier. There’s something heartening in the continuity of that ceremony, I think: progress, after all, means embracing the new, and honouring the best of the past. If you get the chance, and are someday stuck in the grim extended waiting room that is Victoria station, walk along to Platform 8 and pay your respects too.

If you want to learn more about the tomb of the unknown warrior, you can find out about it on the web. There’s an excellent page on the soldier and grave at the Imperial War Museum’s Collections; another at Home of Heroes; a good history with an amazing video of the actual passage of the body from France to London at the Westminster Abbey website; and a short account on the BBC history pages.

Poppy wars: the battle over remembrance

Poppy Appeal?

As Armistice Day approaches, the question of how we should remember the First World War has again hit the news.

Channel 4 News presenter, Jon Snow, does not wear a poppy when he reads the news. Many presenters on television choose to at this time of year, but he does not. This has led to controversy in recent days, summed up in this BBC report, ‘TV’s Snow rejects ‘poppy fascism’‘.

You’ll remember that the poppy is worn as a symbol of remembrance for the deaths of soldiers during war. The blood-red flower has been associated with death in war at least since Waterloo: it flourishes in turned over ground, such as fields churned up by horses and artillery, or, a century later on the Western Front, folded and cratered by massive shell explosions. Fed by lime and human fertiliser, the poppy famously began to cover Flander’s fields.

John McRae’s famous poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, led to a wider identification of the poppy with the butchery of the First World War, especially in his homeland Canada. The poem begins:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row…

By twists and turns, but directly inspired by the poem, the Royal Canadian Legion eventually began giving paper poppies as symbols of remembrance for the dead of the First World War. This custom spread worldwide, and hence the poppy is still worn today.

The question at the heart of the controversy is whether and why a poppy should be worn today. Snow isn’t against the wearing of poppies; he says he doesn’t wear any kind of symbol. Some people are angry that he seems to have rejected the poppy: in doing so, they say, he is rejecting the dead that the poppy represents. Tempers are high. What do you think about this issue? Some people say the whole thing has been whipped up by the media. Does it matter that Snow won’t wear a poppy on the news? The Daily Mail weighs in, here: a historian defends Snow, here.

Meanwhile there seems to be a more bothersome problem with remembering the First World War on television. Where are the stories and accounts of WWI on the mainstream terrestrial stations? A week before the anniversary of the end of the First World War, and the BBC hasn’t shown a single new documentary on the conflict. Less emotive perhaps, but more important for the nation’s remembrance than the fact that a telly newsreader isn’t wearing a flower? Perhaps.

At any rate, in a nice irony, Channel 4 has repeated a fascinating documentary on the First World War, ‘Not Forgotten’. Presented by Ian Hislop, it looks at the history of the reviled ‘conchies’, or conscientious objectors to the war. These were people who objected totally to the fighting, and decided to take no part in it, for personal or religious reasons. They suffered social isolation– and worse. You can watch the episode on the web at Channel 4 online.

The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

NOTES

This sonnet finds a soldier speculating as he goes away to war about his possible death, which he feels should not be mourned, but understood as part of a selfless tribute to his much-loved England.

STRUCTURE: A sonnet. The sonnet form is particularly appropriate here. Sonnets are traditionally love poems. In many renaissance poems, written by the likes of Plutarch, Thomas Wyatt or the Earl of Surrey, such poems are dedicated to an idealized lover— a lover represented as having the best qualities possible. ‘The Soldier’ is indeed a love poem, written for a much-loved and idealized England.

‘The Soldier’: the poem’s voice is that of the unnamed and so anonymous soldier. This soldier therefore seems to speak not only for himself, but for other soldiers too. This is, literally, a poem about selflessness: the idealized selflessness of the soldier who sacrifices his life for his country.

“If I should die”: the opening clause may be conditional, but Brooke here reflects the contents of many letters home from soldiers to families, filled with foreboding about possible death.

“think only this of me:”: the tone of selflessness, of refusing mourning, is contained in this command to “think only this”.

“There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England”: an image full of pathos and patriotism. The idea of an unnamed “corner of a foreign field” where the soldier will be buried speaks of the unsung and anonymous nature of death in war. Yet the notion that this small space will “forever” be part of England elevates the sacrifice the soldier makes— as if he has in a small way conquered this land. The soft alliteration here lends these opening lines a subdued tone.

“In that rich earth a richer dust concealed”: the fertile earth of the foreign field (fertile in part because of the dead beneath) has hidden within it the soldier’s body (dust). ‘Dust’ is a common literary metaphor for the body: coming as it does from the funeral oration in the Book of Common Prayer, which speaks of the body returning to the earth, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.

“A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,”: England here is personified as a mother; first with child, then rearing her young. The link with the mother, of course, emphasises the deep intimacy and importance of England her ‘sons’.

“gave, once, her flowers to love… to roam”: England’s abundance and pastoral beauty is emphasised here as a kind gift. Giving is an important and recurrent metaphor for Brooke when writing about soldiers sacrifice— a way of giving meaning to death by placing it in the context of a kind of social exchange.

“A body of England’s”: the soldier’s body actually belongs in a fundamental way to England; it is hers. This sense of intimate connection— of actually joining with England— is key to this poem.

“breathing English air…washed…blest…home: England is again mentioned— six times in this poem in total. By sheer repetition of the name, this poem gains patriotic intensity. Here the pleasant experience of everyday life is described as an English experience. The final mention of “home” in the octet brings us back to the tragic scene described in the first line.

“And think”: the sextet is more speculative, about life after death, about the soul rather than the body; this call to the reader to “think”, or imagine, is appropriate.

“this heart…eternal mind”: the heart here stands in for the soul; we are asked to imagine this soul after death, when “all evil” or sin has been cast off, and has become part of God himself. The soul is now “a pulse” in the mind of the greater being.

“this heart… no less / Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given”: This line refers back to the octet, where England made the soldier and his thoughts; now we are asked to imagine that equally (“no less”) the soul of the soldier gives all its accumulated thoughts of a lifetime in England to God.

“Her sights and sounds… laughter, learnt of friends;”: the soldier lists all the wonderful experiences that the soldier has gained from England. These pleasant thoughts and memories will be given back to God as the soldier becomes one with Him.

“and gentleness, in hearts at peace / Under an English heaven”: the poem ends with a startling proposition— the soldier finds rest and peace at last in heaven, but heaven has been transformed by the thoughts and memories that the soldier has given to God. This heaven is now “an English heaven”: the connection with England will remain forever unbroken. The sonnet’s turn from an idyllic or idealized vision of England to the idea of a transcendent and literally heavenly England is complete.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is a sophisticated patriotic response to the First World War that can be contrasted with the more xenophobic and crude patriotism of poets like Jessie Pope and Rudyard Kipling— or at least Kipling’s early responses to the war. Brooke’s characteristic blend of intellectual and emotional power is in evidence, though some may find the poem troubling: the notion of an English heaven suggests, after all, that there is something special about England, in no less eyes than those of God. Can there be, in such a time of war, such a thing as a German heaven?

Brooke is certainly aware of the dangers of projecting our own ideas and prejudices onto heaven. His amusing 1913 poem ‘Heaven’, about fish heaven, makes that clear: “of all their wish,” he declares, “There shall be no more land, say fish.” Yet he seems to rely on the force of his patriotic imagination to make an ‘English heaven’ plausible. Can we- should we- take this English heaven seriously?]