This Exam is No More: New Specification, New Rules

 

I’ve just had an email from a reader that I think demands that we all, as teachers and students, reflect on the type of examination that is upcoming, and the types of questions we are expected to answer in June. This site was originally launched to help students to study towards a now-dead English literature exam: the AQA English Literature A exam (2740). The Oxford Book of War Poetry was studied by answering one of a pair of questions in Section B of that exam. It cannot be said enough now that this exam is no more. It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late exam. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace… this is an ex-exam.

The new A-level exam,  AQA English Literature A (7712) demands a very different approach, and as the good Mrs. Loman so passionately declared (look it up), attention must be paid.

Here’s the lovely letter:

“I love this website, it’s such a great resource! I’m studying this A-level distance learning and haven’t found much else useful. I was wondering if you still believe the AQA key poem list to be the same? Also if you were ever willing to do so, I’d be especially interested to see your take on some Wilfred Owen or Cummings as these are my favourite! Thank you for this site!”

The old AQA key poem list can be found here on this site, and with its mention, my blood ran cold. For this list is not relevant to the new specification. And it strikes me that some of you may think that it still is. Or even that your teachers may be telling you that it still is. It isn’t, because the whole way in which you are going to be examined on the the Oxford Book of War Poetry has changed, and changed radically. Here’s the answer I gave:

“The A-level examination has changed in the past year and the AQA A-level is now a quite different beast. It is crucial you get to know the specification (the map or plan for the taught course) well enough to know what you should study or learn for the exam: so much more so if you’re doing this alone.

You can find the specification here.

The old specification examined the Oxford Book of War Poetry in Section B in a pair of questions dedicated to the Oxford Book of War Poetry alone. The crucial difference in the new specification is that the poems examined in the anthology are compared to a novel or drama [I should have mentioned to the student here that all these texts will be examined in an Open Book situation– that is, you can take a clean copy of these texts into the exam]. One of the three texts you study for ‘World War One and its Aftermath’ MUST be written post-2000. Therefore, at Southfields, we are reading Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’ in tandem with Stallworthy’s anthology.

The style of question we are moving towards answering with the OBWP and Barry’s novel is in Section B of the paper and will read like this:

‘Suffering in war comes in many different forms.’

Compare the significance of suffering in two other texts you have studied. Remember to include in your answer reference to how meanings are shaped in the texts you are comparing.

You must use one prose text written post-2000 and one poetry text in your response. [25 marks]

This is a question in which you are expected to have an understanding of the theme of suffering in Barry’s novel (the post-2000 text here) and a poem (which you choose) from the Stallworthy anthology. This sample question can be found here, in the AQA’s exemplary specimen paper for the new exam. The markscheme for the same specimen paper can be found hereHere is the AQA page for assessment resources. [Sorry, teachers, if I’ve just given away the secret of your January mock exam, but clarity for students comes first.]

What should be clear is that you, as a student, no longer have to know nearly every poem in the anthology as in previous years (or indeed follow the previous AQA key poem list at all) but instead should have an in-depth knowledge of certain key poems that are illustrative of the themes or concerns of first world war literature and, vitally, the novel or drama you are comparing it to.

In the specification, AQA states that “areas that can usefully be explored [in studying the First World War and its aftermath] include: imperialism and nationalism; recruitment and propaganda; life on the front line; responses on the home front; pacifism; generals and soldiers; slaughter; heroism; peace and memorials; writers in action and writers looking back; the political and social aftermath; different and changing attitudes to the conflict; impact on combatants, non-combatants and subsequent generations as well as its social, political, personal and literary legacies.” (p.16)

Learn and understand a great poem like Sassoon’s ‘The General’, for example, and you open up the potential to write about life on the front line, generals and soldiers, slaughter, heroism, different and changing attitudes to the conflict, and political, personal and literary legacies, to name a few aspects of the war. The clever selection of certain crucial poems will give you flexibility in your exam response. But you must ensure you study these poems in tandem with the prose or drama text you study, for you will be comparing the two in the exam in terms of theme or study area, as above.

Please be reminded again that if you are studying Stallworthy’s ‘Oxford Book of War Poetry’ for the A-level exam, you MUST ensure that one of your drama or prose texts is written post-2000, or disaster is certain.

I hope this helps.”

And indeed: I hope this helps.

Voices of the First World War

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A recruitment poster for the Football Battalion (Wikipedia)

 

One of the great fortunes of studying the First World War at A-level right now is the wealth of interesting resources available for you to access. It wasn’t always this way, of course; in the dark days when I first began writing this blog you could barely get an amusing gif of Fieldmarshal Haig tripping on a duckboard.

Not exactly true, but you get my gist. The centenary has been a good time for students of First World War history and literature to learn about life from 1914 to 1918.

On Monday I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Dan Snow’s ongoing Radio 4 series about the conflict, ‘Voices of The First World War’. This series is a goldmine for those of you fretting about your lack of historical knowledge about the war. In the UK you can listen online or download the series as MP3 files (outside the UK, I’m not so sure).

Each episode in the series is under fifteen minutes long, and focuses on a single aspect of the war, from First Impressions on the outbreak of the war to most recently (and fortuitously given my last post!) the emergence of new technologies like Tanks.

The episode that caught my attention was entitled ‘Sheffield and the Somme’. It is, admittedly, an upsetting program. In it, Sheffield locals give their own firsthand accounts of the effect upon the community of the massacre of the Sheffield City Battalion, or as they were then known, the ‘Sheffield Pals’.

The Pals Brigades are one of the more sobering facts of the First World War. They were a successful recruiting method whose formation had unseen and tragic consequences in battle. Men from a particular locale or men who found themselves in a particular type of employment could enlist with friends and colleagues with the prospect of staying with them for the rest of the war. In 1914-15, this break with army tradition was felt necessary to encourage mass conscription. The New Army formed- also known as Kitchener’s Army, named after the Secretary of State for War- was an army of millions, ready for active duty by the end of 1915. In fact, many of the Pals brigades first saw action in the battle of the Somme in July 1916.

The unforeseen consequence of this method of recruiting was that when a battalion faced a massacre, as the Sheffield Pals did on the first day of the Somme, the area from which the Pals brigade was taken took disproportionate and catastrophic numbers of casualties. Between July 1st and July 3rd, 1916, the Sheffield Pals- which had recruited somewhere between 900 to a thousand men in two days in August 1914- sustained 495 men dead, injured or missing. The terrible consequences of such massed death was keenly felt in the districts from which the men came. Whole cities felt the devastation of loss.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, when we judge the formation of such brigades, and certainly they played their part in the creation of a large and well-trained conscript army. Yet  it is too little noted that foresight is a wonderful thing too; would that it had been more in evidence in British plans for the conflict. Sheffield writer John Harris notes of the Sheffield Pals, they were “Two years in the making; ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history”.

‘Sheffield and the Somme’ captures this shocking moment in British history through the dignified testimony of those who suffered. It is well worth your attention, as is the rest of the series. Should you wish to read on- particularly, perhaps, if you are reading Whelan’s ‘The Accrington Pals’- there is also an excellent website, Pals.org.uk, which details the formation of several of these brigades.

Tanks on the Western Front: The Land Ironclads

hg_wells_land_ironclads_1904
A 1904 illustration to HG Wells’ 1903 tale, ‘The Land Ironclads’.

 

The Guardian ran an interesting article yesterday on their archive blog, commemorating the centennial of another military first.

One hundred years ago this week saw the first use of tanks on a battlefield. ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches‘ reflects on the Guardian and Observer’s early coverage of this new technology. The journalistic reaction at that time to the immediate potential of these vehicles was, unsurprisingly, enthusiastic. By 1916, the ongoing stalemate on the Western Front had bred desperation for any breakthrough that might bring the war to a conclusion. For a little while, tanks seemed like they might be just the kind of mercurial invention that could smash through the stasis of trench warfare: a new cavalry, perhaps, whose momentum could help speed Britain to victory.

Tanks were only the latest invention to fail to realise this dream. The history of tanks demonstrate, of course, the invention’s subsequent effectiveness: the successful Blitzkrieg of the second world war was made possible by German Panzer divisions, for example. Yet the immediate employment of Tanks during the Somme did not lead to a lasting breakthrough. The first generation of tanks used at Flers-Courcelette, the Mark I, were mechanically unreliable and struggled on the ragged terrain. In fact, the first real success of the war using tanks did not occur until over a year later, at the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917, when over 400 Mark IV tanks overran German defences.

Where tanks were an immediate success, however, was in terms of their imaginative potency. I think we can get a sense of this in the early naming of tanks, highlighted in the article: the dreadnoughts of the trenches. Dreadnoughts were big-gun battleships first produced in the early years of the twentieth century, so named after the revolutionary design of the British battleship HMS Dreadnought, which first saw service in 1905. The Dreadnought became a public obsession in Britain during the global naval arms race of the early twentieth century. Both terrifying and effective as a weapon of war, dreadnoughts were seriously described as “a most devastating weapon of war, the most powerful thing in the world”. So, if the tank were like the Dreadnought, who then could stand in its way?

The metaphor had persisted throughout the tank’s development. Tanks were the product of a British focus on the development of armoured vehicles, led by the Landships Committee in early 1915. The name ‘tank’ in fact only emerged as a code, to hide the true intentions of those developing the vehicle (suggesting a vehicle used to move water, perhaps in hot climates like Mesopotamia). The term ‘Landship’, on the other hand, gave away too much of the designers’ intentions. The true objective was a mobile, well-armoured and armed fortress that could rove the battlefield with the impunity of a battleship on the sea.

One long-acknowledged possible source for this idea is a story written in 1903 by Britain’s greatest science fiction writer, HG Wells. In 1903 Wells published a short story in the Strand magazine called ‘The Land Ironclads‘. Ironclads- late nineteenth century steam battleships armoured with iron plating-  are the metaphorical vehicle Wells uses in this story to suggest the dreadful power and physical imperviousness of the armoured vehicles that rove his future battlefield. In the story, thirteen ironclads defeat an entire army:

“The daylight was getting clearer now. The clouds were lifting, and a gleam of lemon-yellow amidst the level masses to the east portended sunrise. He looked again at the land ironclad. As he saw it in the bleak grey dawn, lying obliquely upon the slope and on the very lip of the foremost trench, the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed. It might have been from eighty to a hundred feet long—it was about two hundred and fifty yards away—its vertical side was ten feet high or so, smooth for that height, and then with a complex patterning under the eaves of its flattish turtle cover. This patterning was a close interlacing of portholes, rifle barrels, and telescope tubes—sham and real—indistinguishable one from the other. The thing had come into such a position as to enfilade the trench, which was empty now, so far as he could see, except for two or three crouching knots of men and the tumbled dead. Behind it, across the plain, it had scored the grass with a train of linked impressions, like the dotted tracings sea-things leave in sand. Left and right of that track dead men and wounded men were scattered—men it had picked off as they fled back from their advanced positions in the searchlight glare from the invader’s lines. And now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

There is an interesting lesson in the power of metaphor here, perhaps. Metaphor, of course, is a conceptual habit of human beings: in using metaphor we have one set of thoughts and images (the world of the land, and battle in the trenches, or a muddy field) and carry this over to another set of dissimilar thoughts and images (an armed battleship on the sea, say, denoted by the words ‘Ironclad’ or ‘Dreadnought’). Out of the interaction of these different forms of knowledge, a novel thought or image is sometimes created: here, a ‘Land Ironclad’.

The introduction of such inventions into the otherwise realistic detail of the Science Fiction writer’s fictional world can be risky- badly handled, the effect of this new thing can be one of absurdity, implausibility, or a kind of predictable mystery. Done well however, metaphor in science fiction prompts revelation and produces strange enigmas. Wells knows this danger, and so when he describes the Land Ironclads resting on the edge of the enemy trenches, his narrator makes explicit the implicit idea behind his invention: he declares that “the suggestion of a stranded vessel was very great indeed”. Wells’ genius however- once he has admitted to the reader one of the roots of his metaphor- is to draw us back to the peculiar and personal sense of threat that such new technological possibilities always present: so, “now it lay with its head projecting a little over the trench it had won, as if it were a single sentient thing planning the next phase of its attack…”

The well-judged metaphor is something more than just a plausible concept: it has an emotional, persuasive, almost pre-rational weight. Anyone who loves poetry knows this. The notion of the Land Ironclad was ultimately a thought so persuasive, and the desire for its successful realization during the First World War so powerful, that when technical innovation caught up with imaginative thought, the time of the ‘Dreadnoughts of the Trenches’ had finally come.

 

 

 

A Hundred Years Since: Time to Read.

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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.

 

What? Privates? Where?- The Structure of a British Infantry Battalion in the First World War

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

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

Changes to ‘Move Him Into the Sun’

Hello again!

It’s been quite a while since I last posted. Sorry about that. Teaching and having two children under the age of four have proved enjoyable if busy diversions from the world of blogging. In the meantime, it seems, the busy elves at WordPress (the company which hosts this blog) have been at work in my absence, and the links to around 28 posts have gone up in smoke.

So, here I am, back to show you how to access all the posts that have been hidden, and to introduce a new widget which it seems utterly bizarre that I haven’t installed before.

Previously, if you wanted to see all my posts, you merely looked at the sidebar under ‘Recent Posts’ and there they were. Looking there more recently however you would only have found my last 50 posts. WordPress have now placed a maximum number of posts under that category.

Well, to cut a long story short, I’ve decided to create a new archive page for all my postings. This way you can access all the study notes for poems that I’ve written, and the blog posts for wider reading too. Look to the top of the page and you’ll see a tab reading, ‘All Posts and Poems! – Archive’. Click on this and it’ll take you to a list of all my archived posts.

To make life simpler for you when searching for poems and posts I’ve also decided to install a search button. Enter a word into the box on the right-hand side and I am reliably informed that some form of electronic gnome will say ‘shazam’, throw some digital chicken bones into the air, and my best posts will appear before you.

I can’t believe I haven’t installed it before, frankly. Someone surely should apply this idea to the whole internet. They’d make pots of money! Who’s in?

The Best of Luck!

It’s the night before The Big One, and so I’d like to wish you all the best of luck in your AS exams– especially if, like our fabulous group at here at Southfields, you’re sitting the AQA English Literature exam tomorrow afternoon.

Exams are scary things, it’s true. I passed on some last minute thoughts about sitting them this time last year: you can read them here, if you’d like. I still stand by those thoughts! If you have any exam approaching, I wish you success. I hated exams– but they do get you places.

Many thanks to all of you for making ‘Move Him Into the Sun’ such a success. We had our 150,000th visitor this weekend. 2,318 people have visited the site so far today– it took over half a year for the site to get that many hits in a single month!

Thanks, finally to this year’s AS group at Southfields– a lovely class who made teaching the subject an absolute pleasure. You know I’ll be thinking of you all tomorrow. Well, actually, I’ll be waving you all into the hall.

Good luck!

Key Poems in the Oxford Book of War Poetry [AQA correction: please read]

[IMPORTANT CORRECTION, January 4th 2016: THIS AQA KEY POEM LIST WAS ONLY RELEVANT TO THE ENGLISH LITERATURE A SPECIFICATION (2701) THAT ENDED IN JULY 2015. THOSE STUDYING THE CURRENT ENGLISH LITERATURE A SPECIFICATION (7712) ARE ADVISED TO IGNORE THIS LIST AS OBSOLETE.]

Panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham,
I wonder to myself– will life ever be sane again?

[IMPORTANT CORRECTION: 9th May 2012]

In the post below, this blog originally stated (on 5th May) that ONLY the AQA Key Poems listed below could be selected for the ‘Remind yourself of the poem(s)…’ question in part 1b of the exam. 

This is NOT the case. ANY poem may be examined from the anthology WWI selection. To be clear: AQA have only ever chosen poems from this Key Poems list for their January and Summer examinations. This is NOT, however, a matter of policy for the board. To repeat: ANY poem may be examined from the anthology WWI selection. 

The full clarification from AQA is as follows: 

“To be clear, when the key poems lists were originally disseminated, it was with the clear statement that they were intended as a guidance document for teachers to offer a ‘likely starting point’ when approaching the set texts. Students are expected to have read the whole text. [My emboldening here].

I’m sure you will appreciate that we cannot state that the named poem question will come from this list, despite the fact that it has done so to date.”

Apologies, then, to all of you for disseminating the wrong information about this list of Key Poems. 

I have now corrected the article below. You would still be wise to use the list below strategically when revising: after all, if they’re ‘Key Poems’, and in the past every poem-based question in 1b has come from this list, you would presume that the poems on this list are likely to come up in the exam– wouldn’t you?

[ENDS: ORIGINAL ARTICLE BEGINS WITH CORRECTIONS]

Exam time draws near for students studying the AQA English Literature Specification A exam. Panic is in the air: the faces may change, but it’s the same story every year. There’s panic from the students who skived all year, who now know they need a miracle to get that ‘C’. There’s panic amongst the students who’ve worked hard all year and really want to make the right choices in revising for the exam. There is even– whisper it– sometimes panic amongst teachers, who worry whether they’ve prepared their students as best they can. Let’s face it, exam time is stressful for nearly everyone. As a sixth form tutor as well as an A-level teacher, I see the effects all around me: the most rational people get snappy, and lack sleep, or haven’t seen the sun in weeks, and indulge in over-eating, or fall into under-eating… there’s avoidance, confrontation, aggression, exhaustion. And that’s just the teachers. (boom-TISH!)

Anyway, this post is in answer to concerns expressed by one Move Him Into The Sun reader who is fearful that their teacher hasn’t taught them every poem from the WWI selection in the Stallworthy anthology. I think there’s probably a good reason for this, and the information I supply here in answer might help iron out a few creased brows for other students too.

Here’s one big worry for those sitting the exam. In part 1b, students are typically given the option of choosing a thematic question or a question centred on one or two poems (in both, of course, you have to bring in your wider reading). This latter question often begins, “Remind yourself of the poem(s)…’. A big worry with the exam is that, should you for whatever reason have missed reading a poem, that this poem will come up as a question, and you’ll have to fall back on the thematic question to show off what you do know.

This is when narrowing down the poems that you must revise becomes a big help for students. Now, the AQA board supplied teachers with a list of key poems from the Oxford Book of War Poetry when they set out the specification (though it is almost impossible to find this list online– a flaw that AQA should amend quickly, if they truly believe, as they say they do, that transparency with students about assessment is the key to success).

What this means for you is that, crucially, not all the WWI poems in the Stallworthy anthology will be the subject of a question in part 1b. All the poems in Stallworthy’s selection will be rewarded in marking, so if you’ve studied all the poems for the exam, don’t fret, you haven’t wasted your time. [This is an AQA expectation.] Only select Key Poems, however, will form the basis of an essay question. [Any poem may be selected for examination– nonetheless the poems examined thus far have all come from this Key Poems list.] These are the Key Poems given to me by AQA:

Men Who March Away; In the Time of the Breaking of Nations; Peace; The Dead; The Soldier; The Volunteer; Into Battle; In Flanders Fields; ‘All the Hills and Vales Along’; ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’; Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; An Irish Airman foresees his death; ‘They’; The Hero; the Rear-Guard; The General; Glory of Women; Rain; As the Team’s Head Brass; To His Love; Ballad of the Three Spectres; The Silent One; On Receiving News of the War; August 1914; Break of Day in the Trenches; Dead Man’s Dump; Returning, We Hear the Larks; Anthem for Doomed Youth; Dulce et Decorum Est; Exposure; Insensibility; The Send-Off; Futility; Strange Meeting; Sergeant-Major Money; The Zonnebeke Road; Winter Warfare; ‘my sweet old etcetera’; ‘next to of course god america i’; For The Fallen; from Hugh Selwyn Mauberley; Triumphal March; Elegy in a Country Churchyard; Epitaphs of War; Subalterns; Rouen; MCMXIV; The Great War; Six Dead Men.

To state again, you will be able to use the other WWI poems in the anthology in question 1b, and these will be rewarded; but only the poems above can be [have historically been] the subject of one of those ‘Remind yourself of…’ questions.

Hopefully, this little bit of information will help the more strategically-minded among you plan for the exam– and set to rest some who are worried that they haven’t been taught the whole anthology. [My greatest regret here is that while I hoped to bring some clarity to the examination and reduce anxiety amongst all you who are sitting the exam next week, I fear I may have muddied the waters and raised nervousness amongst some of you. To be clear: this list of poems remains a good guide to the poems that the AQA prefer to examine candidates on. It is so good, in fact, that it has had a 100% hit-rate so far. It is simply that I cannot categorically say that the poem(s) in 1b you are asked to write on will come from this list. But let’s say this: it’s highly likely.]

Good luck– and don’t waste the Bank Holiday weekend! Find time for revision- and rest.

Dead Man’s Dump – Isaac Rosenberg

‘Dead Man’s Dump’

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

NOTES

A soldier going wiring— that is, setting up entanglements of barbed wire in No-Man’s Land— takes limbers (carriages) full of wire across the battlefield. These carriages, pulled by mules, pass near the bodies of the dying and run over the bodies of the unburied dead.

Dead Man’s Dump: Bernard Bergonzi, in ‘Heroes Twilight’, recounts the inspiration for ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ in this way: “Rosenberg described the genesis of this poem in a letter to Edward Marsh, dated 8 May 1917: ‘Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather by carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I don’t think what I’ve written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it Ill make it fine…’”. (sic) (p.113)

“The plunging limbers over the shattered track / Racketed”: In his novel ‘Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four!’ RH Mottram writes of “a string of square boxes on wheels, known as limbers… being drawn with a springless rattle”. In the events described in ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, the limbers are pulled by mules led by the soldier. Here the limbers similarly rattle noisily (note the onomatopoeia of the word “racketed”) as they bump along, “plunging” on the broken track that runs through the battlefield. Rosenberg begins this poem with a detailed, descriptive realism.

“rusty freight”: the limbers contain long spools or coils of rusty barbed wire, for use in defence against German attack.

“Stuck out like many crowns of thorns”: The barbed wire overspills the top of the limbers, their coils resembling the crown placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion. The simile recalls this torment, and with a conventional symbolism suggests the suffering inflicted on the common soldier in battle.

“the rusty stakes like sceptres old”: The limbers also carry the metal stakes which are rammed or, corkscrew-like, twisted into the ground to support the barbed wire: these, perhaps, have nub-like heads that remind the poet of “sceptres” (ceremonial staffs held by royalty as a symbol of authority). The contrast implied by the comparing a rusty metal pole with such a prestigious object ironically attributes to the fence-stakes a magical power or authority on the front line, demonstrating their power over men.

“To stay the flood of brutish men / Upon our brothers dear.”: To “stay” here means to stop. Bergonzi interestingly suggests that the image of an old sceptre holding back a flood recalls the “fruitless” actions of the legendary British King Canute (who tried to command the tides of the sea)— suggesting the wire may similarly also fail to hold the tide ( or “flood”) of the dehumanised enemy (“brutish men”) back.

“The wheels lurched over sprawled dead / But pained them not,”: The wheels of the limbers roll over the insensible bodies of the dead in No-Man’s Land. This horrible task, described by Rosenberg unflinchingly (“their bones crunched”), is the horrifying inspiration for the poem.

“They lie there huddled, friend and foeman…”: There is an equality or “kinship” (brotherhood) in death on the battlefield for all these “men born of women”.

“Shells go crying over them / From night till night and now.”: The shrieking sound of the shells that go “crying” over the dead men ironically recall the terrible cries of those who will mourn the dead. The repetition of “night” draws out and slows the following line: the unburied bodies continue to be exposed to the violence of battle.

“Earth has waited for them…”: Earth is personified here as a kind of monstrous goddess, famished and anxious (“fretting”) for the death of the men, “all the time of their growth”. This is a bleak vision of life as a brief time of vigour before inevitable death and decay— before being reclaimed by the dust.

“Now she has them at last!”: the earth has caught the fighting men at the height of their youth and strength (“in the strength of their strength”). Her power is greater than theirs, however, and they are “stopped and held”. Rosenberg also perhaps here suggests the frozen pose of men’s bodies half caught on the wire where they died— “suspended”.

“What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?”: Another typical Rosenberg question, much like the poet’s question to the rat—“What do you see in our eyes?”— in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. The phrasing of this question is difficult: It seems to speculate on Earth’s nightmarish obsession with reclaiming or consuming the dead men’s now “dark souls”.

“Earth! Have they gone into you?”: With urgency, the poet addresses Earth herself, desperate to know where the men’s souls have gone.

“…flung on your hard back / Is their soul’s sack”: the men’s bodies are compared to sacks lying on the “hard back” of the ground, “emptied of God-ancestralled essences”. This metaphor suggests that the men’s souls— their “God-ancestralled”, or God-created essences— have left the cheap and heavy material of their bodies.

“Who hurled them out? Who hurled?”: Rosenberg voices the essential horror of this casting out (“hurled”) of the precious soul from the body in the moment of death. Again, Rosenberg is not afraid of reminding us of the terrible lack of meaning that seems to be presented to man by the horror and death of the Western front.

“None saw their spirits’ shadows shake the grass…”: There is almost a sense of wonder at the easy passing of the insubstantial soul, and an easing of the hysteria of the previous lines. Note the softening sibilance of these lines.

When the swift iron burning bee / Drained the wild honey of their youth”: The pastoral imagery here— of a bee drinking honey— suggests the draining of blood from young men by the “swift iron” of bullets. To compare a bullet to a bee works aurally: both ‘buzz’ or ‘zip’ as they fly. The alliteration found in the phrase “burning bee” might also be intended to recall, at some distance, the sound of guns firing.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre…”: The poem turns its attention to the survivors who, bemused and guilty, continue living. A pyre is a pile of wood, burnt during ritual cremations, or as in ancient Celtic ceremonies, to sacrifice the living: here Rosenberg seem to be subverting the notion of sacrifice, transforming its transcendental Christian connotations into horrific images of the burning the living (continuing the metaphor of “burning” from the prior stanza).

Our lucky limbs on ichor fed, / Immortal seeming ever?”: Ichor was the golden blood of the ancient Greek gods (compare the earlier image of “wild honey” running through the veins of the youthful soldiers). This classical reference recalls Homer and verse composed in praise of heroes; though the questioning and irony here— that the surviving soldiers are far from immortal— conveys a sense of bemusement at the men’s survival.

Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us, / A fear may choke in our veins…”: The poet anticipates the burning of the survivors in the conflagration of battle, and this causing death through sheer fear.

The air is loud with death, / The dark air spurts with fire…”: the verse becomes regular at the start of this stanza, using iambic trimeter (“the AIR / is LOUD / with DEATH”). Rosenberg depicts an immediate, apocalyptic scene with an insistent, strident rhythm aided by strong alliteration and assonance: it is the relentlessness of the war that he seeks to convey.

Timelessly now, some minutes past, / These dead strode time with vigorous life…”: the stanza now changes rhythm, the lines lengthening. Time also becomes problematic here: the near past, only “minutes past”, when the men marched ‘in time’, is now gone forever, ended by the shrapnel of shells.

“Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home…”: almost a stab at sentimentality here– the dying men dream of distant home.

“A man’s brains splattered on / a stretcher bearer’s face…”: the open affection of the previous line (“dear things”) is immediately undercut by the grisly realism of a stretcher bearer, his face smeared with gore, attempting to lift the body of a dying man from the battlefield.

“His shook shoulders slipped their load,”: the revulsion the stretcher bearer feels as he realises that the man’s brains are on his face leads to an instinctive, horrified shrug– so that the injured soldier’s body slips from his grasp. The clever sibilance in this line seems to suggest both the bearer’s difficulty with the slick body (which falls from his grasp), and the dying man’s loose hold on life.

“The drowning soul was sunk too deep / For human tenderness”: the man dies. What remains becomes a lifeless thing, pitiful but inert. Note that Rosenberg uses images of drowning in this poem to suggest the moment of death.

“They left this dead with the older dead, / Stretched at the cross roads.”: the stretcher bearers leave the man with a pile of older corpses. The image of leaving the body “at the cross roads” here is haunting, recalling myth— the crossroads are a place for travellers on a journey, and here that journey marks the movement of the men’s spirits to another world. The act of leaving sacrifices at crossroads is especially associated with ancient and pagan myth; Hecate, a powerful Greek goddess of magic, death and rebirth, received dedications there. Rosenberg therefore uses what is known as a ‘liminal’ image, suggesting here an uncertain road from one state to another. In a sense this poem seeks to show that No-Man’s Land is a terrifying ‘liminal’ place, a strip of land where the living and the dead meet: a crossroads between life and death.

“Burnt black by strange decay, / Their sinister faces lie;”: in this hellish image the decomposing bodies— “burnt black” with their “sinister faces”— seem to threaten the living, though they remain inert and motionless, “joined to the great sunken silences” of the non-living.

“Here is one not long dead;”: the soldier’s roving eye alights on a body fresher than the rest. He imagines or recounts the dead man’s last living moments as he hears the “far wheels” of the limber-truck moving towards him. These moments are defined by a grasping confusion as the man clings to life, which Rosenberg suggests by using contradictory, paradoxical phrases and images that subtly undermine their own claim to meaning. So, for example, there is the dying man’s “dark hearing”, which uses colour to describe an aural process of diminishing hearing; a “choked soul”, describing the soul in terms of a strangulated body, reaching out; the wheels of the limber-truck speak “living words”; the dying man’s intelligence is “blood-dazed”; and so on. Cutting through this confusion is the pitiful terror of the man as he waits to be found, “crying through the suspense of the far-torturing wheels”.

“Swift for the end to break, / Or the wheels to break,”: the phrasing here continues to suggest confusion and a desperation to live (what will ultimately “break”? – “the end” or “the wheels”? If “the end” breaks, does that uncertain phrasing mean he shall live or die? Similarly, if “the wheels” break, does that mean an end to the torture of waiting, alone, for death?). This uncertainty is ended by quickly advancing death itself. Rosenberg describes this through an image of drowning beneath a tsunami-like diluvian flood, “the tide of the world”: it is this which finally ‘breaks’ “over his sight”.

“Will they come? Will they ever come?”: the desperation of the dying man reaches its greatest height as he waits for a fellow human being to find him.

“Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules…”: the poem moves towards its grim conclusion; the mules pulling the limber trucks draw close by. The visual perspective of the dying man, lying on the ground looking upwards, “with his tortured upturned sight”, is emphasised in these lines; he sees the mule’s hooves and their twitching (“quivering”) bellies, and the “rushing wheels” of the limbers. The repetition of the words “mixed… mules… mules… mixed” seems significant too, perhaps intended by Rosenberg to suggest the sound of the turning (perhaps squeaking) wheels that greet the soldier as they ride over the ground.

“So we crashed around the bend”: the sense of perspective suddenly shifts back again to the soldier who is out wiring. The adjective “crashed” suggests a clumsiness to the wiring team that is quite removed from the quietly tortured personal drama related just prior.

“We heard his weak scream, / We heard his very last sound…”: the anaphora (that is, the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a line) of “We heard his… We heard his…” seems to relate something of the mechanical response of the wiring soldiers to the horror around them as they work, their necessary desensitisation to the carts’ “wheels” grazing a “dead face”. The reader feels immediately the terrible pathos and irony of the moment, Rosenberg having effectively organised the narrative of the poem so that a response of horror or shame is unavoidable. On the other hand, it also seems that it is only by reconstructing and then reflecting on such a grim battlefield scene that the dehumanised battlefield can be made human once more. ’Dead Man’s Dump’ attempts to reclaim the thousands of anonymous deaths that took place in No-Man’s Land back to the world of memory and the living– reclaiming them from the insensible wheels of war that turn throughout the poem.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This long poem is one of the highest regarded of the war. It is also, plainly, one of the most detailed, explicit and therefore brutal accounts of the horror of the First World War. It is so because the reader is taken on tour of the battlefield, fresh with corpses and the cries of dying men, and is told of the necessary numbness of those forced to soldier on. Sassoon’s ‘The Rear-Guard’ (p.177) is another such a poem that uses realism to evoke the sometimes hellish nature of war on the Western Front; Owen’s poetry can work in a similar way, especially ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Exposure’ and ‘Insensibility’ (pp.188-92). While this poem is, I think, unlikely to some up in Section 1b, it does have many useful points of comparison to other poems that describe man’s inhumanity to man.]

Why the long face? Horsing around with History

The Romantic vision of cavalry during the Great War: 'Cavalry and Tanks at Arras, 1918' by Lieutenant Alfred Bastien

I’m not sure if this constitutes a recommendation or a warning, but last night Channel 4 showed a new World War I documentary entitled, ‘War Horse: The Real Story’. This program is now available for viewers to watch again online, on 4 On Demand. If you are interested in a documentary that promises to tell the “extraordinary, moving story” of the horses used in the Great War, “beginning with the mass call-up of horses from every farm and country estate in the land”, I suggest you take a look.

I caught a large chunk of the show last night. It does contain some interesting background information about the cavalry and the perils faced by these men and their horses, and some of the footage shown is certainly illustrative of the horrors of the war– a shot of the Hawthorn ridge mine exploding, for example. As far as it goes, there’s some interesting and useful information here to give literature students a sense of historical context.

But… but. It’s difficult to watch a documentary like this and not feel a sense of horror at the prospect of all the low-grade, uninspired documentaries about the Great War that will swamp our television screens over the next six years, as we mark the centenary of the war. The narration of the show, when not downright offensive, caught exactly the wrong tone in speaking about the war.

Offensive? Try this on for size, when talking about Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest of all the late battles of the war (please read with a softly mournful tone, as if telling a four year old that their pet guinea pig had just died): at Passchendaele, “the horses suffered equally alongside the men”. Really. Really?

This was a statement of such cosmic ignorance and such utter lack of empathy with the subject in hand that I had to switch the television off immediately: I find this beats having to install a swearbox in the living room. So I don’t know how the show ends. Sorry about that.

AS students who are reading the Jon Stallworthy anthology, however, will recognise from Herbert Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ the show’s nostalgic longing for a more honourable age of knights and chargers. Just as the general staff longed for a war of movement, this show longed for the First World War to be a completely different war to the one that was actually fought: one of heroes on horses making the decisive intervention. The program repeatedly showed romantic reconstructions of cavalry silhouetted against the setting sun: “horsemen, charging under phantom skies”, indeed.

Of course, the First World War wasn’t like that. The First World War was the end of the cavalry in modern warfare, for obvious reasons: a horse can’t be armoured against enfilading machine gun fire, and works, at best, at roughly one horse power. Horses were, on the other hand, essential for transport and, at the end of the war, meat for starving peasants.

The argument that the documentary makes, that “the finest hour of the cavalry came in spring 1918 when – led by the warhorse Warrior – they checked the German advance before going on to help win the war” is, frankly, idiotic. On the contrary, the cavalry was an outmoded institution that no-one in the conservative British Army really knew what to do with, at least on the Western Front. The years of static slaughter during which, at each big push, hundreds or thousands of horse riders would hang about behind the lines waiting for signs of breakthrough, stands as an everlasting testament to the mental inflexibility of the general staff.

Similarly, our current fascination with the War Horse seems to be, in part, an attempt to substitute a romantic symbol for ugly reality. We better get used to this desperate revisionism in the years ahead.