August 1914 – Isaac Rosenberg

‘August 1914’

What in our lives is burnt
In the fire of this?
The heart’s dear granary?
The much we shall miss?

Three lives hath one life –
Iron, honey, gold.
The gold, the honey gone –
Left is the hard and cold.

Iron are our lives
Molten right through our youth.
A burnt space through ripe fields
A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

NOTES

This poem reflects on the beginning of the First World War, questioning the consequences of its destruction: Rosenberg declares that a hard and cold age of fire, iron and death has been ushered in by the war.

August 1914: Though the title refers to the first month of the war, this poem was actually written in 1916, as Rosenberg trained as a private soldier for the front line.

STRUCTURE: This is, typically for Rosenberg, a poem of precise images that are also symbols that invite broader interpretation. ‘August 1914’ offers these images and symbols in fragmentary style.

“What in our lives is burnt / In the fire of this?”: The opening stanza begins with questions— anxious wonder about the consequences of the war. Rosenberg does not shy away from questioning in his poetry, and declaring a lack of knowledge, a limited insight. “This”, of course, is the war: Rosenberg wonders what is being destroyed by its “fire”. The word has hellish or sacrificial connotations, but also literally describes the firing of bullets, mortars and shells.

“The heart’s dear granary?”: the metaphor here, comparing the heart to a granary, seems to emphasise the emotional cost of war. A granary is where grain is stored for winter; if the heart has a granary, we might suppose it is where gathered affections are stored for sustenance— but have now been consumed, by the fire of war.

“The much we shall miss?”: An image of great (“much”) personal loss. Note the alliteration here and the stress placed on these two words that signify plenty and its loss.

“Three lives hath one life—”: A cryptic statement that I must admit I find difficult, This line perhaps imagines one life having three elements— those subsequently named. Note another typical Rosenberg archaism (hath for has).

“Iron, honey, gold.”: Another example of Rosenberg favouring the common noun over adjectives. Here the things named have a number of different associations that the reader may apply to them: Iron’s hard and cold nature, the sweetness and preserving power of honey, the preciousness of gold. Any number of valid interpretations can be made as to why these three substances are peculiarly inherent to a human life.

“The gold, the honey gone— / Left is the hard and cold.”: The references to gold and honey here are to me suggestive of a narrative common in human religion and myth— the story of man’s degeneration from an original paradisal state of absolute happiness, a “golden” age. Hesiod, an ancient Greek writer, described these Ages of Man as beginning with the Golden Age, moving then through the Silver, Bronze, Heroic then Iron Age. Each stage (besides the Heroic) traces a gradual fall from a higher state, until in the Iron Age man has become unjust, dishonest and tyrannical. “Gold” here might refer to that paradisal state, while “honey” seems to have more Biblical associations of plenitude, health and preciousness (Canaan is the “land of milk and honey”). August 1914, Rosenberg may be suggesting, is ushering the “hard and cold” Age of Iron, defined by callousness and cruelty.

“Iron are our lives / Molten right through our youth.”: The critic Bernard Bergonzi, writing about Rosenberg, refers to the “multiple associations of his images” which “can be construed both literally and figuratively” (p.109). Here is an example of this. Figuratively—which means a transformation of the world in language— “Iron are our lives” suggests the “hard and cold” nature of the struggle for life alluded to in the previous stanza. This metaphorical element of iron is then transformed, as we read on, into “molten” iron, or heat. This heated iron suggests the misplaced passion of the young men fighting, but also a fluid spirit of Iron within the young, in an Age of Iron. We can also read these words literally, however: because molten iron literally is flying right through the bodies of young men on the battlefield, as burning fragments of shrapnel pierce their skin.

“A burnt space through ripe fields,”: at harvest time in France in August 1914 there will have been many burnt fields, but this line can also, of course, be read figuratively. The  destroyed crops allude, of course, to the loss of young men’s lives, razing their “ripe” potential; yet the ripe fields also seem to recall the “heart’s granary” of the first stanza, and the emotional devastation that war has brought with it.

“A fair mouth’s broken tooth.”: the disturbing image of violence done to beauty closes the poem. Again this line can be read figuratively (a fine civilization is being thoughtlessly destroyed) or literally (the faces of handsome young men are being smashed in). Note the fragmentary nature of the sentences in this last stanza, its difficult syntax: and the striking nature of this fragmentation.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘August 1914’ begs to be compared to other poems that also consider the beginning of the war and its transformative effects. Within the anthology, all those poems welcoming the war at the start of the selection stand in contrast to this poem— Brooke’s sonnets, for example, or Asquith’s The Volunteer. Other poems which reflect on the change that the war brings, such as Larkin’s MCMXIV are relevant, as are poems like Hardy’s In Time of the Breaking of Nations, which purport to offer a longer view. And, of course, in its unflinching condemnation of the effects of the war, ‘August 1914’ can be compared (or contrasted) to the protest poems which Sassoon wrote.]

On Receiving News of the War – Isaac Rosenberg

‘On Receiving News of the War’

Snow is a strange white word.
No ice or frost
Has asked of bud or bird
For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know.
No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

NOTES

This poem describes Rosenberg’s reaction to the outbreak of the First World War, conveying the poet’s sense of anxious foreboding of the horrors ahead through a series of symbols of life, death and rebirth.

Isaac Rosenberg: Born in 1890, Isaac Rosenberg was a working class Jew who grew up in East London, the son of Russian émigrés. A talented artist, Rosenberg was nonetheless forced to leave school at the age of 14 because of his parents’ poverty (such an early end to education was typical, even encouraged for working class children at this time). He was indentured to a Fleet Street engraver and attended evening classes at Birkbeck College until some wealthy patrons clubbed together to enable him to attend Slade School of Fine Art. He completed his studies there in 1914, but moved in June to Cape Town, South Africa, due to illness. He was here when the Great War began. Rosenberg moved back to London in 1915 and joined up, primarily to provide money for his family. He was in France by early 1916 as a private soldier; like David Jones and Ivor Gurney (and in contrast to many of the most famous soldier poets) Rosenberg experienced the war not as an officer but in the ranks. Posted in France with the Kings Own Lancaster Regiment, Rosenberg was eventually sent to the Somme, where he was shot by a sniper at dawn on the 1st of April, 1918.

On Receiving News of the War: At the beginning of the First World War— and until he returned to England in March 1915— Isaac Rosenberg was living in South Africa. Suffering from chronic bronchitis in early 1914, he was told by his doctor to move to warmer climes. He relocated to Cape Town, where his sister lived. It was from here that he heard of war breaking out in Europe.

STRUCTURE: A precise and very regularly constructed poem, comprising five quatrains of simple, alternating rhyme (ABAB). Iambic trimeter (the six syllable lines, A, of three feet— hence trimeter) is followed by Iambic dimeter (the four syllable lines, B, of two feet— dimeter). This pared down, simple verse recalls the kind of verse structure that William Blake favoured in his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’: see ‘The Fly’ for an example of Iambic dimeter at work.

“Snow is a strange white word;”: As war is declared it is high summer in Europe, but it is winter in Cape Town, which is in the Southern Hemisphere. This is obviously a striking thing for a European like Rosenberg: snow remains alien to those in South Africa. The perplexing absence of the signs of winter chime with the poet’s alienation in Cape Town from events in Europe. Note in this first line we find the alliteration that is a strong feature of this poem.

“No ice or frost / Have asked of bud or bird / For Winter’s cost.”: in a European winter flowering plants die and birds migrate southwards. No such “cost” occurs in South Africa. This is a literal reading, of course: but underlying Rosenberg’s first verse is a metaphorical comparison of ‘Winter’ in Europe and Cape Town. Winter, of course, heralds death, just as war does. Winter is come in Cape Town, and metaphorically so in Europe: with inevitability death is on its way; yet in neither land is the cost of war yet felt. The assonance here— the repetition of long ‘O’ sounds, which persists throughout the poem— give this opening a soft and later, cumulatively, a mournful tone.

“Yet ice and frost and snow / From earth to sky / This Summer land doth know,”: The simple language typical of the poem is especially in evidence in this second verse. Common nouns are favoured instead of ‘poetic’ description. Rosenberg describes the arrival of the news of war as the arrival of “ice”, “frost” and “snow”. In choosing to describe the arrival of news of the war like this, Rosenberg lets mysterious things stand in for and symbolise events, rather describe the situation at length. The deliberately simple description gives the poem a feeling of being stripped down to essential images, a feature of Rosenberg’s writing. The “Summer land” is South Africa: its Winter is a summer to Rosenberg.

“No man knows why.”: the essential mystery behind the news— why has war erupted so strangely, even in this foreign land— is insisted on in this line. This seems to suggest that the meaning of the momentous news is impossible to know.

“In all men’s hearts it is.”: The poet begins to contemplate human motivation and the nature of the human soul. What is ‘it’ that is in all men’s hearts? Evil? Sin? What is it that causes the recurrent wars and murder in human history?

“Some spirit old / Hath turned with malign kiss / Our lives to mould.”: despite the fact that Rosenberg was Jewish, the suggestion that there is an ancient spirit of evil in man is to a European readership a particularly Christian (specifically Augustinian) one. The doctrine of Original Sin posits the idea that all humans after Adam are ‘fallen’ and, born sinful, require the redemption of Christ. The notion of a malign (or ‘evil’) kiss is also recognizably Christian: Judas of course betrayed Jesus to the Romans with a kiss. For Jewish people the personification of evil is not as pointed as in Christianity— it is not Satan who is responsible for evil but the errors of man: this too could be called a “spirit old”. The fungal (“mould”) nature of this spirit of malignity emphasises a sense slow decay rather than active evil, a spirit of entropy and death. Note another archaism here (earlier Rosenberg uses the old word “doth”)— an echo of Blake, perhaps.

“Red fangs have torn His face. / God’s blood is shed.”: ‘He’ is God. The image is an incredibly powerful, even shocking one. God, here, is very far from the one of mainstream Christian theology— omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (everywhere), a spiritual rather than physical entity. Here, God has been attacked: and he sheds blood. The implication here is perhaps that God’s blood is that of those who will die in the war; but the image is uncompromising, and emphasises the power of evil, and the vulnerability of God. The use of a short end-stopped statement emphasises this (end-stopping is when a line of verse ends in a full stop).

“He mourns from His lone place / His children dead.”: Again, an image of God that is far away from the speculations of mainstream Christian theology. The image of God here is of a deity distraught, alone and removed, who mourns the death of “his children”. The unorthodox Jewish Kaballah may have provided a source for this image of God in the concept of tzimtzum, in which God by an act of will in creation contracts and withdraws from the world so that it may exist. The nature of this speculation, which explains how evil can exist in a world made by a good God, is highly unsettling.

“O! Ancient crimson curse! / Corrode, consume.”: the interjection, “O!” emphasises the emotional weight of Rosenberg’s final (desperate) appeal. Is this a cry of pain, or horror? The language here— an “Ancient crimson curse”— clearly recalls William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (particularly ‘The Sick Rose’, which also perhaps influenced Rosenberg’s ‘A Worm Fed On the Heart of Corinth’). The “crimson curse” seems here to be that same “spirit old”; so that here Rosenberg seems to imagine the coming conflict as a kind of spiritual purging of evil that will act like water (“corrode”) or fire (“consume”) on man’s evil. Note the harsh insistence of the alliteration.

“Give back this universe / Its pristine bloom.”: The poem ends with a cosmic- spiritual perspective on human events; the coming suffering of men is placed at the very heart of the universe. The poet prays for a world renewed and returned to its original state, like to a spotless (pristine) flower. The image again recalls Blake’s ‘The Sick Rose’ (beginning, “O Rose, thou art sick!”), but also that poem’s companion in the Songs, ‘The Blossom’, which uses a flower bloom as a symbol of joy and regeneration. There is some consolation, even in the bleak vision of the world falling once again to war at the end of this poem. Rosenberg began his poem with a wintry word, “snow”: yet with this word “bloom”, he ends with a suggestion of spring— and possible renewal.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem can be nicely compared to many of the poems written at the beginning of the war which actively seem to have welcomed the fighting. As we have seen, Rosenberg both abhors the beginning of war, and hopes dimly for some sense of renewal that will come from it. Brooke’s enthusiastic ‘Peace’ provides a powerful contrast of tone. Stylistically, I think Edward Thomas’ simple yet profound poems ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ are interesting to compare with Rosenberg’s symbolic style with their ideas of loss and renewal, though Thomas is precise and realist where Rosenberg is more mythical and deliberately ambiguous.]

The Silent One – Ivor Gurney

‘The Silent One’

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two–
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes– and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line– to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice– a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there’s a hole.’
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied–
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’ There was no hole no way to be seen,
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing–
And thought of music– and swore deep heart’s deep oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated– and a second time faced the screen.
NOTES

In this poem a soldier takes cover while facing a barrier of uncut barbed wire in No-Man’s land. Two men lie dead on the wire, one of whom the soldier knows. A commanding officer points a possible way through the wire, one that would mean certain death to the soldier; the soldier refuses to take it.

The Silent One: The title refers first to the man dead lying on the wires— his silence obviously indicating his death. This is an example of metonymy— where one word is substituted for another that it suggests. It is perhaps unsurprising that Gurney, a composer, associates silence with death. Without wanting to see Gurney and his poetry simply through his other career as a musician, ‘The Silent One’ is very aware of what can (or can’t) be heard: of sounds, of speaking, and of silence.

STRUCTURE: The structure of ‘The Silent One’ is only partly organized according to rhyme: it begins with two rhyming couplets, but the end-rhyme thereafter is deliberately imperfect and sporadic. “Unbroken” and “unshaken” near-rhyme. ‘Seen’ weakly rhymes with the second unaccented syllable of “whizzing”, but does rhyme with ‘screen’ in the last line. In the midst of these half-rhymes “clothes” and “oaths”, either rhyme or half-rhyme, depending on how you read the poem.

The reason for the weakness of the end-rhyming in ‘The Silent One’ is, I think, because so much is going on within the lines themselves: you can find words and phrases repeated throughout the poem in quite a complicated way. We find “wires” and “unbroken wires” (twice), “chatter” and “chattered”; “accent”, “darkness”, “line”, “no”, “retreated” and “again” repeated likewise. Why does Gurney do this?  Perhaps because this poem is written in a colloquial style and, in the manner of everyday speech, parenthetical. What I mean by ‘parenthetical’ is to say that the poem contains lots of little asides, just as everyday speech has: and the extensive use of punctuation within the line (dashes, colons, semi-colons and brackets) designates the speaker’s leaps to other thoughts or linked observations. This creates a confidential and intimate air to the poem— which contains, suitably enough, a startling and frank admission— an informality perhaps at odds with a strong use of end-rhyme.

“Who died on the wires…”: The poem begins, unusually, as if running on from the title. The wire, of course, is barbed wire, used massively across Europe during the Great War as a defence on the Western Front (for illustration, see the thickets of barbed wire which I use as the banner for this site). The use of barbed wire is representative of the fact that for much of the First World War, armies were defending territory in a static manner. Barbed wire impeded the approach of attackers; many of the soldiers of both sides died collapsed and died on the wires (read more about the use of barbed wire in the Great War, here).

“Who… had chattered through / infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:”: the speaker, a soldier, knows the dead man facing him on the wires. The intimacy of his observation— referring to the man’s “hours of life” and “infinite lovely chatter”— contrasts powerfully with the directness of Gurney’s description of his comrade’s fate. Note the reference to the man’s Buckinghamshire accent as a kind of symbol of his humanity: there is again a strong contrast to be made here between the musicality of his voice and his silence in death.

“Yet faced unbroken wires;”: Before an attack, a major purpose of shelling was to break up the barbed wire defences of the enemy, and so clear the way for an assault. Teams of men would also be sent into No-Man’s Land to clear the wire. These attempts were often unsuccessful and to be entangled in or slowed by barbed wire in No-Man’s land was to be a sitting duck for enemy gunfire. The use of colons and semi-colons here draw the poem back to this fateful moment for the dead officer: leaping backward in time within a sentence like this is called analepsis.

“stepped over, and went  / A noble fool, faithful to his stripes— ”: continuing his description of the man’s journey into no-man’s land, we find that he is an officer (“his stripes” refers to the number of chevrons on his uniform, showing his rank). He was, the speaker says, a “noble fool” for following the order to attack, which meant his death: the odds were clearly against his survival.

“and ended.”: The conclusion of this sentence, Bernard Bergonzi writes, “matches anything in Sassoon and Owen in its terrible directness”. The terseness of this ending is indeed shocking— though it is the rather indirect nature of the sentence that leads up to the conclusion (encompassing observations about the man’s dead body, a reference to his “lovely chatter” and accent, and his part in the action before his death) that disarms the reader before this “direct” conclusion.

“But I weak, hungry and willing only for the chance of line— to fight in the line,”: the exhaustion of the speaker is admitted. This documentary honesty is a feature of the poem. The soldier is “willing”, despite his exhaustion, only because of the chance to fight. Again, the punctuation here is subtle: the dash seems to precede a necessary clarification or explanation that the soldier did indeed want to fight.

“But I… lay down under unbroken / Wires, and saw flashes and kept unshaken”: the soldier lies down before the wire, out of enemy gunfire. Here we find another mention of the wires, and the fact that they are unbroken— this fact, and the different responses of soldiers to this fact, dominates the poem. The soldier manages to keep control of himself as the bombs explode nearby.

“Till the politest voice – a finicking accent, said:”: this voice— the soldier’s commanding officer’s voice— contrasts strongly with that of the ‘silent one’. The officer is detached, particular, and his accent is overly refined (“finicking”) where the Bucks man’s was expressive of his humanity.

“‘Do you think you might crawl through there— there’s a hole.’”: the phrasing of the officer’s observation— a direction offered in the form of a question— betrays hesitation. Nonetheless disobeying a lawful command from a superior officer could result in imprisonment.

“Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied— ‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’”: the soldier’s refusal to follow the officer’s direction here is the dramatic heart of the poem. While this describes a grim scene, it is also possible to detect some of Gurney’s ironic humour here: as soon as the officer points a way through, the crack of a rifle in the dark is heard. This irony is clearly felt by the soldier (“I smiled”) who answers the officer in the same polite manner with which he was directed. There is something heroic about the soldier’s rational anti-heroism: indeed, ‘The Silent One’ is one of the few great poems of the First World War that courts the same grim, fatalistic humour that is found in many of the common soldiers’ songs (like ‘The Old Barbed Wire’: “If you want to find the old battalion / They’re hanging on the old barbed wire”).

“There was no hole… after tearing of clothes…”: the soldier’s observation regarding the impossibility of attacking through the ‘hole’ that the officer points to can be read here in a number of ways. Earnestly, as if in self-justification? With muted anger? Wearily, in disbelief at the uselessness of the order? With wry amusement as the situation is recalled? It is a mark of the clever balance of the poem that all these complex responses are plausible. In a sense, the soldier is responding to what would be, outside of war, an insane situation; to be directed towards what could almost certainly be a useless death. Gurney here humanely dramatises the fine line between the noble and foolish gesture.

“Kept flat, and watched the darkness…”: Gurney describes the soldier’s consequent actions in defiantly non-heroic terms: he lies prone, out of the line of fire.

“hearing bullets whizzing— / And thought of music— ”: the soldier listens in the darkness. This acuteness of hearing, and the ability to listen to others and judge accurately what precisely is being suggested or said, is important in the poem. The reference to thoughts of music imply that this is a poem composed by Gurney from personal experience.

“swore deep heart’s deep oaths / (Polite to God)”: the confidential yet frank tone of the poem comes through strongly here. The little aside here, in parenthesis, reads here like a joke after a heartfelt confession of fear (I didn’t blaspheme as I swore, he bluffly reassures the reader).

“…retreated and came on again, / Again retreated— and a second time faced the screen.”: the vacillation here— the quite open use of the word ‘retreated’ here, and the return again and again to the wire— effectively describes the actions of a man facing an insurmountable object (“the screen” of wire). On this inconclusive and definitely non-heroic note— the wire halting forward movement— the poem appropriately ends.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: ‘The Silent One’ can be compared to any other poem that depicts or lauds heroism (or indeed condemns or describes cowardice) as it usefully injects a powerful and documentary sense of realism to the momentary dilemmas of the front line.]

Ballad of the Three Spectres – Ivor Gurney

‘Ballad of the Three Spectres’

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee,
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, ‘Here’s a right brave soldier
That walks the dark unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher,
And laughing for a nice Blighty.’

The second, ‘Read his face, old comrade,
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow,
Then look his last on Picardie.’

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
‘He’ll stay untouched till the war’s last dawning
Then live one hour of agony.’

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one – two – three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

 

NOTES

This poem tells the story of a soldier who one night meets three ghosts  while on duty in the trenches. They each prophesy a different fate for the man, and the soldier is forced to contemplate how the war will end for him.

STRUCTURE NOTE: The poem has a traditional ballad or song structure. It consists of an alternating rhyme scheme ABAB in quatrain form, simple and to the purpose of telling a supernatural tale, a common subject for ballads.

Ballad of the Three Spectres: While superficially lighter in tone than ‘To His Lover’, this is a poem that confronts the typical soldier’s anxiety about his unseen future and his fear of death. Gurney adapts traditional figures from literature and myth in his ballad, presenting three ghosts who prophesy or determine a man’s future. In Greek myth the Moirae, or Fates, were three terrifying goddesses who spun, measured and cut the threads of every mortal’s life— determining their fate. The witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth are similarly fatal prophesiers: as, ultimately, are the warning spirits in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

“As I went up by Ovilliers / In mud and water cold to the knee” : the poem begins with a realistic scene in France, as a soldier tramps through the flooded British trenches. The realism of the scene ‘grounds’ the fantastical element, making it more believable.

“three jeering, fleering spectres”: three laughing, mocking ghosts.

“That walked abreast”: The spectres march three in a line- they are the ghosts of soldiers. This martial discipline adds to the strange drama of the encounter.

“Here’s a right brave soldier”: the first ghost speaks sarcastically and insultingly about the speaker’s bravery.

“he’ll come back on a fine stretcher, / Laughing for a nice Blighty”: the ghost suggests that the soldier will manage to get a ‘Blighty wound’— a minor wound that will nonetheless have him sent him home to Britain (‘Blighty’ in slang) for the rest of the war. He is insinuating that soldier is a clever coward.

“No kind of lucky chance I see…he’ll freeze into mud to the marrow”: another note of grim realism. The ghost suggests that the soldier will end up dying of hypothermia— possibly stuck in one of the pond-sized craters in no-man’s-land, unable to scramble up the loose earth out of the freezing water.

“Picardie”: a French town.

“Curses the third spat venomously”: the last of the spectres is the most malevolent, and curses the soldier.

“He’ll stay untouched…then live one hour of agony”: this ghost predicts a soldier’s common and dreaded fear: that he will be forced to live through the hell of the war in its entirety, only to be killed in “agony” at its very end.

“at sloping arms by one- two- three”: the soldier is drilling. “Sloping arms” was one way of ‘presenting arms’ or holding his rifle. “By one- two- three” describes the action of moving the rifle during drill.

“Waiting the time…Whether the third spoke verity”: ‘Verity’ here means ‘truthfully’. The fate of the soldier is to wait until the last day of the war to see whether the third spectre’s prophesy will come true or not. All three options are unpleasant to some degree, but the first two spectre’s predictions have been proved false. The third prophesy is chilling, and sums up the uncertainty and anxiety the soldier must live with in war. The soldier must be resigned to his fate.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: An encounter with ghosts of the dead is a recurrent scene in war poetry— see Hardy’s ‘The Man He Killed’, and in this anthology, ‘When you see Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ by Charles Sorley (p.167), or ‘Strange Meeting’ by Wilfred Owen (p.193).]

To His Love – Ivor Gurney

‘To His Love’

He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through.

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.

NOTES

This poem is a monologue, in which one soldier speaks to the fiancé or girlfriend of a dead soldier of his death— mourning his loss and regretting that he will never have the pleasure of the dead soldier’s company again. The poem was inspired by the supposed death of Ivor Gurney’s best friend Willy Harvey in August 1916. Reality told a happier story than the drama described in the poem: Harvey was not in fact killed, but had been made a prisoner of war, returning to his fiancé Sarah Kane at the end of the war.

STRUCTURE NOTE: Four stanzas of five lines, comprising three lines of free verse (ABC) and a rhyming couplet (DD). One of the most interesting things about this poem, however, is its exemplary use of alliteration (repetition of consonants for effect) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds for effect). It is a musical poem, structured by soft sound, throughout using the ‘oh’, ‘oo’, ‘uh’ sounds denoted by the letter ‘O’, but also using ‘I’ and ‘E’ sounds to create different effects. For example, the effect of the varied ‘O’ sounds is mournful; the drawn-out vowels of ‘Ee’ slow the pace of the poem down. Alliteration, found in all four stanzas, also provides an elusive rhythm to the poem. In the first verse, for example, sibilance gives the opening a sound of susurration, of whispering.

Ivor Gurney: A Gloucester man, Ivor Gurney was a talented young composer before joining the army in 1914, seemingly destined for success. He was bipolar and suffered from manic depression. He loved the Gloucester countryside and would go on ecstatic walks there, but also had two major nervous breakdowns, the first before the war (1913) and the second at the very end of the war (1918). He was suicidal during both and was discharged in 1918. His life was tragic after the end of the war: he was admitted to an insane asylum in 1922 and stayed there until he died in 1937.

To His Love: The poem addresses the lover of the soldier who has died.

“He’s gone… useless indeed”: A blunt and mournful statement of loss; a sense that all earlier plans have been destroyed.

“We’ll walk no more on Cotswold / Where the sheep feed / Quietly…”: the Cotswolds are a famously beautiful part of the English countryside, near where Gurney grew up. Like many of the WWI poets, nature and the countryside provided consoling memories and inspiration, when contrasted to the horrors of war.

“so quick”: quick here takes its older meaning, ‘full of life’.

“His body… is not as you knew it”: The sinister connotations of this euphemism— that the soldier’s body has been maimed or blown apart— provides a grisly hint of what has happened to the soldier at the hands of mechanized weapons, probably shelling.

“on Severn river / Under the blue…”: A powerful contrast between this peaceful image and the horror of what has happened to the soldier. Peaceful and horrific memories struggle with each other here (the Severn is the river that runs through Gloucestershire. Gurney contrasted two rivers in the title of his first poetry collection, Severn and Somme, with broadly the same meaning).

“You would not know him now…”: The ellipsis here seems to suggest that the speaker doesn’t want to pursue that description of the soldier’s body when talking to his lover. Note the subdued tone the varying ‘O’ sounds give the line; and the way the the ‘n’s give the line a stuttering rhythm. This ingenious use of alliteration and assonance can be traced throughout the poem.

“he died / Nobly”: the speaker quickly turns from thinking of the dead body to the noble manner of his death– doing his duty with chivalry.

“cover him over / With violets of pride / Purple”: The flowers will cover him like a shroud. The purple of the violets, like the soldier “from Severn side”, symbolise pride as purple is a colour associated with kingship.

“Cover him, cover him soon!”: The exclaimed repetition of ‘cover him’ shows the desperation and revulsion of the speaker.

“with thick-set / Masses of memoried flowers—” The flowers must cover him ‘thickly’ to hide the horror of the body underneath. Memories of the man fight against the traumatic image of the maimed body: the flowers symbolising happier times on the Severn. This is also, in psychological terms, an account of what Freud termed repression: to turn away from, censor or bury a memory.

“Hide that red wet  / Thing”: The imprecision of description of the ‘red wet Thing’— his friend’s bloody and maimed body— suggests the unspeakable violence done to it.

“I must somehow forget”: The last word demonstrates the tension between remembrance and forgetting that the poem says is necessary for all soldiers who have seen the consequences of bloody combat.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Gurney is among the group of British Soldier-Poet ‘greats’ that Stallworthy places together in the middle of his selection of WWI poets. His biography seems important to this selection: Gurney’s subsequent madness makes this a poignant choice of a poem about dealing with the horrors of war; the musicality of the poem, with its use of assonance and alliteration, is also appropriate to the life of this composer.]

As the Team’s Head Brass – Edward Thomas

‘As the Team’s Head Brass’

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed the angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. ‘When will they take it away? ‘
‘When the war’s over.’ So the talk began –
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
‘Have you been out? ‘ ‘No.’ ‘And don’t want to, perhaps? ‘
‘If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm, I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more…Have many gone
From here? ‘ ‘Yes.’ ‘Many lost? ‘ ‘Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.’
‘And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.’ ‘Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.’ Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

NOTES

As a couple walk together into the wood beyond, a walker rests at the edge of a field. There, a farmer is methodically ploughing his fields with a team of horses, and the narrator and farmer fall into conversation about the war.

As the Team’s Head Brass: the ‘team’ are a pair of horses led by the farmer, pulling a plough. The farmer is preparing his land for the sowing of crops; in some ways, this seems to be a timeless agricultural scene. The “head brass” are the metal bridles around the horses’ heads that allow the horses to be led.

STRUCTURE: This is a narrative poem— it tells a short story. It is written in Iambic Pentameter, and has, I think, a Shakespearian feel to it: everyday events and dialogue are elevated to high poetry by Thomas’ feel for the significance of small things.

“As the team’s head brass flashed out on the turn”: time is important in this poem. The poem throws us into events immediately occurring. The flash of the brass in the sunlight as the horses turn at near end of the field punctuates the poem.

“The lovers disappeared into the wood.”: Lovers appear again as key figures in a Thomas poem. We only see them at the beginning and the end of the poem, but they are important symbols of love and life. In ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’ the absence of lovers is a terrible loss; in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ their fleeting presence is a cause for optimism and hope.

“I sat… and watched”: the peaceful watching of the narrator as time passes by gives this poem a thoughtful, ponderous tone.

“the fallen elm / That strewed the angle of a fallow”: the narrator sits on a fallen tree that lies on unploughed (“fallow”) land. The narrator views the farmer working the field just as he views the war in this poem; from the side, at an angle to events.

“Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square of charlock”: charlock, or wild mustard, is a weed that must be cleared on arable land for farming. Thomas’ description of the “yellow square” of weed is precise and vivid. This poem utilises pastoral conventions— for example, suggesting at first the peace of the country as opposed to the war beyond— but only does so to subvert those conventions through a realistic depiction of the effects of the war. English agriculture had been in a long, steep decline since the mid-Victorian age. The countryside was a difficult place to live in 1916: this fact, rather than an idealization of the country life, comes through in Thomas’ poem.

“the ploughman leaned… About the weather, next about the war.”: the farmer turns his horses to work back up the field when he reaches the narrator. They exchange pleasantries, and talk about the war.

“Scraping the share… till the brass flashed / Once more.”: the “share” is the ploughshare, or blade that turns over the ground. He turns over the earth as he ploughs his lines along the field, ‘screwing’ “along the furrow”. When the farmer begins to return towards the narrator, the horses’ bridle flashes as it catches the sun. This flashing punctuates the poem, giving a sense of the slowness of rural rhythms.

“The blizzard felled the elm…”: Thomas preserves the iambic pentameter here as he moves forward in his narrative, beginning a new line below. There is a sense of time having passed, but also of continuity. With the blizzard and the fallen tree, Thomas introduces an image of a mishap caused by natural forces.

“‘When will they take it away?’ / ‘When the war’s over.’”: the dialogue between the farmer and narrator introduces the war for the first time. War and good husbandry seem to be contrasted.

“One minute and an interval of ten…”: the rhythm of the encounter is slow, punctuated by work. The repetition emphasises this.

“Have you been out?’…”: an interesting and wryly humorous conversation begins between the two. The narrator’s answer that he would join up “If I could only come back again…” shows the easiness of the two’s conversation. There is no pretence here, no mock-heroism. There is an almost documentary feeling here, and the absurd, self-deprecating humour of the watching narrator belies the seriousness of the following conversation.

“Only two teams work on the farm this year…”: the significance of the single farmer working this large field is made clear by the manpower shortage caused by the war. This practical aspect is made immediately personal by the farmer’s dead friend.

“The second day / In France they killed him”: this swift killing of new recruits was sadly common; new soldiers often made mistakes that exposed them to enemy fire. Sadly, Edward Thomas himself was one of these unlucky recruits, dying very soon after seeing action.

“The very night of the blizzard, too”: as in ‘In Memoriam (Easter 1915)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’, Thomas is again effective in making the presence of certain things in nature (a fallen tree) represent the absence of human beings (the man who was killed on the same night that it fell). Similarly, the blizzard here becomes linked in its devastating power to the effects of the fighting on the front.

“Now if he had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”: this irony is really at the heart of the poem’s narrative. The tragedy of the farmer’s friend’s death is relayed in an unsentimental, factual way. A sense of the unremitting pressures of the farmer’s life comes through, perhaps, in his resigned attitude.

“And I should not have sat here… it would have been another world”: Thomas cleverly uses this tree to emphasise the tragedy of lost possibilities that the war has brought. There is a philosophical air to this reflection on change and loss. As we have seen in ‘In Memorium (Easter 1916)’ and ‘The Cherry Trees’, this sense that the world has changed for the worse is insisted on through the small details of life that have been affected by the war.

“Ay, and a better, though if we could see all all might seem good’”: a better world has been lost, agrees the farmer; though he proposes optimistically, as a form of consolation, that in the broader view the loss of his friend might be explained for the good. This comforting faith is the last thing said between the farmer and the narrator.

“Then the lovers came out of the wood again:”: the reappearance of the lovers seems to reinforce this sense of hope near the poems end, yet the final three lines work to subtly undermine this.

“…for the last time / I watched the clods crumble and topple over”: the absorption of the narrator in the action of the plough now seems linked to change, and by extension, the war. The crumbling clods of earth and their toppling as they fall from the plough suggest the change in the world wrought by humans; perhaps also suggesting the falling of men to earth in fields abroad.

“…the stumbling team.”: the “stumbling” of the team suggest the difficulty the farmer continues to face, but also of course the loose footing of life itself.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem describes events similar to that Hardy describes in ‘In Time of the Breaking of Nations’ (p.161) but are quite different in tenor. Where Hardy generalises and hardly touches on the actual effects of the war occurring abroad, Thomas is careful to construct a more contemporary encounter that is arguably more powerful because of the understatement of its message.]

Rain – Edward Thomas

‘Rain’

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into this solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying to-night or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

NOTES

In this poem Thomas lies awake at night, listening to the rain falling onto the roof of the hut that he rests within. The rain and the poet’s solitude prompt thoughts of those soldiers who are exposed to danger and death in the world outside.

Rain: This poem lies within a tradition of Romantic poetry wherein the solitary poet, contemplating or moved by nature, finds himself in connection with a wider world. Romanticism is one of the most broad and influential of all artistic and literary movements, beginning during the second half of the eighteenth century, and placing great emphasis on individual insight, feelings and imagination as a means of understanding the world. The Romantics revered nature as a source of beauty and ‘numinous’ experience— in nature they sensed the sacred, or God. ‘The Sublime’ was the name that was given for this sensation of connecting with a broader, more profound spiritual reality.

The rain in ‘Rain’, then, is a part of nature that allows the thoughtful and inward-contemplating Thomas to connect with the wider world (just as, for example, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Eolean Harp’, the wind playing on harp strings prompts the poet to wonder if he responds to nature similarly). Like the Romantics, Thomas finds an inspiration in nature that leads him via his memories, emotions and thoughts to a new understanding of the world around him. Where he diverges most clearly from the Romantics in ‘Rain’ is an absence of the sublime, or an explicitly spiritual dimension. Instead, in the contemplation of his death and that of others, this late Romantic poem embraces existential questions and modern alienation– in other words, the problem of finding a meaning for human existence in a seemingly hostile world.

STRUCTURE: ‘Rain’ is written in blank verse— Iambic Pentameter without rhyme. This is one of the most common verse forms in English, but Thomas experiments with it very effectively. He plays with the rhythm and intensity of each line through a number of different means, each intended to give a sense of the increasing and decreasing intensity of the rain on the sounding walls of the hut, and the poet’s response to this. To create this effect, Thomas uses repetition, clever internal rhyming and also uses the spondee— a metre where two syllables within a foot have equal weight. Another feature of the poem is that it is a monologue, giving us entry into Thomas’ thoughts in solitude, in which the reader is an implied listener— ‘hearing’ the immediate fears and thoughts of the poet.

“Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain…”: The poem opens describing a rainstorm at night in the kind of plain, conversational language that is a feature of the poem. In lyric poetry the use of rain to suggest sadness and melancholy might ordinarily be thought clichéd: Thomas is careful, then, to convey his thought and sensations in deliberately pared-down, simple terms. The poem’s tone is as a consequence disarmingly open, even confessional. This line introduces two important technical features of the poem. The first is the repetition of words— “rain” here, but also “solitude”, and “love”— that becomes a feature of the poem. “Rain” alone is repeated throughout the poem seven times, and in this first line as later, the repetition conveys not only the insistent force of the rainstorm outside but the also heightened consciousness of the listener. The second feature is the rhythmical variation in this and other lines. The regularity of the iambic pentameter is often challenged by the use of repeated stresses. Here Thomas uses spondee, that is, stressing two syllables in a row, and in poetry the effect of this is often to slow down the pace of a line. Along with the pauses denoted by the commas in the opening line, this gives the effect of a quickening and slowing of pace— the sort of rhythm you might hear as you listen to sheets of rain against your roof or window in a blustery storm. So the line scans something like this: “RAIN, MIDnight RAIN, NOTHing BUT the WILD RAIN…”. Thomas connects this insistent and slow spondee rhythm with the word “rain”: as with “wild rain” here (repeated again at the end of the poem).

“On this bleak hut, and solitude…”: the poem begins with a melancholic, contemplative tone. “Rain”, “nothing”, “bleak”, “solitude”, “me”: these words suggest the introspective, lonely and rather depressed nature of Thomas’ thoughts. As critic Bernard Bergonzi points out in ‘Heroes Twilight’, Thomas talked of his “elaborate self consciousness” which one perceptive doctor recognized led him to depression and illness (p. 79). Note, indeed, the complicated elaboration on his thoughts and feelings over these first six lines: Thomas using enjambement to convey the flow of his conscious mind.

“…and me / Remembering again that I shall die…”: Thomas’ solitude, with a heightened consciousness of his surroundings and himself, brings about what is known as an epiphany— a sudden realisation of profound meaning— in Thomas’ recollection of his own mortality.

“And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks…”: the oblivion of death is contrasted to the gift of life. Thomas’ awareness of the falling rain leads to a heightened perception of the world beyond himself.

“For washing me cleaner than I have been / Since I was born into this solitude.”: The image used here is one of ritual cleansing, or ablution. Ablutions— cleaning oneself with intent to purify the self or honour a god— are common rituals in the world’s religions. In this sense the rain comes as a blessing to Thomas; it first awakens him to a consciousness of death, but then provides consolation as a sign of life. Thomas’ deepening sense of a life-long loneliness, however, is emphasised by his second reference to “solitude”.

“Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:”: Thomas pursues the idea of rain being an ablution with the image of rain blessing the dead, and thus cleansing them of sin. Note the spondee here, “rain rains”: conveying the weight of the rain through a repetition of sense and slowing of rhythm.

“But here I pray that none whom once I loved”: Thomas reverts in this line to regular iambic pentameter. The effect is to move from the heightened consciousness of the rain against the roof of the hut— the thrumming that is outside Thomas’ control while the “rain rains”— to a more measured prayer, thus conveying Thomas’ effort of self-control.

“Is dying tonight or lying still awake”: the internal rhyming here— “dying” with “lying”— subtly suggests the rhythmic sheets of rain on the roof, while Thomas’s mind is drawn to those caught outside in the deluge. Thomas is, of course, thinking of those soldiers serving abroad. The rain first led Thomas into isolated self-examination and thoughts of death: his spirit however rebelled, embracing the rain and the living world beyond. This feeling does not last long, however. He is forced into sympathy with those like him: awake in the rainstorm, and conscious of death.

“Solitary, listening to the rain, / Either in pain or thus in sympathy”: Thomas’ own isolation— “solitary” is repeated for a third time here— draws him into agonized kinship with soldiers whom he has known (“whom once I loved”) and the possibility that they are exposed to the rain, whether injured or alone on duty. Thomas again uses internal rhyming here— “rain” and “pain”— to create an echo of the sounding rhythm of the rain. The rhyme also perhaps signifies the growing linkage of the two ideas in Thomas’ mind.

“Helpless among the living and the dead,”: Thomas’s pity here, his reaching out to the exposed and the injured, contains a sense of self-consciousness too, of his own helplessness.

“Like a cold water among broken reeds… all still and stiff / Like me…”: a key simile here, where Thomas pictures those exposed in the rain on the battlefield as being “like a cold water”. This conceit develops the central figure of rain. Rain has brought Thomas to a consciousness of isolation and death, but it has also signified life, and his consciousness of it has encouraged his connection with the wider world. Yet opposed to its vital energy— with which Thomas has carefully suffused the poem and its rhythms— is this image of those whom the rain falls upon. They are imagined as water at rest, cold and without life, “among broken reeds”. These countless broken reeds (“myriads”) are themselves images of broken men (the image is biblical: from Isaiah 36:6). This is an image of abjection, that is, of having fallen to the lowest possible state, of being cast down into suffering. Thomas’ imagination encompasses both the dead and these dying men caught in the rain— he too shares this feeling of abjection. Note the alliteration and assonance Thomas uses— “all still and stiff”— to maintain the strong rhythms of this poem.

“Like me who have no love which this wild rain / Has not dissolved…”: Thomas expresses his kinship with the suffering (“like me”). Previously in the poem Thomas has dwelt on solitude and the rain that has awakened him to a consciousness of both life and death. At the end of the poem, Thomas becomes interested in the role of “love”, the word repeated twice in the lines following. Thomas asserts that the rain has “dissolved” his love: note the continuing use of watery metaphors, as the rain seem to lead to a dissolution of Thomas’ sense of self, of his capacity for love. In literary terms, this is an interesting turn: the rain at the end of the poem is not a clichéd Romantic symbol: it is a kind of solvent for the soul, dissolving the self.

“…except the love of death, / If love it be towards what is perfect…”: the idea that only a “love of death” remains after the self has been stripped away is disturbing, even doubtful (“if love it be”), but Thomas seems to accept oblivion with a cold appreciation of his emotional circumstances. The “love of death” would later, in fact, gain a place in psychological theory. After studying the trauma victims of the Great War, Freud became interested in this drive towards self-oblivion, which he called Thanatos, the death-drive. Freud later developed the idea that this secret drive within the self, opposed to the preserving instinct for life, sought the peace of non-being. Something like a wish for this “perfect” consolation of complete oblivion seems to be conclusion of Thomas at the end of the poem. This is not to say that this poem contains a suicidal wish at the end: rather a wish for non-being, for being out of the world— out of the rain.

“…and / Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.”: the rainstorm, or “tempest”, has brought Thomas a vision of the nature of both life and death— it has spoken to him (“tells me”) and given a glimpse of death that is at once bleak (because like “cold water” it is inert and without life and energy) and yet consoling (because it has “dissolved” conflict).

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: Apologies to my A-level scholars for the length of these notes, but I have found this a very difficult poem to be brief on. As a poem that both uses and transforms the pastoral mode— contemplating war indirectly through natural forms— this poem bears interesting comparison to Robert Frost’s ‘Range-Finding’. Frost, of course, was a prime influence in Thomas becoming a poet: neither fought before writing their poetry about the conflict but nonetheless approached the war in novel ways. This poem can be compared with ‘When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead’ by Charles Sorley and ‘Futility’ by Wilfred Owen for the different ways in which each of these poems philosophically examine the relationship of the living to death and the dead.]

The Cherry Trees – Edward Thomas

‘The Cherry Trees’

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Memorium (Easter 1915) – Edward Thomas

‘In Memorium (Easter 1915)’

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone Sang – Siegfried Sassoon

A message of joy: the war at an end.

NOTES

‘Everyone Sang’ relates Sassoon’s ecstatic— almost religious— joy on hearing soldiers singing, and is a song of praise for the men’s resiliance.

Everyone Sang: Communal singing was common in the trenches. Sassoon was an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Graves notes that whereas in other regiments singing was often limited to music hall numbers, Welsh soldiers sang hymns, often in Welsh. This singing, perfected in Chapel and Church, was often powerfully moving. It is possible that it is this kind of singing that Sassoon refers to. Critics have suggested that ‘Everyone Sang’ describes to soldiers’ reactions to the Armistice (Robert Graves interprets the poem in this way in ‘Goodbye to All That’). Others follow Sassoon’s own account in ‘Siegfried’s Journey’ that the poem is, rather, a more abstracted paean to change and the singing represents ‘social revolution’ (see W. Lawrence’s fascinating comment to this post, above).

STRUCTURE: ‘Everyone Sang’ is comprised of two stanzas of five lines length, rhyme scheme ABCBB.

“Everyone suddenly burst out singing;”: the “Everyone” of this poem refers to a group of men singing and celebrating. The emphatic description of ‘everyone’ singing captures the broader tone of celebration of the human spirit that this poem contains.

“I was filled with such delight / As prisoned birds must find in freedom”: the conventional symbolism— that of a freed, flying bird embodying the human spirit— nonetheless captures the sense of release that the singing brings.

“Winging wildly across the white / Orchards and dark-green fields;”: the alliteration introduces a wheeling rhythm to the end of the stanza, until we gain the perspective of the freed bird, looking down on the countryside below. There is a real sense of the expanding horizons that the singing- and coming of peace- brings.

“on— on— and out of sight.”: a ponderous and deliberately slowed passage that reintroduces the listener as one gazing out at the freed bird as it flies away.

“Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;”: Repeating the literal phrasing of the poem’s first line, the beginning of the second verse is both literal and metaphorical. The voices sing higher and louder, but the ‘lifting’ of the voices here also suggests elevation here— a transcendental tone. This metaphor of “lifted” voices logically follows on from the prior image of flight.

“beauty came like the setting sun:”: Sassoon again uses conventional imagery, here that of the beautiful, setting sun. Sassoon uses a language here that in other hands might seem hackneyed or clichéd, but manages to convey a purity of experience. The simpler and more archetypal the imagery, perhaps, the better to evoke the emotional power of the singing men. The “setting sun” here suggests death, sublime beauty– and an end.

“My heart was shaken with tears: and horror drifted away…”: the emotional and spiritual power of the song moves the listener so that their worst thoughts and memories of the war “drifted away”. Through the singing they escape the war and rediscover their common humanity. This lifting of horror, like mist or fog, is captured in the pause denoted by the ellipses.

“O, but Everyone / Was a bird;”: the suggestive capitalisation of “Everyone” here seems to suggest that ‘everyone’ in the poem have for a short while have assumed the freedom of transcendence, of becoming more than themselves. Note the building intensity in this verse, as sub-clause follows sub-clause, leading to the cry of ‘O’, and sense of profound emotional release in the last two lines.

“and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.”: The sense that the listeners experience is sublime and timeless is profound; moving beyond words, to suggest here a religious image of the eternal singing of men.

 

 

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem certainly has the most religious or spiritual tone of Stallworthy’s selection of Sassoon’s poetry. Stallworthy elsewhere praises ‘Christ and the Soldier’ as a dramatic example of Sassoon’s war poetry: and makes the keen observation that “his poetry, early and late can be seen to justify the label he attached to himself… ‘I am a religious poet’”. The question of the presence or otherwise of God during the war is a profound one, and is also tackled in Isaac Rosenburg’s ‘On Receiving News of the War’ (p.183). Outside the anthology, there are other poems similarly written about the power of song at war: ‘First Time In’ by Ivor Gurney, about encountering Welsh singers on arrival in the trenches; or to Robert Graves’ ‘Sospan Fach (The Little Saucepan)’, about Welsh soldiers singing a traditional Welsh song.]