‘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.]

‘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.]