Chapter 6, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Back, then, to Dublin.

Summary— Chapter Six

Willie arrives at his father’s Dublin Castle quarters filthy after ten days in the line and the long journey back from Belgium. When he knocks on the front door his sister Maud does not recognise him. She and Annie are delighted to find her brother has returned home, but Willie insists that no-one touches him while he is lousy. The girls warm water to give Willie a bath.

Willie takes in the surroundings of his familiar home. He thinks of his father and finds himself unsettled by thoughts of the 1913 Bloody Sunday riot and his father’s role in the clashes. He ruefully reflects that, as a Dempsey builder during the lock-out, he was a scab. Once home, he feels traitorous to even think of these things.

Dolly and Willie’s father return home. Dolly embraces Willie. The two men regard each other affectionately. Willie thanks his father for writing to him; his father, calling his son a hero, says it was his honour. Willie’s clothes are bagged for cleaning and, in front of Dolly, Willie is washed clean in the tub by his father. Once dried, he puts on his father’s long johns and his old working suit. His father then hugs and holds Willie; though nineteen years old, Willie finds this comforting.

Willie’s leave passes quickly. He sees Gretta and learns her father will leave the army before being mobilised. He spends the last night of his leave with his father. He loves the older man deeply despite knowing his flaws. The two sit before the wood fire; Willie notices the marks his father made to measure his height. The two talk of his father’s impending retirement to Kiltegan after forty years in the force. His father asks about the war. Willie confirms that it is ‘rough’ in Belgium. His father confesses that he constantly thinks about and prays for his son.

Willie walks Gretta to her work as a seamstress on his last day in Dublin. He begs her to write more and she admits her failure to do so. He asks for their relationship to be formalized in an engagement but Gretta is firm. As much as she says she wants to be his wife, Gretta tells Willie they must wait to marry until after the war. Willie is not allowed near Gretta’s workplace so the pair must part. Willie glumly tells Gretta he loves her; she replies in kind and, despite himself, this cheers him up somewhat.

Later, before entering the Devoy barracks, Willie meets Gretta again. They kiss under the trees, lay down together by the canal side, and make love.

Questions

A chapter dedicated to Willie’s Dublin leave and the two most important people in Willie’s life at this point in the novel, his father and Gretta. It is revealing perhaps that the bulk of the chapter is dedicated to time that Willie spends at home, mostly with his father. It is only the end of the chapter, depicting Willie’s last day on leave, that features Gretta.

“The sentry at the castle gate gave him a right look as he walked in, like the ghost of war” (p. 70). Dublin Castle is an important location in the story, as the site of the Dunne family’s quarters, but it is also an important location in terms of Irish history and more specifically the 1916 rebellion. Learn about the history of Dublin Castle, especially in the years described in the novel. Does it alter or confirm your perception of the character of James Dunne (or indeed his family) to know its importance in the British administration of Ireland?

Dirt, infestation and cleanliness are important ideas in the opening scenes. What might these conditions represent for the different characters in the story?

“So James Patrick, a man of six foot six, stood his son William, a man of five foot six, into the steaming zinc bath, as indeed Willie’s mother had done a thousand times while Willie was a boy” (p.74). I found this a complex scene, full of pathos. Recalling the Dunne Family history, and the relationship between father and son, our sympathy is called on here at the same time as more complex and ambivalent feelings are evoked. Where in this sentence can we find the narrator provoking a sense of sympathy for the characters in the scene—and what detail do we find here that complicates this emotional response?

James Dunne is playfully referred to as “King of the Nits” (p.71) by Willie, and the narrator ironically observes later as he lathes his son’s body, “the lice must have been flying from Willie Dunne just like those poor men in Sackville Street from the batons” (p.74). The use of the metaphor here is revealing. In what ways might James Dunne be ‘King of the Nits’? Why are the drowning lice compared to assaulted workers? Don’t settle for one reading alone here. Try and tease out the ways in which these statements reveal or complicate character.

Read again the embrace between father and son described on pages 74 to 75. What exactly is so moving about this scene? In what ways do notions of masculinity and masculine reserve provide a key to understanding this scene?

‘We have to wait, Willie’ (p.77). What does this pragmatic judgement reveal about Gretta’s character, and her understanding of the situation she and Willie find themselves in? How is Gretta’s character developed here?

‘And they lay down together like ghosts, like floating souls, and she drew up her skirt in the greeny dark’ (p.78). What is being narrated in this scene? Is this the voice of the narrator alone, or does Willie’s response to Gretta indirectly intrude in this description? In what way does the description of Gretta drawing up her skirt complicate the description of “floating souls”?

Some thoughts

I must say I’m finding it an odd thing reading Barry. [Mysteriously deepens voice.] I’m not generally one for tears or getting choked up when reading books. I imagine it a bit like that old cartoon in The Beano where a load of little people live inside the skull of a bigger person, manipulating levers, shouting commands and getting into fights with each other as they control him or her (yes, I’m aware of Inside Out. I’m old, alright). So, I have this fantasy that sometimes when I’m reading, there’s this little guy wearing a ‘Critical Response’ t-shirt in my skull and he very often goes ahead and coshes the tiny chap wearing the ‘Emotional Response’ t-shirt in my head, and thus subdues him. And perhaps because of this I tend to like authors with a precision or violence about them: JG Ballard, HG Wells, Charles Dickens. Yet— and here’s the thing—when I’m watching movies, the roles tend to be reversed: Mr. Emotional Response gets to practice his choke-holds on Mr. Critical Response. So, on a Saturday morning with my five year old son, you may find me sniveling whilst watching Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant.

Yet reading ‘A Long, Long Way’, I find myself so affected at times by events in the story I wonder whether the two hooligans in my head have forgotten that I’m reading a book. My emotional response makes me suspect myself. Is the source of the response I’m feeling actually there in the text, or is it largely within me? Am I, as a fairly repressed British man, projecting onto the text too much? Who knows.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I cried during the bathing scene, and I know there are good reasons for me doing so. I washed my own five year old son the night before reading the scene: it’s an everyday, intimate and wonderful thing for a father, to take care of his young son like this. I know that it can’t last: that my son will grow up, will take care of himself one day. So, in knowing your own hopes for your child’s future happiness and independence, there’s a pathos to this kind of physical care, because eventually it will needfully be rejected to some degree.

To bring this back to the experience of reading, I am therefore aware that I am approaching this particular text as a forty three year old father does (interestingly, Barry is himself a father who has spoken movingly about his relationship with his gay son). I am quite distant now from the experience of young love, and that may explain in part my lack of engagement in Willie’s relationship with Gretta. Which is to say that I am probably bringing my own limitations as a reader to my understanding of the text in a way that may be quite different to your understanding of the characters in the book. I’m assuming, after all, that you are probably a fairly young reader, an A-level student in all likelihood, and that this perhaps may mean that you read this novel with a mind to your experience of being parented (or not being adequately parented), or being a young lover, or whatever it is that you as a young person long for or find frustrating.

You will have your own insights and, yes, limitations too in reading novels. It’s good to be aware of these. You should engage in a little self analysis whilst doing your literary analysis. I’ve always found a piece of advice by the theorist Fredric Jameson useful when thinking about this. In his essay, ‘Beyond the Cave’ he tells us to “measure the whole extent of our boredom” when encountering texts, to judge our own alienation from different ideas, characters, narratives and cultures. Because if you have a problem with the text you’re reading, it may sometimes be a symptom rather of how you see the world. One of the joys of reading should be that it challenges you to broaden that understanding of the world around you. You know, I hated Charles Dickens when I was eighteen.

It’s dangerous to judge any novel by the simple mirror of your experience. It’s also an undoubted joy to find your experiences reflected in a book. It’s proved that way to me when reading this chapter at least.

Chapter 5, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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I’m hoping to take a breather soon enough so that we can reflect on some aspects of the novel. Certainly I’d like to write something about Barry’s narration: its use of dialect, its lyricism, and thinking more broadly about omniscient and free indirect narration. The character of Willie, of course. Historical context, too, which still I’m somewhat shaky on, as the previous post admitted, and am currently trying to rectify by reading Diarmaid Ferriter’s fascinating history, ‘A Nation, and Not a Rabble’. All kinds of things suggest themselves. Onwards we must go, however, if we’re to get this book completed by exam-time.

Summary— Chapter Five

Willie’s battalion is on rotation from the front and, billeted in the French city of Amiens, he is finally given a few days of free time behind the lines.

Willie and Pete O’Hara decide to hit the town and are guided to a well-liked estaminet for private soldiers. They quickly get very drunk there. Willie’s head spins as he drinks away memories of Captain Pasley and Gretta.

He and O’Hara dance with two women who lead them both down into a basement. Willie, extremely drunk, finds that he is being propositioned by a prostitute. He is at first abashed by the woman’s approach: O’Hara, less naïve than his friend, quickly begins to have sex with the woman he entered with. Willie gives himself to the woman with wonder and lust, and thus loses his virginity. He falls asleep and, when he awakens with a headache, O’Hara tells him it is time to go. As they leave Willie notices a rash on the thigh of the woman O’Hara has slept with. They make their way back to their billet through the city night.

Willie, still working in the support trenches, writes a long letter to Gretta. He tells her he is now in a quiet sector of the front, though the weather is now icy. Though this is a longer letter, it has the same structure as his previous missive: Willie writes in careful detail telling of his life at the front, and ends with an outpouring of passionate declarations of love for her. He continues to have trouble ending his letters satisfactorily. As he writes, a wish to confess about his night with the prostitute weighs on him.

O’Hara, it transpires, contracts a sexually transmitted disease from his tryst with the prostitute. It seems that Willie, luckily, does not.

Willie’s company finds itself rotated back into the front line again. It remains a quiet sector. One day he is drinking tea in a corner of the trench when a soldier new to the front, a Private Byrne, carelessly lifts his head above the line of the parapet. He is shot in the eye: blood gruesomely jets from the wound. Willie wants to ignore the incident at first but then attends to the young man.

He is struck by his own uselessness in the face of this violence. The young man is tormented for hours as they wait for the medical corps to arrive. Willie responds to the incident with cold despair; he has become hardened by the war. He reflects that the youth would be better shot dead on the spot. His own anguish, however, tells of the compassion struggling to be expressed within him.

A few weeks later, rotated back behind the lines again, Christy Moran has good news for Willie. He has been given home leave for a few days. Delighted for the younger man, he pleads with Willie to stay alive until then.

Questions

A short but interesting chapter. Willie’s willie at last sees action and, unscathed, lives to see another day. Then a gruesome moment in the line conveys just how unexpected death could be in the trenches.

“But he liked the bolts to be loosened on his concerns like any other soldier” (p. 60). Research the world of the First World War estaminet. In what ways is the estaminet somewhere where soldiers could escape the war and the norms and disciplines of respectable society? In what ways does the estaminet attempt to reproduce something approximating a conventional or ‘normal’ life for the soldiers?

“Maybe there was a poison in this tepid water” (p. 61). What does this line suggest about the effect of the war upon Willie? In this chapter we find more examples of the way in which the war is beginning to take a psychological toll on Willie. From the moment when Willie’s hands begin to shake at the thought of the deaths of the men on the supply line (p.30), there are signs of Willie’s developing neurotic response to the war. Trace a timeline of these—noting where he displays significant signs of, for example, anxiety, depression, paranoia, anger and dissociation in response to events around him.

As the stupefied Willie gazes at the prostitute who offers herself to him, his response to her is revealing: “Thick, thick black hair like a smudge of night she had, and clear, clever eyes the colour of dark blue feathers in a magpie. My God, he thought, she was like a Goddess. She seemed to Willie more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. ‘Money for fuck?’ she said.” (p.62). What does Willie’s metaphorical language about the woman before him reveal about his feelings and attitudes towards women (A-level students may find their previous study in Love Through the Ages useful here, in particular ideas informing the Courtly Love Convention)? In what ways is there a gap between Willie’s understanding of the transaction taking place in this scene and that of the young woman? Barry uses a technique known as intentional anticlimax at the end of this passage. What effect does this have on the reader?

“Why you call Willie?” said the beautiful girl, giggling” (p. 63). It’s a good question. Can you think why Sebastian Barry named his hero Willie?

There is an obvious hypocrisy in Willie and O’Hara’s actions, one that catches up with O’Hara when he catches an sexually transmitted disease and needs to see a nurse. “Oh, yeh, that’s great Willie, I’ll go and bring this to the nurses. Nice Irish girls. They’ll only be thrilled” (p.66). Similarly Willie, in writing his long letter, “every inch of it thought should he say something about the fallen girl of Amiens?” (p.65). What does this sexual encounter say about the lives of men at the front and how they relate this life to that at home? How do you judge Willie and O’Hara’s time at the estaminet?

“There needed to be a new sort of line officer like a veterinarian, he thought, because there was too much of this screaming and suffering. There was too much of it, too much of it, and it wasn’t love or anything close to it to leave a young fella screaming on the ground for three hours. It wasn’t love and it wasn’t even like being at a war and it wasn’t fucking right” (p.68). Follow the logic of Willie’s argument here. Is this a reasoned or an emotional argument? Indeed, is it an argument at all? Barry’s use of structure and language in this passage is revealing. What does it tell us about Willie’s state of mind?

I thought this an interesting chapter that developed Willie’s character. I’m warming to Willie a little, vacant though he often seems. Willie’s loss of virginity is another episode in his gradual disenchantment at the front, the loss of his innocence. The hardening of his attitude to the injured youth at the end of the chapter seemed a logical extension of this growth within him of “cold despair” (p.68). I felt the juxtaposition of the two encounters was clever by Barry—and I’m sure that the latter event, so revealing of Willie’s anguish, moved me in part because of the author’s clever use of structure.

Chapter 4, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Onward, into a disturbing account of one of the most wretched episodes in the wretched history of warfare. Chapter Four:

Summary

Months have passed at the front and Willie is upset that Gretta has not responded to his letters. He writes to her declaring his love, and retains the hope that she loves him too, but feels more and more angry and humiliated by her lack of reply. Before leaving Gretta, it transpires that Willie has asked her to marry him, and she refused. He once understood the reasons for her refusal, but longing for her without remittance, he writes short letters that veer between lumpen description of life in the trenches and blurted declarations of love. Writing in this way sharpens his self-consciousness and anxiety.

It is now spring and the Fusiliers decamp to a section of line near the village of St Julien. The men relax somewhat, skinny dipping in the river together and playing football. They find a joy in their momentary leisure together, though the noise and bustle of the front is near. Disarmed and naked, they talk frankly at the riverside; amidst the aimless chatter Captain Pasley speaks of his worries about the manning of his father’s farm at home.

Soon the men are back in the line. They first make it their business to tidy a trench once badly kept up by French soldiers. They settle into a time of distracted dull fear there, until the day when, as Captain Pasley censors his men’s letters home and the platoon are relaxing after a satisfying meal, Christy Moran sees a strange yellow cloud floating over no-mans land.

It is a German gas attack, but the men do not know this. It is an inexplicable sight as it advances towards them. At first the fusiliers fire into the yellow fog, but cease firing when there is no sign of an advancing enemy. The lieutenants consult their commanding officers, who are as nonplussed as their subordinates. The fog eventually reaches an Algerian trench to the platoon’s right. Screams of torment there prompt Pasley to the thought that the smoke is poisonous. The fog reaches the Dublin fusiliers’ trench and inspires panic as Irishmen, like the Algerians, begin to die. Christy Moran asks for permission for the company to retreat, but Pasley declares he has no orders to allow it. As the chlorine begins to fall into their section and men die in the trench, Pasley assents to withdrawal, but refuses to move from his post. Willie and the still-surviving men climb the parados and run for their lives amidst the general terrified scatter, every man for himself. Officers behind the line stand confused by the soldiers’ sudden, mysterious capitulation. Eventually, Willie finds himself in the air beyond the gas, and collapses.

He awakens to the aftermath of the attack. Blinded men move in lines. The countryside is poisoned. Eventually, later in the week, reserve battalions move up to replace the massacred soldiers. Willie is bereft. He makes his way back to the section of trench and amidst the now-grotesque bodies of his comrades discovers the corpse of Captain Pasley. He encounters Father Buckley, blessing the bodies of the dead. The two awkwardly console one another. Over five hundred men of their regiment are dead. Later, Willie (a protestant) politely refuses communion with the priest.

When Willie sees Christy Moran again, he is furious at his sergeant’s brutal assessment of Captain Pasley’s refusal to run. As more men are brought up to the line to replace his comrades, he also begins to have an inkling of the nature of the war.

The survivors see out the summer into the freezing winter of 1916, hearing of more Irish losses at Gallipoli. They are posted away from the front. Willie’s platoon traverse the countryside. His memories of building reviving within him, Willie admires the roads and particularly enjoys singing marching songs, especially the ubiquitous ‘Tipperary’. Willie’s singing voice is admired but has been weakened by his faulty lungs, damaged by the chlorine gas. He also notes the damage to himself. He mourns Clancy and Williams and feels haunted by the ghost of Captain Pasley. The grief of death has lodged within him, and he secretly rails against the world.

Questions

A shocking and moving read, this chapter, as it surely must be if well written.

The stalling of Willie and Gretta’s relationship while Willie fights abroad is perhaps unexpected, given the account of the relationship we read in the first chapter. She is, to use a phrase used in theory, an absent presence at this point in the story. What does the silence of Gretta suggest to you about this couple’s relationship? In what ways might her silence reflect a larger truth about the presence of women in literature of the First World War?

Captain Pasley, who reads Willie’s letters to Gretchen, judges that Willie is one of those soldiers who “tried to write the inside of their heads” when writing home (p.43). What do you think is meant by this? Given the evidence of Willie’s letter to Gretta (p.38), is Pasley’s assessment accurate? How would you describe Barry’s presentation of Willie in this letter? What does it reveal about Willie?

The narration often uses free indirect speech: that is, the voices of the novel’s characters often merge with or are articulated through the voice of the narrator. This creates interesting ways of manipulating and moving between different characters’ perspectives, but inevitably in the story thus far, we have most often presented with the perspective of Willie Dunne. In this chapter, however, the omniscient narrator is used to voice the thoughts of Captain Pasley as he censors the men’s mail (see the paragraph that begins, “Captain Pasley was in his new dugout writing his forms…” (p.42)). Why might the author decide to give the reader access to the thoughts of this particular character at this particular moment in the novel, before the gas attack? In what way is Pasley’s reading relevant, in terms of storytelling, to the events that follow? How effective is this narratological shift of perspective?

Barry’s description of the gas attack is memorable and shocking. He cleverly selects surprising foci in his description of the attack that make it particularly strange and frightening. What does the narrative describe that emphasises the transformation of the familiar world into one completely unfamiliar and peculiarly terrifying?

“All the Irish were on the fire-step now, all along the length of the trench, some fifteen hundred men showing their faces to this unknown freak of weather, or whatever it might be.” Reading this sentence, and the whole of the gas attack sequence (p.43-8), how does Barry create tension within the text?

As Barry builds a sense of scene in this chapter, he returns again and again to the colour yellow— at first “yellow world” of the wild flowers and caterpillars that hang on them, then the “strange yellow-tinged cloud” itself, and finally the “yellow world” that Willie awakes to, with its men wearing bleached uniforms and yellow, greased faces. What could these different kinds of yellowness represent?

“If it were a battle proper, these men would never have turned tail. They would have fought to the last man in the trenches and put up with that and cursed their fate” (p.48). Besides this odd (and surely redundant) bit of moralising narration, Barry is, I think, both clever and subtle in reflecting on a broad sense of shame felt in the aftermath of the attack. Why could a gas attack be seen as particularly shameful in the theatre of war? In what ways does the use of poison gas differ to other more traditional forms of warfare? How do the characters focused on in the novel respond to the trauma of the gas attack?

The passage at the end of the chapter, where Willie finds pleasure in singing marching songs like ‘Tipperary’, seems significant to the narrative as a whole. The novel, after all, is called ‘A Long, Long Way’, a metalepsis of the fuller song title, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’ (see the entry ‘Opening Lines’ and comments beneath for an explanation of this term). Song, therefore, has meaning in this text (and indeed was ubiquitous in the trenches during the war: see these entries about the Ragtime Infantry and read these poems by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney.) At the end of this chapter, how does Willie’s singing, and song more generally, cause us to reflect on the gas attack on the Royal Dublin Fusiliers? How significant is it that now, “when Willie sang too mightily he felt a dire need to cough” (p.58)?

Some thoughts

The gas attack in this chapter was exceptionally well written. Before writing an appreciation, it’s best to make clear that I currently have questions about Barry’s presentation of the attack at St Julien. This is presumptuous to a degree— Barry has plainly read deeply around the subject— but I’m still trying marry up elements of the historical record with the movements of Willie’s company.

On first reading, I had assumed that the gas attack depicted in the book is the gas attack of the early evening of 22nd April 1915, the beginning of the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge, itself the first battle of the murderous Second Battle of Ypres. I thought this because this was indeed the first German gas attack of the First World War, and the absolute incomprehension of the Irish troops in the face of the new weapon depicted in the book is more readily explicable than it would be in any depiction of the later gas attack of the 24th May, when the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were massacred. The April attack took place, as depicted in the novel, during the day-time: moreover, there was an Irish presence in the line during the attack of the 24th, the Royal Irish Fusiliers being positioned north of Wieltje, though not in a position that precisely reflects that described in the novel.

The attack of the 24th May 1915 is the more likely source of the massacre described in the novel: 666 men of the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ were in the line that day, and of that number, 645 men died. This chimes with Willie’s observation that there were “five hundred men and more of Willie’s regiment dead” (p.53). Crucially however this gas attack took place at night, at 2.30 in the morning, quite unlike the attack described in the book. The question that presents itself, then, is what Irish battalion Willie is part of? Willie’s first letter home in the book gives as his address the “Royal Dublin Fusiliers… Fermoy” (p.16) yet even with joining up in August 1914, and training in Fermoy in December of that year, I can’t see how Willie would have seen action at all near St. Julien in May (as far as I can discover, the second battalion of the RDF was moved from Harrow to Bolougne in August of 1914).

I’m assuming that I’m missing something important here, and I’d appreciate any pointers from military historians as to how to make sense of Barry’s timeline in the novel. Of course, some might say that I’m making a category error here in bothering about this stuff. It’s fiction, you know? I think these things do matter in understanding a novel, however. If Barry has decided to conflate these two attacks, then he has done so with a purpose. That purpose would be well worth speculating on, especially as the presentation of the gas attack is so effective, so moving, so shocking. If however, I’m simply short of information, then that of course is well worth knowing too.

I don’t want to speculate on what is probably a matter of my own ignorance. The gas attack depicted in the novel may be historically accurate and it may not be. Indeed, the virtues of historical accuracy can weigh against the virtues of drama or plot or authorial intention, and art is one of the only pursuits in which we can say without blushing that sometimes by making things up we can get closer to the truth of things. Yet interesting ethical and aesthetic questions are opened up here regarding the lengths of literary invention desirable or permissible in writing a historical novel (as alluded to in my earlier post on the novel form).

Especially, I want to say, when reading something as convincing as Barry’s gas attack. What a piece of writing it is.

The great risk in writing about a First World War gas attack is to fall into cliché and simply retread where others have gone before. Two British works of art overhang any depiction of gas warfare during the first world war; Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, of course, and John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’. Both are referenced in Barry’s account of the St. Julien attack: in his description of “faces [that] were contorted like devils’ in a book of admonition” and the “long lines of men going back along the road, with weird faces, their right hand on the shoulder of the man in front”. A-level Literature students should as a matter of course read Owen’s and Barry’s texts together here, exploring their commonalities and differences.

Yet it seems to me that Barry’s creation stands well clear of the shadow of these more famous texts, and, by mark of its invention, to signal towards texts both more marginal and imaginative. In terms of the A-level exam, I would also want to explore the narrative strategy found in Robert Frost’s ‘Range Finding’ to explore how Barry uses the presentation of the natural world to momentarily decentre the human experience of war. Nature, it seems plain, is both a consolation and a source of grief in Barry’s novel, as it was for many of the poet-soldiers of the First World War. Its fecund life and beauty is a counterpoint to the ugly, wilful and mechanical destruction of man. The horror of the foaming caterpillars, fizzing grass, dying trees and silenced birds in the path of the chorine gas speak quite as loudly of the directionless violence of man’s death-dealing as does Barry’s horrifying description of the massacre of the fusiliers.

Another text I felt at the edge of Barry’s reference, peculiar though it may seem to some, is HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1898). Peculiar because Wells’ story of an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars might seem, at first blush, an irrelevance to Barry’s staunchly realist text. Yet Wells’ novel was one of the first to imagine such devastating gas attacks: Wells’ invading Tripod machines drop asphyxiating ‘black smoke’ over the cities and towns of Southern England in their march on London. Now, Jules Verne imagined a freezing gas used in artillery shells by dastardly Germans in his 1879 novel ‘The Begum’s Fortune’: but it is the message regarding imperialism that is made explicit at the start of Wells’ novel that I feel makes it peculiarly relevant to Barry’s novel. The narrator, who has lived through the Martian invasion, takes to task those who complain of the inhumanity of the invaders:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

It strikes me that the political roots of warfare are understated in the novel thus far, as the author focuses on the personal experience and horror of war. Yet in this description of the supposed inhumanity of the alien invaders and their deadly technology, Wells performs a similar trick to Barry. Colonialism and Imperial Wars—human pursuits, of which the First World War is a prime example— are refigured as assaults from beyond earthly nature, beyond humanity. Both writers manage to make the precarious empire of man both utterly strange and frightening. Indeed, I want to say that the gas cloud in chapter four is one of Barry’s most memorable characters yet: a “dark and seemingly infernal thing creeping along”, the disowned monster of the terrible and grasping intellect of man.

Chapter 3, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Eastward ho! For Willie and co. Now:

Summary

Chapter three begins with Willie and his company manning a trench ironically dubbed Sackville Street (the name of Dublin’s main thoroughfare, later the site of the Post Office where the Easter 1916 rising began, and today named O’Connell Street, after the Irish political leader). Willie does not know where he is but notes the flowered graves that mark a great battle nearby (in fact, Willie appears to be stationed somewhere near Ypres; later, in April, the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers would see action north of the city in the small village of St Julien). Noticing the graves and the lingering grief of those on the front, Willie’s former romanticism begins to be replaced by traumatic fear. His hands involuntarily shake with the thought of the deaths of those in the supply party.

Sergeant Major Christy Moran satirically entertains Willie and company in a forward trench. He talks of how he longs to take a girl out on a date at home in Kingstown on Dublin bay, and contrasts the attractions of a woman with the revolting conditions (and revolting men) at the front. Captain Pasley then appears for the first time in the novel: he emerges from a dug out and consults Moran about missing rations. He appears generous and cavalier—he pleases his men by declaring he will ensure double rations the next day, and unselfconsciously alarms them by placing his head above the trench parapet to gaze out on no-man’s land. Pasley speaks admiringly of the beauty of the landscape and night sky, and evidently wins Willie and the company over, with his aristocratic air of confident and sensitive control. Pasley tells the men he will be leading a party out into no-man’s land that night.

Willie goes out that night as part of the wiring party with Pasley, Moran, Clancy and others. Willie carries immense wire cutters as they check four hundred metres of line in no-man’s land, looking for gaps in the barbed wire laid. As they fix the wire Captain Pasley spots a German patrol, and the group taking cover, Willie pisses himself in fear on the ground. Yet, as the Germans pass by, Willie is elated to find his fear has passed too. He grins in ecstacy at the knowledge he has passed this first test; that fear has not debilitated him. Moran and the rest of the crew, relieved, make their way back to the safety of their trench.

Questions

A short chapter, this, but important, and containing a first set-piece description of a common soldier’s task, wiring in no-man’s land. Barbed wire, first invented in the US as a way of penning cattle, was the first line of trench defence for armies on both sides of the Western Front: this Western Front Association article is particularly informative.

“Willie was not thinking of the killed supply party exactly. But his hands were.” (p.30) How does this sentence work? How does it describe Willie’s state of mind at this stage in the novel? How is it suggested that “thinking” works here? Try and answer these questions by breaking down the structure and possible meanings within the sentence; no shortcuts via Freud, please.

This chapter introduces the character of Captain Pasley to the novel. Earlier, Willie’s father is pleased to discover that Pasley would lead his son’s platoon, for “everyone knew the Pasleys and they were highly respected people and had a lovely garden there around their house”: he is sure the young Captain “would be a chip off the old block” (p.22). A number of questions suggest themselves about this figure. What kind of character is introduced to us in this chapter? What behaviour, what interests and observations mark Pasley out? In what way does he seem different to the men he commands? In what ways are these inflected by his class? What aspects of his character seem laudable—and what seem dangerous in this situation? How do the men regard him?

“So they rose up like shadows of the dead from their lair at the bulking of the night, a fierce frieze of stars rampant above” (p.32). A line like this, as the wiring party steps out into no-man’s land, has that remarkable poetic quality that Barry is well known for. Look again at this sentence, and consider how it works. What similes and metaphors does it employ, and what are their effect upon the reader? Where does the colloquial Irish voice emerge? What is the significance of the night sky here? (The sky is a focus again and again in trench literature, and not only because of the threat presented there to men). Barry writes in this lyrical way because, in all likelihood, he can write in no other way: so what does such a narrative voice bring to this First World War narrative? Are there any problems in using this narrative voice when writing about the First World War?

Drawing Links

This chapter’s focus on wiring in this chapter naturally calls to mind two important poems from the Oxford Anthology: Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’ and Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Dead Man’s Dump’. Gurney’s poem describes the momentary dilemma a private faces as his commanding officer instructs him to crawl through a gap in the wire in no-man’s land. Gurney’s poem is a beautifully written masterpiece of irony and understatement, telling of a kind of heroic rationalism that is, at one and the same time, anti-heroic. As a poem it’s colloquial yet lyrical, just as Barry’s writing is. Rosenberg’s poem, on the other hand, is one of the most grueling written during the war. It describes a wiring party traversing no-man’s land after a battle. Their carriage, containing wire and stakes, runs over the bodies of the dead as the soldiers, numb, cross the infernal space. It is a horrifying, anguished poem, part documentary, part existential scream. The situation Willie faces in the novel is more akin to that described by Gurney’s protagonist, though Gurney’s speaker (like Rosenberg’s) is far more self-aware than Barry’s creation. Both Gurney and Rosenberg, however, were privates during the war, subject to the commands of their COs and NCOs, and this most important fact influences all their wartime poetry. It also establishes another commonality with Barry’s creation, which through the character of Willie brings a welcome focus on the experience of the private soldier.

On a personal note I found in this a chapter a number of things to like. First, the swan’s feet submerged beneath the elegant body of the text: Barry’s hard graft of research really begins to show here. His easy and unshowy employment of his knowledge of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ campaign is impressive. Next, there is the writing itself, which occasionally has that poetic precision you find in a great writer such as Joseph Conrad—a rare pleasure in prose. I also liked the presentation of the character of Captain Pasley, added now to that of the likeably rueful Christie Moran. I think Barry captures an interesting class dynamic in this character’s relationship with his men, something true of the way the war threw members of different classes together (all in their proper order, naturally).

Chapter 2, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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Many apologies for the length of time between some of my posts here. For those not in the know, I’m off school at the moment, looking after my wife, who has leukemia. Thankfully this week I’ve found time to get back to the book.

So, without the slightest ado, let’s get to it.

Summary— Chapter Two

Chapter two begins with Willie Dunne reading a newspaper with his father on an evening. The paper that the pair read together runs impressive stories of patriotic commitment: accounts of different peoples from around the world mobilizing to fight on behalf of the British Empire. Willie recalls an Irish Times article recounting a (now famous) speech given by John Redmond that declared his conditional approval for the enlistment of Irish volunteers. Willie’s father notes scornfully that this call for enlistment in the cause of Home Rule is precisely the opposite reason many Ulstermen are volunteering. Willie’s father, as a loyalist, is hostile to both Redmond and nationalism, and instead extols to Willie the virtues of King, Country and Empire. Yet when Willie unexpectedly enlists, his father weeps. Willie’s sisters react excitedly, though his eldest sister Maud is tense.

Willie joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and by December is training in Fermoy, County Cork. He writes a letter home about the training there and his new friends, Privates Williams and Clancy. In January the soldiers hear with some ambivalence about Christmas truces with the Germans on the Western front. One of Willie’s particular problems at camp is finding the privacy to masturbate.

The narrative moves swiftly on to the day of the Fusiliers’ departure for Belgium. The regiment arrives at a railway station in Dublin and parades through the city on the way to the docks. The adulation of the crowd excites the marching men. Willie hopes to see Gretta and his sisters on the day, but does not.

The villages of England similarly salute the tired soldiers as they roll through on their troop train. The incongruity of Irishmen being cheered by the English is noted by some of the young men. Willie listens as they joke with one another. While his friends confidently talk, he remains reflective, dimly grasping a broader history and fate that takes men from all over Britain to the front. This confluence of soldiery in a great cause excites a sense of manhood in Willie.

The men arrive in France. They are thrilled to be abroad, taking in the small but significant differences of landscape to home. Willie’s sense of euphoria in his newfound vocation continues, but his overenthusiastic reverie ultimately overtakes him. After imagining a horse charge whilst travelling on a swaying transport, he vomits up his breakfast.

The men finally arrive at the trenches. The artillery bombardment they find is vicious and terrifying and ongoing. Willie feels the fear of war for the first time.

The narrative leaps forward. The platoon are eating together while Sergeant Major Christie Moran spies no-man’s land. Moran, exhausted and splenetic, curses the British Army to the amusement of his comrades. He damns it as the very institution that has repressed the Irish for centuries. Moran is on the edge; as he and his men perform their ablutions before taking the firestep at stand-to, his internal monologue escapes him and he talks ruefully to himself of his misfortune, overheard by the men.

Later, the men learn that the German bombardment of the night previous has destroyed the supply trench behind, killing the men there. There is nothing for the platoon to eat that night.

Questions

Here are some questions that occur when reading chapter two.

As Barry begins the second chapter he manages to convey some of the contemporary excitement in the press at the start of the war (pp. 14-15). How is this presented? How does Willie react to this excitement? In what ways does his father’s reaction to the news reveal tensions in Irish society?

Barry effectively conveys the emotional aftermath of Willie Dunne’s decision to enlist (p.15). How does Barry manage to do this- what relationships does he focus on? How do the reactions of his characters create an emotive impact?

Chapter two is largely preoccupied with Willie Dunne, his experiences, thoughts and feelings. He is presented as an innocent, even naive young man, subject to the desires of youth. What passages does Barry use to reveal important aspects of Willie’s character? Where does Willie seem innocent, where naïve, and where gullible to the reader?

Another feature of Chapter two is the introduction of Willie’s comrades-at-arms. These men are our most profound introduction to Barry’s notion of Ireland and Irishness so far. How does Barry first present Willie’s comrades? What kind of men are they? What kind of language do they use when they speak to each other? What sort of culture do they seem to come from?

It is important that you begin to get to grips with Irish history and the significance of the John Redmond speech referred to in this chapter. Follow the links I have inserted into the first chapter of the summary above. What do you now understand by the term ‘home rule’? Who was John Redmond– and what is his significance in the story of home rule? Why did John Redmond declare nationalist support for the enlistment of the Irish volunteers? By contrast, in ‘A Willie’s father in ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a loyalist and unionist. What do you understand by these terms?

For me, the second chapter of the novel is surprisingly brisk in pace— running from life in the Dunne household, to regimental training, to Willie’s departure from Ireland, journeying through England to Belgium and then finally seeing action on the Western Front in a swift fourteen pages. I thought the movement a little too theatrical for my liking, as if Barry were energetically shooing us to curtains up in Flanders (the use of a letter home to draw the sum of Willie’s training struck me as too economical, for example).

Barry is not afraid of utilising the worn stones of historical cliché in laying the path to his scene. Never such innocence, never before or since, and all that— and just because a saying is much repeated does not make it untrue. Yet Willie so far is an unremarkable character, performing the age-old narrative function of the wide-eyed youth thrust blinking into the fallen world of experience (see Candide, Oliver Twist, William Boot, Ballard’s Jim or any number of genre protagonists).

There’s the Irishness that’s undoubtedly interesting, of course, and the richness of the language that Barry reproduces in the dialogue and narration; but so far, the story rests on a too-easy sentiment that bothers me. But there is a reason why Sebastian Barry is a twice Costa-winning author, and I am just some Joe, teaching English literature in a secondary school in West London.

Chapter 1, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

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So, we begin our reading. This post will hopefully be quite functional. You will need, come exam-time, a way to refresh your minds about the content of the novel. That will be the function of these summaries, and I will tag each of them (look right!) as ‘Chapter Summaries’.

After writing my summary, I’ll ask you a series of questions I want you to consider. You can answer these questions (or offer an opinion on the first chapter) below the line in the comments section.

I’ll write a more detailed response to the first chapter in a subsequent post. But for the moment, here is my summary of the first chapter of Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’.

Summary— Chapter One

The novel begins in Ireland in 1896. A child, Willie Dunne, is born as a thunderstorm rages outside the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin city centre.

One of Willie’s early memories is recounted: the contentious visit of King Edward the Seventh to the city in 1903. Willie’s childish recollection is only that the King was “as big as a bed” and that his father, James Dunne, a policeman, was on duty on a “big white horse” that day.

Willie is brought up with great affection by both his mother and father; but his mother dies in childbirth when Willie is twelve, and Willie is brought up by his father and three sisters. As he grows, Willie deeply feels her loss. Moreover, his father’s hopeful expectations that Willie will follow in his footsteps and become a policeman are frustrated by Willie’s small physical size. Willie feels his inadequacy keenly.

The narrative leaps forward to early 1914, when Willie is just short of seventeen years old and has become a fairly contented apprentice builder. Willie regularly runs an errand for his father to take offerings of food to a Mr Lawlor, a neighbour living in a slum tenement dwelling nearby. There he meets Gretta Lawlor, a thirteen year old girl with whom he falls in love.

Mr Lawlor, a carter and marcher on behalf of trades union recognition, was severely injured in street fighting accompanying the Dublin lockout of 1913, beaten by Dublin Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s command. He scorns Willie’s father’s sympathy for him as a sign of the policeman’s doubt as to the morality of the DMP’s violent strike-breaking. He seems to the young Willie a cussed but principled man.

Like many of the Dublin poor forcibly dismissed after the lockout, Mr Lawlor joins the British Army. His duties mean he is often away from home. At first lustily infatuated with the beautiful Gretta, Willie’s visits as the year progresses lead to a growing intimacy and love. The young couple’s relationship remains secret to their fathers, but even given the Lawlor’s poverty (set against the Dunne’s middle class respectability) Willie is confident that he can gain his father’s permission to marry.

At the outbreak of the war in August, Willie explains to Gretta that he is going to join the British Army. His motivation is hazy: he repeats early propaganda about murderous Germans, but more pertinently perhaps, his wish to please his father. Gretta is unhappy and does not want him to go, but Willie reminds her of his father’s opinion that a man should act according to his own thoughts and beliefs. The chapter closes as Gretta discloses that, ironically, these opinions are taken from the Christian philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

Questions

Here are some questions it occurs to me to ask about this technically accomplished first chapter.

The opening of the novel (pp. 1-2) seems concerned with beginnings and endings. What represents this in this early passage? Can you find examples of this tension within the text? Why do you think that Barry begins his novel in this way?

It seems to me that Barry very efficiently and economically manages to describe the life of William Dunne as a child (pp. 4-6). How does Barry manage to do this? What does he focus on to create a sense of depth of character? Why does this work?

Barry engages swiftly with the violent upheaval in Irish society at this time (pp.6-11). Why do you think that James Dunne sends food to Mr. Lawlor after the violent breakup of a union rally? Why does Mr. Lawlor tolerate the young William Dunne as he does? What, perhaps, might Barry be suggesting about conflict in Irish society in 1914?

William and Gretta’s relationship provokes some of the narrator’s most extravagant similes and metaphors in the opening chapter— “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it, no matter how often the boys of Dublin stone her nest”, or “she looked like an angel, at least how an angel ought to look” (pp. 11-12). The narrator’s language is often lyrical, though it strikes me here that a note of irony is employed when describing their relationship. What does such language seem to say about Willie’s feelings for Gretta? What differences are there in the way the narrator presents Willie, and how the narrator presents Gretta? How does the lyrical narration affect the tone of the work?

I also wonder what interested you about this first chapter. I thought it a confident and above all controlled opening. This is a mature writer who has learnt that it is economy of detail that is most persuasive in establishing character and setting. I am also, however, somewhat perturbed by the elegiac and lyrical tone of the opening passages— this isn’t necessarily my kind of writing, but I’m keen to read on. Just as well, really.

And now for something completely different.

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As my last post noted, the AQA English Literature A exam has changed. The  poems from Jon Stallworthy’s Oxford Book of War Poetry are still examined, of course, and I hope my notes for those poems will continue to be useful for you in revising for their exams. The links to wider reading that you find here will continue to be relevant to your studies. But in the new exam, these poems will be read in tandem with another text– a novel or drama. Clearly, then, for this site to remain fully relevant to the exam, we need to engage with the new element, a post-2000 novel or drama, and find the ways in which Stallworthy’s selection of poems might be found to be relevant to such a text.

Here, then, is the beginning of what I hope will be a study project that allows us to explore some of the key texts in the 2016 AQA English Literature A-level examination.

Over the next few months my students and I will be reading and writing about Sebastian Barry’s novel, ‘A Long Long Way’. This is the text we have chosen at Southfields Academy to study in combination with the Oxford Book of War Poetry.

For revision purposes I will post onto the blog at the end of every chapter a brief summary of the events that occurred in that chapter, and pose some of the questions that I feel that the chapter opens up for the reader. My students will respond, giving their own commentaries on the text, and supplying resources to the project for their peers to read and consider.

You can respond to those commentaries, answer those questions and proffer an opinion on points of interest on the Barry’s novel as we go. Join us as we read, and help us to broaden our understanding of this newly examined text.

Moreover, because ‘A Long Long Way’ is examined by comparing what we find in the novel to what we find in the poems in Stallworthy’s anthology, we will consider exactly what poems from that anthology engage with or influence the text.

As we go, I will also offer links, resources and analysis for you to explore crucial parts of the text. What kind of novel is ‘A Long Long Way’? What social or historical contexts inform the text? What have been other readers’ responses to the text? These questions and others will allow us to take a critical stance on the text, and allow us to participate in ongoing literary debates.

Do read along with us.

Dead Man’s Dump – Isaac Rosenberg

‘Dead Man’s Dump’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Break of Day in the Trenches – Isaac Rosenberg

‘Break of Day in the Trenches’

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

NOTES

At dawn a sentry standing on duty pulls a poppy from the top of the trench he guards. A rat jumps over his hand. At first amused, the soldier reflects on the animal’s presence on the front line.

Break of Day in the Trenches: Dawn in the trenches was an important part of the soldier’s day: before dawn ‘stand to’ took place, when soldiers would man the fire-step in preparation for an attack. The speaker in this poem seems to be alone at dawn, however, and in a thoughtful or whimsical frame of mind. Rosenberg himself described the poem in a letter to his friend Eddie Marsh as “a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk” (Stallworthy, p.165).

“The darkness crumbles away.”: As the poem begins, the night is ending, and, like the earth at the top of the trench, “crumbles away”. This is a poem that constantly reminds the reader of the presence of earth and dust: from the perspective of the rat who scurries close to the earth among the corpses, to the soldiers who are in constant close proximity to the dirt of the front— in life as in death.

“It is the same old druid Time as ever,”: the druids were the priesthood of the ancient British pagan religion. In his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Stallworthy writes that here “we can see the figure of Old Father Time personified as a druid (standing perhaps before a druidic sacrificial altar)” (p.166). Dawn, Stallworthy explains, was the customary time for druidic sacrifice— which, of course, was also often human sacrifice. Yet all this is conveyed with what seems like a light, popular allusion— a reference to the familiar image of Father Time, sickle in hand.

“Only a live thing leaps my hand, / A queer sardonic rat”: A rat appears and runs over the soldier’s hand. The rat is described whimsically: the soldier’s sense of surprise is followed by clear amusement at the animal’s peculiar (“queer”) expression, which suggests a mocking or scornful (“sardonic”) look. The rat is the first of two symbols that Rosenberg uses to subvert the pastoral mode in this poem. In the pastoral nature is idealized and opposed to the corruption of the world of men: a typical example might be Shelley’s ‘To a Syklark’. In ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, on the other hand, it is the much-loathed rat who seems to be contemplating men— as Paul Fussell notes, “perfectly aware of the irony in the… [swapping] of human and animal roles”.

“As I pull the parapet’s poppy / To stick behind my ear”: The second focus of contemplation in the poem is a flower— a poppy growing out of the parapet (that is, the top of the trench wall). The soldier pulls the poppy from the earth and places it behind his ear. The poppy, of course, is a familiar symbol of war: its redness, above all, being associated with the blood of dead soldiers (see my notes for ‘In Flanders Fields’, below). There seems something romantic, amused, even devil-may-care about the soldier’s unsoldierly gesture: more suitable perhaps to the actions of a young boy, or a lover. Note the alliteration here, whose ‘pah-pah-pah-pah’ may suggest the sound of far-off gunfire.

“Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies”: The rat seems oddly amused (“droll’). Here the voice of the poem becomes directed towards the rat, addressing him wryly. The rat has more freedom than the soldier who is subject to military laws that forbid fraternisation with the enemy. If the soldier shared the same “cosmopolitan sympathies” as the rat— to be ‘cosmopolitan’ means to be careless of nationality or affiliation when approaching others— then he would be shot.

“Now you have touched this English hand…”: The rat is free to roam, and the soldier seems to take pleasure in its carelessness about Nationality. Remember that Rosenberg hated the war and the army with a particular passion, fighting only for money to help his family. Rosenberg, a working-class, Jewish poet-artist, was doubtless used to being an outsider, due to his class, race and creative inclination. His ironic identification with the hated trench-rat is very much a source of the poem’s power: it allows a kind of grim objectivity regarding human affairs to be expressed in an almost playful, leavened tone.

“Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure / To cross the sleeping green between”: Blake’s Songs are once again referenced here by Rosenberg, as in ‘On Receiving News of the War’. Here the reference to “the sleeping green between” recalls Blake’s poem ‘The Ecchoing Green’ (Blake’s spelling).  Note the easy colloquial tone of the writing here, with its affirmative asides: “…soon, no doubt, if…”.

“It seems you inwardly grin as you pass / Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes”: the rat seems aware of the irony that he, normally the subject to man’s dominion, now wanders freely amongst the bodies of the dead. These are the same idealised, classical bodies that Brooke seems to evoke in ‘Peace’: well-sculpted men of “sharpened power”, now broken in death. Their bodies here, lying in the dirt, seem to figure the end of one ideal of heroic manhood: but perhaps also the collapse of Western civilization.

“Bonds to the whims of murder”: the dead men were tied (“bonds”) to the seemingly  arbitrary commands of those who directed them to ‘murder’— a strong word, this, in connection with soldiering.

“Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, / The torn fields of France.”: the soldier’s corpses are metaphorically described as lying within the earth’s guts; a metaphor that seems extended by the image of France’s ‘torn’ fields, and the sense that the country has been violently eviscerated by the war.

“What do you see in our eyes…?”: the poem now becomes interrogative. This passage particularly recalls William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. ‘The Tyger’ interrogates how it can be that such a deadly creature as the tiger could be created by a ‘good’ God. The questioning here and the elemental imagery describing battle (“shrieking iron and flame / Hurled through still heavens”) echoes much in Blake’s poem, but most clearly perhaps the apocalyptic fifth verse after the creation of the tiger: “When the stars threw down their spears, / And watered heaven with their tears, / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. The rat is an emblem of death, like the tiger; but the heavier condemnation for both creature’s existence seems to fall on those agents in both poems that allow them to be or flourish— God in Blake’s poem, man’s violence in Rosenberg’s.

“What quaver— what heart aghast?”: Again, Blakean syntax here (that is, the line is constructed in such a way that it recalls William Blake’s writing). Does the rat see fear (a “quaver”) in men’s eyes? Or perhaps the rat sees terror (“heart aghast”) within?

“Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins / Drop, and are ever dropping;”: the poem concludes with a clever return to the flower which the soldier picked from the parapet at the poem’s beginning. The reference to poppies “roots” which are “in man’s veins” is a return to the old notion that poppies flourished whilst growing on the blood of dead soldiers. Like the poppy that the soldier in the poem picked (thus killing it), these poppies continually “drop”: like the dead soldiers who nourish them.

“But mine in my ear is safe— just a little white with the dust.”: for a little while, the poppy behind the soldier’s ear is safe, declares the soldier. There is an irony to this, however: the poppy plucked from the earth is now dying. The whitening of the dust seems to signify the beginning of this journey towards death. The soldier’s observation seems aware of the irony:  that man’s actions mean that safety is unlikely— that the “dropping” of another poppy is at best delayed for the short while this dawn scene lasts.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is one of the most richly associative in the whole anthology: Jon Stallworthy has himself written that this is one of his favourite First World War poems. It straddles many areas of interest for students: it plays with the pastoral mode; it subverts symbols conventionally associated with the war (rats and poppies); it does so in a realistic way, giving a strong flavour of everyday life for soldiers in the trenches; it contains its own implied critique of the classical, ‘heroic’, muscular values prevalent before the war; and it has strong mythic overtones. It is indeed one of the great masterpieces of First World War poetry, and expresses the momentary pleasures and everyday horror of the war without sentimentality. I always feel that ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is a key poem in Stallworthy’s anthology; it is a poem that can be linked to many of the other poems in the collection, both good and bad.]

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.]