‘Little Song of the Maimed’
Lend me your arm
To replace my leg
The rats ate it for me
I ate a lot of rats
But they didn’t give me back my leg
And that’s why I was given the Croix de Guerre
And a wooden leg
And a wooden leg
This is a highly critical— and political poem. It uses the black humour and flippancy often found in popular soldier songs and folk songs to oppose the glorification of war. It insists on the obscenity of war and the injuries it causes: ‘Maimed’ is the key word here.
STRUCTURE NOTE: This is a little like a marching song, with subversive lyrics. The repetition mimics marching and is bluntly shocking.
Benjamin Peret: Peret, like Apollinaire, fought for France during the war. Later, he became a surrealist (after spending some time as a Dada artist, an avant-garde art movement that embraced the absurd). This accounts for some of the odd, comic gestures in the poem: the Surrealists and Dadaists believed that life was only to be understood by embracing the unconscious and the nonsensical.
Little Song of the Maimed: A child-like title for a grim subject matter: ironic, sardonic and pretending to be naïve.
“Lend me your arm / to replace my leg…”: the poem begins with a horrible, foolish request: it is meant to be funny, as if the logic of exchange in the daily world could be extended to parts of one’s own body. Of course, it can’t. Note the direct, second person address of this poem– it is intended to be discomfiting for the reader, even confrontational.
“The rats ate it for me / at Verdun.” A grim account of a lost leg being eaten by the ubiquitous rats of the front line. Verdun is to the French what the Somme was to the British: a catastrophic battle that led to tens of thousands of dead, for no appreciable gain.
“I ate lots of rats…”: The madness of the narrator’s perspective is revealed, and again he has a peculiar idea of equivalence: he thinks that if he eats rats like they ate his leg, he will somehow get his leg back. Again, the world plainly does not work according to this odd logic.
“And that’s why I was given the CROIX DE GUERRE”: the absurdity extends to the reasoning for the injured man receiving a medal from the French government— as if the loss of a leg were somehow equivalent to being given a ‘Cross of War’. The very idea, this patriotic trade-off a leg for national honour, is portrayed as quite as mad as his previous rantings.
“and a wooden leg / and a wooden leg.”: the poem ends with that marching rhythm, which is now, ironically, pointless: who can march with a wooden leg?
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The selection of these two famous surrealists adds a further international variety to the collection. Stallworthy plainly felt that it was important not only to have non-British voices but also avant-garde modernist works in his collection. The question is whether this adventurous, or more of a token gesture.]