Friday, 11 November 2016

On the 11th Hour, of the 11th Day, of the 11th Month...

On Flander's Field
On Armistice Day I've chosen two poems for my blog. One was written in 1914, the other sometime late 1917, or early 1918. The contrast couldn't be more pronounced. 'The Soldier' was written at the beginning of the war in 1914, while .'Dulce et Decorum Est' toward the end. If Rupert Brooke's poem represents the romanticism of war as typically portrayed in the 19th century, Owen's masterpiece is thoroughly modern: mankind stripped threadbare in the 20th. 

Both poems exude courage, but not of the same kind. Brooke should be read in a genteel drawing room amidst applause from modest, silly young women, in bustles. Owen is best read alone in a darkened garret by old men who have seen too much of life. Tis best to be alone if you are going to shed a single, silent tear. If 'The Soldier' is uplifting in a superficial emotional kind of way, 'Dulce et Decorum Est' cools martial ardour. The first poem is uplifting to the soldier going to war, the second should never be heard, but whispered to Statesmen who contemplate war.  

It is salutary to note that both these brave young men lost their lives in this terrible, modern defining, conflict. I often wonder how Brooke's poetry would have evolved if he hadn't died in 1915? Imponderables can make men mad- sensible men are content with this reality (not really).

Read and weep, but in the right company

The Soldier

IF I should die, think only this of me:
    That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
    In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
    Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
    Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
    A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
        Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
    And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
        In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Rupert Brooke

  Dulce et Decorum Est 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie:
Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen


  1. I defy anyone with a scintilla of feeling to read that last poem without becoming emotional. Nothing written gives an immediate and horrible idea of how utterly hopeless it all must have seemed to those men.