I have recently befriended a rather superb teacher of English, who chooses quite deliberately to teach war poetry in the summer. Not for her the narrow confines of the November window, with its poppy-wreathed procession of Owen and Sassoon. No, she has managed to remember that our servicemen and women are out there all year round.
Nevertheless, here we are in November and the poppies are out once more. And as we pause to honour those who have laid down their lives, let us take two minutes to observe their world with them.
I offer here three poems from World War II which share the common denominator of a keen observational eye. Consider the following, if you will:
Keith Douglas: How to Kill
Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
Now. Death, like a familiar, hears
and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.
The weightless mosquito touches
Her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.
Henry Reed: Naming of Parts
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
James Farrar: After Night Offensive
Glowed through the violet petal of the sky
Like a death’s-head the calm summer moon
And all the distance echoed with owl-cry,
Hissing the white waves of grass unsealed
Peer of moon on metal, hidden men,
As the wind foamed deeply through the field.
Rooted to soil, remote and faint as stars,
Looking to neither side, they lay all night,
Sunken in the murmurous sea of grass.
No flare burned upwards, never sound was shed
But lulling cries of owls beyond the world
As wind and moon played softly with the dead.
So there you have it. Three young servicemen (Farrar was 18 when he wrote After Night Offensive; the other two were in their twenties), writing amid the clamour of war, and what is the most striking feature of their writing? For me it is stillness.
Douglas creates stillness through structure. His poem exists in suspended animation – two stanzas before a killing, two after, without so much as a verb to describe the act itself, or a punctuation mark to acknowledge it. We are merely called upon to look at what has happened. And we remain in that suspended animation for as long as it takes the poet to observe and reflect.
Reed’s narrator shows the stillness of the recruit’s wandering mind, and contrasts it with the strident busyness of the instructor. Look at the verbs at the end of each stanza (‘glistens like coral’; ‘hold in the gardens’) and at the adjectives (‘silent, eloquent’; ‘fragile and motionless’), all of which describe a state of being rather than an action.
Reed’s recruit even commandeers the busiest and most urgent of his instructor’s lines, ‘rapidly backwards and forwards’ (and do for goodness’ sake listen to the audio clip), and ascribes it to that laziest of creatures, the bumble-bee – the embodiment of suspended animation. And that in turn allows him to usurp the term ‘easing the spring’, the operation of the bolt – the precursor to Douglas’s death-shot – and to re-define it in its original, timeless meaning. Easing (relaxing) the Spring (the season of new life, of birth and hope).
Andrew Motion has commented on the stillness in Farrar’s writing, saying ‘when he’s at his most relaxed, he is most alert’. It is an alertness which I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, and which perhaps inevitably sees things from the air. His images are of the sky, the moon, the owls, the wind, the stars – the elements of the rural night.
Again, look at his adjectives and adverbs (calm, remote and faint, murmurous, lulling, softly) and his verbs (glowed, hissing, foamed, shed, played) – where in this poem is there any image of war? Perhaps in the soft echo of Owen’s Strange Meeting in ‘No flare burned upwards’; otherwise only in the ominous ‘metal’ and in the poem’s final word. Even the death’s-head of the first stanza could (and knowing Farrar, probably does) refer to a moth, a live creature – and a flying creature at that – rather than to any symbol of death.
One cannot pass over the religious (or at least the spiritual and moral) dimensions of these poems. Others have commented on Reed’s evocation of the Garden of Eden – the earthly paradise on which is superimposed a jarring manmade disorder. Indeed, in Naming of Parts‘s battle between innocence and experience, it is the former that overcomes the latter. The instruction in how to bring death becomes instead an observation of life. Even the sexual imagery of the fourth stanza is translated back to the innocence of ignorance, to the bees if not the birds.
But if Naming of Parts depicts an Eden, it is Eden before the Fall; it is Douglas who takes the metaphor to its logical conclusion. His narrator is damned, and knows it; Death is his familiar; he is thus permitted to be ‘amused to see the centre of love diffused /and the waves of love travel into vacancy’. (Douglas takes the same approach in Vergissmeinnicht.)
It is not too fanciful to read into the ‘gift designed to kill’ of Douglas’s first stanza, a reference to the apple of the Garden of Eden; the ‘parabola of a ball’ – the ‘gift’ of the first stanza – marks the passage from childhood (innocence) to manhood (damnation), just as the ball itself is transformed from a child’s plaything to a unit of ammunition. Consider too the echo of Hamlet in Douglas’s ‘how like, how infinite / a lightness’, conjuring up Hamlet’s ‘how infinite in faculty?’ and ‘how like a god’, and therefore implying ‘what is this quintessence of dust?’
Dust has no place in Farrar’s imagery, of course. After man has been and gone, the enduring picture of After Night Offensive is one of life, of moon and wind and grass and owls. Equally, it is not a place of blame. Owen wrote: ‘But they who love the greater love / Lay down their life; they do not hate’; Farrar’s ‘hidden men….looking to neither side, [who] lay all night’ certainly express no hatred. And of these three poems, it is After Night Offensive that offers a moonbeam of hope.
Hope is a quality in short supply. We are often better at ambivalence and ignorance. We do not live under the threat of the V1 or the Blitz or invasion. Our politicians can declare war, can send our military into combat, without direct threat to their electorate. To a large extent we have lost contact with the reality of the situations into which we send our servicemen and women – and with their consequences.
This we cannot afford to do. Armistice Day is the diametric opposite of Larkin’s ‘solemn-sinister wreath-rubbish’. It is one opportunity – but as my teacher friend knows, it should not be the only one of the year – to honour the millions who, like Owen, Douglas and Farrar, have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom. As another friend put it recently: “Not politics. Not nationalism. Not war-mongering. Just recognising service and sacrifice. For those who won’t come back. For those who did, never the same. For their loved ones. And for us, who live the lives they gave, and give, for us, and for our children.”
It is one opportunity to celebrate the peace and the freedom they have bought for us. And it is an occasion to spend a little time with our war poets and to reflect on the poignant power of the language they wielded.