November 11, 2008

Poetry and War

This Veteran's Day, we are called to remember those who have served our country, in war and peace. Originally meant to commemorate the veterans of WWI, the day has become a celebration and remembrance of all those who have served--not just the boys of 1918.

Some of the greatest art is born out of strife, and that can certainly be said of WWI. The aftermath of the war (most notably an entire generation lost) inspired and informed much of the work of British authors such as Evelyn Waugh, and T. S. Eliot. But there were also great contributions to the literature of England during the war. The so called "War Poets," including Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen and (my favorite)Siegfried Sassoon.

Owen's poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est" is perhaps the most famous of the war-poems, but it is Sassoon, Owen's mentor, who I'd like to draw your attention to today. His volume of poems, Counter Attack and Other Poems was first published in 1918, and contains some of the most stirring war poems I've ever read. They are brutal and cynical--unflinchingly telling the horrors of war, both physical and psychological:
"Does It Matter?"

Does it matter?—losing your legs?...
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter?—losing your sight?...
There’s such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?...
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won’t say that you’re mad;
For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit.

Lest you think this is his last word, let me point your attention to his other volume of poetry, also released in 1918 The Old Huntsman and Other Poems. An agnostic most of his life, his early stages of anger and frustration and cynicism gave rise to deeply penetrating and quietly redemptive poems as he looked beyond the war:
"A Mystic as Soldier"

I lived my days apart,
Dreaming fair songs for God;
By the glory in my heart
Covered and crowned and shod.

Now God is in the strife,
And I must seek Him there,
Where death outnumbers life,
And fury smites the air.

I walk the secret way
With anger in my brain.
O music through my clay,
When will you sound again?

I thank God for all the soldiers, throughout time, who have desired to do good, or simply do their duty--my grandfather flew 40 missions over China in WWII, my Uncle Francis served in WWII and Korea, and I have many friends in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Still, it seems to me, however, that wars are a matter for nations, and the terrible price of them is not sovereignty, or land, or oil, but the souls of those men who fought and died. I'm glad for the anger of Sassoon's voice, filling my imagination with the horrors of war. If we don't keep in mind the individuals, and the terrible price many of them paid for their country, then the essence of patriotism, and remembrance, is lost.

We do them no honor unless we pray, requiesat in pacem eternam.

(By the way, Sassoon was baptized when he was in his 70's. It was a long road, but with a joyful conclusion!)

1 comment:

  1. "The aftermath of the war (most notably an entire generation lost) inspired and informed much of the work of British authors such as Evelyn Waugh, and T. S. Eliot."

    And that other guy!