This week marks a century since the outbreak of the first world war. Chosen from 1,000 years of English writing about war, poet and Oxford professor Jon Stallworthy selects some of the best attempts to think through this most extreme of human experiences.
“Poetry,” Wordsworth reminds us, “is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, and there can be no area of human experience that has generated a wider range of powerful feelings than war: hope and fear; exhilaration and humiliation; hatred – not only for the enemy, but also for generals, politicians, and war-profiteers; love – for fellow soldiers, for women and children left behind, for country (often) and cause (occasionally).
Man’s early war-songs and love-songs were generally exhortations to action, or celebrations of action, in one or other field, but no such similarity exists between what we now more broadly define as love poetry and war poetry. Whereas most love poems have been in favour of love, much – and most recent – war poetry has been implicitly, if not explicitly, anti-war. So long as warrior met warrior in equal combat with sword or lance, poets could celebrate their courage and chivalry, but as technology put ever-increasing distance between combatants and, then, ceased to distinguish between combatant and civilian, poets more and more responded to “man’s inhumanity to man”. I have chosen poems from both the old “heroic” and the modern “humane” traditions. With so many fine poems to choose from, on another day I might have selected another team.
1. The Battle of Maldon (Anonymous)
An early battle poem written in Old English, this gives a vivid and poignant account of the last stand of Anglo-Saxon warriors against a troop of Viking invaders, and includes a classic articulation of the heroic code.
BRITHNOTH DECIDES TO FIGHT
Then he ordered each of his warriors his horse to loose
Far off to send it and forth to go,
To be mindful of his hands and of his high heart.
Then did Offa’s Kinsman first know
That the earl would not brook cowardice,
Loosed he from his hands his darling to fly,
His Hawk to the wood, and to the battle strode.
From that one could tell that the chieftain would never
Weaken in the warfare – when he his weapons seized.
And after him Edric chose his chief to follow,
His friend in the fight – then ‘gan he forth to bear
The spear to the strife – high spirit had he,
So long as he with his hands to hold was able
His buckler and broadsword; his boast he fulfilled
That he by his friend’s side should fight.
BRITHNOTH PREPARES HIS ARRAY
Then did Brithnoth begin his men to bestow –
He rode up and counselled them – his soldiers he taught
How they should stand, and their standing to keep,
And bade them their round shields rightly to hold
Fast to their forearms, that they flinch not at all.
And when he had his folk fairly bestowed
He lighted there with his people, where he would liefest be
Where he knew his own troops were most to be trusted.
THE VIKINGS PARLEY
Then stood forth on the strand and sternly spake
The messenger of the Vikings, delivered his tidings;
He boastfully spoke, for the seafarers
Their sentence to the earl, where he stood on the shore.
“They sent me to thee, those bold seamen,
And bade me to say that thou must send swiftly
Ring-money for pledges. For you were it better
That you buy off this spear-rush with your tax,
Than that we should have so hard a battle.
What need we to vex us, if you will agree?
We will for this gold a sure compact make
If thou wilt agree to it – thou that art strongest.
If that thou be willing thy people to redeem,
To yield to the seamen at their own choice
Tribute for a truce, and so take peace of us,
Then will we with the tax to ship betake us
To sail on the sea – and hold truce with you.
Brithnoth made answer – his buckler he grasped,
Brandished his slender spear – and spoke.
“Hearest thou, sea-robber, what this people say?
For tribute they’re ready to give you their spears,
The edge poison-bitter, and the ancient sword.
War-gear that will bring you no profit in the fight.
Thou messenger of the seamen, back with thy message.
Tell to thy people, these far more hateful tidings,
There stands here a good earl in the midst of his men,
Who will this country ever defend,
The kingdom of Aethelred, mine overlord,
The folk and the ground – but they shall fall,
The foemen in the fight; too shameful methinks
That ye with our tribute, to ship should be gone
Without a blow struck – now that ye have thus far
Made your incoming into our land.
Nor shall ye so softly carry off our riches.
Sooner shall point and edge reconcile us,
Grim warplay indeed – before we give tribute.”
Bade he then to bear the shields, the warriors to go,
So that they on the river’s bank all stood.
THE TIDE DELAYS THE FIGHTING
Nor could for the water, the army come at the other,
For there came flowing, flood after ebb;
Locked were the ocean-streams, and too long it seemed
Until they together might carry their spears.
There by Panta’s stream in array they bestood,
Essex men’s rank, and the men from the ships,
Nor might any one of them injure the other
Except where from arrow’s flight one had his death.
The flood went out – the pirates stood ready.
Full many of the Vikings, eager for battle.
BRITHNOTH SETS A GUARD OVER THE FORD
Then bade the men’s saviour, one to hold the bridge,
A warrior war-hardened, that was Wulfstan hight1,
Courageous mid his kin – he was Ceola’s son,
Who the first foeman with his spear did fell
That bravest stepped forth upon the bridge.
There stood with Wulfstan warriors goodly
Aelfere and Maccus, high hearted both,
That never at the ford would turn them to flight,
But they steadfastly ‘gainst their foes made defence,
While their weapons to wield they were able.
THE VIKINGS ARE BAULKED
When they saw that, and keenly espied
That bitter bridge-guardians there they met
Then began they to feign – those loathed guests –
And begged that they might some foothold get,
To fare over the ford – the foemen to lead.
BRITHNOTH ALLOWS THE VIKINGS TO CROSS
Then did the earl, in his overweening heart
Lend land too much to that loathed people.
Then ‘gan he call out – across the cold water
Brighthelm’s son, and all the band listened.
“Now room is meted you, come swiftly to us,
Warriors to war. Only God knows
Who at the end shall possess this fight’s field”.
Then went the war wolves – for water they recked not.
The troop of the pirates, west over Panta.
Over the shining water they carried their shields
Seamen to the shore, their bucklers they shouldered.
There against the raiders ready stood
Brithnoth with his band, and with the bucklers bade
Form the shield wall, and make firm the ranks
Fast against the foes. Then was fighting nigh,
Fame in the fight – now was the hour come
When that the feymen2 must fall.
THE BATTLE IS JOINED
Now was riot raised, the ravens wheeled,
The eagle, eager for carrion, there was a cry on earth.
Then loosed they from their hands the file-hard lance,
The sharp-ground spears to fly.
Bows were busied – buckler met point
Bitter was the battle-rush, warriors fell
On either hand, the young men lay!
Wounded was Wulfmur, a war bed he chose,
Even Brithnoth’s kinsman, he with swords
Was straight cut down, his sister’s son.
Then to the Vikings was requital given.
I heard that Edward did slay one
Straightly with his sword, nor stinted3 the blow,
That at his feet fell – the fey warrior.
For this his thane did to him give thanks,
Even to his chamberlain – when he had a space.
THE ESSEX MEN STAND FAST
So stood firm the stout-hearted
Warriors in the war – they did keenly strive
Who with his point first should be able
From fey men to win life.
Warriors with weapons: wrack fell on earth.
They stood steadfast; Brithnoth stirred them,
Bade each of his men intend to the strife
That would from the Danes win glory.
A VIKING ATTACKS BRITHNOTH
Went one stern in battle – his weapon upheaved,
His shield for safety – and ‘gainst the chief strode –
As resolute against him the earl did go,
Each to the other did evil intend.
Sent then the seafarer a southern dart,
And wounded was the warriors’ chieftain.
But he shoved with his shield – so that the shaft burst,
And the spear broke, and it sprang away.
Wroth was the chieftain, he pierced with his spear
That proud Viking who gave him that wound.
Yet prudent was the chieftain; he aimed his shaft to go
Through the man’s neck – his hand guided it
So that he reached his sudden enemy’s life.
Then he a second swiftly sent
That the breastplate burst – in the heart was he wounded
Through the ring-harness – and at his heart stood
The poisoned point; the earl was the blither:-
Laughed then that high-heart – made thanks to God
For his day’s work – that his Saviour granted him.
A SECOND VIKING WOUNDS BRITHNOTH
Loosed then one of the foemen a dart from his hands,
To fly from his finders – that it rushed forth
Through the noble thane of Aethelred.
Close to his side stood a youth not yet grown
Wulfstan’s child – even Wulfmeer the younger.
He plucked from his chieftain that bloody spear
Then loosed the hard spear ‘gainst that other to go;
In ran the point – so that he on earth lay
Who ere had sorely wounded his chief.
Went an armed Viking against the earl
Who wished the earl’s jewels to plunder,
His armour and rings – and well-adorned sword.
Then Brithnoth drew his sword from sheath
Broad and brown edged – and at his breast-plate smote.
Too soon hindered him one of the seamen,
So that the earl’s arm he did injure.
Fell then to earth the fallow-hilted sword,
Nor could he hold the hard brand
Or wield his weapon.
BRITHNOTH’S DYING WORDS
Yet then this word did speak
The old warrior; cheered on his men
Ordered to go forward – his good brethren.
No longer could he firmly on his feet stand.
He looked up to heaven……..
“I thank Thee, Lord of all peoples
For all those joys that I on earth have known.
Now, my Maker mild – I have most need
That thou to my ghost should grant good.
That my soul to Thee may journey,
Into thy kingdom – O lord of the Angels,
May pass with peace – I do desire of Thee
That the hell-fiends may not hurt it.”
Then hewed at him those heathen men
And at both those men that stood him beside,
Aelfnoth and Wulfmeer – both fell;
Then beside their liege – their lives they yielded.
GODRIC BEGINS THE FLIGHT
Then fled those from the fight that wished not to be there.
Then were Odda’s sons first in the flight
Godric from the battle, and left his good lord
Who had often given him many a mare,
He sprang upon the horse that his lord had owned,
Upon the trappings where no right had he,
And with him his brothers – they both galloped off,
Godrinc and Godwig, they loved not the battle,
They went from that war – and the wood they sought,
They fled to the fastness – and saved their own lives,
And men more than had any right
If they had all bethought them of the blessings
That he had done them for their good comfort.
Even thus to him Offa one day ere had said
In the meeting-place where he held his moot.
That with proud minds many did then speak
Who later at need would not endure.
Then fell that leader of the folk,
Aethelred’s earl and all did see,
His hearth companions – that their lord was laid low.
MANY CONTINUE THE BATTLE
Then went forth the proud thanes,
Brave men – hastened eagerly,
And willed they all – for one of two things:
Their lives to lose, or their loved lord to avenge.
Thus urged them forth the son of Aelfric,
A warrior young in winters – with words he spake,
Aelfwin thus said – boldly he spoke,
“Think ye of the times when we oft spake at mead
When we on the benches did raise up our boast,
Henchmen in the hall – about hard strife,
Now may each one make trial of how bold he be.
Now will I tell my lineage to all
That I was in Mercia of a mighty kindred
Mine old father – Aldhelm was hight,
An alderman wise – and rich in wealth;
Nor shall the thanes mid the people reproach me,
That I would consent to flee from this fight,
My home to seek, now my lord lieth low,
Slain in the strife; but yet it most grieves me
For that he was both – my kinsman and my lord.”
Then went he forth – full mindful of the feud,
So that with his spear one he slew.
A pirate ‘mong his people – that he fell to the earth.
Slain by his weapon. He ‘gan to urge on
His comrades and friends – that they should go forth.
Offa spake, his spear-shaft shook,
“Lo thou, Aelfwin, hast all heartened
Thanes at need – now our lord lieth,
The earl on the earth – for us all is need
That each one of us should hearten the other
Warrior to war, while he his weapon may
Have and hold, his hard blade,
His spear and good sword – for Godric hath us,
Odda’s coward son, all betrayed.
For many men thought when he rode off on the mare,
On that proud steed, that he was our lord.
And for that cause are the folk scattered over the field
The shield wall broken. May his plan come to nought!
For that he so many men hath set to flight.”
Leofsund spoke, his buckler uphove,
His shield for safety – and that man answered,
“I do promise this, that I will not hence
Fly a foot’s step, but shall further go
To avenge in the war my friendly lord.
Then shall not need in Sturmere the steadfast soldiers
To twit me with words, now my friend is fall’n,
For that I returned home without my lord,
Turned from the battle, but the sword shall take me,
The point and the steel.” And he, most wroth, departed.
Fought steadfastly – flight he despised.
Dunmer then spoke – shook his spear,
A humble churl – called out above all,
Bade each warrior – “Brithnoth avenge!
Now may not go he who thinketh to avenge
His friend among the folk, nor mourn for his life.”
THE LAST STAND OF THE THANES
And then they went forth – for life they recked not.
Then ‘gan the house men hardly to fight,
The fierce spear bearers – and they begged God
That they might avenge their friendly lord,
And on their enemies bring death.
Then the hostage ‘gan eagerly help,
He was in Northumbria of a hardy kin,
Eclaf’s child, and Aesferth his name.
He weakened not a whit in the warplay,
But he sent forth often a shaft,
Often he a buckler struck, often a man hit,
Ever and again he dealt out wounds
The while he his weapons might wield.
Then yet in the rank stood Eadward the tall,
Ready and eager – a boastful word spoke,
That he would not flee a foot’s space of land,
Or budge back, now that his better chief was fall’n.
He shattered the shield wall and fought with the soldiers
Until he his treasure-giver upon the seamen
Had worthily avenged – ‘ere he lay with the slain.
So did Aeturic – a noble companion,
Eager and impetuous – he fought keenly,
Sibright’s brother, – and full many more, –
Split the hollow shields, sharply parried.
The buckler’s edge burst, breast-plate sang
A grisly song. Then in the strife struck
Offa a seaman, that he sank to the earth,
And then Gadda’s kinsman the ground sought.
Soon in the struggle was Offa struck down
Yet had he done what he boasted to his friend
As he bragged before to his ring-giver:-
That they both to the burg should ride
Hale to their home, or in the battle fall,
On the war field perish of their wounds.
He fell like true thane at his chief’s side.
Then was breaking of bucklers, the seamen came on
Stern to the strife; the spear often pierced
A feyman’s body. Forth then went Wistan,
Thurstan’s son, with the enemy fought,
He was in the throng – of three men the bane
Ere him Wigelin’s son on the battlefield laid.
Then was stern meeting, stood fast
Warriors in the war, then men sank down
Wearied with wounds – slaughter fell on earth.
Oswald and Ealdwald all the while
Brothers both, urged on the men,
Their dear kinsmen, with words incited
That they there at need should hold out,
Stoutly wield their weapons.
Brythwold spoke, grasped his buckler,
He was an old comrade, urged the men,
He full boldly cheered his soldiers,
“Thought must be the harder, heart the keener
Spirit shall be more – as our might lessens.
There lies our chief all cut down,
Good man on the ground; for ever may he grieve
Who now from this war-play thinketh to go.
I am old in years – hence I will not,
But by the side of mine own lord,
By my chief so loved, I think to lie.”
And thus them all did Aethelgar’s son urge,
Even Godric, to the battle – oft he cast a spear,
A spear of slaughter to go upon the Vikings,
As he ‘mid the folk foremost went,
Smote and struck down till he sank down in the fight.
He was not that Godric who left the battle.
2. The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tennyson didn’t see the British cavalry charge against Russian artillery in the Crimean war – other than with his mind’s eye – but his lifelong absorption in Arthurian legend and chivalry enabled him to take his place, imaginatively, with the “Noble six hundred”. He celebrates their courage, but recognising that “Someone had blundered”, begins to question the value of the heroic code.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!” he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
Someone had blundered.
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred.
Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered.
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right through the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reeled from the sabre stroke
Shattered and sundered.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.
When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!
3. Drummer Hodge by Thomas Hardy
In the 50 years between the writing of Tennyson’s Charge’, and this heart-wrenching poem of Hardy’s, the new “humane” tradition had come to challenge nine centuries of the old “heroic” one. Hardy didn’t see the Boer war burial party “throw in Drummer Hodge to rest / Uncoffined – just as found”, but his lifelong absorption in the little world of Wessex enabled him, imaginatively, to witness the boy’s graveside.
They throw in Drummer Hodge, to rest
Uncoffined — just as found:
His landmark is a kopje-crest
That breaks the veldt around:
And foreign constellations west
Each night above his mound.
Young Hodge the drummer never knew —
Fresh from his Wessex home —
The meaning of the broad Karoo,
The Bush, the dusty loam,
And why uprose to nightly view
Strange stars amid the gloam.
Yet portion of that unknown plain
Will Hodge for ever be;
His homely Northern breast and brain
Grow to some Southern tree,
And strange-eyed constellations reign
His stars eternally.
4. Christ and the Soldier by Siegfried Sassoon
On 1 July 1916, Sassoon saw the carnage of the opening of the Battle of the Somme and, a month later, wrote this brilliant but savagely anti-Christian poem (which, significantly, he never published).
The straggled soldier halted — stared at Him — Then clumsily dumped down upon his knees, Gasping
“O blessed crucifix, I’m beat !”
And Christ, still sentried by the seraphim, Near the front-line, between two splintered trees, Spoke him:
“My son, behold these hands and feet.”
The soldier eyed him upward, limb by limb, Paused at the Face, then muttered,
“Wounds like these Would shift a bloke to Blighty just a treat !”
Christ, gazing downward, grieving and ungrim, Whispered,
“I made for you the mysteries, Beyond all battles moves the Paraclete.”
The soldier chucked his rifle in the dust, And slipped his pack, and wiped his neck, and said —
“O Christ Almighty, stop this bleeding fight !”
Above that hill the sky was stained like rust With smoke. In sullen daybreak flaring red The guns were thundering bombardment’s blight. The soldier cried,
“I was born full of lust, With hunger, thirst, and wishfulness to wed. Who cares today if I done wrong or right?”
Christ asked all pitying,
“Can you put no trust In my known word that shrives each faithful head ? Am I not resurrection, life and light ?”
Machine-guns rattled from below the hill; High bullets flicked and whistled through the leaves; And smoke came drifting from exploding shells.
“Believe; and I can cleanse your ill. I have not died in vain between two thieves; Nor made a fruitless gift of miracles.”
The soldier answered,
“Heal me if you will, Maybe there’s comfort when a soul believes In mercy, and we need it in these hells. But be you for both sides ? I’m paid to kill And if I shoot a man his mother grieves. Does that come into what your teaching tells ?”
A bird lit on the Christ and twittered gay; Then a breeze passed and shook the ripening corn. A Red Cross waggon bumped along the track. Forsaken Jesus dreamed in the desolate day — Uplifted Jesus, Prince of Peace forsworn — An observation post for the attack.
“Lord Jesus, ain’t you got no more to say ?”
Bowed hung that head below the crown of thorns. The soldier shifted, and picked up his pack, And slung his gun, and stumbled on his way.
“O God,” he groaned,”why ever was I born ?”
… The battle boomed, and no reply came back.
5. Strange Meeting by Wilfred Owen
Not the most flawless of Owen’s poems, but the most visionary, this reaches back to the heroic epics of Homer and Virgil and forward to voice in its last lines a compassionate humanity in striking contrast to the last speech of Byrhtnoth, the doomed warrior in The Battle of Maldon.
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,—
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand fears that vision’s face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
“Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .
6. Aristocrats by Keith Douglas
This fine elegy for fellow officers killed in the Battle of El Alamein again acknowledges both ancient and modern traditions of war poetry. Douglas recognises at once the chivalry and the obsolescence of cavalrymen on mechanical mounts duelling in the desert.
The noble horse with courage in his eye,
clean in the bone, looks up at a shellburst:
away fly the images of the shires
but he puts the pipe back in his mouth.
Peter was unfortunately killed by an 88;
it took his leg away, he died in the ambulance.
I saw him crawling on the sand, he said
It’s most unfair, they’ve shot my foot off.
How can I live among this gentle
obsolescent breed of heroes, and not weep?
for they are fading into two legends
in which their stupidity and chivalry
are celebrated. Each, fool and hero, will be an immortal.
These plains were their cricket pitch
and in the mountains the tremendous drop fences
brought down some of the runners. Here then
under the stones and earth they dispose themselves,
I think with their famous unconcern.
It is not gunfire I hear, but a hunting horn.
7. MCMXIV by Philip Larkin
No poem written since MCMXIV (Latin numerals for 1914, as found on first world war memorials) speaks so eloquently, so poignantly, of the future awaiting the children at play, “the men leaving the gardens tidy, / The thousands of marriages”, all seen as in a fine-grained sepia photograph.
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day—
And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
8. Requiem for the Croppies by Seamus Heaney
The 20th-century Nobel prize-winning Irish poet gives a voice to his voiceless peasant countrymen massacred in the 1798 rebellion against the British. They were nicknamed croppies because of their closely cropped hair-style copied from the sans-culottes of the French Revolution, who cropped their heads to distinguish themselves from wig-wearing aristocrats. The barley in the croppies’ pockets was to have been their food.
The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.
9. Platform One by Ted Hughes
Hughes’s father and uncle fought in the Great War and one senses their shadowy presence behind this elegy for those who did not survive it as they did. Focusing on Platform One’s larger-than-life bronze statue in Paddington station, his imagination travels from a peacetime present, in which holiday-bound families are “scrambling for their lives”, to a past in which soldiers left that platform to scramble for their lives – and lose them – on foreign battlefields.
Holiday squeals, as if all were scrambling for their lives,
Panting aboard the “Cornish Riviera”.
Then overflow of relief and luggage and children,
Then duckling to smile out as the station moves.
Out there on the platform, under the rain,
Under his rain-cape, helmet and full pack,
Somebody, head bowed reading something,
Doesn’t know he’s missing his train.
He’s completely buried in that book.
He’s forgotten utterly where he is.
He’s forgotten Paddington, forgotten
Timetables, forgotten the long, rocking
Cradle of a journey into the golden West,
The coach’s soft wingbeat – as light
And straight as a dove’s flight.
Like a graveyard statue sentry cast
In blackened bronze. Is he reading poems?
A letter? The burial service? The raindrops
Beaded along his helmet rim are bronze.
The words on his page are bronze. Their meanings bronze.
Sunk in his bronze world he stands, enchanted.
His bronze mind is deep among the dead.
Sunk so deep among the dead that, much
As he would like to remember us all, he cannot.
10. The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell
Many of the most moving and memorable poems to emerge from the second world war were written by Americans. Jarrell, who served in the US Army Air Corps, was concerned with victims, the most famous of whom was the subject of this poem. To get the full force of it one needs to know that a ball turret was a plexiglass sphere set into the belly of a bomber and contained two machine guns and one small man – he had to be small. When this gunner tracked with his machine gun a fighter attacking his bomber from below, he revolved with the turret. Hunched upside down in his little sphere, he looked like a foetus in a womb. Jarrell’s gunner wakens from a dream of life to the reality of death: “‘When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.” Only with the last word – (and it would have been a steam hose) – does the full force of the abortion metaphor hit us.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.