Poet's Notebook: The poetry of horror

Verses inspired by war.

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click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: The poetry of horror

‘Good-morning. Good-morning!” the General said

When we met him last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,

And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

As they slogged up to Arras’ with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

—from “The General” by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Looking at our September calendar, I noticed that we’ve just passed the birthday of Siegfried Sassoon, and my mind jumped to that remarkable group of English poets from World War I, who fought and often died under the suicidal conditions of trench warfare: Sassoon, Rupert Brooke (1887-1915), Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), Robert Graves (1899-1985), the Canadian John McCrae (1872-1918), and others. The pride of English manhood, or youthhood, marched out, as Graves wrote in “Recalling War,” and “Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill, / Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall.”

The unrelenting madness of old men sending young men into battle is hard to forgive. As I was thinking of these poets and their poems, the radio rattled with debate about our president’s “new” decision on Afghanistan. With Donald Trump talking, it’s even murkier than before. The only clear thing is that we’ll be sending more young men (and now, young women) to fight and die in an endless and unwinnable war.

Trump of course is all about winning everything. “I’m a problem solver, and in the end we will win. We will defeat them handily.” He also had to add, “I studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle.” Does anyone believe any of this? He just doubles down without giving details, so the enemy won’t find out (as if they don’t already know), that Trump’s planning on sending over 3,900 troops, adding more fuel to this 16-year-old battle. The real problems over there — political corruption on all sides, ancient tribal rivalries, distrust of neighboring countries, an unreadiness for democracy, and hatred of foreign invaders — remain unmentioned and unsolved.

World War I was a turning point in the way we look at war. Young boys have always wanted to be brave and strong (and young girls like them that way). War was traditionally thought of as one-on-one: Athenian against Spartan, country boy against city boy, cowboy against Indian. This was changing, obviously, as the slaughters of America’s Civil War (22,000 killed or wounded at Antietam alone) should have shown us. But World War I wasn’t one-on-one: it was a massacre, as ignorant old generals sent patriotic young men running forward toward the new weapons (machine guns, bombs, tear gas) and falling like weeds beneath a thresher. 

Sassoon was the first of these poets to volunteer, on August 3, 1914. He was wounded twice, and awarded England’s Military Cross. When shot in the shoulder in 1917, he was sent to a hospital in Edinburgh, where he met the wounded Wilfred Owen, and encouraged him to write his anti-war poems. While in hospital, Sassoon published a proclamation against the war, saying he “could no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe evil and unjust.” Instead of being court-martialed, Sassoon was sent back to the line, and “saved” by being shot in the head, and sent home for good. Robert Graves was shot in the chest and barely survived. He suffered from shellshock, and couldn’t write about the war until old age. But Owen was sent back to fight. Before he was killed he wrote the poems, like “Dulce et Decorum Est,” that have made him the most famous of these “war poets.” One line: “What passing bells for these who die as cattle?”

These were brave and good men who wrote brave and good poems. They deserve to be remembered, read, and taken to heart.

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,

The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?

Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate.—

Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

—from “On Passing the New Menin Gate” by Siegfried Sassoon

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