It’s a sad week when someone so (relatively) young and who I enjoyed (at a distance, as you do with the famous) dies. Rik Mayall. Younger than me. A real loss. This and the incredibly poignant broadcasts from Northern France for the seventieth anniversary of the D Day landings had me thinking about the fragility of life, of the utter randomness of nature and her cruel and potent fickleness.
So when I thought about sonnets my mind went to those powerful war poets, Sassoon and Owen. Possibly more than at any other time, these poets helped shape a nation’s mood and remoulded history. It wasn’t their views alone but it was part of the flap of the butterfly wing that led inexorably to the hurricane that eventually excoriated all those in charge before and during WW1, especially the generals.
If you have read the Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker you will have a sense of what it was like for those two men, of very different backgrounds and attitudes. Often Owen is held up as the ‘better’ poet though they both wrote with such passion it seems to me unfair to make that comparison. To me there isn’t ‘good’ ‘better’ or ‘best’ poetry but just what you, the reader (or listener) enjoys.
Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
–The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
In a way this is easy to understand: the bitterness, the rejection of the comfort of religion, the poignant references in the last six lines to the mourning that will take place back in the shires. No hidden meaning, no clever twist or sentiment, just raw and powerful anger at the sheer waste. We may, with the perspective allowed of one hundred years of hindsight begin to re-allocate blame; to look on it as an inevitable war; to forgive the generals their inabilities to come to terms with the new methods and machines of war that led, in part, to the grim reality of the trenches. But if you were there, if you were losing comrades to the disorder, how would you feel?
Glory of Women by Siegfried Sassoon
You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
You can’t believe that British troops ‘retire’
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses–blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.
Another bitter poem but this one has an interesting twist in the obvious misogyny that runs through the poem. After all, not only does he take all women to task, but he chides German women as much as British; the implication being he has more sympathy with his (male) enemy than he does his own (female) side. To put all the blame for the glorification of war on to women as a group is extraordinary to us now, and must have seemed it at the time; especially to those fearing the worst or cradling the gut-wrenching pain of bereavement. You wonder if the, no doubt deeply secret, homosexuality had a small part to play in this antipathy. I expect that is a simplistic suggestion; and even if it was part of the reason then it is still difficult to excuse the generalisation.
Sassoon, like Owen, is remembered in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. It is Owen’s words that are on the War Poets’ memorial
“My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
Boom. Never was war to be viewed in the same way again.
Owen lost any faith he had in 1915; Sassoon came from a mixed Jewish/Anglican background and, in late life, converted to Roman Catholicism. Via those Tangental links, I find a way to my own little offering, since I don’t have a sonnet directly on point. The one I share here I wrote at a time the Vet was exploring her spiritual side and receiving a certain amount of sceptical pressure from the Lawyer as to the absurdity (in his eyes) of believing in an omniscient and omnipotent deity. I am rather of the Christopher Hitchens’ persuasion (who said at the time he was suffering from terminal cancer: ‘To the dumb question Why me? the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?’) but lots of people are not; they have a deeply held and sincere faith and so, for them, I share this sonnet.
If they really believe all this began
With some sort of enormous explosion,
They desperately lack imagination
To have labelled it simply “Big Bang”.
And some of them see no starting place,
No stepping off point for any of us
But rather conceive a continuous
Expansion, spreading through time and space.
And that idea, however well meant
Is flat and devoid of all passion,
Which leaves the way clear for those who are sent
To teach us a different construction.
That one day, long gone, a Devine hand
Fashioned some clay and gave life to man.