Sonnet Saturday (3)

wilfred owen

Wilfred Owen

Siegfried_Sassoon_by_George_Charles_Beresford_(1915)

Siegfried Sassoon

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.

Genesis 

 

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.

 

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published three anthologies of short stories and a memoir of my mother. More will appear soon. I will try and continue to blog regularly at geofflepard.com about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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12 Responses to Sonnet Saturday (3)

  1. Lisa Reiter says:

    Morning, Geoff. So much to reflect upon in this wonderful post.
    I too have been reflecting on both Rik Mayal’s sad and untimely death – knowing what I know about brain injury though, he has had a remarkable ‘second’ life which is of some comfort, but he was certainly the humour of my generation and it felt more shocking and close to home as a consequence- I remember imitating The Young Ones in a particular corner of my 5th form class – And had been attempting to craft a memoir prompt around it when I fell ill and we got to a more obvious one for this week!
    I studied Owen and Sassoon at school – they’ve always stayed with me. We forget how young they were writing these amazing pieces. I would after another interpretation, not on Sassoon’s as such because who knows, but in a different vein I suffered the ‘glorification’ of a chemo battle in some quarters with the playing down of the reality to give those others reason to not face its horrors – to have reason to pretend it was somehow worth it whatever price you pay.
    This approach to others termoils and terrors effectively mutes them so those others don’t have to share the bad bits. When I read these words of Sassoon that’s what comes to mind – that reinvention of events to make it more palatable and the bitter isolation the one experiencing it feels. How that was for such young men to be left fighting at the front line in horrific conditions whilst perhaps womenfolk were saying things like ‘Oh, you’ll be fine, you’re brave, it’s all for the greater good’ etc I can only imagine.
    Thanks too for offering your own lovely piece – your own thoughts or expressing those of the vet’s? Or perhaps we shouldn’t get into religion in public !?

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    • TanGental says:

      Of course you are so very right in the underlying sentiment expressed. I can well understand his and your frustration, both at the sanitisation of what you go through and the ascribing of heroic qualities to your behaviour when you just need love and support not sainthood. What bugs me is the application to all women. Some perhaps and a lot of men to, especially on the political class.
      Turning to Rik M do you follow Jenni at Unload and Unwind http://jenniferann1970.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/weekend-challenge-rik-mayall-tribute/ This weekend there should be a lot of clips to savour.

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  2. willowdot21 says:

    It has indeed been a very poignant week with services on the D day landing beaches. Not to mention the old soldier who defied the decision of the carers at his pensioners home and took himself off to Frances and the services behind their back !
    I am truly taken with the war poets WW1 and WW2 and last year produced a post on war and I usually used a war poem. Here is one I wrote it contains a poem I particularly admire . In Flanders Field : http://willowdot21.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/journal-for-poetry-challenge7-08012012/
    And so back to today’s challenge : http://jenniferann1970.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/weekend-challenge-rik-mayall-tribute/

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  3. Pingback: The Funny Challenge of Rik Mayall and Misogyny | Lisa Reiter - Sharing the Story

  4. Pingback: Dangerous Brothers with Rik Mayall | Unload and Unwind

  5. Lisa Reiter says:

    This picture of Sassoon is haunting me.. He looks like he had to take a deep, terse breath to keep composed in front of the camera

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  6. Fabulous tribute; beautiful poem. Nice to meet you.

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  7. Charli Mills says:

    An apt selection given the D-Day anniversary. I first read Wilson Owen in college and have never forgotten the impact of his poetry. In particular, he wrote a stunner about mustard gas and the falsification about the glory of war: Dulce et Decorum Est. That sentiment echos Sassoon’s sonnet; that those at home are spreading lies of how sweet and right it is to die for your country when there’s nothing sweet about dying from mustard gas. Yet, as you point out, Sassoon attacks specifically the women. Your poem is poignant in closing, if you compare your last line to Sasson’s. While the sonnets grapple different topics both remind us of the earth that we came from, and return to. I’d like to believe in that Creator’s touch upon us at both junctures.

    The Sonnet Saturdays are lovely beyond description! I feel like I should be paying you for poetry tutoring. 🙂 Sorry I showed up late to class but I was playing all weekend!

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