AN ANTHOLOGY OF WAR POETRY

'The Old Lie'

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INTRODUCTION

The poems in this section vividly portray war as wasteful, tragic and horrific. Their words speak eloquently for themselves. They begin with the quietly poignant images of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Exposure’, followed by the same poet’s savage attack on jingoism after witnessing the terrible death of a  man in a poison gas attack. 'Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori' means 'it is a sweet and fitting thing: to die for your country but the poet uses the phrase with bitter irony. Siegfreid Sassoon, the other towering figure in the poetry of the First World War, employs equally savage irony in ‘Does it Matter’, before Owen, in his fine ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ lets the poetry provide the pity. Sassoon’s ‘General’ fools his men with his bluff cheeriness, but his incompetence kills them. Then Sassoon provides a detailed and memorable portrait of a nondescript victim of a sniper’s bullet in ‘Working Party’, before Owen closes this section with three different but equally powerful poems. In the brief but carefully-wrought ‘Futility’, a burial party finds the frozen body of a young soldier and the poet muses the pointlessness of his death and, indeed, of all life.
 
 
 

Exposure
 

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us ...
Wearied, we keep awake because the night is silent ...
Low, drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient ...
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
 But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northwards, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
 What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow ...
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
 But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence,
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew;
We watch them wandering up and down the wind‘s nonchalance,
 But nothing happens.

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces -
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
 Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed, -
 We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Nor ever sun smile true on child, or field or fruit,
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
 For love of God seems dying.

Tonight, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
 But nothing happens.
 

Wilfred Owen
 
 

Dulce et Decorum est
 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime ...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dream you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, _
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie, Dulce et Decorum est
Pro Patria mori.
 

Wilfred Owen
 
 

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.
 

Siegfried Sassoon
 
 

Anthem for Doomed Youth
 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
   Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
   Only the stuttering rifle’s 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 pallors of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
 

Wilfred Owen
 
 

The General
 

‘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.
 

Siegfried Sassoon
 
 

A Working Party
 

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle deep.

Voices would grunt ‘Keep to your right - make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at corners, piping thin
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

Three hours ago he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all need of tenderness and care.
He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town;
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn‘t much to say,
And always laughed at other people‘s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.

That night, when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.

He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out.
 

Siegfried Sassoon
 
 

Futility
 

Move him into the sun -
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
 

Think how it wakes the seeds, -
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved - still warm - too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
 

Wilfred Owen



Back to the Introduction 

The first section (‘The Send Off’)

The second section ('When Can Their Glory Fade?')

The third section ('Interlude')

The final section ('Aftermath and Remembrance')

Chris Price's poem 'Remembrance'

The Poetry Index page

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