AN ANTHOLOGY OF WAR POETRY

Aftermath and Remembrance
 
 

INTRODUCTION
 

The final four poems look back on war from different perspectives. Wilfred Owen’s ‘Mental Cases’ is a frightening portrait of men in a war hospital, perhaps the one he was for a time a patient, driven mad by what they have witnessed and, in the poet’s eyes, reaching out for those of us who ‘dealt them war and madness’. ‘Disabled’ pictures a limbless survivor, sane enough, but longing for the final rest of death.  He joined up for the glory and to impress the girls, but now finds that life has passed him by and left him nothing. Siegfried Sassoon’s final poem is a plea for those who have survived to enjoy a life of peace never to forget the sacrifice of those who made that survival possible. Next local Crosby poet Roger McGough makes a deliberately harsh and colloquially-phrased attack on patriotism and war. For him there is no thoughtful debate: patriots are simply ‘ a bit nuts in the head.’
 

Mental Cases
 

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain - but what slow panic
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands‘ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

- These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
- Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
- Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
-Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing at us who dealt them war and madness.
 

Wilfred Owen
 
 

Disabled
 

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.

About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,-
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands;
All of them touch him like some queer disease.

There was an artist silly for his face
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted down his thigh.

One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches, carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts,
That‘s why; and may be, too, to please his Meg;
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie, aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, and no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon he was drafted out with drums and cheers.

Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.

Now, he will spend a few sick years in Institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

Wilfred Owen
 
 

Aftermath
 

Have you forgotten yet?...

For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same - and War’s a bloody game...

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz -
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on
 parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench -
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with the hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack -
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads - those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.
 

Siegfried Sassoon
 
 

Why Patriots are a Bit Nuts in the Head
 

Patriots are a bit nuts in the head
Because they wear
red, white and blue-
tinted spectacles
(red for blood
white for glory
and blue...
for a boy)
and are in effervescent danger
of losing their lives
lives are good for you
when you are alive
you can eat and drink a lot
and go out with girls
(sometimes if you are lucky
you can even go to bed with them)
but you can’t do this
if you have your belly shot away
and your seeds
spread over some corner of a foreign field
to facilitate
in later years
the growing of oats by some peasant yobbo
when you are posthumous it is cold and dark
and that is why patriots are a bit nuts in the head.
 

Roger McGough 



 
Go to the Introduction 

The first section (‘The Send Off’)

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

The third section ('Interlude')

The fourth section ('The Old Lie')

Chris Price's poem 'Remembrance'

The Poetry Index page

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