12 Oct 2014

War Poetry Under Critical Scrutiny

From World War One Book Club , 4:06 pm on 12 October 2014

The focus of the conversation in this first episode of the three-part World War One Book Club is poetry.

Poet and biographer Harry Ricketts (who has recently edited How We Remember: New Zealanders and the First World War), Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Jane Stafford, and playwright and columnist Dave Armstrong (who wrote the stage play King and Country) discuss the era’s literary legacy with the poet and literary commentator Kate Camp.

The poems

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Wilfred Owen

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 disappointed shells that dropped 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 dreams 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.


Rupert Brooke

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

Oh! we, who have known shame, we have found release there,
Where there's no ill, no grief, but sleep has mending,
Naught broken save this body, lost but breath;
Nothing to shake the laughing heart's long peace there
But only agony, and that has ending;
And the worst friend and enemy is but Death.

A Working Party

Siegfried Sassoon

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 the 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 needs 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. 

A Dream

Boys of the 9th

Last night I lay asleeping I dreamed a dream so fair
And this is what in fancy I saw so plainly there
I rose up in the morning, and lo through all the ship
Was water turned on fresh and cool for us to have a dip

I wandered to our messroom and this is what I saw
The tables decked with linen and silver plates galore
And oh the fragrant courses I saw the waiters bear
The fish, and steak and onions so delicious there.

The coffee, Boys, was bosker, the gay Parisien
Never sipped a better cup than now was set before the men
I sighed and lo the scene was changed. It was the midday meal
I saw the slow procession pass it made my senses reel.

The soup I saw was good and clear the fish was nicely done
The entrees next and then the joints they passed me one by one
We washed it down with sparkling ale in which was lumps of ice
The while we waited for the sweets so dainty and so nice.

And then dessert to finish off. Oh no you needn’t smile
Although we go to fight you know we still must live in style
I thought I was at home again or staying at the Grand
Or other noted hostelry somewhere on the land.

Then I awoke, it was a dream, I felt now all unnerved
I stood within the dining hall ‘for Officers’ reserved
I fled along the corridor and quickly came in view
Of our saloon where floated up the smell of Irish stew.

I looked down o’er the railings no change had taken place
I saw the same disgusted look on every upturned face
I saw the same old rusty knives and also – this is true –
The taters with their jackets on just thrown into the stew.

The coffee I could swear the cooks had washed the dishes in
But what’s the use of growling, we know we’re taken in
We have some little grievances we’d like to ventilate
Before the Rajah of the ship at some convenient date.

We all came here to do our best and want to play the game
And so we shall if the Officers will kindly do the same.