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August 2015

War Poetry

As summer winds down, our thoughts in the PPU offices turn inexorably towards November. Poppy season, Remembrance, the Cenotaph. This year it’s started a little early for me, as a question from a volunteer about Conscientious Objector poets pointed me towards one that doesn’t figure in many anthologies - Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries”:

It is a God-damned lie to say that these
Saved, or knew, anything worth any man’s pride.
They were professional murderers and they took
Their blood money and their impious risks and died.
In spite of all their kind some elements of worth
With difficulty persist here and there on earth

MacDiarmid, a communist, Scottish Nationalist and well known writer, wrote “Another Epitaph” in 1935. It’s not an anti-war poem so much as an anti-soldier poem, lambasting the BEF as mercenaries fighting willingly for the capitalist state in exchange for their “blood money”. It’s a rarity as far as war poetry goes, or as far as any anti-war message goes, and an uncomfortable one, the staccato bark of “God-damned lie” and “blood money and impious risks and died”, let alone the scorn heaped with “in spite of all their kind”. It’s a far cry even from the better known anti-war poetry of Sassoon and Rosenberg, with soldiers as victims of overwhelming forces beyond their - but not their commander’s - control.

What made me think about November though wasn’t MacDiarmid’s poem itself, but more the idea of which contemporary voices are “acceptable” as “our” First World War poets. Thousands of schoolchildren every year are taught Brooke and Sassoon and Owen (and not enough Rosenberg for my liking), and politicians and militarists alike can usually be relied upon to trot out the reliable verses on the pity of war (“What passing bells for those who die as cattle?”), but few will learn “Another epitaph”. Which poems would rarely grace textbooks and the ceremonies at the Cenotaph, not because they speak of an end to the war, but because they speak of an end to all war, and an end to state-sponsored remembrance?

McCrae’s In Flanders Fields suits the mood perfectly, a sombre reflection on sacrifice that ends with a quick recruitment drive (“take up our quarrel with the foe”), while Brooke’s famous “corner of a foreign field” speaks of the peace of death with less sorrow than another of his beautiful poems, “The Dead”, but rather more than “Peace” (“and the worst friend and enemy is but death”).

But what of Sorley’s “When you see millions...”? As the First World War fades ever further into history, out myths become ever more indistinct and homogeneous. The last veterans are now half a decade gone, and national memory will slowly blur those who fought and died into a single image, the long-suffering Tommy whistling “It’s a long way to Tipperary” as he marches off into the shroud of history. “Great Death has made all his for evermore”. So with the passage of time, does Sorley become more and more appropriate for how we remember the war?

A moving, formal sonnet that deals directly with memory, pierces through platitudes about the pity of war and the peace of death - and more appropriate than any to be read when we think of Remembrance. It’s a beautiful poem, but come November, it will not echo out over the serried ranks of the great and the powerful assembled “to remember”.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Ben Copsey

More poetry and war