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It is a God-damned lie to say that these
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”.