20TH CENTURY POETRY AND WAR
PART 5: The Nuclear Age

 
     
     

 

 

 

CONTENTS
Introduction
  the first world war
  the 1930s
  the second world war
  crimes against humanity
  the nuclear age
August 6, 1945  GO
Apocalypse 
Your Attention Please  GO
Talk in the Dark  GO
  other wars
  responsibility
  women's voices

Apocalypse by D J Enright

From a Berlin tourist brochure:
'After the New Apocalypse, very few members were still in possession of their instruments. Hardly a musician could call a decent suit his own. Yet, by the early summer of 1945, strains of sweet music floated on the air again. While the town still reeked of smoke, charred buildings and the stench of corpses, the Philharmonic Orchestra bestowed the everlasting and imperishable joy which music never fails to give.'

It soothes the savage doubts.
One Bach outweighs ten Belsens. If 200,000 people
Were remaindered at Hiroshima, the sales of So-and-So's
New novel reached a higher figure in as short a time.
So, imperishable paintings reappeared:
Texts were reprinted:
Public buildings reconstructed:
Human beings reproduced.

After the Newer Apocalypse, very few members
Were still in possession of their instruments
(Very few were still in possession of their members),
And their suits were chiefly indecent.
Yet, while the town still reeked of smoke, etc,
The Philharmonic Trio bestowed, etc.

A civilisation vindicated,
A race with three legs still to stand on!
True, the violin was shortly silenced by leukaemia,
And the pianoforte crumbled softly into dust.
But the flute was left. And one is enough.
All, in a sense, goes on. All is in order.

And the ten-tongued mammoth larks,
The forty-foot crickets and the elephantine frogs
Decided that the little chap was harmless,
At least he made no noise, on the bank of whatever river
it used to be.

One day, a reed-warbler stepped on him by accident.
However, all, in a sense, goes on. Still the everlasting
and imperishable joy
Which music never fails to give is being given.



   

INFORMATION

   


'Apocalypse': a vision of the end of the world (the word literally means 'uncovering' or 'revelation'). For centuries the word was used to refer to the Christian idea of the 'last judgement', described in the New Testament book called 'Revelation'. But in the 20th century it also came to be used to refer to the horrors of war.
'It soothes the savage doubts': a play on a famous quotation by a 17th century English playwright - 'Music has charms to soothe a savage breast'.
'After the New Apocalypse' : the brochure refers to the condition of Germany's capital, Berlin, after the Second World War. The famous Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra resumed its concerts almost at once.
'Bach': Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750),one of Germany's most famous composers
'Belsen': a concentration camp in western Germany, one of the first to be liberated by Allied troops in the spring of 1945
'the Newer Apocalypse': the devastation of the world by nuclear bombs
'possession of their members': many had lost limbs
'suits...indecent': no clothes at all
'Trio': a group of three musicians playing music together (here, the rest of the orchestra had been killed)
'larks', 'crickets', 'frogs'; 'reed-warbler': the poet has deliberately chosen creatures which are known for their sounds
'on the bank of whatever river': the Berlin Philharmonic had given concerts near Berlin's river Spree (pronounced 'spray')

   

HISTORY

   


The 1940 Frisch-Peierls memorandum (see introduction to this section) 'on the construction of a super-bomb' very quickly became top-secret, and few copies were made. As a result, another section of it went largely unread: 'In addition, some part of the energy set free by the bomb goes to produce radioactive substances, and these will emit very powerful and dangerous radiations.'

People already knew enough about radioactivity to understand that its effects were dangerous. Science fiction writers had already begun imagining the kind of effects it could have, creating mutations in humans and animals. America's nuclear attacks on Japan revealed something of what radiation would do.

The uranium bomb which devastated Hiroshima on August 6 1945 was not the only nuclear bomb. On August 9, a US bomber aircraft dropped a plutonium bomb (nicknamed 'Fat Man') on Nagasaki, thus exposing a second community to several kinds of death, some of them slow.

Fears of genetic malformation were justified. Children of surviving pregnant mothers exposed to radiation were noticeably affected. Some were unusually small at birth. Almost all have had one or more disorders of eyesight, brain, liver or lungs. As for their parents, many developed leukaemia and other cancers.

The Hiroshima death-toll reached 190,000 in the 1990s. There are still 'hibakusha' (maimed survivors), who are still suffering. Many hibakusha have also had to endure being outcasts of society: employers haven't wanted workers who were sick, and non-hibakusha men and women have avoided relationships with them for fear of catching disease or bearing malformed children. The effects of war are very long-term.

   

IDEAS

 

 

 


Dark humour, satire, word-play: using such devices, the poet denounces the dreadful results of war and the use of new and more terrible weapons. He is inspired, or rather provoked, by a crass paragraph in a tourist leaflet. What has enraged him is not the reference to the orchestra and its valiant efforts to resume normal service, but the assumption that the barbaric horrors of war can be compensated for by the civilised sounds of music, or indeed by anything at all.

Because of the poet's 'tone of voice', we can't be convinced that he is comforted by the activities that resumed after the war. Why isn't he? Because no amount of reconstruction replaces what has been destroyed? Or, as the rest of the poem suggests, because almost immediately after the war hugely destructive atom bombs were dropped? What sticks in the poet's throat is that 'civilised' activities - music, painting, writing - seem to be thought more important than people. Despite the stench of corpses, the orchestra plays beautiful music - 'so that's all right, then,' the tourist brochure seems to say.

The poet writes his own bitter sci-fi story - has his own 'revelation' - of the future human beings are on their way to create. At the end of it, there are no humans left. Still, the sounds of gigantic birds, insects, frogs continue: a sort of music. 'So that's all right, then,' the poet seems to say, but with savage irony.

Is this poem an attack on civilisation? Only in the sense that it's about an attack on it. Civilisation is nothing without the people who create it and respond to it. And civilisation is always a victim of the barbaric practices of war.

 
            
     

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