War — the cost of war — seems worth consideration on the occasion of Memorial Day 2010. Perhaps you have seen the movie Brothers. It will be in the same spirit, I hope, that I reflect a bit on the cost that any war brings, however necessary it might be. I will do this by quoting two poems and directing you to some wonderful music using poetry as text.
World War I, “a war to end all wars” according to President Woodrow Wilson, generated lots of verse. British poets, in particular, found the pity in wartime, and as Wilfred Owen wrote, “the poetry is in the pity.” Owen fought and wrote about fighting, as in a letter to his mother just after his arrival in France:
“I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.
I have not been at the front.
I have been in front of it.”
The 25 year-old Owen was to die in battle just one week before the armistice on November 11, 1918.
When Benjamin Britten, the pacifist English composer, was commissioned to write music in honor of the reconsecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (which had been destroyed in World War II), it was Owen’s World War I poetry and the Latin Mass for the Dead to which he turned. The piece, for large orchestra (with the addition of a chamber orchestra), three vocal soloists, and chorus, alternately rages against and laments the ravages of wartime.
The War Requiem ends with the Owen poem Strange Meeting, sung at the première by an English tenor and a German baritone, no coincidence as England and Germany fought against each other in both World Wars.
In this poem (excerpted below), the narrator finds himself in the bomb shelter and sleeping quarters below the trenches of the enemy, “down some profound dull tunnel,” as part of a night raid where he encounters dead and dying soldiers. There, he and his enemy recognize their shared human bond:
…Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell
“Strange friend, ” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said the other, “save the undone years, the hopelessness.
Whatever hope is yours, was my life also…
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled…
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now…”
The English language changed because of World War I. Phrases and references to the word “trench” became part of common parlance, as in the phrase “in the trenches” which still refers to working at a hard, grinding task; and even the phrase “trench foot,” which led back to a type of frost bite common in the muddy, cold, wet, and verminous condition of those dark places inhabited by the warriors.
Or, how about “trench fever,” a bacterial infection associated with the lice that bred there. The expression “No Man’s Land,” plays back to the space between the trenches — between you and the enemy trench — which could be a few hundred yards. It was the place belonging to “no man” or side in the conflict, and it was the place where no man could easily survive. So too, when one army decided to launch an attack on the other, they had to go “over the top” of the trench and into hostile fire.
But it was to a much earlier use of the trench in warfare that the poet Patrick Shaw-Stewart would refer.
Patrick Shaw-Stewart was born on 17 August 1888 in Wales, and fought as part of the British Expeditionary Force at Gallipoli on the Chersonese peninsula during World War I, not far from the site of the Trojan War.
Gallipoli was a disaster for the British. Shaw-Stewart was on three days leave from the front on the island of Imbros when he wrote the untitled poem that follows. It refers to the Trojan War as represented in The Iliad, so a little background is required to better understand it.
The war began soon after the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but the wife of one of the Greek kings (Menelaus). The Greeks organized their own expeditionary force and followed Helen to Troy so they might retrieve her.
Many years into the conflict, Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, stopped fighting because the leader of the Greeks (Agamemnon) had taken away Achilles’ concubine. Achilles’ rage and his decision not to fight is called “The Wrath of Achilles.” In addition, Achilles knew if he returned to battle he would not survive the war. Despite this, he resumed the fight and turned its tide, with the goddess Athena beside him, both shouting in a trumpet-like, horror-inducing scream to make the Trojans flee.
Achilles and Athena stood at the ditch in front of the wall built by the Greeks to protect their ships. Achilles’ head was surrounded by an aura of flame created by the goddess (to which the poet refers in the heart breaking last stanza), so better to terrify the Trojans, who panicked and ran away.
Shaw-Stewart tells his own Illiad-like war story from the standpoint of his temporary leave from fighting:
I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.
Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles ;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells
But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.
O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?
Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese :
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.
Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not-
So much the happier I.
I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.
Much like Achilles, Patrick Shaw-Stewart survived the Gallipoli campaign, but not the war.
He was 29 at the time of his death.