Lest we forget.
The first World War produced remarkable poetry. In earlier times, war poetry tended to valourise war. Not so between 1914-1918.
The lacerating poetry of the First World War showed just how powerfully the truth can be told. Wilfred Owen in particular, and his mentor Siegfried Sassoon, showed how poetry can strip away the protective layers of delusion which protect us from the truth of what we do.
Good poetry sees the world in ways which are invisible to most of us – until we read the poems. By doing that, it can smuggle uncomfortable ideas into complacent minds.
Wilfred Owen died just a week before the Armistice. Only four of his poems had been published. In 1937, Siegfried Sassoon persuaded a publisher to publish a book of Owen’s poetry. Two years later the second World War started. It was a predictable consequence of the Treaty of Versailles: the Treaty had impoverished Germany; the misery experienced in Germany made it possible for Hitler to take power in 1933; Hitler made himself popular by blaming all of Germany’s problems on the Jews and he poisoned the public attitude to Jews by vilifying them grotesquely.
Something similar is happening across the Western world today: Muslims are the target these days. Muslims are being vilified by people who should know better. One person emails me regularly with anti-Islamic rants. In one email he contrasts the Christian teaching “Love thy neighbour” with his assertion that the Koran preaches violence and hatred. Apparently he thinks that Muslims are not our “neighbour”, despite Christian teaching.
He has even urged that Australia should create concentration camps and put all Muslims in them; and he has suggested strafing refugees in their boats. It is the thinking of a person who has forgotten. He has forgotten not only the core teaching of the Christian religion which he appears to espouse. He has forgotten where hatred and vilification lead to.
Lest we forget, as that person has forgotten.
Here are a couple of Wilfred Owen’s poems.
Dulce Et Decorum Est
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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 flound’ring 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.
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.