Sunday, November 11, 2007

By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.

It's 11/11, Armistice Day, or Veterans' Day, depending on your sense of history. So I present you with a poem by WWI soldier Wilfred Owens. To some, Dulce et Decormum Est is an old saw, something we studied in school. Personally, I've never been able to escape the hard imagery of the poem, the haunting despair, the vivid sense of the narrator's exhaustion, terror, endurance, and humanity in the face of the overwhelming.

Writing is memory, and there are something we need to remember, even if it's on a single day out of the year. World War One was an colossal, senseless mess in which some nineteen million soldiers were sent to their deaths for little or no gain, and perhaps ten million more civilians died. As an event, it overshadows the rest of the twentieth century. The Second World War and the Cold War, the two great conflicts that dominated world politics for the latter half of the twentieth century, both have their roots directly in the Great War.

Not that the author, Wilfred Owen can tell us this himself. He was killed a week before the war ended. It is said his mother received word just as the church bells rang out to celebrate the Armistice. Many poets died in the Great War, just as I must assume great politicians, scientists, surgeons, and inventors did. But we'll never know, because they died young.

On this Armistice Day, I reflect that should be more careful with peoples' lives.

Dulce et Decormum 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


Ray M. Solberg said...

I adore this.

Did you know my dad served in the Korean Conflict? Was very closed lipped about the whole thing but I know the experience changed him.

John Goodrich said...

I didn't know that. The Queen of Science's father also served in Korea. I think knowing all these fathers who had served really put a human face on military service for me.