Tag Archives: poem

‘Autumn’ by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as from far,
As if far gardens in the skies were dying;
They fall, and never seem to be denying.

And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,
Into a starless solitude must fall.
We all are falling.

My own hand no less
Than all things else; behold, it is in all.
Yet there is One who, utter gentleness,

Holds all this falling in
His hands to bless.

Below is the original German text for those of you who can understand it, and for those of you (like me) who can’t, but who would like to read it to catch a glimmer of Rilke’s original music.

Herbst


Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere
Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir allen fallen.

Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist einer, welcher dieses

Fallen
undendlich sanft
in seinen Händen hält.

This poem is full of such beautiful, melancholic and autumnal images. I particularly love the line in the first verse, “As if far gardens in the skies were dying”. This image strikes me as so uniquely brilliant, and makes me eager to read more of Rilke’s work.

Autumn, uses the notion of “falling” throughout, mirroring, of course, the falling of the leaves and the dying of the year. The season of Autumn is often attached to a state or tone of melancholy, as it inevitably reminds us of the the seasons of our own lives winding down. This notion is expressed in a line so memorable here that I am sure I will be unable to forget it: “And in the night the earth, a heavy ball,/ Into a starless solitude must fall.” The idea of the earth being a heavy ball promotes the feeling that none of us are immune to the melancholy of the passing of time, and the “starless solitude” is just a perfect coupling to create a vision of the bleakness of the state of mind being described.

In his final lines, Rilke introduces hope to the poem – religious hope: “Yet there is One who… holds all this falling in his hands to bless.”

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ by Guillaume Apollinaire

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu’il m’en souvienne
La joie venait toujours après la peine.

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Les mains dans les mains restons face à face
Tandis que sous
Le pont de nos bras passe
Des éternels regards l’onde si lasse

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

L’amour s’en va comme cette eau courante
L’amour s’en va
Comme la vie est lente
Et comme l’Espérance est violente

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

Passent les jours et passent les semaines
Ni temps passé
Ni les amours reviennent
Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine

Vienne la nuit sonne l’heure
Les jours s’en vont je demeure

 

Here is my translation:

Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
And our love
It must remind me
That joy always comes after pain.

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Hand in hand let us stay face to face
Whilst
Under the bridge of our arms race
Eternal gazes, the weary waves

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

Love goes by like this flowing water
Love goes by
How life is slow
And how Hope is rough

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

The days and weeks pass
Neither time past
Nor love returns
Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

Cometh the night and soundeth the hour
The days go by yet I remain

This poem has been chiming in my head like a song on repeat for the past few weeks. I live near the Pont Mirabeau, and had read this poem a long time ago, but it had never really meant much to me. However, crossing the bridge the other day I noticed that there is a plaque with the first verse and refrain of this poem inscribed on it. I noticed how the music of the rhyme of the refrain reflects the magic, hypnotic banality of the river’s slow movement, and so I dug up the poem as soon as I got home.

I have tried to translate it as faithfully as possible, but found it difficult to recreate the music and rhyme of the French… For me, Le Pont Mirabeau makes me think about the unending torrents of people that flow through Paris every day. I often think about this, especially when I see old footage of horses and carriages, or men in tailcoats and top hats walking along the Rue de Rivoli or admiring the construction of the Eiffel Tower. The city hardly changes at all, but the people – so flimsy and fragile – live out there lives and loves here, die, and are then replaced by other lives and stories that begin and end. It’s like the water under the solid, seemingly unmovable Mirabeau Bridge.

There is certainly a sadness to the poem, and in the idea of love and time flowing past, as unretreivable as the river flowing under the bridge. But I also find something consoling in the resolute solidity of the bridge, which ‘remains” despite the days going by. Though life (and perhaps love) is transitory, there is still art – what we create and leave behind us – which is immortal. To my mind, the bridge in this poem represents the poem, the painting, the symphony, the building, the city – which man creates as a flag to his experience.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The Scholars’ by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

This poem from The Wild Swans at Coole means a great deal to me because it reminds us that poetry is an Art and a passion before it is anything else. In this piece, Yeats evokes the blinkered academic, furiously analysing – “edit[ing] and annotat[ing]” – the dry pages of tomes full of poetry that was “Rhymed out in love’s despair” by “Young men, tossing in their beds.” The Scholars is a spot-on, well-aimed jab at literary critics, but also a very pertinent comment on the nature of poetry.

I love the contrast between the bald heads – those “Old, learned, respectable bald heads” – and the young poets rhyming out “in love’s despair”. Notice how the scholars don’t seem to have bodies; they’re just heads. The “young men” are living their lives, and experiencing every moment of it intensely. Their writing is what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The way the scholars are described as annotating and editing suggests they manipulate the verse to fit their purpose (which critics often do).

“All shuffle… all cough in ink”, Yeats tells us. The shuffling certainly amplifies this idea of quiet living – blinkered living – and the coughing brings to my mind a person that almost ignores the needs of his body because he is so deeply buried in his books. “All think what other people think”; these scholars seem to be dictated to by tradition, and pressure about what is the ‘right’ literature to venerate.

When we come to the end of the piece, Yeats poses us a question: “Lord, what would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?” I like this very neat ending. If Catullus (a Roman poet, known for his love poems) had been as dry, as hermit-like, and as studious as Yeats’ scholars, what on earth would his poetry have been like? Without experience – without a life – without at least some kind of passion – a poet is nothing, because it is in moments of intense emotion that poems are ‘born’, even if they are completed and polished in a calmer state (or “in tranquility” to quote Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads again).

As you can probably tell from this blog, I kind of like literary criticism. I love to read about writers and their techniques; I love to take a poem and really get to grips with it and work out how and why it’s such a marvel because I love poetry. But The Scholars reminds us that the greatest literary theorist cannot necessarily write a poem, and the greatest poets need not by any means be academics. On the contrary; the poet is an artist. Yeats certainly was.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Morning Song’ by Sylvia Plath

Love set you going like a fat gold watch.
The midwife slapped your footsoles, and your bald cry
Took its place among the elements.

Our voices echo, magnifying your arrival. New statue.
In a drafty museum, your nakedness
Shadows our safety. We stand round blankly as walls.

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and swallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

Here I am, writing about Sylvia Plath again. Every time I return to her ‘Ariel’ poems, I am newly astounded; the poems are so unique, challenging and rewarding. ‘Morning Song’ is the first poem in that collection, and describes a mother waking in the night to tend to her crying baby. As a mother of two, Plath is surely writing about her own child, her own experience.

The opening line is killer: “Love set you going like a fat gold watch.” From the outset, it is clear that Time is to be a prominent theme here. Plath likens her child’s birth to the winding of a watch. The implication here is of course that the watch must eventually wind down, stop; her child will ultimately die. There is a strong awareness throughout the poem that this baby is on its own life course – that it occupies Time in a space separate from the mother. Plath recognises this in the second verse as she describes the child as a “New/ statue./ In a drafty museum”. A new statue that will receive its own stains, chips and cracks. Mother, father and midwife become mere “walls”, eclipsed by the new life that has just become the most important thing in the world.

Plath develops this notion of separation in the third, magisterial stanza: “I’m no more your mother/ Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own/ Slow effacement at the wind’s hand”.  What a statement; this is Plath at her enigmatic, economical finest. The poet is poignantly aware that her child is a separate entity, and she sees her own mortality reflected in that life.

I love the description in the fifth verse of the mother stumbling from bed at the baby’s cry, “cow-heavy and floral/ In my Victorian nightgown”. Her description of herself here is decidedly unglamorous, dowdy and functional – the sole purpose of her existence now being to nurture and preserve the child. I do not want to dwell on the idea too much, but I cannot help but notice an apparent parallel between her child and her poems, in the sense of one’s creation becoming an independent entity with its own agenda. Plath describes her approach to motherhood in much the same way as she seems to have approached her vocation as a poet. Sylvia Plath famously used to write in the very early hours of the morning, before dawn, while her children were asleep. Her self-sacrificing dedication to her craft was quite ‘motherly’ of her, and the poems are (aren’t they?) mysteriously out of a poet’s control once they are written, and seem to have their own life force…

The final lines of the poem are just perfect, and neatly conclude the poem with a sense that the child is beginning its own, separate journey of life. It tries its “handful of notes”, the “clear vowels” rising “like balloons”. This is a clear acknowledgement that the child has its own independent voice, will tell its own story and build its own future. Plath, the mother, is helpless to control that voice or that life. It is not within her power to censor it.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Why Do I Love” You, Sir?’ by Emily Dickinson

“Why do I love” You, Sir?
Because—
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.

Because He knows—and
Do not You—
And We know not—
Enough for Us
The Wisdom it be so—

The Lightning—never asked an Eye
Wherefore it shut—when He was by—
Because He knows it cannot speak—
And reasons not contained—
—Of Talk—
There be—preferred by Daintier Folk—

The Sunrise—Sire—compelleth Me—
Because He’s Sunrise—and I see—
Therefore—Then—
I love Thee—

This breathtakingly unique and original poem by Emily Dickinson expresses the notion that love cannot be explained (and cannot, must not be justified) by reason or logic. Dickinson was an incredibly innovative poet, ahead of her time; although she lived in the 1800s, the way she writes often reminds me of 20th century poet E.E. Cummings. This piece is a perfect example of that. Notice the way she uses syntax, and punctuation; the characteristic hyphens; all of this breathes uncommon ease and freedom of language.

I adore the opening stanza of this poem. The speech marks indicate the poet is responding to a question: “”Why do I love” You, Sir?” and then that touching, self-contained, almost childish answer: “Because”. A concrete answer is never given, though the simple “Because” is illustrated with examples taken from nature. For example, the wind does not ask the grass for an explanation when it “cannot keep her place” as he blows. “Because he knows”, says Dickinson — again, enigmatically. He knows, presumably, that the grass has no choice but to move as it is moved by the wind.

Another example given is that of the lightning, which “never asked an Eye/ Wherefore it shut – when he was by”. Because he knows the eye cannot speak. And in any case, the reason is “not contained of -/ – of Talk – “. There is no explanation that can be put into words for such a phenomenon.

I find the last verse very touching as the poet employs a final example to illustrate her love. “The Sunrise”, she tells us, wakes her “Because he’s Sunrise”. She is woken by the light, because it is light – because it is itself. “Therefore, then -/ I love Thee”. What a beautiful, simple expression of something that is beyond us.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘London’ by William Blake

I wandered through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
A mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear:How the chimney-sweeper’s cry
Every blackening church appals,
And the hapless soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down palace-walls.But most, through midnight streets I hear
How the youthful harlot’s curse
Blasts the new-born infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the marriage-hearse.
I quoted this poem in my last post about Auden’s Their Lonely Betters, so I thought I would write about the whole piece. The phrase “mind-forged manacles” is one that I’ve never forgotten since I first read it. I think it must be inspired by Rousseau’s statement, “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains”. It expresses beautifully the idea that it is man’s own mind that limits and emprisons him.
This poem describes the London that Blake (1757-1827) knew when he was alive. However, there is a timeless and universal truth to it. Blake begins by describing the “charter’d streets” and the “charter’d Thames”. That word “charter’d” gives a sense that everything is mapped out; that every stone is named and accounted for; that there is no room for mystery in the world anymore. This reminds me of Keats’ famous “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings, unweave a rainbow”.
The tragedy of poverty, the hypocrisy of the Church and the injustice of the class system are all present in this poem. They are dissatisfactions that lead to revolution. The poet describes the chimney sweeper’s cry ‘appalling’ the Church, and this really gives us a sense that Blake perceived a jarring incompatibility between what the Church preached and how it treated the many impoverished of the city. The “hapless Soldier”‘s blood running down Palace walls also amplifies the notion of injustice…
Most noticeable, according to Blake, is the “Harlot’s curse” blighting “with plagues the Marriage hearse”. This is really interesting to me, because the poet seems to consider society’s conventions surrounding Love as the most obvious contributors to human sorrow. It is true that Victorian mores really corseted women in particular with regard to marriage and having children. To call marriage a “hearse” is very extreme, and very dramatically effective, I think.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Their Lonely Betters’ by W.H. Auden

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Their Lonely Betters embodies everything I love about Auden’s work; it employs a traditional, rhyming form, but loses none of its poetic ease or beauty. For me, this shows the real mastery of Auden as a poet; nothing is ever forced, with his writing. He sweeps calmly and majestically through these four verses, ending on a neat and poignant final line that leaves you desperate to read the whole thing again.

The poem explores the differences between ‘natural’ beings in the garden – the “vegetables and birds” – and humans with all their artifice. I love the unassuming, understated opening. Auden expresses his feeling that words should be “withheld” from the creatures in his garden. It is as though he does not want to contaminate the innocence of nature with the ‘man-forged manacles‘ of language. He mentions the robin “with no Christian name”, singing its “Robin-Anthem which was all it knew”. This line reminded me of Mary Oliver’s The Kingfisher. In that poem, Oliver talks about the bird’s “rough and easy cry/ I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body if my life depended on it”. It is the sound of pure instinct – the essence of life un-muddled by thought.

The mention of the birds mating, and how simple it is without the sometimes deceitful mask of language, adds a tint of bitterness to this poem. Auden’s love-life was rather rocky, and I get a sense of real pain in his expression of how language and its inclination for telling lies confuses natural instincts in this poem. We are forever questioning and imagining and longing for other places, other people; we are never content. Of course, this can be both a blessing and a curse.

In the third verse, Auden reminds us that not one of the birds in his garden is “capable of lying” or knows that it is “dying”. They have no awareness of their mortality, and they do not tell lies. Is there a link between these two facts? Do we lie – do we write fiction – because we know that we are dying? I am certain our impulse for storytelling comes partly from our awareness of death; we want to pass on memories, make sense of our lives and distract ourselves from reality. As Auden says, none of those birds could “with a rhythm or a rhyme” assume “responsibility for time”. I just love those two lines. I love the idea of poetry being an act of assuming responsibility for time. For that is, in a sense, what we do when we write poetry — we are playing God.

As we enter the final stanza, Auden says “Let them leave language to their lonely betters”. This sums up the whole poem, for me. The birds will keep their happy innocence, and their “lonely betters” – that’s us – will remain lonely, with our language – our craft of lying. Language – source of so much beauty and delight – makes us superior in so many ways to non-speaking animals. But it also complicates our lives intensely. It is through language that we betray and lie to each other; it is through language that misunderstandings arise and promises are broken. Perhaps this is because language is ultimately inadequate for expressing what we really mean.

The last two lines are unforgettable. The noises that we make when we “laugh or weep” are natural expressions of untempered emotion – they are the sounds we make when words fail us. When grief is too great, we weep, having no words to describe our pain. When we are in hysterics, we laugh, and for a moment we are relieved of thought. “Words are for those with promises to keep”. Auden ends the piece with a lovely rhyme, remarking that we need language because we communicate; we make promises; we bargain and negotiate with each other. Animals do not do this. This ending for me has a positive tint to it; it makes me feel like although language allows us to lie, and although we often break our promises and betray each other, I would rather the promises were made and the lies told, than for nothing to be said (or written) at all.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘The More Loving One’ by W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us, we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.

I’ve been a little obsessed with Auden lately (even if I haven’t been writing blog posts about poetry, I’ve still been reading!)

This piece is one of my favourites. It’s so unusual, touching, and deals with something that Auden experienced very painfully in his own life – unrequited love. In The More Loving One, Auden develops a beautiful metaphor of the stars as people, or lovers. I also feel that this poem might be about religious faith, which Auden struggled with throughout his life – abandoning it through many of his younger years, and returning to it in old age.

I particularly love the opening to this poem. I love the way that the first line could easily lead on to a cliched second line, but that it doesn’t. Instead, Auden, contemplating the stars, affirms that – for all they care – “I can go to hell”. I love that blunt phrasing. He goes on to remark that indifference is not the worst thing in the world; there exist reactions we ought to fear far more.

The second verse poses the question, “how would we like it” if the stars burned with a love for us that we couldn’t reciprocate? What would it be like to be loved so intensely by someone we could not love? Which side is more painful in unrequited love? Auden tells us his choice through what I think are the ‘star lines’ of the poem: If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me. I wonder whether Auden choses to be “the more loving one” because it is the less painful option, or because he cannot bear for the one he loves to suffer as he does.

Of course, if you read this as a poem about religious faith, this second verse suggests that Auden would rather keep his faith and love for God, even if it is completely in vain. Even if heaven doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, he would still prefer to be the ardent lover – the one that feels, rather than the one that is cold.

As much as he admires “stars that do not give a damn”, the poet tells us in the penultimate stanza, he can’t say that he missed one all day. During the daytime there is the sun, and all of nature to admire and love. In romantic terms, I think Auden is trying to convince himself (not very successfully) that there are ‘plenty more fish in the sea’. In religious terms, I think he’s just saying that it’s easy for him to forget God during the times when he is happy or involved.

The final verse contemplates a scenario where all the stars have disappeared or died. Faced with this eventuality, Auden informs us that he would “learn to look at an empty sky/ And feel its total dark sublime”. However, that “might take me a little time.” Auden seems unsure whether he could learn to appreciate a life without the one he loves so much, yet who does not return his love. It would take time, and much effort. The same goes for a world without God.

As always with Auden, this poem is a masterful exploration of ideas that can and will be read in many different ways. He gifts us an emotional honesty that I find incredibly touching.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Still I Rise’ by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

This is probably Maya Angelou’s best-known poem, and for good reason. It is a wonderfully defiant, human, uplifting cry from the deep heart of America, which tells a story that I’m sure speaks to us all.

The poem roots itself in the history of the African-American people, with it’s talk of slavery, and that gorgeous image of the “black ocean, leaping and wide” — such a powerful metaphor for overcoming oppression. But the poem’s scope is not limited to one people; it speaks of the universal notion of the defiance of the downtrodden. Angelou’s voice is resounding and sensually rhythmic, and carries so beautifully her message of strength and positivity.

Still I rise contains so many images that I love. In the first stanza, Angelou writes that although she may be trod into the very dirt, she will still rise like dust (“like dust, I’ll rise”). This idea, coupled with the soulful rhythm, creates a palpable atmosphere of unstoppable defiance. The dust rising, for me, delivers the image of a ghost — perhaps even the ghosts of slaves — that no oppressor or murderer can escape.

The recurring questions in the piece are brilliantly provocative: “Does my sassiness upset you?” “Does my haughtiness offend you?” and “Does my sexiness offend you?” she asks. I love this. It seems to overcome sexism and the oppression of women in particular. This is something that Maya Angelou overcame in her own life, and she speaks with such inspiring strength here. Another phrase that gives a great symbol bash to all of that is “Does it come as a surprise/ That I dance/ Like I’ve got diamonds/ At the meeting of my thighs?” This gives me goosebumps every time I read it. By specifically talking about the “meeting of [her] thighs” Angelou gives the ultimate defiance of a woman; she owns and loves every part of herself, and rises up, dazzling and sexy.

Another couple of images I love, and that I want to talk about, are the “oil wells” and the “gold mines” mentioned in the second and fifth stanzas. The poet writes that she walks “like I’ve got oil wells/ Pumping in my living room” and that she laughs “like I’ve got gold mines/ Diggin’ in my own back yard”. Again, her defiance is brilliant. Though her oppressors might think they have ended her by subjecting her to poverty, still, she walks like she has all the wealth in the world. I love the tone, here. It’s as though she knows her oppressors are so materialistic and mercenary, that the only way they can describe her joy and sexiness is to say she looks like she has a lot of money. The images of the oil wells “pumping” and the gold mines “Diggin’” are so strongly evocative; I just love it.

Here is a video of Maya Angelou reading Still I Rise. She has the most incredible voice and presence.

And here is another video I found on Youtube that I just had to share. This is Maya Angelou’s talking about how “love liberates”. I think she’s such an amazing and inspiring human being!

Read Also:

Biography of Maya Angelou

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh

‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ (Wilfred Owen)

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.

Sticking with the Remembrance Day theme, here is (probably!) the best war poem ever written.

Dulce et Decorum Est is a Latin phrase taken form an ode by Horace, and it means “It is sweet and honourable to die for your country.” Of course, in Owen’s poem the title is used ironically, and goes against all that Charge of the Light-Brigade kind of rhetoric that was so prevalent before the First World War.

This poem absolutely floored me the first time I read it as a teenager. I had never really thought about war in this way — on a personal, human level. I almost don’t know what to say about it; the imagery is so graphic and shocking – and so strangely beautiful in its immense power – that it leaves me rather speechless.

As Owen said himself, “My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”

I admire Owen so much, both for his courage as a man and soldier, and for his poetic genius. The more I’ve read about him over the years, the more I feel very connected to him. He spent time just before the war teaching English in France, near Bordeaux, and he was also determined from a young age to be a poet. He was very taken with Keats, and Romantic poetry, and it took much persuasion from his literary hero and mentor Siegfried Sassoon to get him to write about the war (the two met at Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland where Owen was being treated for shell-shock.)

Wilfred Owen wrote this poem while still at Craiglockhart. In the original manuscript, the poem was dedicated to “Jessie Pope, etc”. Jessie Pope wrote a lot of poetry full of propaganda to encourage men to enlist. Her poems are pretty boring, tame and infuriating creatures, with such nauseating lines as, “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/ Than lie low and be out of the fun?” I think Dulce Et Decorum Est very firmly slams a door on that kind of nonsense.

There is something incredibly touching to me about this young man — so earnest and determined to be a poet like Keats — being so utterly transformed by his experience of trench warfare, that through the trauma he finds his voice. And what a voice! He has really become the poet of the Great War, and I think it’s so tragic that he never knew the extent to which his poetry would be read and loved after his death in 1918.

This poem is as relevant today as it was in 1918. War has not changed, in its essence, and the gas attack described in this poem is certainly not a bygone phenomenon.

Owen wrote many very moving (and surprisingly detailed) letters to his mother from the trenches of northern France. I will end this post with an extract from one, written from a cold, dark cellar, just days before Wilfred Owen was killed:

Dearest Mother,So thick is the smoke in this cellar that I can hardly see by a candle 12 inches away. And so thick are the inmates that I can hardly write for pokes, nudges, and jolts. On my left, the company commander snores on a bench. It is a great life. I am more oblivious than the less, dear mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. I hope you are as warm as I am, soothed in your room as I am here. I am certain you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here. There is no danger down here – or if any, it will be well over before you read these lines.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh