Thursday, May 8, 2008

War! Hunh! What Is It Good For?

Dear All:

Yesterday, I mentioned how a generation of young Brits went off to World War I with the noble words of Horace ringing in their ears: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. You have no idea how upbeat those guys were. They went in thinking it would be fun.

That belief didn’t last long.

Wilfred Owen expressed the bitterness many felt, their belief that they had been lied to and betrayed, in the following poem:

Dulce Et Decorum Est
by 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 disappointed shells 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 floundering 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.

Wow! What a malcontent! This guy just was not a team player. And yet many people consider him to be the finest “war poet” ever. Why? Well, because he knew whereof he wrote. Owen was a soldier in the British Army. He went off to WWI and, along with 3, 076, 387 of his mates, never returned. He died for his country. But not before he let it be known that he (and all the rest) would rather not have.

All best,


Ian Sales said...

Le Christianisme
So the church Christ was hit and buried
Under its rubbish and its rubble.
In cellars, packed-up saints lie serried,
Well out of hearing of our trouble.

One Virgin still immaculate
Smiles on for war to flatter her.
She's halo'd with an old tin hat,
But a piece of hell will batter her.
Wilfred Owen

Michael Swanwick said...

Wow. Stunning stuff.

I confess that I haven't read a lot of WIlfred Owen. But based on what little I have read, he seems to have a lot in common with Russian writer Isaac Babel. Both of whom were writing from first-hand experience.