Wednesday, October 22, 2008

War! And Baseball! And War

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This, a little early, is Thursday's Poem du Jour. I leave at five a. m. tomorrow for an asteroid deflection symposium, so I won't have time tomorrow. And tonight? I'm giving up the very beginning of the World Series. That's how seriously I take this thing.

I know you'll understand. Because all intelligent people appreciate baseball and poetry. Sometimes they're the same thing.

But not today! Here's the post:

Dear Everybody:

Two poems today! But fear not – they’re easy.

First, from Siegfried Sassoon:

Song-Books Of The War
by Siegfried Sassoon

In fifty years, when peace outshines
Remembrance of the battle lines,
Adventurous lads will sigh and cast
Proud looks upon the plundered past.
On summer morn or winter's night,
Their hearts will kindle for the fight,
Reading a snatch of soldier-song,
Savage and jaunty, fierce and strong;
And through the angry marching rhymes
Of blind regret and haggard mirth,
They'll envy us the dazzling times
When sacrifice absolved our earth.

Some ancient man with silver locks
Will lift his weary face to say:
"War was a fiend who stopped our clocks
Although we met him grim and gay."
And then he'll speak of Haig's last drive,
Marvelling that any came alive
Out of the shambles that men built
And smashed, to cleanse the world of guilt.
But the boys, with grin and sidelong glance,
Will think, "Poor grandad's day is done."
And dream of those who fought in France
And lived in time to share the fun.


No explication needed here, eh? Except for the fact that he was dead wrong. This poem was published in 1918, so it was about WWI (then known as the Great War or, rhetorically, the “war to end all wars,” meaning that many expected it to be the last one ever), which was so grim and desperate that even today nobody fantasizes about fighting in it. His point is still valid, though. There are WWII re-enactors today, and lots of people who fantasize about it. My father was in that war. He never talked about it. He was a farm kid who owned guns and hunted. He never fired a gun again in his life. Draw your own conclusions.

The second poem is as follows:


The Butchers At Prayer

Each nation as it draws the sword
And flings its standard to the air
Petitions piously the Lord—
Vexing the void abyss with prayer.

O irony too deep for mirth!
O posturing apes that rant, and dare
This antic attitude! O Earth,
With your wild jest of wicked prayer!

I dare not laugh . . . a rising swell
Of laughter breaks in shrieks somewhere—
No doubt they relish it in Hell,
This cosmic jest of Earth at prayer!

Not exactly subtle. You’ve noticed I left off the poet’s name. Well, it was Don Marquis. Wait... you say. That sounds familiar. Yep. He was the guy who wrote Archy and Mehitabel, the lighthearted stories about an alley cat and a vers libre cockroach. Funny man. Bitter poem. Draw your own conclusions.

All best,
Michael

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3 comments:

Markin said...

If you'll permit me to go back to the classics -- good old Horace (Odes III ii 13):

Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori
(It is sweet and right to die for one's country)

What that most splendid of WWI poets, Wilfred Owen, referred to as "The old Lie". (Powerful poem, his "Dulce et Decorum Est". Should be required reading. And I suspect you'll get around to it eventually.)

Horace actually fought at the battle of Philippi, serving as an officer under Marcus Junius Brutus, so he'd seen a thing or two. He later claimed that he threw away his shield and fled the battlefield, which is actually a bit of a literary topos (as I vaguely recall, might be wrong on that) and might not be true. In any case, it's interesting, since the next line of the poem reads:

mors et fugacem persequitur virum
(death pursues the man who flees)

Good old Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Great poet (he really was). Probably iffy on the soldier front, though. Just as well, too many good poets get killed in the battle lines.

Thanks for the Marquis, btw, I've never explored his work outside of the Archy /Mehitabel corpus.
Which has some sad and bitter lines, too, btw, buried among the lighthearted ones.

Mario

Michael Swanwick said...

"Dulce et Decorum Est" was in one of the earliest of the surviving letters, back in May. Required reading, I agree. As angry a poem as was ever committed to paper.

Robert E. Lee, who knew the subject well, said, "It is well that war is so terrible -- lest we should grow too fond of it." And, absence making the heart grow fonder, those of us who have never had to fight in a war have a tendency to romanticize it. So it's a good thing to have an occasional soldier-poet slap some sense back into us.

Markin said...

Ooops ... sorry, I could have sworn I backtracked to the beginning of PdJ, but obviously forgot you'd already done the Owen. Mea culpa. Or, rather, the culpa of my aging memory.

As the obvious addendum to Lee's quote: "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all Hell." William Tecumseh Sherman, who pretty well invented total war in the modern era. (There are, of course, variants of the quote above. The speech itself did not, I think, survive, save in quotes from memory ...) Sherman had a lot to say about war, none of it good.