Two poems for Memorial Day
War is hell, at least ased on the accounts I’ve read or heard relayed it is. When we as a nation honor those who have given their lives for our sakes, we do well bring war’s hellish reality into the picture. That hellish reality frames the true nature of the sacrifice made for so many by so few.
The painting above was in a book I recall reading as a child. It captured my attention because of what seemed to me, at the time, strange colors and odd angles. There is something disturbingly dissonant about the painting and also about war. Wars happen, noted Dorothy L. Sayers, becuase something in out of whack–there is some imbalance of power or wealth or justice. In other words, war is a sure sign of the sinfulness of mankind and yet it brings out some of the best in ordinary people.
Two poems always come to mind on Remembrance Day and Memorial Day. Each has its own merits, but each is unlike the other in the way it frames the sacrifice of brothers in arms. Incidentally, each comes from the experience of fighting the ghastly trench warfare of World War I.
The first is “Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), which was censored (if I recall) at the time of its publication:
This poem brings to mind the actuality of death in warfare–desparation, agony, panic, pain, blood. A death in the service of a cause greater than itself is still a death marked by all these things.
At the same time, death in the service of one’s nation serves a cause bigger than itself. We do well to honor those who have died in such terrible ways for us by framing their death in light of the cause they served.
None does this more beautifully than Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) in his poem, “The Soldier” which captures the soldier’s sacrifice in personal terms, as dying for a way of life:
If I should die, think only this of me: That there’s some corner of a foreign field That is for ever England. There shall be In that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware, Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam, A body of England’s, breathing English air, Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home. And think, this heart, all evil shed away, A pulse in the eternal mind, no less Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given; Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day; And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness, In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.