Two poems for Memorial Day

Ypres Salient


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:

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 gas-shells dropping softly 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.

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.

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