As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
Wilfred Owen Dulce et Decorum Est
Reflections of the horrors of World War One
By Roger Childs
Last Friday the Friends of the Library Literary Festival opened with world authority, Harry Ricketts, giving an enthralling talk on the war poets. Being the hundredth anniversary of the start of the 1914-18 war, the festival was based around its literature. The Victoria University English Professor is a biographer of Rudyard Kipling and the author of Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War.
Expectation and reality
The talk was illustrated with a power-point presentation and focused on the wartime experiences of the poets and extracts from a number of their poems. Harry started with Siegfried Sassoon’s “They”. This set the tone, as it brilliantly highlighted the huge gap between home expectation of the impact of war and the front line reality.
The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
‘They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
‘In a just cause: they lead the last attack
‘On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
‘New right to breed an honourable race,
‘They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’
‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
‘Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
‘And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
‘A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.
‘ And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’
The title of the poem was taken from a 1905 story by Rudyard Kipling, who before the war was one of the great imperial writers and poets. However Kipling became very disillusioned by the Great War, especially when his only son John was killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos in 1915. His embittered reaction was well summed up in two lines:
If any question how we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
Reflecting the horror
Harry Ricketts used Wilfred Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est as an illustration of the grim, horrific realities of war, which the poets expressed in verse.
This highly graphic and emotional poem tells of the results of a gas attack when one soldier can’t get his mask on. (See the three lines at the top.) Owen’s message is summed up in the last few lines, that if the reality of the war was known back home:
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.
(It is sweet and right to die for one’s country”)
New Zealand’s own on wanting it to end
Harry’s final example of Great War poetry, was New Zealander Donald Lea’s view of the common soldier’s desire to get back to normal life.
When this blasted war is over,
Oh how happy I shall be!
When I get my civvy clothes on,
No more soldiering for me.
No more church parades on Sunday,
No more asking for a pass,
I shall tell the sergeant-major
To stick his passes up his arse!
A lively question and answer exchange followed the presentation and one member of the gathering wondered why poetry was so important in World War One, but not so in World War Two.
Harry’s view is that in the early twentieth century there was strong music hall influence with its emphasis on verse and much of the war itself was a very static fought across fronts that didn’t shift much. Soldiers often carried poetry with them and the expectation for more writing was there. By comparison, the Second World War was much more mobile affair.
Read the book!
The informative and entertaining presentation left the captivated audience wanting more. It was an excellent taster for getting into the detail of Harry Ricketts’ recent publication which covers fifteen real and imagined meetings between war poets.
(There will be a full review of Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War later in the month. The book has gained international acclaim and is available at Paper Plus.)