Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Dulce et decorum est

Those of you who shared my English Literature class at school might remember us learning by heart the poem I have chosen for today. Perhaps you might also recall our vivid 'acting out' of what it would be like to froth at the mouth, roll your eyes, and drown in gas. It was a laugh that lesson, a real laugh. I remember we did impressions of our teacher saying 'Quick Boys!' in her Black Country accent for weeks afterwards. What harm is there, after all, in poking fun at history?

There might be others reading this who remember August 1999 when we caught the bus from London Victoria to Zdroj, Poland. The mountains were beautiful. We spent a day at the Old People's home. I spoke to a lady whose family, every single one of them, had been taken away in the War. They had not died, she was quite clear, she saw them being taken - they were alive when she saw them - they were not sick, they had not died. And, do you remember the journey to Auschwitz afterwards? It lasted forever. The landscape changed after the first few hours, it turned flat and desolate. Everyone went quiet, everything hushed. Silence. Do you remember what we saw there? Rooms full of hair, glasses, teeth; empty gas chambers. The cell of a priest, Maximillian Kolbe, who gave his life for the love between a father and son. What a day out that was. We went for a meal afterwards. Do your remember? It was the best food we had ever tasted, and it hardly cost us a thing. We were happy to be alive and free.We laughed.

Other people, I am told, have different memories of what happens during war, ones which have kept them from sleeping all their lives, haunting images and desperate losses. It is for them that today I recall this poem which I first heard in an English Literature lesson when I was 13.


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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines 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 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.
Wilfrid Owen
8 October 1917 - March, 1918

If, like me, you have no real experience of war, and find it hard to imagine the suffering humanity has inflicted upon itself over the years, read the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker this November: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road. My Da gave it me one Christmas. I had it read by Epiphany, but I didn't ever think of war in the same way again.  No matter which side they fought on, the loss every soldier in war is a terrible tragedy, a sign of humanity's brokenness. A sign we have gone so far wrong it is hard to turn back. Sadly, people are still dying in war, even though in my heart of hearts, all I want to hear is the resounding cry of 'never again, there has to be another way'. Remember all of them, on every side, and live for peace.


silvana said...

When I read Regeneration I wept for my grandad, who was shell-shocked in WWI. Photos from the 20s and 30s show a successful, confident, "together" man: in reality he was falling apart inside, with nightmares, shakes and heavy drinking. The book was an insight into some of what he had endured.

Today is also my mother's anniversary - RIP. She and my dad came of age in WWII: ironic she died today, as she hated remembrance stuff, saying she preferred to forget. Anyway, in all sorts of remembrance I posted my own poppy on our RSCJ group wall.

The world is my cloister said...

Thanks so much Silvana. It is what happened to all that were involved in war that makes me wish what they would want at the end: never again. Thank you, dearly, the cost of sacrifice that was paid. But, never again.