The pity of poetry: Remembrance Sunday, 2018

Note: The author of the first sentence is under no delusion. This post was originally published in an earlier blog on Remembrance Sunday itself.

Once again, although perhaps with a slowly vanishing zeal, on this, the 100thanniversary of the First World War, there are those who refuse, or merely choose not to wear, the red poppy: the soldier’s symbol, the British symbol of Remembrance Day. I say that it is vanishing because there seems to be not enough fire in the debate on either side for news coverage to bring to a public bout. This is a pleasing sign, perhaps, of growing tolerance; or it is something too much to bear thinking about: that is, a broader indifference of the larger part of society in this country. It is possible that, one hundred years later, the matter is simply falling away into ancient history…

As it happens, I believe there is a share of honour to be given to the dissenters of the war. They were brave, untiring, compassionate, and above all they were right. Meanwhile, it is untrue to say, as the pious poppy-wearers of our own time have insisted, that the symbol has nothing to do with the glorification of war. Let us look at the poem from which the symbol was made famous, John McCrae’s ‘In Flanders Field’. The first verse runs:

In Flanders Field, the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

It is an elegant enough stanza. The lives of the men are remembered not only by the graves but also by the deep red flower, a symbol of the bloodshed, of the precarious circumstances of war, and of the sleeping soldiers (think, again, of other reasons for harvesting poppies) The larks, too, herald the bravery of the men, far above the concerns of the ongoing battle, and which therefore seems to oppose the war with Nature itself. In the second stanza – perhaps the best – a speaker announces itself: ‘We are the Dead’. This stanza emphasises the sudden loss of such men, who ‘Loved and were loved’, had their brief moment in the sunset, and were plucked before their time.

But the last stanza then changes tone. It is worth quoting in full:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders Field.

This, in my view, is an unfortunate departure from the first two stanzas. The Dead, supposedly at rest, now suddenly wake up with a jolt and compel the living to fight, to take up the ‘quarrel’ with the Central Powers, to carry over the torch, which is a symbol of the Olympic Games and jars oddly with the pastoral imagery, which is no better than ‘Play up! Play up! and play the game!’ or ‘Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,’ and which almost certainly glorifies the war.

We cannot then say that the symbol is wholly innocent of the charge made against it. In Paul Fussell’s book, The Great War and Modern Memory – the one volume, if you must read one alone, about the war and its literature – he recommends as the finest poem of the war Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. In it, a soldier speaks to a ‘queer sardonic rat’ that stalks the trenches, grinning at the athletic young soldiers, ‘Less chanced than you for life, / Bonds to the whims of murder / Sprawled in the bowels of the earth’.

It is a fine poem because, as the lines above suggest, the soldiers are, rather uneasily, at once innocent and complicit in the war; at once great warriors and also helplessly bound and paralysed by the stalemate. Meanwhile the rat, unlike the larks, reminds us that Nature is without sympathy for the cause of either side (as the speaker says, the rat would be shot if they knew its ‘cosmopolitan sympathies’). The speaker finishes his monologue by sticking a plucked poppy behind his ear: ‘Mine in my ear is safe, / Just white with a little dust’. Death, as the speaker well knows, is coming for him. But not yet. It is a truly disturbing poem, and quietly unsentimental.

For what the anniversary of the Armistice – not just Remembrance Day – requires is less careless, uninformed, sentimental talk about the war. One of the charges made against those who do wear a poppy (or those who wear the white poppy of pacifism) is a reminder that the soldiers died in order that we can choose to wear the poppy or not. Does this reflect, at all, why Britain entered the war in August 1914? Has it anything to do with our so-called victory?

Rather, it is a revision of the conflict brought about by later conflicts. The British entered the war to protect the safety of its own empire, which extended to its alliance with unlovely Belgium. Yet it seems clearer to us now that the young British men were swept up in a whirlwind of forces beyond their control or understanding.

To say this is, by no means, to be detrimental towards them: they were the best of us. Yet should anyone be curious as to what Flanders, Ypres, Passchendaele and the Somme were fought for, I now direct them to Adam Tooze’s book The Deluge, a fairly recent history on the war’s aftermath. And it has to be said that most of the book is concerned with the origins (and the failure) of the United States in reshaping the world order through a new, global network of economic power, as well as the outcome for Germany and Russia and the lands between them, and the negotiations that led, eventually, to a second and worse confrontation just over a decade later. This is the outcome for which British soldiers went to their doom.


We return to the problem of poetry. It is taught every year in schools (I teach it myself every autumn) because it is accessible and exciting, and it serves, as poetry so rarely does, a utilitarian purpose, as a form of propaganda for or against something. The pro-war poems are properly criticised, while the poetry of Owen, Sasson and others (through no fault of their own) are taught as realistic portrayals of war as ‘sad’ or ‘horrific’. All in all, the war is regarded only through the pity of poetry.

But sentiment isn’t enough if we are to understand and commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the war. We must shake ourselves out of any complaisance or indifference to what happened and, whether or not we wear a poppy, at least understand – at least know – the true cost of the war. To know why they died (to paraphrase Kipling), and why our fathers lied, is to gain the full of measure of the war and its consequences in our national memory.

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