From the film Voices in Wartime, commentary on the realistic savagery and trauma recounted in the Iliad. Stallworthy is a well-known expert on war poetry at the University of Oxford and author of a biography of Wilfred Owen and editor of The Oxford Book of War Poetry.
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon
Exerpted from interviews with Jon Stallworthy for
Voices in Wartime:The Movie.
Tell us about the poets of the First World War Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon.
Sassoon was a decorated soldier. A man of legendary courage, he was known as “Mad Jack” because of his bombing exploits. He used to go out at night on patrol with a pocket full of hand grenades and throw them at the enemy, and then come back again when he didn’t actually need to. Maybe he thought it was a game, but it was something that he liked to do.
Then he became persuaded by left-wing friends, mainly in the grounds of a big house called Garsington not very far from Oxford, that the war was being unnaturally prolonged, that peace could be negotiated now, that the Germans would negotiate peace but the British government was out to crush Germany. And Sassoon was encouraged by Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher, and Harold Massingham, the editor of a prominent newspaper to the point where he made this public protest.
He wrote to his commanding officer saying, “I am a soldier speaking for soldiers and I must protest that the war on which I entered as a war of defense has now become a war of aggression and conquest.” Now I suppose it is not unthinkable that he could have been court-martialled and shot for that, but he wasn’t. He was something of a hero because he had the Military Cross. He had a medal; the public knew him.
The government was severely embarrassed by this. His protest formed the subject of a question in the House of Commons. An MP read out this protest and the government sort of hummed and hawed, and a medical board was hastily arranged and fixed. Sassoon was dragged in front of this board, where they said, “Poor old chap, he’s got shell-shock, doesn’t know what he’s saying.”
They had his friend, Robert Graves the poet, testify that his friend had hallucinations of a corpse-strewn Piccadilly. I don’t know whether that was true or not, I think probably not true. But in all events Sassoon was whisked away and not exactly locked up, but whisked away to Edinburgh, a long way from London and sent to a military hospital called the Craiglockhart, which was a hospital for people suffering from shell-shock. And it’s quite clear that Sassoon was not suffering from shell-shock, but this was a good way of getting him out of the way.
Now Wilfred Owen was already at Craiglockhart and he was suffering from shell-shock. It is thought that he had come by this condition, first of all by falling into a cellar through a hole in the floor and hitting his head. He was in this cellar for a couple of days, I think, with only a candle to keep him company.
They got him out of there and then he was in a railway cutting that was shelled, and all around him the shells were falling and one of his brother officers was dismembered and bits of him were blown all over. When he came out from that, his commanding officer, I think it was, noticed one morning that he had a slight shake, and his memory wasn’t very good, and he was behaving rather oddly, and I think probably he had the start of a stammer, which he didn’t normally have.
He was sent off to a first aid post where he was diagnosed as having shell-shock, and he was sent back to England and fetched up with this hospital where his friend Sassoon was. Sassoon’s book, The Old Huntsmen and Other Poems, had just been published with the first war poems of his that Owen had read, and Owen was immensely impressed by them; he thought they were better than Shakespeare. So it came about that Sassoon in a sense, undertook the tutelage of Owen.
Owen had written poems for years. He’d been a very serious poet, but he hadn’t written good poems up to that point. One of the symptoms of shell-shock is terrible dreams, normally the same dream that recurs, often linked to a situation for which you feel guilty. Owen’s recurrent dream takes us back to Edmund Blunden’s eyeball.
Owen dreamt of blinded eyes because in January 1917, he had placed a sentry in a trench at a position where the poor man was blown down the steps by a German shell and blinded. It wasn’t Owen’s fault, but the shock and horror of that stayed with him, and his dreams were full of blinded eyes.
Look at “Decorum Est”: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight / He plunged at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” He sees these, the blinded eyes at the end, when he turns to make his address to the reader. In his dreams he sees these writhing, blinded eyes. The psychologist at Craiglockhart then went to work, talking Owen through his dreams and talking him out of shell-shock. He was cured.
Before Owen was cured, Sassoon went back to the front, and between Owen and Sassoon there was this understanding that their job, the job of the poet, was to bear witness. When Sassoon was wounded for the third time and sent back to England, Owen was on the point of accepting a home posting. He would have been an instructor in a cadet battalion, but when Sassoon came back it’s very interesting that Owen seemed almost at once to accept that he must go back.
I think he knew that he had to take Sassoon’s place. He had to go back to the front to bear witness. He says in one of his letters, “I came out to lead these boys as well as an officer can, and to watch their sufferings that I may speak of them as well as a pleader can.” He goes back so that he can testify to the horrors of the war, and I think he goes knowing he won’t come back. Indeed he didn’t come back.
Seven days before the armistice, he was killed crossing the Sambre-Oise canal, and by a most curious and strange sort of mythic connection, as the bells were ringing for the armistice in Shrewsbury, where his parents lived, as the bells were ringing on the 11th of November, their front doorbell rang, bringing the telegram saying that he was killed, the telegram they had dreaded for three or four years.
Owen was never as political as Sassoon, but he was influenced by him, and he felt very strongly about the generals, and the war profiteers, and the bishops.
Owen was working towards publishing a collection of poems. There are, I think, three draft lists of contents in his own hand, where he’s adding poems and crossing them out, arranging them, and so on. It’s a very important document, although it’s a very fragmentary piece of writing; he never finished it.
First of all he says, “I am not concerned with Poetry”, poetry with a capital “P.” There are various points in his poems where he rejects literary artifice. He says, “All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets will be truthful.” He sees his task as bearing witness truthfully to the horrors of the war, and this got him into interesting trouble.
After his death his book is published, and in 1935 or 36 the great poet of the day, W.B. Yeats, comes to edit what would be the important anthology after Quiller-Couch, The Book of Modern Verse. Yeats takes more room in his preface explaining why he leaves Wilfred Owen out than why he puts most people in, and Yeats’s view is that his passive suffering is no subject for poetry.
He misreads Owen in a most interesting way, because Yeats is really the voice of the old poetry, with a capital “P.” Yeats saw artists generally as the architects of civilization, and their task, as Yeats saw it, was to reinterpret the heroic, the great images for successive generations. He writes poems about Leonardo painting the Sistine Chapel with images of perfect sexuality so that all the young people who to go to the Sistine Chapel would see a perfect Adam, a perfect Eve.
Yeats thinks that what poets should be doing is celebrating courage, and poets who say, “I don’t like it here. It’s wet and my friends are getting killed,” were abdicating the poet’s proper role. He doesn’t actually spell this out, but I’m sure this is what Yeats had in mind. He leaves Wilfred Owen out. He leaves Rosenberg out. He has Rupert Brooke in. He leaves in Julian Grenfell, who is about the only major poet of the First World War to celebrate fighting, and he gives the most space to Gogerty, who has more poems in that anthology than any other poet.
He explains how Gogerty, during the Irish Civil War, was imprisoned by his enemies in a house beside the Liffey, and pleading a natural necessity, he went into the ice-cold Liffey. What Yeats is celebrating is the courage of this man Gogerty, who says he wants to go have a pee in the garden, then plunges into the river. His enemies all shoot at him, he escapes, and this is an heroic act. Yeats speaks of Gogerty’s heroic song.
What Yeats liked is heroic song, and he didn’t find heroic song in Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. You get, then, a very interesting clash between the old poetry and the new poetry, and of course all readers today would feel that if you had to judge between those views, obviously Wilfred Owen and the new poetry are right. The poet must be truthful, as Owen and Sassoon unquestionably were.
We now see Owen as a very interesting and peculiar kind of war hero. When he was diagnosed as having shell-shock there is some suggestion that he was accused of cowardice. Maybe the commanding officer said, “For God’s sake pull yourself together man!” or something when he was slightly shaky, and one does associate a tremor with fear.
Owen was in fact suffering from what we now would call post-traumatic stress disorder. He goes back home with this very uneasy fear that he has actually failed in some way, and he has these awful dreams of his blinded sentry. He’s failed the sentry. He’s only been at the front a matter of months.
He was fighting all the time and did extremely well, but he was concerned that he had not proved himself the complete warrior, so when he went back in 1918, at least part of his mind was anxious to validate himself, because he cared to be a soldier. Some people have spoken of Wilfred Owens as if he were a conscientious objector, which he was not. He says somewhere, “What am I but a conscientious objector with a very seared conscience?” He killed people.
In one of his letters he writes to his mother of an episode in which he and a 16-year-old lance corporate captured a German pillbox that was spraying them with bullets. For this he was awarded the Military Cross, and he said to his mother, “One I shot with my revolver, the rest I took with a smile.”
He was an active soldier, and at the same time a very religious man. He believed in the teachings of Christ; he believed in Christ much more than he believed in the Church with a capital “C”. He was terribly torn. He knew that killing was wrong but found himself in a situation where killing was necessary. He had to lead these men because they had to be led, and only by leading them could he speak of their suffering and write the poems that he felt it was his task to write. When he got the Military Cross, he was relieved and pleased by this, and he could now hold his head up. He was a very shy, vulnerable young man, so courage didn’t come easily to him.
Julian Greenfell was a thug, a very brave, courageous, Achilles-Ajax-like thug. He was always a bully, always beating people up, and when he gets to the battlefront he behaves like a thug. Owen was not at all like that. He was a rather delicate person, but he did very well. He was killed a week before the armistice. His reputation then precedes him by virtue of the fact that he was a decorated hero, that he performed very bravely, which does take us back to the chivalric, heroic code.
He also wrote wonderful, truthful poems, and the poets who followed him—Orden and Spender, etc. —took him as sort of a saint and martyr. The fact that he died so shortly, and you might think so needlessly, before the end of the war made him seem symbolic or representative of all the young men who were killed in the war.
People think of Owen as a symbolic figure. He stands for all the people who were killed. He was courageous, he was vulnerable, he told the truth, he protested honorably and truthfully against the conduct of the war, but he didn’t skive out of it. He was prepared to play his part in it, and he led his men very, very bravely.
The account of his death was that they were trying to throw a pontoon bridge over a canal. The Germans’ machine guns were about 30 yards away, and these chaps were just carrying their pontoons, putting them in the river. Owen went backwards and forwards between them saying, “You’re doing very well, my boy, just move that a little bit to the left, a little bit to the right. You’re doing very well. You’re doing very well.” Then he was hit and killed.
He was a great encourager and sustainer of his soldiers. His poems then became a tremendous encouragement and source of sustenance to the generations of poets who have followed him—from Auden right through to Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney.
Heaney has a lovely lecture in which he speaks of how as a boy he had Owen’s collected poems, how much those poems meant to him, and how the poem “Miners” particularly got to him, with its underground imagery. Heaney from the Irish countryside with the bogs, identified with the underground imagery, and he said that the poem “Miners” helped him write many of his own poems about bogs and the dead in bogs—the “Tollund Man” and so on.
The Power of War Poetry: Emotion
Exerpted from interviews with Jon Stallworthy for
Voices in Wartime:The Movie.
Tell us a little bit about the relationship between poetry and war.
One of the essences of poetry is emotion. Many of the best poems, or I might even say most of the best poems, arise as a result of powerful emotion, words that speak in emotional recollection and tranquility. Sometimes it’s not recollection and tranquility, but certainly there’s emotion.
Few things arouse stronger emotions than love and war, and while one might expect that in time of war the emotion would be hate, that is not always the case. People – soldiers – express affection for the people they left behind: their wives, their children, their comrades, their country.
So the power in many of the best war poems derives from the driving power of the emotion behind it.
How long have war and poetry been linked?
As near the beginning as one can ascertain. There’s a lot of war and indeed war poetry in the Old Testament, Greek literature, Latin literature, and early Chinese literature. Just as the “Song of Solomon” contains poems about love, so in Exodus and other Old Testament books you get accounts of violent conflict.
In many of them, interestingly—the early accounts of war in early Jewish, Chinese, Greek, and Latin history and literature—in almost all of them there are horses and chariots, and the warriors who use these horses and chariots are from a warrior caste. They are of aristocratic blood, and in those days what a man did was fight, and the reason for fighting was to acquire money, possessions, and also reputation, honor. So you fought for glory and for honor, and that is the motive, I think, behind the actions of the heroes in The Iliad, The Aeniad, and Beowulf.
It even goes right through to the First World War. I think you could say that Julian Grenfell is very much one of their descendants, and what is important to him is the honor and glory of being a successful soldier in a successful action.
You mentioned The Iliad. Is this the greatest war poem of all time?
I am no ancient historian but to the best of my understanding The Iliad is the earliest comprehensive account of battle, and it contains most of the emotions, most of the subjects that you find in poetry afterwards. You have the negotiations, the talking that goes on. You have the strategy. You have the violent hand-to-hand combat which is described with a terrible force.
The account of spears going through a brain and what then happens, how the brain spatters the shield of the man who has thrown the spear and so on, is very graphic. People sometimes speak as if Homer was just all violence. That’s not right at all.
At the end of The Iliad you have the very moving episode where Hector is finally killed by Achilles, who ties his legs together, drags him behind his chariot ‘round and ‘round Troy.
On the walls of Troy is his wife and younger son, and the grief of the widow and the grief of the old father are very poignantly captured. Homer (whoever Homer was) was interested not only in the violence but also in the different emotions. Emotions of jealously, of pride, of hunger for glory, and also the terrible grief that follows from the activities of the battlefield.
Did Homer ever question the concept of war?
To the best of my knowledge, I would say not. I would think that Homer didn’t approve or disapprove. War was just a fact of life in the world in which he lived, and indeed in many societies war has been a fact of life and not something that you question any more than you would question the weather. It’s going to rain. There’s going to be a war. Nothing you can do about it. Just better get on and endure it.
With the advent of World War One, is there more of a sense of identity between the soldiers on both sides?
Yes, mind you there had been something of that before. When warriors from two countries fight each other as in the Battle of Malden they fight under the same code. And in the Battle of Malden the Anglo-Saxon soldiers say to the Vikings, “Do come across the ford, let us fight here like gentlemen,” and they give them this extraordinary advantage.
If they had kept the Vikings over the water they could have thrown spears at them and probably won the battle, but instead they said, “No, come across, come across.” So they let them come across unchallenged and then they fight them on the ground and lose. So there was a certain sort of fellow feeling there, although the Vikings would have killed them.
In the First World War you get it most movingly exemplified in the famous Christmas truce where the soldiers—not the generals—said to themselves, “Enough is enough.” They sang hymns, and they came out of their trenches, and they met, and they smoked cigarettes and talked together. This was much disapproved of by the general staff.
Wilfred Owen, in his favorite “Strange Meeting” has the very piercing line, “I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” Enemy and friend in the same line. And David Jones who many years later was to write a truly wonderful book (still too little known) called In Parenthese, about his experience as a private foot soldier in the Great War, dedicates his poem, in a wonderful long dedication, to a whole list of Welshmen whose names I can’t recall, and then to “the bearded infantry with whom we exchanged loaves at a trench’s intersection.”
I think these are the French poilu: “and to the enemy front fighters against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.” He dedicates his account of his experience ranging from a parade ground in England to a killing ground in France. All his comrades are killed on the first of July, 1916, and he dedicates his account to the enemy front fighters, “against whom we found ourselves by misadventure.” And so there is this strong sense of comradeship which very strikingly contrasts with the clear feelings of hostility that many of the poets have.
The strong sense of companionship discernible in the poems, the letters, the diaries of all the First World War soldiers is greatly at variance with the strong negative feelings that many of them have for the politicians, for the generals, and much more for the profiteers. And in the poems of Owen and Sassoon particularly, this gets simplified as a conflict between the young and the old: the young men who are being needlessly sacrificed, as they see it, by the old men.
Sassoon writes a poem about a bishop, in which the bishop offers a whole series of platitudes about the young men who would come back mutilated from the war. That became, I think, very important in the generation of poets who followed Owen and Sassoon. These were the poets Auden and Spender, who went off to the Spanish Civil War and wrote poems from the Spanish Civil War, many of which show the clear influence of Wilfred Owen.
I think Owen is seen as the quintessential war poet. Quite a few people can point to roughnesses, irregularities, and clumsiness in some of the poems. I think, for example, there are lines in “Dulce et Decorum Est” which had Owen lived a little bit longer he might have improved, but the raw power of the poem is more important than any slight flaws like that.
And for my money, he is the strongest, most audible voice of the poets of the Great War. Not because he speaks the loudest. Sassoon’s poems are often more overtly protesting. But Sassoon’s poems seem to me, very fine though many of them are, rather like two-dimensional poster poems. They deliver a tremendous sort of shock, but once you’ve read them and know how they’re going to end, it doesn’t make so much of an impact.
Some of Owen’s early poems, written under the influence of Sassoon—and Sassoon was the most constructive, creative, and helpful influence in Owen’s short life—go beyond Sassoon in that they are not poster poems. They are not two-dimensional; they are three- or four-dimensional poems with tremendous depth and resonance to them.
They’re not so easily explicable, perhaps, as Sassoon’s. There are always new depths opening up in front of you so that the poems are very rich and strange, to my mind richer and stranger than Sassoon’s. And I don’t think there’s another poet of the Great War to equal him.
Rosenberg, a poet of great raw power, never acquired, to my mind, the technique of an Owen or a Sassoon. Some of the great poems. like “Dead Man’s Dump” or” Break of Day in the Trenches,” have roughness and irregularities in them that I think the poet himself would have wished to improve.
But this is not to deny the colossal power of a poem like “Dead Man’s Dump,” and one has to remember that he, coming from the poorer quarters of London, was very widely read, self-taught and a wonderful artist as well. He managed to educate himself, bring himself to a point where he was both painting pictures worthy now to hang in the great galleries of the world and to write these very powerful poems with no sort of education. A poem like “Dead Man’s Dump” is a sort of magisterial, truly visionary work, like Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” I suppose.
But then on April 1st, 1918, he is killed. About half the poets we think of as the great poets of the Great War, never came home. Edward Thomas would be another one, though he was older than the other poets and had a different slant in that he alone, I think, of the major poets was married and had children. So most of his war poems were written before he got to France. His poems are very conscious of the impact of the war on the country he’s leaving behind and on the people he’s leaving behind.
War and Wastage
Exerpted from interviews with Jon Stallworthy for
Voices in Wartime:The Movie.
In “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” Tennyson is doing what I said poets should be very cautious about doing—but if you’re as good a poet as Tennyson you can get away with it. He was writing from a newspaper report.
The Times newspaper carried a piece by a famous war correspondent who was on the Heights at Balaklava that reported this extraordinary scene. It should also be said that on the Heights were not only the journalists but a great many ladies. A lot of people went out to observe the war as a sort of spectacle, and lots of ladies in their crinolines were watching on the Heights as the messages were transmitted from one horseman riding to Cardigan and Raglan.
Suddenly, to everyone’s astonishment, the light brigade lines up, and they charge these Russian gunners. There was a whole battery of Russian gunners who just shelled them with heavy artillery. It was a terrible mistake.
Whoever was leading the charge knew it was a mistake. He got an order. What do officers do? They obey orders. Okay, charge! So they charge the gunners, and terrible damage was done.
Tennyson read Russell’s report. The report spoke of the incredible heroism of these soldiers charging the guns, I think I’m right in saying the officer in charge didn’t carry a sword, because that would be rather vulgar. He just led them. The men carried the swords. They did the sabering. He just rode.
He was in front of them, leading them through the gunners. They sabered the gunners, then they turned ‘round and those who could came back. The courage was just extraordinary, but the blunder was also extraordinary, and Tennyson’s poem captures the futility, the blunder, the wastage.
I should have used that word “wastage” before, because it’s one of the subjects that Owen, and Sassoon, and all the war poets write about, almost more than any other. All these lives that maybe needn’t have been lost have been lost through wastage.
“The Charge of the Light Brigade” is about wastage. It didn’t have to happen. They didn’t have to do this. There would have been other ways of leaving the gunners alone, or of taking them from the side, or something.
Tennyson’s poem very beautifully and sensitively conveys the exhilaration which the watchers and, I daresay some of the participants, felt in this, taking part in this extraordinary madcap heroic exploit, even as they are fully aware of the foolishness, the blunder, the mistake. I mean it was a terrible mistake; the order should not have been given.
Walt Whitman is one of the first writers to write not about what is happening on the battlefield so much as about the wastage, the consequences. He sees the wounded in the hospital, and he sees the cost of what is happening back there, so he’s one of the first poets to give a full, rich, and moving expression of the cost of warfare. He had nothing to do with heroic charges.
Whitman writes about the cavalry and he writes about the ordinary foot soldiers, like his brother. He writes with tremendous compassion, and compassion was not a note often heard in poems about war before Whitman. Homer feels compassion for the widow and the child on the walls of Troy, but not much. He writes about the great grief the one soldier will have for the death of his comrade, but Whitman gives this grief a very modern cast, twist, and tinge.
Whitman stands at the gate of modern poetry, both in the method of his writing, the long open, swirling lines, and in his material. His influence has been obviously huge, technically, because American poetry, with its emphasis on the spoken word, derives much more from Whitman than British poetry. Hardy, for example, writes in very tight formal stanzas, which Whitman didn’t do.
I think that’s the moment where British poetry and American poetry really divide, with Whitman, Pound, and all those who have followed going in one direction, and Hardy, Larkin, and Berchman going in the other direction, the quintessential English tradition.
Interestingly, however, Hardy and Whitman have in their sympathy and in their compassion a good deal in common. Hardy cared to go down to see the soldiers embarking and felt intense compassion for the wives and children, and he expresses compassion for Drummer Hodge buried in the South African kopje. Those two do have quite a bit common, writing about different wars in a somewhat similar spirit, but using very different techniques.
Can Poetry Be Anti-War?
Exerpted from interviews with Jon Stallworthy for
Voices in Wartime:The Movie.
Can poetry be anti-war?
Yes, I think the phrase “anti-war” is used a great deal, and it’s a useful phrase, but it’s not always as useful as it is thought to be in that I would suppose any right-thinking sensible person must be anti-war. If one could choose one would rather not have wars, but some wars some people think are more necessary than others.
Many people thought that the Second World War was more necessary than the First in that if the British had not challenged Hitler they would have been overrun by Hitler. Conscientious objectors could have lived with that, I think, but most people could not live with that. I think many people in the Second World War felt that it was a painful, brutal, ugly necessity, but that didn’t in any way diminish their hatred of the way in which it was conducted and its effects.
The effects are felt far beyond the battlefield; it’s not just the soldiers who get hurt. We saw with Hardy, the wives waving to their soldiers as the boats pull out. Increasingly in the Second World War—with total war—you get the impact on civilians, and this is a major change, I think.
And it becomes even more major with the switch from the First World War with its dominant image of the trench. You move to the Second World War, which if it has a comparable image is the fire from heaven, the bomb. And bombs of course are indiscriminate. They injure civilians probably more than they injure soldiers.
There is a very interesting and fine memoir by a British pilot named Richard Hillary, you all know, called The Last Enemy, which is I think particularly powerful in that it starts with him as a young student at Oxford. He sees in the 1930’s that war is going to come and if war is going to come he wants to be flying an airplane, and you can see the interesting transition from the elite aristocrat who would in earlier wars have ridden a horse thinking, “There aren’t any horses to ride now, but I’ll have an airplane thank you very much, or I’ll have a tank. I’m not going to be a foot soldier; I’m going to be on my own in the air jousting with other pilots in single combat in the skies.”
Hillary becomes a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, and a very successful one until he is shot down over the channel and he can’t open his cockpit and finally when he does open it the plane is on fire and he’s terribly burnt. He’s taken to a hospital where his face and his hands are rebuilt by a wonderful New Zealand plastic surgeon called Archie Mackindow. He was the first person to rebuild eyelids. He would take skin grafts and make eyelids.
He rebuilds Richard Hillary’s face and his hands. When he’s just about better Hillary’s in London and he’s in a pub, and he suddenly hears the sirens going, and he hears the terrible scream of an approaching bomb, and the bomb hits the pub and the pub is destroyed. He gets outside, but he’s okay, and someone says, “There’s a woman in there.”
With his rebuilt hands he starts tearing off—and other people too—tearing off the bricks and the mortar. His hands are coming to bits. And they dig this woman out, and when her head is exposed she looks up and she looks at him and she says, “I see they got you too.” It’s a wonderful transition from the gung-ho heroism of the fighter pilot who’s very pleased to be a fighter pilot, you know: “three Huns shot down today.” The shift in the air war from the chivalric code of the fighter pilot to the indiscriminate damage inflicted by the bomber on the woman.
Hillary grows up in this moment; he goes berserk. He runs screaming through London and finally has to be sort of calmed down. He then goes back into the Air Force, and I think it is generally thought that he crashed soon after, and they think that it probably was suicide. He just couldn’t take it. But that book takes the shift from the chivalric code of the fighter pilot to the very different code, and the very different effects, of the bomber.
And so much of the power I think in the writing of the Second World War comes from poems written about the war in the air. The finest poem of all must be T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding.” Eliot walks through the bombscape of London and meets the ghost of Yeats in the bombscape.
You have Edith Sitwell’s poem about the blitz. Louis MacNeice writes about the blitz. All sorts of poets write about the blitz of London in the 1940’s, and then at the other end of the war of course you get the poems about the atomic bomb. But because the Second World War is fought in these three very different theaters—on the ground, in the air, and at sea—there isn’t the same intensity of focus that you get with all these poems about the trenches, so the poems aren’t so well known.
And one feels that if children have to be taken to Passiondale and back again they should also be introduced to the poems of the Second World War, because the last thing we need is a generation unaware of the effects of war because that’s the way you get caught up in the next war.
Are poets especially well-suited to write about war?
I don’t think poets are uniquely suited to writing about war. Of course there have been wonderful novels, wonderful documentaries, even very fine plays. RC Sherriff’s play, “Journey’s End,” is now playing in London. It is a searing and brilliant account of what it was like to be living in a forward trench in the Great War.
I think literature generally has been a huge educator. There’s no doubt at all that for most of my generation and maybe the next generation, what they know about the Great War is much more derived from the writers than from the historians, or the filmmakers, or the novelists.
I mean they might have read All Quiet on the Western Front; they might have seen the film, but they’ve all read Owen and Sassoon at school and they’ve read Robert Greaves’ memoirs Goodbye to All That, and Sassoon’s memoirs. Writers have had a very, very considerable educational impact in British society.
My sense it’s been less so in American society, but then that’s understandable. America’s a long way from Europe. And so I think writers generally have found war an absorbing topic and something which has engaged all their strongest passions.
What the poets have is that because poetry is a very distilled form of writing, it’s very compact, you know you can write a poem like Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” where in about six lines you can capture a whole life.
And someone can learn that poem, or be hit and moved by that poem and carry it with him or her in a way that you can’t perhaps carry a whole novel, or a whole memoir. I think much of the impact that poetry has had, and one hopes will continue to have, is that it’s rather like, I suppose, an armor-piercing shell.
Unlike an ordinary shell which just explodes, an armor-piercing shell goes right through everything to reach its target, and a really good poem has that sort of sharpness and projectile force. It goes right into the imagination of the reader, who says, “Wow!” Look at “Decorum Est” or “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.” You read those poems, and you can’t ever forget them.
Whereas moved as I have been by Sassoon’s Sherston’s Progress trilogy and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War, I couldn’t give you a very full account of them. There’s a moment in Blunden, a brilliant moment actually, of the poet as memoirist, where he is going along his trench and a young lance corporal is making tea, and he wishes him a good tea and he goes around the corner.
Then there’s a sort of dull thud and a shell has landed, and someone’s started shouting, so he goes back again and the lance corporal isn’t there, and there’s a black mess on the parapet. Under the duckboard there’s an eye. When the eye of the reader meets the eye of the soldier under the duckboard that’s something you don’t forget.
And that’s what I think poets are uniquely equipped to do. They see symbolic quintessential details very vividly, and they have the words that can transfer that impression with equal vividness to the reader. When you read about that eye under the duckboard you feel the same horror which Blunden himself felt having talked to this soldier three minutes before, and his eye is staring at him from under the duckboard.
From Homer to the 19th Century
Exerpted from interviews with Jon Stallworthy for
Voices in Wartime:The Movie.
What changes from The Iliad to the 19th Century?
I think poetry, the poetry of war let us say, starts with the Old Testament and with The Iliad, and then it goes through to The Aeniad. When it first reaches the shores of what is now England, Anglo-Saxon poetry has the same sort of chivalric code.
You are reading about the heroic actions of heroes who are almost all of noble birth. They are normally horsemen, and their business is fighting; that’s what they do. And this ethos continues, I believe, through the Norman Conquest when the language undergoes its wonderful mutation.
Anglo-Saxon literature, Anglo-Saxon language, is very gritty and specific, with lots of short, tough words. When it meets the long, resonant, polysyllables of Anglo-Norman—of Norman-French—you get this wonderful confluence of two languages, making the English that we now speak.
And with the French element comes a highly sophisticated cultural tradition in which there are many long, heroic poems, like the Chanson de Roland, and a whole code of honor and military virtues as exemplified by a whole range of heroes.
Then of course the first major author in what we now think of as English would be Chaucer, who was a soldier, and Chaucer writes The Knight’s Tale which is the tale of one of these elegant, heroic, gentlemanly knights on horseback, whose son is a squire also on horseback. The poets who follow him—a surprising number, actually—were themselves soldiers. John Donne fought in two expeditions. You have the cavalier poets—the word cavalier coming from horse in the chivalric tradition—and Lovelace, famous for his poem “To Lucasta, Going to the Wars“:
“True, a new mistress now I chase, the first foe in the field.
And with a stronger faith embrace, a sword, a horse, a shield.”
This continues, and we hear nothing of the foot soldiers; the ordinary people who actually would have had to bear the brunt of the battle. In the Anglo-Saxon wars you would have the nobles, the earls, the aldermen, and you would have those other front-line soldiers. We hear nothing about them at all; we don’t hear from them. We hear sometimes a bit about them but not from them.
This begins to change, and certainly it has changed by the time of the American Civil War, when in a quite different culture you have most noticeably, Walt Whitman, writing in a hospital. And for the first time really, the focus is not on heroic actions so much as on the result of actions, heroic or un-heroic—wounded people. And when they’re wounded, bandaged, and bleeding in a hospital ward you don’t know whether they’re aristocrats or foot soldiers.
Whitman went to a hospital to tend to his wounded brother and wrote these wonderful, very moving poems about ordinary soldiers suffering the effects of war. Civil war is always much more painful and uglier than international wars because people are driven by a frenzy to, in a sense, kill, murder their own kind. Something of that extra intensity is, I think, present in Whitman’s poems and the work of other very fine poets of the American Civil War.
And then you find this slightly shifting emphasis in Tennyson’s famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” where a heroic action is celebrated. He’s praising the courage of the soldiers, some of whom are officers and some of whom are just ordinary horsemen, but someone has blundered. There’s not an outright endorsement of the action at all. It’s a terrible mistake, but the soldiers who have had to live and die with that terrible mistake have shown courage, which he celebrates in the poem.
That is in the Crimean War, and then you get to the Boer War, which was the first sort of real war the British had fought for quite a long time. There had been endless frontier campaigns where the British had overwhelming strength and would almost always come home victorious.
The Boer War was different, and the big shift is clearly visible when Thomas Hardy cycles down to Southampton to see the soldiers embark for South Africa. A tremendously important change was discernible there because of the Education Acts of 1870 and 1876. The British Army that sailed for South Africa in 1899 was the first literate army in history. For the first time the people who can write home and write about what they’re enduring are not only the officers but the men too.
There’s a tremendous outpouring of writing from soldiers and war correspondents in the Boer War: diaries, letters, and lots of poems. The poems almost all sound like Rudyard Kipling, who was a correspondent there and whose poems were already very famous. Kipling at this time and shortly afterwards—Kipling follows Hardy in this—celebrates the achievement of the common soldier.
So at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century you get this shift, which reflects, of course, the rise of democracy in western countries, the interest shifting from the aristocracy to the ordinary people. Kipling’s poem “Tommy,” for example, is a wonderful ringing endorsement of the ordinary common solider.
At the same time Houseman, whose brother was killed in the South African war, writes “The Shropshire Lad” about grenadiers and other soldiers, and celebrates the death of ordinary people.
Then of course, the most famous poem of all would be Thomas Hardy’s “Drummer Hodge,” Hodge being a quintessential English country name. Hodge is a boy. He’s not even a man—he’s only 16 or something— and he’s not even a soldier. He’s a drummer, a musician. He goes off to this country he has probably never heard of before and is killed in South Africa.
Hardy, far from endorsing the undertaking of the war—I think Hardy was actually against the Boer war—is intensely aware of the effect that deaths in South Africa have on families in England. In his poems about the soldiers embarking, his eye focuses on the white handkerchiefs waving from the key as the wives and children see their fathers and husbands going, some of whom will not return.
And Houseman, Hardy, and Kipling, with this new focus on ordinary soldiers, mark a very important shift. That was is over in 1902. 1914 is only twelve years later, and you would have thought that people would have learned the lessons of The Boer War, but they haven’t. When the Great War starts, both in Berlin and in London, there is this extraordinary sort of gaiety and exaltation. In London, crowds were shouting, “To Berlin!” and in Berlin they were shouting, “To London!”
Rupert Brooke captured the mood of that curious exaltation in 1914 with the poem to which he gave the rather odd paradoxical title “Peace.” It begins, “Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour, and caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping.” He thanks God for the outbreak of war, war which has in a sense woken the people up.
Philip Larkin many years later captures the mood beautifully in a poem called MCMXIV, the initials standing for 1914, in which his camera focuses on the queues outside the recruiting offices, with the men grinning as if it were all an August bank holiday lark, as if they’re going on holiday.
Well of course that mood changed most markedly, I think, with the Battle of the Somme in July, 1916. Up to that point the first poets of the Great War have almost all been to public schools, and their education has consisted in large measure of study of the classics. As late as 1905, the entire teaching force at Eton taught classics.
Even when I went to school, every child in the school from nine-o’clock in the morning until, I think, eleven-fifteen in the morning did Latin and/or Greek; everyone did that, and then you broke off to do unimportant things like History, English, French, and Mathematics, but the classics were what was central.
That first generation of poets went to war with sort of Homeric expectations. All they knew about war was what they’d read in Virgil, Homer, and Horace. In the early poems—the poems of 1914, 1915—there are no references to bayonet, bullet, and platoon, but hundreds of references to sword, spear, and legion.
Sassoon no less says, “We are the happy legion,” and a poem written just before the war by Herbert Askwith called “The Volunteer” has a clerk who dreams of visions of glory in which he is on horseback riding in a great charge with plumes on his helmet, and so on.
Rupert Brooke going to what was going to be Gallipoli—though he didn’t know it then— to the Dardanelles, writes to a friend saying, “Do you think we will stop and make an assault on the plains of Troy?” He was very conscious that Troy was next to Gallipoli. Another poet, Charles Hamilton Sorley, writes from the western front, “I have not brought my Odyssey with me here across the sea.” The early poems are full of these references to classical literature, the classical world.
Now most of those poets by 1915, and the poets that followed them, came from a quite different cultural background. Poets like Isaac Rosenberg, who was the son of a poor immigrant family from Russia, Wilfred Owen, brought up in the back streets of Birkenhead, and Ivor Gurney, brought up in the countryside of Gloucester, people who had either no classical education or very little classical education but were quite widely read in English poetry.
English, one should say, was not a topic at these schools at that time. You read English in your spare time. One of the curious cultural phenomena of the Great War was, I think, that the bestseller more soldiers carried in their pack than any other book was Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse.
So on the blasted landscapes of the western front they sat down reading the pastoral poets, Spencer and so on, and Milton. They read tales of shepherdesses, the seasons, and the natural world in a landscape that was utterly blasted and devastated.
This comes through the work of many of the poets, and I think much of the power in the poems is their love for poetry and for the natural world, in addition to their love for the people they’d left behind. They have to live in the awful trenches surrounded by dead bodies, seeing the violence that man has inflicted on the natural world: all the trees are blasted; all the leaves are knocked down, the ground churned to a vicious, sucking, sort of octopus of mud.
Letter after letter, poem after poem, records disgust and horror at what man has done to the landscape as well as to his own kind. Of course in those later poets you have no talk of honor or glory at all. It’s man talking about the violence that man has done to man. The wheel has come full circle. Men do heroic things. Soldiers bring in their comrades under fire, but it is not seen through anything like Homer’s lens of heroic action in the Trojan War.
Has the common man come to the fore? Is that the main change that has happened?
Yes I think it is. The ordinary common man, the foot soldier, no longer the cavalryman, is now speaking. Most of the poets—Rosenberg, Owen, Sorley, Sassoon—are all foot soldiers, and they’re writing about other foot soldiers.
And they are telling it how it is; they’re talking about the horrors of modern mechanized warfare. And curiously, as war follows war, some things are remembered but some things are forgotten.
Moving on from the First World War to the Second World War, the best, certainly the best-known, British poet of the Second World War is a poet called Keith Douglas, who came up to Oxford in 1938, went to Merton College where he was tutored by Edmund Blunden, who was then a medaled hero and poet of the First World War.
Douglas learned a great deal from Blunden.
Blunden was already the editor of Wilfred Owen’s poems. Blunden, who had fought through the Great War, won the Military Cross, survived, and written wonderful poems about the war and one of the most moving memoirs Undertones of War, has as his pupil and student Keith Douglas, to whom he introduces the poems of Wilfred Owen that he, Blunden, is now editing.
And in 1940 Keith Douglas enlists, signs up, and has his photograph taken. Around his photograph he writes “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” And in some of his early poems about the war—actually one rather important one written before the war—you have a battlefield scene in the classical setting.
Blunden was a classicist too, so the next war starts with not quite the tunes of glory that you had at the start of the First World War, but just something like that in the world and the person of the man who was to become arguably the finest British poet of the Second World War, who then went on to fight in the cavalry in the tank battles of the El Alamein battle.
Doublas, too—rather like Blunden—wrote a wonderful memoir, a book called Alamein to Zem Zem. And his poems about the war in the desert reach back to some of the earlier poems in that he has an interestingly bifocal vision. Keith Douglas was himself sort of a natural foot soldier but with aspirations to be a cavalryman, and in one of these crack cavalry regimens he was able to see the heroism and the sort of courage that Tennyson celebrated in “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in the behavior of his commanding officers of his troop.
But at the same time he was able to see how anachronistic and how foolish they were. They were brave, but they were very stupid, and his poems wonderfully catch both of these aspects.
On Poets Bearing Witness
Eerpted from interviews with Jon Stallworthy for
Voices in Wartime:The Movie.
In the early days most civilians would have had very little experience with war. England was not invaded between 1066 and World War Two, so the citizenry had no experience with invasion. But T.S. Elliot, Edith Sitwell, and Louis MacNeice all write about the fire-bombing of London. They write with first-hand experience, and they write very powerfully about that.
A fair number of middle-class women went to France as VAD’s, as nurses. They had to be middle-class women because they had to pay their own fare, and if they were working-class women they couldn’t do that. A lot of women worked in munitions factories, which was very bad for them, and the chemicals discolored their skin. A lot of these women worked at or near the front in the First World War, and one or two of them wrote very powerful poems.
A woman called May Cannon wrote a very powerful and moving poem called “Rouxant.” She ran a canteen for the soldiers as they passed on their way up the line, and she did what Owen said: the true poet should be truthful. She wrote truly about the soldiers coming in, taking their mugs of tea and their sandwiches, and then getting into the train and going up the line to death. She wrote very vividly about that.
Women started writing about war, but it is very difficult to write about something you don’t first experience. This has become, regrettably, common. I was for many years a publisher, and whenever a war started I knew that within about a fortnight I would start getting hundreds of poems about battle, written by people who hadn’t moved outside their comfortable flats or houses, who had simply read the newspapers or watched the television and thought this equipped them to write about battles.
I think in all of our recent wars we’ve seen a great deal too much of this. Sometimes when you speak to poets about this they say, “Yes, but we can’t go and fight because we don’t believe in fighting,” as if that were the only alternative, Auden went to Spain saying he was going to be a stretcher-bearer. He didn’t actually carry a stretcher because he was so horrified by what he saw in Spain that he came home almost at once, rather more quietly than he had set off.
I particularly admire the poems of a poet called John Balaban, who had no intention of fighting in Vietnam. He was strongly opposed to the war, but he read about the plight of the civilians, particularly the orphaned children, and he went and worked in an orphanage in Vietnam. That seems to me an admirable thing to do. That gave him a measure of direct first-hand experience, and he writes first-hand poems about Vietnam that seem to me incomparably better than many of the poems that would be written by stateside poets who never left America.
Now there are a lot of fine and honorable poets who wrote poems about what the war was doing to America. That’s a very valid and admirable subject, but a number of others sort of slipped into imagining themselves in Vietnam and writing about it much less powerfully than Owen writes “Dulce Et Decorum Est” or Randall Jarrell writes about the death of the ball turret gunner.
Owen and Jarrell had seen and knew what they were writing about, whereas if all you’ve seen is the television and newspapers you don’t really know what you’re writing about. You don’t have the experience of the eye under the duckboard, and it’s the eye under the duckboard that really brings out the force of the poetry. Of course in the Vietnam War there were a number of serving soldiers who wrote very powerful poems about their experiences, and there were novelists, and memoirists, and a great deal of writing comes out of Vietnam.
One thing that interests me particularly about the Vietnam War is the way in which a significant number of poets who served in the war have come to feel that it was, at least in some way, wrong, and have chosen to go back to Vietnam to meet their Vietnamese counterparts. A lot more American poets have gone back to Vietnam after the war to tell the truth, to talk to people, to be civilized, to be humane, than in the earlier wars.
I don’t remember that British soldiers ever went back to the Crimea or South Africa. It seems now that the poets have developed—perhaps this is fanciful—a sort of enlarged conscience, as if they are now more motivated by humanitarian instincts and are more likely to take a humanitarian stance.
In some cases they’re prepared to give up their jobs, to go back to Vietnam, which economically is not a very attractive proposition. You go back to the villages that you fought over, where you killed the men, women, and children, to make some form of reparation. I find it very moving that so many poets have done this.
Owen and Sassoon’s vision of the poet as witness is really the root of the matter. I mean Homer in a sense is testifying, is bearing witness, to what happens on the battlefield between the Greeks and the Trojans. Had he not written about those battles, had he not written about Troy, we wouldn’t know about Troy.
Now of course in the New World, or the world in which we now live, there are all sorts of other ways in which successive generations will know about these wars. Cameramen, radio, television, newspaper, journalists, are all testifying now.
In the longer term poets have a special role. What a really good poet gives you is this tremendous compression. To go back to our image of the armor-piercing shell, I think the poet’s armor-piercing shell pierces more and has a more lasting effect than the journalist’s piece written rather rapidly, probably hacked about by a copy editor, and published in a newspaper.
The poet’s shell has more impact than the cool analysis of a historian writing in his college room 40 years after the event he’s describing. What the poets can give you is the sense of being there, and this is why I feel sometimes quite strongly that that is what poets should be doing. They should be bearing witness, witness to what is happening in a war, in a hospital, wherever.
Poets bear witness every hour of the day in all sorts of different circumstances, but I don’t think that reading a newspaper is enough to justify one to bear witness against the war in Iraq.
Lowell wrote a wonderful poem called “Fall 1961,” in which he speaks of a father as being no shield for his child. He speaks about this as the Russian barges with their missiles are approaching Cuba, and he wonders whether the American President is going to press the button. Is World War III about to start?
Lowell is telling the truth about how he feels as an American father unable to shield his child against this coming fury, if it is to come. Now that seems to me a valid and very good subject for a poet in say, America, better than if he had written about imagining himself in the waters of Vietnam or wherever. This is particularly true in Lowell’s case because he was a conscientious objector. He felt very strongly about these things.
I don’t think that “The Charge of the Light Brigade” is a pro-war poem. I think it is a complicated poem, and what it does is what many good poems do. They don’t offer you just a single emotion.
In our lives many of our emotions are rather complicated. We say we love someone, but at the same time we’re a bit resentful of the fact that they do this or they said that. We feel both very strong affection and a measure of resentment, and a good poet will get into the poem both the affection and the resentment.
Remember Wilfred Owen speaking of the episode in which he and his young lance corporal captured the pillbox. He writes to his mother, “I was protected by your prayers. One I shot with my revolver. The rest I took with a smile, but I fought like an angel.”
He’s rather pleased with how well he did, but at the same time, of course, he hates war, but he’s honest enough to record moments of exaltation, exhilaration. He is aware of the brutality and the ugliness. He utterly deplores what is happening, but he’s honest enough to recognize the charge, the buzz of exhilaration.
Democratic Armies and War Poetry
Exerpted from interviews with Jon Stallworthy for
Voices in Wartime:The Movie.
Has poetry become more democratic?
A crucial element in the changes—both in warfare and in poetry—has been the shift from wars fought between armies of conscripted soldiers, people stuffed into uniform against their will who in private life might have been poets, might have been anything. You get this in the First World War after conscription comes in, and you get it in the Second World War.
When you come to Vietnam, my sense is that demographically the war was quite different because if you had the right sort of connections, and you could apply to go to college, you got an exemption. The result of this, as I understand it and I might be wrong here, was that many more African Americans went to Vietnam than demographically you might expect. These people, and the regular soldiers who go with them, are regular soldiers, and they are trained as soldiers, not as writers or poets.
In the First or the Second World War a great many people who think of themselves as poets are involved in the fighting, and so naturally they write poems about the fighting. In the Vietnam War relatively few people who think of themselves as poets find themselves in Vietnam.
That has to have a major effect, because poets aren’t born overnight. I believe very much that poets, like pianists, have to go through a long apprenticeship; it takes a long time to learn to be a poet. If you are a coal miner, or a doctor, and you suddenly find yourself in a battlefield situation, however strong your emotions, you are not likely to write a powerful poem about it unless you’ve had considerable training in the manipulation of language.
What come through many of the veteran poems from the Vietnam War are tremendous intensity of feeling, some very sharp perception, a great many very strong, jagged, visual or aural images, but not a great deal of structural ability: the ability to put together a large body of language to achieve a single persuasive effect, what the earlier generation would have called rhetoric.
The composition of the American army in Vietnam was essentially democratic. It wasn’t a war in which well-to-do, comfortably-off Americans sought to fight. I know some who did, but as a rule, there weren’t very many of those. More regular soldiers and foot soldiers did it because they needed the money and didn’t know how to get out of going, which is very different from the American or the British armies in World Wars One and Two.
My understanding is that in Iraq you get a big regular army and a lot of quite well-trained reserves, but in the nature of things you’re probably not going to get a very large number of poets among that group. I’m sure you’ll get some, but probably not a large number.
During the Vietnam War there was a very strong body of stateside poets who became famous and went ‘round the campuses, reading and protesting against the war, and all honor to them for doing that.
Their poems can be broadly divided into two categories, those who wrote as Alan Ginsberg did about the effect the war was having on America and those who chose to present themselves as if they were participants, even though all they had done was read the newspapers or watch television, and their poems seem to me less honorable, and certainly less good.
What poets have to do is write the best poems of which they are capable, and they normally do that by coming to terms, coming to grips, with their subject. Not many people write very good love poems who haven’t actually been in love, and not very many people write good war poems who haven’t had some experience with war.
Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” is an exception. There are exceptions, but you have to be a pretty wonderful poet to write an exceptional poem of that kind.
I was heartened to find that an American poet whose work I hugely admire, the poet Anthony Hecht, had taken a somewhat similar critical view of some of the poems of the Vietnam period, the poems that falsely profess to an active participation in the war.
He wrote a poem which goes something like this, ‘Here lies fierce Strephon/ whose poetic rage lashed out on Vietnam from page and stage/ whereby from basements or bohemia he ascended to celebrity/ being by fortune our eternal whore/ one of the few to profit by the war/ a fact he shares it bears some thinking on/ with certain persons at the Pentagon.” Hecht is saying that some of those poets were making a very nice livelihood, in a sense, on the Pentagon payroll.
Would you recite “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”?
Oh yes, one of the great poems of the war. May I read it? I almost know it but I would hate to get it wrong. In a sense the better a poem the more serious it is to get it wrong. Here is Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”
“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the state/ and I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze./ Six miles from the earth,/ loosed from its dream of life,/ I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters./ When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”
That seems to me a marvelous poem, a whole life condensed, compacted into five lines. He starts from the child being born in his mother’s sleep, and the image of the unborn child, or the newly-born child, the fetus, runs through the poem.
As Jarrell explained in a note about this poem, the ball turret on a B-29 was a plexiglass sphere set into the belly of the airplane, and it had, I think, twin machine guns. When the bomber was attacked from behind or underneath, the ball turret gunner could swivel his turret and engage the enemy. The gunner had to be small because it was a very small plexiglass sphere.
The gunner hunched in this round sphere is like a fetus in the womb. Much of the power of the poem seems to me to derive from the submerged, buried, but clearly present image of an abortion. He wakes; the child doesn’t wake to life. He wakes to black flak and the nightmare fighters: ‘When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.’
And Jarrell’s note says that the hose would have been a steam hose with tremendous pressure of boiling water. The idea of this poor dismembered gunner in his plexiglass sphere being washed out with a hose has a horrible resonance with the action of an abortion.
I think that the poem is about an unnatural death. This child should have grown up and lived its life in fields, and cities, had a job, married, and had children, and all that. Instead he’s dead and washed out of the turret with a hose. That seems to me to do what Blunden’s eye under the duckboard does.
That poem is very swift and very sharp, and it goes through all our armor. It sort of hits us in the solar plexus, and we can’t ever forget it. Maybe we can’t remember it word-perfect, but I think one remembers that poem after one has forgotten many book-length accounts of aerial warfare or whatever.