Monday, March 5, 2012

World War I Poetry and history lesson--with music

One of the more difficult moments I faced in teaching was to present poetry to my students.  Some teachers find this an easy topic; I do enjoy good poetry, but I have issues with trying to decipher the meaning of a poem, especially when the author/authoress is deceased.  It's not like they left a detailed note or message about their work either!

A poem I learned in high school has stayed in my memory after all these years:  Dulce Et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen, a British officer who was killed one week before the end of WWI.  In this poem, Owen describes the horror of retreating troops as they fall victim to a poison gas attack.  I used this poem to reflect upon the atrocities that occur not only in war to soliders, but also to civilians.  Saddam Hussein used a similar type of chemical warfare against the Kurds.  

I also used the song and video I edited (below) of "Children's Crusade" by Sting from his album The Dream of the Blue Turtles.  In it, he describes the blatant disregard for the lives of soldiers by the generals who were only interested in the glory of their name and effort...which I believe has been shown again and again throughout the bloody history of Mankind and the desire to go to war.  In this way, I brought music, history, and literature to this lesson about human nature and our legacy.  Sting also speaks of the eventual end result of war:  business continues on, even at the price of future generations, including those who have become caught in the international trafficking of drugs.

World War I-–named the Great War at the time--started at August 2, 1914. It was supposed to be "The war to end all wars."  It would be a short war ("Home before Christmas") but was to rage on for four long years with extreme devastating force. It was the first complete, large-scale, industrial war that would not only demand millions of dead, wounded, mutilated and missing among military and civilian people - children, women and men – but in addition was to bring incomprehensible material damage.  Machine guns, airplanes, poison gas, tanks, submarines, flamethrowers, 24-hour artillery barrages, barbed wire, and reckless slaughter of men--over 700,000 in one battle--decimated a generation. The French army lost over 2 million men. Over 1 million horses were taken into battle--and only 60,000 returned.

Philosopher, poet, and literary critic George Santayana spoke so accurately when he said the words (that someone else spoke 100 years before him): "Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

"Children's Crusade"

Young men, soldiers, 1914
Marching through countries they'd never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children's Crusade

Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death's bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

The children of England would never be slaves
They're trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History's lessons drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death's bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children's Crusade

The children of England would never be slaves
They're trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Midnight in Soho, 1984
Fixing in doorways, opium slaves
Poppies for young men, such bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children's Crusade     
"Dulce Et Decorum Est"
By Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out 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
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.
(“It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country.”)

The Latin phrase “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” is from an Ode by the Roman poet Horace and means “It is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country." Owen decries this and claims that it is nothing but a lie that was manufactured in the dawn of civilization and has been handed down from one generation to the next by propaganda pushers who are often interested only in their own gains. 

Explanation of the poem:
Siegfried Sassoon is on record as saying to Robert Nichols, “War is hell, and those who instigate it are criminals”, and it is these same criminals that Wilfred Owen accuses of spreading “That old lie: Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori,” but we must consider: is it really sweet and proper to die for one’s country? 

The attitudes of the poets would suggest otherwise and we must remember that these men were not simply romantic pen-pushers curled up on a desk. Both Sassoon and Owen fought at the frontlines in World War I and both went through the complete range of horrors of a war, from shattered corpses to bullet wounds, from seeing friends die to trudging through miles of mud.

Owens was bitterly enraged at the senseless killing of the battlefields and the inability of anyone (especially the church) to stop it and felt enormous pity for his fellow soldiers who suffered, fought, and died in the mud and misery of the trenches. He was horrified at what his sharp poet's eye saw at the front. 

Owen was defiantly opposed to the propaganda and war hype that misled young men into believing that by dying in a muddy battlefield and destroying all their personal creativity and talents they were doing a service to their country. These people would hide the real face of war from the youth and would push the men into the horrors of battle feet-first. What really ticked Owen off was the fact that the planners and organizers of the war had never seen the face of a battle and had no idea of what happened when they ordered soldiers to march into the midst of enemy’s positions and take over the posts so that another victory could be posted in their journals. He believed that men were the only creations that killed without reason, even carnivorous animals killed only for food and their survival. 

The poem “Dulce Et Decorum Est” has a narrative effect to it in which a veteran first describes the general state of his fellow soldiers then recalls his reaction to a friend slowly being killed by a chemical weapons attack which haunts him like a nightmare as if it were all his fault. Then he bitterly blasts the propaganda that has made war seem a light and beautiful thing, not the horror that it truly is.

STANZA 1 - A band of soldiers is retreating to their base and come under attack of the German artillery which is using chemical weapons in particular chlorine gas to exterminate the soldiers. The soldiers have spent weary and dreary days at the frontlines and every one of them carries physical reminders of their ordeal. If not scarred, bruised or injured they are “like old beggars under sacks” meaning that the burden of exhaustion is bringing them closer to collapsing. So wretched is their physical condition that they can be compared to hags (old, ugly women), though they are young! 

The men are moving towards a “distant rest”, there is still much to go through before this ordeal is over and they can get any relief. For some this could also imply a ‘permanent rest’. The soldiers are aloof of their surroundings, many “marched asleep” and scores of them trudge through the muddy and rocky terrain with no protection on their feet except their own blood. Also, horses are shod, not men. But even these horses with metal shoes are better off than the bare-footed men. The soldiers’ desperation and their being “drunk with fatigue” could also be a blessing, the soldiers are so exhausted they are unaware of their pains and sufferings and can only focus on the hope that the “distant rest” offers them. 

STANZA 2 - The soldiers are now under heavy attack by the German artillery using long-range chlorine gas shells and have been warned by their commanding officer to put on their gas masks on. Even then, an unlucky few are unsuccessful in applying the life-saving order. 

Following the officer’s command, “ecstasy (of fumbling)” seems to be an unusual word until we see that it means‘a morbid state of nerves in which the mind is occupied with solely one idea’. This would perfectly describe the state of the soldiers, they would even have forgotten why they were putting the masks on and in their frayed nerves and hurry would be fumbling to get the masks on. Then we are shown through Owen’s eyes the unlucky soldier who quite could not manage the effort to put his mask on and as the poet watches on horrified through his goggles the seemingly ‘distant’ man “flounders” in the mud like a man drowning in water thrashing his limbs in an effort to break free of the dim green envelope that surrounds him. 

STANZA 3 - From straight description Owens now looks back from a new perspective in the light of a recurring nightmare with a more personal touch. The “haunting flares” in stanza 1 only foreshadowed a more terrible haunting in which a friend, dying, “plunges at me” before “my helpless sight” an image that Owens could never forget.

STANZA 4 - The tone of the poem becomes colder and harder, Owen is lashing back at the men and women who sent the soldiers to their dooms and are peacefully sitting within their homes unaware of the war’s realities. He describes his experience as a nightmare (“smothering dreams”) which replicates in small measures the victim’s sufferings and wishes that the war organizers could experience this. The urgency and immediacy of the situation is so great that the soldiers can do nothing for their comrade save having “flung” him into a wagon. Even there he continues to disturb Owen.

The victim’s head is “hanging” out of the wagon and he is hit by jolts as the wagon rolls on, there is no stretcher-bearing for this dying man. Owen describes the chilling state the man is in with blood gurgling out of his mouth and the “froth-corrupted lungs” struggling to catch every breath. The “devil’s sick of sin” shows pain contorting the face of the victim. 

There is also a hint of hell everywhere which is what the soldiers are going through. The “vile incurable sores” are the bitter memories that will remain imprinted in the soldier’s minds (innocent young tongues) in such a manner that they will never be healed and will remain unbearable. Also, for a majority of the soldiers this would have been their first view of such horrific devastation and suffering, the images of which too could never be erased from their minds. 

The “you” that Owen addresses in line 21 could generally imply people but there is also one person in particular that it could refer to, the “my friend” identified as Jessie Pope, a children’s fiction writer whose patriotic poems epitomized the glorification of war that Owens so despised. 

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