November 9, 2012 § 3 Comments
2014 is just round the corner – and politicians and the media, still glowing from the Olympics / Paralympics, are fixing on the centenary of the First World War (not just 1914 and ’18, but every flag and bugle call in between). Cameron is donning the donkey-head to lead ‘us’ into a National Commemoration, whereby we gather by cenotaphs (like cub-scouts, woggles askew, polishing our shoes on the backs of our socks) for a minute’s – no, ten minutes’ – silence, collectively ‘remembering’ the lost, English generation. The dominant images will be conservative, Protestant, white, Imperial, bucolic.
And poets and poetry will loom very large indeed, not only in how they articulated the horror, but the ways in which they speak to today’s crumbling world. Owen will ring out clearest, along with Thomas, perhaps. Sassoon (though as a survivor, he may lack the sheen) will be there, showing how we were all in it together. Rosenberg – a bit of rough from the East End, and a Jew, to boot – will ‘represent’ minorities; Gurney can cover the mental health angle.
But it was a World War, wasn’t it? Britain (though it will be Englishness that is celebrated, despite what tartan Davie Cameron might be wearing as he clings on, desperately, to the Union) lost almost a million men; France, almost one and a half million – over twice as many by proportion. Other nations suffering greater proportional losses included – on the Allied side – Greece, Italy and Romania; over 16% of the entire population of Serbia were killed, largely in the first year or so of the war. All the Central Powers lost more as a proportion of their populations than Britain – particularly the Ottoman Empire. And included in the casualty lists are the many hundreds of thousands of conscripts from European colonies, as well as recruited overseas labourers.
So how should contemporary English poets mark the event? Can we reclaim Edward Thomas? Should we set him alongside others who fought, in the end, because they couldn’t walk the other way – like my great grandfather, at 37 the same age as Thomas when he died (within a couple of months of him) at the Somme? Or can we follow Rosenberg’s ‘droll rat’ across the line and consider those poets of the ‘other’ side, equally bereft and shattered, equally concerned to voice the whole world’s loss, like the German Yvan Goll, whose ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe’ articulates an ‘exodus of so many men from their time’* as an international elegy?
*trans. Patrick Bridgewater, in The Penguin Book of the First World War, ed. Silkin (2nd edn, 1981, Penguin)