November 7, 2013 § 2 Comments
In trying to tackle the subject of the First World War in poetry, I’m finding that, despite clear political convictions about this, things become are becoming emotionally muddy. While I hope I would have had the courage to have conscientiously objected to any participation in the conflict, I can admit that, at best, I don’t know what my response would have been; in fact, given the pressures that were brought to bear on young men about their social and moral responsibility to sign up, I reckon I might well have gone.
Whether or not this would have been the case, I can certainly say that, from this distance, the grievous nature and outcome of that war are more readily evoked by contemplation of ‘the fallen’ than from the stories and testimonies of conscientious objectors. Reading David Jones’ In Parenthesis, his association of the casualties at the front with the Celtic legends of the ‘sleeping ones’ – Arthur and other heroes, lying beneath their mounds – and the inference that in them lies the salvation of the people, promotes a romanticism which goes against the vision of chaos, destruction and futility that he so successfully articulates. The poems through which we encounter the First World War, however critical a stance they take, posit the centrality of the fallen soldier: and whether we see this in terms of noble sacrifice or politically-driven slaughter, death in battle takes top spot in our culture’s emotional hierarchy of need – with survivors below them (whatever horrors they consequently live with), and refusers very much at the bottom.
Our responses today are much more equivocal: yet the dominant narrative, while perhaps broader (the families left behind, the silences of those returning, the change in attitudes), still tends to avoid consideration of the effects of war on those that refused to fight. The same seems to hold for poetry. In the run-up to 2014, the allure of battle – whether at Ilium or on the Western Front – is clear. We weigh the pity of war with our dead.