Thursday, 6 November 2008

A Poem for Armistice

Yes, I know I've been truly shocking when it comes to paying any attention to this blog. At least I haven't quite let a whole year go by without posting.

I'm currently teaching literature of the First World War and encountering again the pathos and the waste, the images of mud, shellfire, gas and human incompetence, the tones of touching patriotism and bitter cynicism, the familiar names of Brooke, Sassoon, Graves, Rosenberg and Owen with which we are all so familiar. Today I finished reading Dominic Hibberd's biography of Owen. Yesterday I bought my red poppy and it meant more to me than it has for a long time. If you haven't read any WWI literature, here are some recommendations. Erich Maria Remarque: 'All Quiet on the Western Front'; Vera Brittain: 'Testament of Youth'; 'Scars Upon my Heart', an anthology giving the female perspective on the war, edited by my late friend Catherine Reilly. And then there are the modern takes on the subject: Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy, for example. I must get round to reading Sebastian Faulks' 'Birdsong'. I'm also looking forward to reading the biography of the last veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, who's 110 years old: 'The Last Fighting Tommy'.

There's only so much of this material you can read at a time because it is so moving, so piognant, so dispiriting. After all, it's not as if we seem to have learned very much from it. However, I do believe that we all should read and learn and remember what happened. My teenage nephew went on a tour of WWI battlefields last year and it had a tremendous effect on him. On the BBC news website today is an article about the battlefields as they now lie, with the familiar images of trench lines and craters scarcely blurred by the passage of ninety years, of the memorials and lines of white lozenges marking the graves of the fallen, of silent woods.

Everything I write is like a cliche. For Armistice I'm going to post a poem - and it may not be one you've come across before. It's not Owen with his Anthems and old lies, it's not Sassoon with his genial killer-General, it's not Brooke with his patriotic fervour for of old England. It's A.E. Housman. I love this poem by its utterly moving understated economy and the simplicity of its language:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is, and we were young.

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