OUR article this week finds itself sandwiched between two very significant Sunday anniversaries, each of them 100 years old and a mere week apart, and, perhaps in a writer’s sense, intrinsically linked for all time.
On Sunday just gone, November 4, a century ago, whilst taking part in an Allied assault across the Sambre-Oise Canal, at the Western Front in France, poet Wilfred Owen was killed in action. Exactly one week later, on November 11, as his mother read the telegram containing the news of his death, the bells rang out from Shrewsbury Cathedral, and every other cathedral and church across Britain and Western Europe, in celebration of the ending of The Great War. It was Armistice Day, one hundred years ago next Sunday.
November 11, 1918, at 11:00am, the agreed moment that the guns silenced, that the bombs and shells halted, and that over four long years of carnage and human savagery, in what later became known as World War One, finally came to an end.
True, the suffering did not suddenly cease. The wounded, damaged and afflicted still had struggles to somehow try to come to terms with. Vast areas of countries were reduced to rubble. Four thousand villages in France alone, wiped out. And likewise, whole cities and towns, like Ypres, levelled to the ground, every last inch of it.
And the cruel terms of the aftermath. The crippling, barbaric depth attached to Greater Germany, along with years of protracted port city blockades by the British. Famine and starvation suffered by almost a million people long after the ink was dry on any treaty of peace or surrender. Large empires that had risen up against each other, flanked by allies and alliances, remained as vicious as fighting dogs, determined to grind their victim into the earth, regardless of human cost, and the ongoing damnation of another generation. Oh if only they knew the despot they would later spawn!
But, nonetheless, this date must be honoured. One level of horror had drawn to a close, and it in itself, is one of the greater days of humankind in the 20th Century. So what better way to mark it and remember it than with a poem of that scholar of the Western
Front, and one of the last to lay down his life. Throughout his poetic work, Owen captures his utter horror and disillusionment with all things war, and the inscription chosen by his mother for his headstone in Ors Communal Cemetery, Northern France testifies to same. His own words... ‘Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth all death will he annul...’
He may not have been optimistic that the ending of the conflict might come anywhere close to being a moment of joy, or a time of any celebration, rather a time to question, legitimately ask can we learn, as a people or species, can we absorb, can we move forward and onward? Was all of this or any of this for any real, lasting purpose? Of course it wasn’t. We learn lots, and at the same time nothing. He did not live one more week to witness that moment, The End. But his words did. One hundred years on.
After the blast of lightning from the east,
The flourish of loud clouds, the Chariot throne, After the drums of time have rolled and ceased And from the bronze west long retreat is blown,
Shall Life renew these bodies? Of a truth
All death will he annul, all tears assuage? Or fill these void veins full again with youth And wash with an immortal water age?
When I do ask white Age, he saith not so, – ‘My head hangs weighed with snow.’
And when I hearken to the Earth she saith My fiery heart sinks aching. It is death. Mine ancient scars shall not be glorified Nor my titanic tears the seas be dried.
John J Kelly is a multiple award-winning poet from Enniscorthy. He is the co-founder of the Anthony Cronin Poetry Award with the Wexford Literary Festival and co-ordinator of poetry workshops for schools locally. Each week, John’s column will deal mainly with novels, plays and poems from both the Leaving Certificate syllabus and Junior Certificate syllabus.