During the recent unpleasantness in Iraq, bloggers have been quoting from all manner of poets, but unless I’ve missed something, they’ve all ignored two of the great English-language war poets of the last century, and I’m here to remedy the omission. I’ll start with the virtually forgotten David Jones, who fought in World War One with the Royal Welch Fusiliers and never got over the experience, using it as the backbone for his two great book-length poems, In Parenthesis (1937) and The Anathemata (1952). I shouldn’t call In Parenthesis a poem, actually; it’s a unique melding of poem and novel, with some passages in prose:
That one went up at an unexpected nearness. The faraway dancing barrier surprisingly much nearer; you even hear the dull report quickly upon the uprising light; and now, right where they walked, at sudden riot against your unsuspecting ear-drums, a Vicker’s team discovers its position, by low builded walls of sacks; and men worked with muffled hammerings of wood on wood; and the front files pause again.
and others in verse:
He can’t keep off it—like a bloke with a pimple.
What’s the use of the place anyway—where’s the sense in it.
Don’t talk wet.
Who’s talking wet.
You’re talking wet.
They get warmed to it—they’re well away in
tactics and strategy and
the disciplines of the wars—
like so many Alexanders—are perfect in the great comman-
ders names—they use match-ends
the dispositions of
forces and countermure.
Who’s bin reading Land and Water.
Don’t nobble Chinese Gordon.
When did they pass you out Hector-boy.
Sheer waste of intelligence—notorious
the man with the missed vocation.
The only thing I know remotely like it is Odysseus Elytis’s The Axion Esti.
The Anathemata has a wider scope, embracing the whole sweep of history:
Twelve hundred years
since of the Seven grouped Shiners
one doused her light.
Since Troy fired
since they dragged him
without the wall.
When they regarded him:
his beauties made squalid, his combed gilt
a matted mop
his bruised feet thonged
under his own wall.
Why did they regard him
the decorous leader, neque decor . . .
volneraque illa gerens . . . many of them
under his dear walls?
What centuries less
since the formative epochs, the sign-years in Saturn’s
tellus, in the middle lands of it? For even for the men with
the groma, even for the men of rule, whose religio is rule
for the world-orderers
for the world-syndicate
even for us
whose robbery is conterminous with empire?
It still has something to say to us, no? But Jones isn’t all trenches and squalor; the one quote from him that I’ve seen blogged (in the German-language Credo ut intelligam) is this lovely ode to spring from The Anathemata:
On the ste’lyard on the Hill
weighed against our man-geld
between March and April
when bough begins to yield
and West-wood springs new.
Such was his counting-house
whose queen was in her silent parlour
on that same hill of dolour
about the virid month of Averil
that the poet will call cruel.
Such was her bread and honey
when with his darling Body (of her body)
he won Tartary.
Then was the droughts of March moisted to the root by that shower that does all fruit engender—and do constitute what they hallow an’ chrism these clerks to minister that kings and queens may eat therof and all poor men besides.