Wednesday, April 13, 2005

No, Turns Out I'm Not Done With WWI Poets

The poetry of WWI really is the most amazing petri dish of cultural metamorphosis. You can just watch Victorian literary consciousness careen headlong into the embankment of modernity and crack up. The husk of the 19th century, that tenacious zombie religion of order and formalism, just gets incinerated away, leaving this utterly raw, exposed and stunned sensibility that has to speak, can’t not speak, and grasps for the first time at the language of actual experience to supplant rejected rhetoric.

Isaac Rosenberg is a gorgeous exemplar of this. The thing happens to him visibly over the course of his (brief; killed on patrol in 1918) oeuvre. Before the war he's writing the most frightful neoVictorian doggerel (e.g., 'A Ballad of Whitechapel', 1910, too long and too grotesque to transcribe here, but included in the Selected Poems): formalistic, constipated, a freakish laminate of high-Hardyan Poetic diction over proto-20th-century social observation. Disaster.

Immediately the war starts, even before he's in it, you can see the cracks start to form--the diction streamlining, getting both more elliptical and more concrete. It's happening already in 'August 1914'. By 1916, in 'Break of Day in the Trenches', he's moved into a new territory, both emotive and dictional. The final quatrain:

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

reflects a whole different sensibility, the location of the significant in the casual and quotidian, in direct opposition to that old impulse to jimmy the quotidian into the restrictive jello-molds of Meaning. He's been bulldozed into a new, a better poetics by the brute weight of catastrophe.

And that's the rockin' thing about WWI: it's just all right out there. History on the hoof.

Exciting Ultraweb Bonus: Rosenberg's 'In War' is one of the loveliest and most heartbreaking war poems I know, and as it's not lurking around online anywhere, I shall laboriously transcribe it here for the common weal.

In War

Fret the nonchalant noon
With your spleen
Or your gay brow,
For the motion of your spirit
Ever moves with these.

When day shall be too quiet,
Deaf to you
And your dumb smile,
Untuned air shall lap the stillness
In the old space for your voice--

The voice that once could mirror
Remote depths
Of moving being,
Stirred by responsive voices near,
Suddenly stilled for ever.

No ghost darkens the places
Dark to One;
But my eyes dream,
And my heart is heavy to think
How it was heavy once.

In the old days when death
Stalked the world
For the flower of men,
And the rose of beauty faded
And pined in the great gloom,

One day we dug a grave:
We were vexed
With the sun's heat.
We scanned the hooded dead:
At noon we sat and talked.

How death had kissed their eyes
Three dread noons since,
How human art won
The dark soul to flicker
Till it was lost again:

And we whom chance kept whole--
But haggard,
Spent--were charged
To make a place for them who knew
No pain in any place.

The good priest came to pray;
Our ears half heard,
And half we thought
Of alien things, irrelevant;
And the heat and thirst were great.

The good priest read: 'I heard...'
Dimly my brain
Held words and lost....
Sudden my blood ran cold....
God! God! It could not be.

He read my brother's name;
I sank--
I clutched the priest.
They did not tell me it was he
Was killed three days ago.

What are the great sceptred dooms
To us, caught
In the wild wave?
We break ourselves on them,
My brother, our hearts and years.

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