Revisiting: “Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Robert Nichols, a fellow English war poet, wrote an introduction to Siegfried Sassoon’s 1918 collection Counter-Attack and Other Poems that is reprinted in my Dover Edition of the War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon. In it, Nichols recounts a conversation he once had with Sassoon, on the topic of “certain exalté poems in [Nichols's] Ardours and Endeavours.” Sassoon likes the poems, and says:

“War has made me. I think I am a man now as well as a poet. You have said the things well enough. Now let us nevermore say another word of whatever litlte may be good in war for the individual who has a heart to be steeled.”

I remember I nodded, for further acquaintance with war inclines me to his opinion.

“Let no one ever,” he continued, “from henceforth say a word in any way countenancing war. It is dangerous even to speak of how here and there the individual may gain some hardship of soul by it. For war is hell and those who institute it are criminals. Were there anything to say for it, it should not be said for its spiritual disasters far outweigh any of its advantages.”

War poems are, in some sense, a kind of Remembrance. Many are about individual fallen comrades; many more refer to the unnamed dead. Ghosts are everywhere, and dying men are everywhere, suffering and taking their last breaths. The poems are a record of horror and calamity, and many are also accusations.

How then

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Revisiting: “What silly beggars they are to blunder in/And scorch their wings with glory, liquid flame”

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

On Tuesday, one of the poems I wrote about, “To Any Dead Officer,” ends very bluntly, as I noted: “I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.” This kind of bluntness is characteristic, especially as a sort of epigrammatic last line to Sassoon’s poems. “Trench Duty” ends, “I’m wide awake; and some chap’s dead.” “The General,” one of Sassoon’s turns at the vulgarly humorous side of war poetry, finishes abruptly and unfunnily for our two comic actors: “But he did for them both by his plan of attack.” “The One Legged Man” last “thought: ‘Thank God they had to amputate!’”

One of the most powerful uses of this blunt instrument is in “Repressions of War Experience,” a poem about a demobbed soldier who is badly shell-shocked. The poem is off-putting in many ways. Sassoon abandons his usual clear if somewhat irregular stanzas for a more open form, and the narrator seems to drift through this open form just as his consciousness, troubled as it is, drifts illogically from one topic to the next (“And you’re right as rain…./Why won’t it rain?…”) Like “To Any Dead Officer,” this poem deals with Sassoon’s view of the afterlife, and like many of his war poems has a strong hint of nature about it.

There must be crowds of ghosts among the trees,— Not people killed in battle,—they’re in France,— But horrible shapes in shrouds—old men who died Slow, natural deaths,—old men with ugly souls, Who wore their bodies out

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Revisiting: More on Siegfried Sassoon, bitter and sweet

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Yesterday I ended with a question about Sassoon’s bitterness. Today I want to discuss a theme in many of Sassoon’s poems that is often treated more sweetly than you might expect: death. I mean here the state of death, the afterlife in the most literal sense possible—what happens after life ends.

Sassoon speculates often on what death is like, and though he has several reuseable phrases at hand to euphemise it—“gone out patrolling in the dark”, “beyond the wire”, “gone West”—even these are poignant and not (yet?) cliché. Sassoon’s attitute toward death is one of curiosity and interest; that curiosity may be tinged with sadness but it’s motivated by the care and love he feels for his dead comrades. Here, in “To Any Dead Officer,” he begins:

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say, Because I’d like to know that you’re all right. Tell me, have you found everlasting day, Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

Elsewhere these attitudes toward death verge on the playful. In “The Investitute,” a soldier makes his way through the pearly gates, where “God says something kind because you’re dead,/And homesick, discontented with your fate.”

If I were there we’d snowball Death with skulls; Or ride away to hunt in Devil’s Wood With ghosts of puppies that we walked of old. But you’re alone; and solitude annuls Our earthly jokes; and strangely wise and good You roam forlorn along the streets of gold.

These lines, like the ones

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Revisiting: “The Kiss” by (and more on) Siegfried Sassoon

On Fridays during my Great War project, at least until I run out of material, I intend to look back on what I can of various Great War–related reading I’ve done over the years. The original posts may have quite a different focus, but that should make things all the more interesting.

Why not have a week on Siegfried Sassoon? I mean to say, on his war poems. I can name a few good reasons: I’m not even really supposed to have read them yet; I probably ought to be writing about a lot of other things first; should one shortish book of poetry really make up a week? But as Tom suggested, these war poets make good guinea pigs for poetry-blogging, and Sassoon seems a good place to start.

Anthony recently posted on one of the problems with reading and writing history, quoting a review in the TLS by Joanna Bourke that states that ”it is noticeable that elaborate recitations on the horrors of war do not necessarily translate into a politics of non-violence.”

Geoff Dyer is fairly quick to point this out in The Missing of the Somme.

For all their abhorrence of war the poets of protest like Owen, Sassoon and Graves continued—for very different reasons—to wage it. Dominic Hibberd has pointed out how the official citation for Owen’s Military Cross refers to his having ‘personally manipulated a captured enemy M[achine] G[un]…and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy'; in the Collected Letters Owen’s family offer a milder rewrite of the citation, in which he ‘personally captured an enemy Machine Gun…and took a number of prisoners’. Sassoon seems to have oscillated between bouts of frenzied violence and bitter loathing of the war that unleased this strain in him. Graves recalls that he ‘had never

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Last Friends by Jane Gardam

In the June issue of Open Letters Monthly, I review Last Friends, the third of Jane Gardam’s Filth novels.

Bring on the drama

As others are haunted about not reading enough women,or enough YA, or enough world literature, I frequently torture myself over how little I read that is not prose (among many, many other things, of course). It’s bad enough the way I read fiction at the expense of nonfiction, the share of the universe of excellent essays and criticism I neglect, but the amount of space in my reading life accorded to poetry and, especially, drama, is pretty pathetic.

I’ve gotten somewhat better in the poetry side of things, and on the nonfiction side as well, though these are both things I find difficult to blog about so you often miss them here. It’s something I’d like to rectify. But to even things out in the drama department (and initially inspired, truth be told, by a Netflix marathon of Kenneth Branagh on recent weekend, along with other similar influences), I recently decided I would finally get around to reading all of Shakespeare’s plays (and finally Ocford Word’s Classics has editions that are actually attractive)–in my own sweet time, of course–as well as get into some Jacobean drama.

The most notable experience of reading the play was noticing how very many lines have become common references or clichés. It’s not just “mine eyes dazzle!”; I basically felt like I knew somewhere between a third and half the play. This is not to denigrate reading it in any way–quite the opposite. It was an enlightening experience, as well as entertaining.

The funny thing is, just as with poetry, and with short stories if I’ve stayed away from them a long time, I was also quickly noticing how much I enjoy reading in the form and wondering why I don’t do more of it. I’ll get to Shakespeare separately, as King

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Robinson by Muriel Spark

I’m aiming to do a few “quick hit” type posts this week, both to help get back into the swing and to put off writing about The Good Soldier Švejk for a while (though I should be writing about Švejk immediately after my other war post, sigh).

Today’s I’ve got Robinson, Muriel Spark’s second novel, on the menu. It’s the story of a mid-twentieth-century plane crash of which there are three survivors, stranded on a desert island. Scratch that—the island is not desert, but inhabited by on Robinson (and named after him). Robinson is a man of some independent means who has chosen, for apparently religious reasons, to live basically as a hermit.

The narrator of the novel, January Marlow, is, like a major character in The Comforters, a convert to Catholicism, and though pragmatic is quite serious about the faith. There are Catholic, and specifically Catholic-among-the-English, subtexts to much of the novel. This is a feature of Spark’s writing I’m curious to see develop further as I go further into her novels chronologically, and I don’t have much to say about it at this point other than that Spark seems to me to be an overlooked “Catholic writer,” especially “Anglo-Catholic writer.” I don’t think many put her in the same camp as an Evelyn Waugh or a Graham Greene or a T.S. Eliot (or a Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy) in this respect, and I’ve been wondering more and more whether they shoud.

As for Robinson itself, it’s an exploration of the bounds of civil society and of trust, of religion and reasonableness, of coping mechanisms for both being alone and being among people, and of the changing behavior and even nature of human beings as they shift from a modern-sized society to a small—perhaps

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Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson

At the beginning of this week, I discussed the morality of Middlemarch, and how the results that Rohan Maitzen was somewhat uncomfortable with rest on the problem that Eliot’s morality is not based on dessert. Today, I’ve got a book about exactly the opposite problem.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, a 1973 novel by British avant-garde writer B.S. Johnson, features a protagonist who applies the principles of accounting to everyday life. Not in the sense that he balances his checkbook every night, though; he’s balancing his moral accounts with the rest of the world. I should say that there are a lot of stylistic features of Christie Malry that I’m not going to write about, at least not right now, that are wonderful fun (and I have more Johnson sitting next to me as I type).

Christie’s “first reckoning” with the world gives a general idea of what he’s doing. In the debit column, he puts “aggravation[s],” like “unpleasantness of bank manager” (his boss), “restriction of movement due to Edwardian Office Block,” (referring to the fact that he had to walk around rather than through a particular building), and “bulb importuning” (referring to a flower bulb sales flier). Christie assigns monetary values to all these debits—values which are, as they must be, arbitrary, though they seem to have at least some relation to each other. Bulb importuning costs a lot less than his office supervisor’s lack of sympathy about the death of Christie’s mother. But they don’t seem to be related to any external scale.

Meanwhile, the credit column consists of “recompense” for these debits, some of which are actions by others (“small kindnesses from Joan”), but most of which are Christie taking action on his own in an attempt to balance the accounts: he scratches the facade

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Is the morality of Middlemarch appalling?

As a child, I had a reasonable amount of exposure to, if not very good instruction in, Christianity and its texts. One story I didn’t understand until very recently (as in, a couple months ago when the consumption partner finally explained it to me) was that of The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Chances are good that you know it: a man has two sons, the younger asks for his share of the estate in advance, then goes away and squanders the cash. Destitute, he returns home and is welcomed by his father, who “said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”

The older son, who’s been home and working hard the whole time, isn’t very happy about this. He refuses to party with the rest of the household, eventually yelling at his dad, “‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’”

Despite knowing now that the point of the story (again, according to the CP) is something like, “God’s reward is equal for everyone,” my only reaction is the same: this shit is completely unfair. And when my man told me this, I immediately shouted back, “Then it’s just like the other

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The infinite Shoeblack

Several passages in Sartor Resartus focus on the attainment of happiness or contentment, and I have not yet assembled the whole Meta-Philosophy of Clothes into a coherent whole to explain exactly what Teufelsdröckh and Carlyle might think about it. A start.

Teufelsdröckh attributes the unhappiness of humans to their “Greatness,” that is, “there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite.” He goes on to elucidate the problem:

Will the whole Finance Ministers and Upholsterers and Confectioners of modern Europe undertake, in joint-stock company, to make one Shoeblack HAPPY? They cannot accomplish it, above an hour or two; for the Shoeblack also has a Soul quite other than his Stomach; and would require, if you consider it, for his permanent satisfaction and saturation, simply this allotment, no more, and no less: God’s infinite Universe altogether to himself, therein to enjoy infinitely, and fill every wish as fast as it rose. Oceans of Hochheimer, a Throat like that Ophiuchus! Speak not of them; to the infinite Shoeblack they are as nothing. No sooner is your ocean filled, than he grumbles that it might have been of better vintage. Try him with half of a Universe, of an Omnipotence, he sets to quarrelling with the proprietor of the other half, and declares himself the most maltreated of men. —Always there is a black spot in our sunshine: it is even, as I said, the Shadow of Ourselves.

Teufelsdröckh’s answer to this is renunciation; we must move on from the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of blessedness only. There is a strain throughout Sartor Resartus exploring the continuation of spirituality and some kind of religion after the Romantic death of God. This was very important to Teufelsdröckh, who lost his faith as a

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