Guest poem sent in by GB (Ireland)
(Poem #1644) On Passing the New Menin Gate
Who will remember, passing through this Gate, The unheroic Dead who fed the guns? Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate, - Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones? Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own. Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp; Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone, The armies who endured that sullen swamp. Here was the world's worst wound. And here with pride 'Their name liveth for evermore' the Gateway claims. Was ever an immolation so belied As these intolerably nameless names? Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.
For poetry that brings home the vicious inhumanity of modern mass warfare, it is hard to surpass Siegfried Sassson, and for me the best of his poetry is On Passing New Menin Gate. Ironically, Sassoon himself volunteered himself for service in the British Army in World War One, where his almost suicidal courage (to some extent a reaction to the death of his younger brother earlier in the War in the Gallipoli campaign) earned him a Military Cross (the ribbon of which he later threw in the River Mersey) and would have earned him another, but for the fact that the battle in which he had fought had been lost and the award of a medal was deemed impolitic. At some point, the slaughter became too much for Sassoon. He then showed that his courage was not confined to the battlefield. Whilst on convalescent leave, he wrote a Declaration of "wilful defiance" against the continuation of the war, for which, but for the intervention of his friend Robert Graves, he would have been court-martialled. Instead he was hospitalised for shell shock (with the poet Wilfred Owen, who became a great friend). Eventually, he resumed his military career, fought as bravely as ever, and was recuperating from injuries sustained when the war ended. He lived quietly through World War II and died in 1967. I first came across this poem in school, where its shocking honesty gave it an impact in the classroom that no other poem had. Not for Sassoon the euphemisms and clichés that honour the dead of the war but simultaneously disguise their fate. The fallen are unheroic. (Other poetry of Sassoons looks at the motives which brought them to the war.) They are unvictorious. The fate inflicted on them by the society which sent them to die in a swamp is foul. They have been fed to the guns by their political masters (or by society or by all of us). Contrary to this monument tells us, their name liveth not for evermore they are no more than the nameless victims of a criminal immolation, who, if they could live again, would see what had been done to them and deride societys payment in the form of this monument - a pile of stone. I can only imagine the impact that this poem, which I believe was first published in 1936, must have produced in the inter-war period to its readers, many or most of whom would have lost friends or relatives in the war. Compare this with Wilfred Owen's similarly impressive Dulce Et Decorum Est (Poem #32 on Minstrels). Contrast it with John McCraes In Flanders Field (Poem #11 on Minstrels) which the dead ask for the living to take up our quarrel with the foe, and which I must admit, perhaps because of my awareness of the awful scale of the deaths in World War One, I have never liked. For me, it seems far less impressively aware of terrible political realities than this poem, but perhaps as a testament to individual motivation for what (in spite of Sassoons valid perspective) in many cases was heroic self-sacrifice, it is also worthy of attention. Another good poem on Minstrels (with a good discussion attached) is Hayden Carruths On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam (Poem #1214 on Minstrels). Yeats was appropriately modest (or perhaps politically wise) when asked to write a war poem (See Poem #1040) but poetry like Sassoons, Carruths , Owens, Kettles, Ledwidges and perhaps even McCraes show us that poets do have contributions of great value to give us on this topic. GB [Links] There are some good sites on Sassoon. The best biography is at http://www.sassoonery.demon.co.uk/ His obituary in the Times is also worth reading. http://www.sassoonery.demon.co.uk/sass-obituary.htm#top Another biography is found at [broken link] http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/8103/ And a few of his poems are to be found at http://www.sassoonery.demon.co.uk/remembrance.htm PS: There are a number of other good Sassoon poems on Minstrels.