Although Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen are the two names I see crop up most often when checking out World War I poetry, today’s selection is an extract from a longer poem of Charles Hamilton Sorley. As quoted from this delightful and grim book I was given as a gift, Anthem For Doomed Youth, a collection of the work of twelve WWI poets, Jon Stallworthy points out how the dead in Sorley’s poems are “not heroic Homeric shades, garlanded with glory, but an indistinguishable ‘o’ercrowded mass.'” Great art can come from great atrocity, but we must never confuse the two.
[I have not brought my Odyssey]
I have not brought my Odyssey
With me here across the sea;
But you’ll remember, when I say
How, when they went down Sparta way,
To sandy Sparta, long ere dawn
Horses were harnessed, rations drawn,
Equipment polished sparkling bright,
And breakfasts swallowed (as the white
Of eastern heavens turned to gold) –
The dogs barked, swift farewells were told.
The sun springs up, the horses neigh,
Crackles the whip thrice-then away!
From sun-go-up to sun-go-down
All day across the sandy down
The gallant horses galloped, till
The wind across the downs more chill
Blew, the sun sank and all the road
Was darkened, that it only showed
Right at the end the town’s red light
And twilight glimmering into night.
The horses never slackened till
They reached the doorway and stood still.
Then came the knock, the unlading; then
The honey-sweet converse of men,
The splendid bath, the change of dress,
Then – oh the grandeur of their Mess,
The henchmen, the prim stewardess!
And oh the breaking of old ground,
The tales, after the port went round!
(The wondrous wiles of old Odysseus,
Old Agamemnon and his misuse
Of his command, and that young chit
Paris – who didn’t care a bit
For Helen – only to annoy her
He did it really, K.T.A.*)
But soon they led amidst the din
The honey-sweet –* in,
Whose eyes were blind, whose soul had sight,
Who knew the fame of men in fight –
Bard of white hair and trembling foot,
Who sang whatever God might put
Into his heart.
And there he sung,
Those war-worn veterans among,
Tales of great war and strong hearts wrung,
Of clash of arms, of council’s brawl,
Of beauty that must early fall,
Of battle hate and battle joy
By the old windy walls of Troy.
They felt that they were unreal then,
Visions and shadow-forms, not men.
But those the Bard did sing and say
(Some were their comrades, some were they)
Took shape and loomed and strengthened more
Greatly than they had guessed of yore…
It is too problematic for my literary conscience to only include half of the poem, but for the sake of time, I will leave the other half for tomorrow. The *s mark where I do not have access to the original Greek words included in the poem.