When I was eighteen, in 1957, attending the school in Tennessee, and, of course, not dealing well with my sexuality. I took a course in poetry that included poems that have stayed with me during the fifty years since. One, called “Greater Love,” began, Red lips are not so red, as the stained stones kissed by the English dead. It was by an English poet, Wilfred Owen, and was written in 1917, during the Great War. Kindness of wooed and wooer seems shame to their love pure. Oh love, your eyes lose lure, when I behold eyes blinded in my stead…..Owens proceeds through four stanzas, investigating the love he feels for his love, comparing it directly to the love expressed by men who are now dead in the trenches in France.
Your slender attitude
Trembles not exquisite like limbs knife-skewed,
Rolling and rolling there
Where God seems not to care;
Till the fierce Love they bear
Cramps them in death’s extreme decrepitude.
Your voice sings not so soft, —
Though even as wind murmuring through raftered loft, —
Your dear voice is not dear,
Gentle, and evening clear,
As theirs whom none now hear
Now earth has stopped their piteous mouths that coughed.
Wilfred Owen loved Siegfried Sassoon, who was the other great war poet from the First World War. The other great war poet.
Heart, you were never hot,
Nor large, nor full like hearts made great with shot;
And though your hand be pale,
Paler are all which trail
Your cross through flame and hail:
Weep, you may weep, for you may touch them not.
is by Liam Hoare. It is a review of a novel, Rejuvenation,
by Pat Barker, about the soldier’s rehabilitation hospital in which Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were examined by doctors treating soldiers shell-shocked from their experience in the trenches in France. Wilfred Owen died in France in 1918, one week before the Armistice was signed. Siegfried Sassoon lived until the late nineteen-sixties.
Also by Wilfred Owen is “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.