Sunday, January 24, 2010
368. Timor Mortis Non Conturbat Me
... tears by bards or heroes shed
Alike immortalize the dead.
When I travel in dreams to 1916,
to the barricades of Dublin, to the angry cannonades
by the streams of the Ancre above the Somme,
I can see their tired individual faces
squinting east into the sun.
Curiosity rather than fear now traces
the look in their eyes, hands clasped loosely on rifle or gun,
their look of wonder married to mild surprise,
the morning roll-ups drooping on young dry lips.
This thing we have been waiting for all our lives,
this event from boyhood only half-imagined,
is about to begin. What will it be like?
Timor mortis conturbat me is a Latin phrase commonly found in late medieval English poetry, translating to "fear of death disturbs me". The phrase comes from a responsory of the Catholic Office of the Dead, in the third Nocturn of Matins: Peccantem me quotidie, et non poenitentem, timor mortis conturbat me. Quia in inferno nulla est redemptio, miserere mei, Deus, et salva me.
"Sinning daily, and not repenting, the fear of death disturbs me. Because there is no redemption in hell, have mercy on me, O God, and save me."
The addition of 'Non' in the title renders the phrase into a negative: fear of Death does NOT disturb me. Why ever not? Here's some background:
Lord Kitchener's New Army consisted of 1914 civilian volunteers who had been trained throughout 1915 and shipped to France, for the most part, in the spring of 1916. These were idealistic patriotic young men, many of them serving with their friends or workmates in locally organised "Pal's Battalions" -- the very flower of English manhood. Their first and for many last battle began at 7.30 am on July 1st, 1916, the opening day of the great British attack just north of the River Somme. The battlefield extended for about 30 km (18 miles) in the Artois/Picardy region of northern France, from the villages of Gommecourt in the north to Montauban in the south, an area just east of Amiens and south of Arras and bisected by the River Ancre, a tributary of the Somme. Before evening fell more than 57,000 of these young soldiers had been killed or wounded, the worst single day for casualties in the whole history of the British Army, more than its battle casualties in the Crimean War, Boer War and Korean War combined. Reinforcing the catastrophic failure of the opening day, their commanding generals (primarily Sir Douglas Haig aided by his subordinates Rawlinson, Gough, Allenby and Snow) threw them into further attacks for another four months until winter brought the offensive to an end -- by which time they had suffered another 350,000 casualties and advanced exactly six miles. That was the end of the Volunteer Army, and the experiment of the Pal's Battalions was never to be repeated -- whole towns and villages throughout Britain had been plunged into mourning. Conscription came in and the War went on.
About two months previously in that same fateful year of 1916, other young men of similar age and patriotic disposition, members of the Irish Volunteers and Citizen Army who had refused to fight overseas for the British Empire, occupied strategic buildings in Dublin and declared an Irish Republic. The rebellion was ruthlessly crushed after the centre of the city had been destroyed by artillery. Martial law was declared and executions followed.
In spite of the vast differences in scale I have conjoined these two events in my poem, not to score any political points but to show that for young patriots facing their first armed conflict in a cause they passionately believed in, feelings on the eve of battle -- excitement, trepidation, curiosity, a desire to perform bravely, the nobility of the cause -- would not have entirely overcome their fear of death or maiming but would have done much to mitigate it, and would probably have been quite similar among both sets of young men.
Update ... Jan. 28
This poem made an appearance on several poetry lists and was nominated for an IBPC award, whatever that is, 'B' being Board (probably) and 'P' pretty definitely Poetry. I turned down the nomination, not peevishly, but for the reasons given:
Upon reflection, I have decided not to accept the nomination to IBPC for this poem. This may seem to be a rather strange and arbitrary decision, but it isn't really. It doesn't mean I plan to close the door irrevocably -- that's the kind of flat decision you make in your teens and twenties; as you begin to decay thereafter you tend to become more thoughtful and switch to the long game, adopting more of a wait-and-see attitude to just about everything -- and it's not beyond the bounds of imagination (as apart from harsh cold practicality) that I may come up with something, possibly on my 100th birthday, that is so-o-o-o fuckin good that nobody on earth can ignore it, never mind IBPC!! Dream on! I have a string of decades to go, barring war zones, drunken nights, earthquakes, explosions, traffic accidents, angry boyfriends (not mine, hers), sudden illnesses and sundry other catastrophes, so that I believe there may yet be time to chuckle in the darkness and hone my craft. Having been through most of the above before I am rather hoping there won't be re-runs.
I want to apologise to Steve and Bri for not going forward. I appreciate the nomination and the encouragement, but this is not the time, nor is this the poem I want to throw out there.
Sparks of interest in this poem only began to ignite when there was a better understanding of the events, both taking place nearly a century ago in 1916, that formed its background. Once the background was absorbed the poem made better sense for readers who came to it for the first time. This brings up two connected thoughts: 1) To what extent should a writer depend on the assimilated knowledge of his/her readers; and 2) Should a poem be able to stand alone without any supplementary explanations?
There are off-the-cuff opinions, without doubt, but what has been decided? The "classic" modernist turning point might be characterised by T.S. Eliot's "Wasteland" which appeared in 1922 with footnotes. Footnotes! Well, the traditionalists were absolutely scandalised. Of course they were. But, how many of the following works/authors could you read today without referential aids of one kind or another?
2. Mallory's "Morte d'Arthur"
3. The Canterbury Tales
4. The plays of Shakespeare
This is the Short List. The list extends to the Romantic Poets of the early 19th century who make free use of classical allusions that are no longer familiar to modern students. Poetry as a form of emotional shorthand depends heavily in its more complex forms upon some shared knowledge of historical or literary events/allusions among its readers or else loses all hope of concision. We need Primers to understand the mental world of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. Shortly (even now) we shall need Primers to understand the mental world of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.
The First World War ( 1914-18 ) falls under the same rubric. It has slipped from the file cabinets of daily life and people can grow impatient or even resentful when demands are made upon their historical memory: "How the hell should I be expected to remember all that crap?" A reader on a sister list praised this poem mildly and remarked that it was difficult to find 'a new slant' when it had all been done so well already by the Owens and the Sassoons, etc.
Well, ... yesss, with the enormous difference that from poor doomed Rupert Brooke at the beginning, all the other poets that followed: Sassoon, Graves -- (they were in the same regiment, the Royal Welch) -- Wilfred Owen ... (who met Sassoon at Craiglockhart Hospital, aka the Loony Bin) ... Herbert Read, Blunden, Edgell Rickword, Ivor Gurney, John McCrae, et al, actually lived through the experiences they wrote about. There is a tendency to lump them together as the War Poets -- now the FIRST War Poets -- as though the whole thing has been boxed and shelved and generally tidied up. The whole point is that even as the Great War fades chronologically in our memory -- the last of the boy-combatants has now succumbed, I believe -- the enormity of what happened remains.
Philip Larkin was one who returned to the theme in "MCMXIV":
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;
And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
There is a great danger of domesticating or even patronising the Past as Larkin seems to do so in his first three stanzas above, to relegate it from modern consciousness as an area of quaintness now long outgrown or superceded, something to be given the gloss of Disneyfication or else herded into various Theme Parks with admission prices and opening and closing times. This, I think, is a mistake. Looking at the jerky old newsreels or posed photographs we can smile at the fashions, the early motorcars, the peculiar telephones, and smugly believe we have left all that behind. We can even look at the bulky video cameras and somewhat-mobile phones of the 1980s and delight in the same feeling. This may make us feel superior (among the young the 1960s felt INFINITELY superior to the 1950s and everything that went before ... now the 60s are a half-century ago) but it overlooks the non-superficial, the things that never seem to change: the Seven Deadly Sins, for example, a form of behavioral shorthand which need no religious connection to be recognised. Emotional reactions, failures of judgement, moral lapses, are human phenomena that are still very much with us, and so is the potential for repeating the horrors of the past on an even grander scale.
A bit of a rant, sorry, but that's one of the things poems (and comments on poems) are for!
Posted by dedalus at 1:51 AM