Poems You Should Know: ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke

The transition from one artistic era to another seldom happens swiftly, but there is one notable exception: the abrupt and sweeping changes which took place in every field of European art during and immediately after World War One.

Written in 1914, ‘The Soldier’ by Rupert Brooke (1887-1915) is a sonnet which reflects the very end of the Victorian era, with its smug nationalism and unswerving sense of loyalty and duty. Brooke himself would not live to see the transition to Modernism; he died in 1915 on his way to serve at Gallipoli.

If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blessed by the suns of home.
.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Treasure Trove: ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wandsworth Longfellow

I first came across this poem as a Christmas carol adaptation by one of my favourite contemporary Christian bands, Casting Crowns (you can listen to their version here). Longfellow (1807-1882) wrote the original in 1863, in response to the American Civil War (1861-1865). It was an intensely personal poem: Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, had joined the War in the Union cause without his father’s blessing, and had later been seriously wounded in Virginia.

sidney-e-king-capture-of-ricketts-battery
Sidney E King, ‘The Capture of Rickett’s Battery’

Although it has subsequently been adapted several times, with the more specific references to the War altered or omitted, the original runs as follows:

 

 

 

Continue reading “Treasure Trove: ‘Christmas Bells’ by Henry Wandsworth Longfellow”

Mothers, Daughters, Wives; or, ‘what about the women’?

But you never thought to question,
You just went on with your lives,
‘Cos all they’d taught you who to be,
Was mothers, daughters, wives.

Judy Small, ‘Mothers, Daughters, Wives’

In recent years there’s been a growing awareness of the role that women played in World Wars One and Two, which has resulted in a growing body of non-fiction and fictionalised accounts of women’s lives during this time, from the classic Diary of Anne Frank to books and television shows about nurses and land girls (Australia’s ‘ANZAC Girls’; the BBC’s ‘Land Girls’). The Wars have also long provided a backdrop for paperback fiction aimed at women: romances and kitchen-sink dramas. But look for what might be classed as ‘classic literature’ by and about women in the Wars and you’re likely to be disappointed: there is no All Quiet on the Western Front, no Birdsong, no Catch-22. Women, when they appear at all, are almost always secondary characters who exist primarily as an (often-romantic) appendage of the men. Continue reading “Mothers, Daughters, Wives; or, ‘what about the women’?”

Poet Profile: Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)

Sassoon letter
From ‘Finished With The War: A Soldier’s Declaration’, written in 1917, which Sassoon first sent to his commanding officer. It was subsequently forwarded to the press, then read aloud in Parliament by a sympathetic politician.

Often considered to be second only to Wilfred Owen among the great poets of the First World War, Sassoon’s work stands out for two things in particular: first, for the open way in which he attacks those he considers responsible for the war – military command, politicians, bishops and so on – and secondly because he was one of the relatively few poets who survived the War and continued to write thereafter, branching out into prose with his fictionalised three-part autobiography which began with Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, published in 1928. Continue reading “Poet Profile: Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967)”

Through the Eyes of a Child: WWII in Children’s Literature

World War Two was the war of my father’s childhood. It began when he was one year old and lasted until he was seven, with societal repercussions (returning soldiers, damaged infrastructure, continued rationing etc.) that continued for far longer. So it makes perfect sense to me that some of the classic books of my childhood were written by people who lived through that same period and authored works which showed WWII from the point of view of children. Here, then, are five classic children’s books addressing the experience of children caught up in aspects of that particular conflict. In most cases it’s been many years since I read them, but they’ve stuck with me all this time, and that’s arguably the hallmark of truly great literature. Continue reading “Through the Eyes of a Child: WWII in Children’s Literature”

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (op. 85)

Reservoir Cemetery just after the war
Reservoir Cemetery, Ypres, just after WWI

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor is one of those (for me) rare things in classical music; a piece which I found instantly comprehensible. It is sad. Heartbreakingly sad, and angry, and touched with aching nostalgia. Composed in 1919, it is the composer’s last great master-work, a eulogy for the millions of war dead composed in the same Sussex home from which, during the War, Elgar had heard at night the artillery fire from across the Channel. It has also been speculated that it was a eulogy for one soldier in particular, the New Zealand-born son of his first love, Helen Weaver, who was killed on the Somme. Continue reading “Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor (op. 85)”

Paintings You Should Know: Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937)

Guernica is one of those rare things: a famous painting that I’ve actually seen, thanks to a visit to the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid while I was on my O.E. (‘Overseas Experience’) years ago. The overwhelming memory that I have of it is its size: Guernica is a mural, 3.49m by 7.76m, and the sheer size of it makes its subject matter intensely confrontational. As it should be, because Picasso intended his painting to depict war in all its horror, and in particular in the horror of its impact on non-combatants and innocents – women, children, and animals.

PicassoGuernica
Pablo Picasso, Guernica, 1937

Continue reading “Paintings You Should Know: Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937)”

Lest We Forget

ANZAC OdeLaurence Binyon composed his poem ‘For The Fallen’ just a few weeks after the outbreak of WWI. It is the fourth stanza, sometimes referred to as The Ode, which is most widely known, being recited at remembrance services in a number of Commonwealth nations, including the annual ANZAC Day dawn services here in New Zealand. Continue reading “Lest We Forget”

Seven Classic War Novels

poppyApril in New Zealand brings our annual day of remembrance for our military service men and women, and the ancillary personnel who support them. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day is held on the 25th of April, the anniversary of the day in 1915 when soldiers from the two British colonies began their ultimately futile campaign to seize the Gallipoli Peninsula in what is now Turkey, in an effort to take control of the Dardanelles and clear the way for an attack on Constantinople, at the heart of the Ottoman Empire. The four-month campaign, in which around 16,000 Kiwis and 20,000 Australians served with over 7,000 Kiwi and 8,000 Aussie casualties, was recognised almost immediately as a defining moment for both nations, and dawn services have been held in commemoration since at least the 1920s.

To mark ANZAC Day, the next couple of weeks will feature posts on some of the ways people have responded artistically to war, beginning with this one, which features six recognised classic novels on the subject. For the sake of consistency, I’ve organised this list based on the date of the conflict rather than the year the book was published. Continue reading “Seven Classic War Novels”