20th Century Poets-13

POETS ON THIS PAGE:

SEAMUS HEANEY * WILFRED OWEN * SIEGFRIED SASSOON * IVOR GURNEY * ISAAC ROSENBERG * WORLD WAR I POETRY IN ENGLAND * JOHN ALLAN WYETH, JR. * LAURENCE BINYON

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Poems by the Nobel prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney:

OLD SMOOTHING IRON

Often I watched her lift it
from where its compact wedge
rode the back of the stove
like a tug at anchor.

To test its heat she'd stare
and spit in its iron face
or hold it up next her cheek
to divine the stored danger.

Soft thumps on the ironing board.
Her dimpled angled elbow
and intent stoop
as she aimed the smoothing iron

like a plane into linen,
like the resentment of women,
To work, her dumb lunge says,
is to move a certain mass

through a certain distance,
is to pull your weight and feel
exact and equal to it.
Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.

by Seamus Heaney

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

by Seamus Heaney

From Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

Blackberry-Picking

                         for Philip Hobsbaum

Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer's blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full,
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.

We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn't fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they'd keep, knew they would not.

by Seamus Heaney

from Opened Ground: Selected poems 1966-1996. Copyright © 1999 by Seamus Heaney.

Mid-Term Break

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o'clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were 'sorry for my trouble'.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

by Seamus Heaney

from Opened Ground: Selected poems 1966-1996. Copyright © 1998 by Seamus Heaney.

DOUBLETAKE [aka “The Cure at Troy”]

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted and endured.

The innocents in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker's father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.

Call the miracle self-healing:
The unpredictable
double-take of feeling.
if there's fire on the mountain
or lightning and storm
and a god speaks from the sky.

That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term. 
It means once in a lifetime
that justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.

 

by Seamus Heaney

THE PITCHFORK

Of all implements, the pitchfork was the one
That came near to an imagined perfection:
When he tightened his raised hand and aimed with it,
It felt like a javelin, accurate and light.

So whether he played the warrior or the athlete
Or worked in earnest in the chaff and sweat,
He loved its grain of tapering, dark-flecked ash
Grown satiny from its own natural polish.

Riveted steel, turned timber, burnish, grain,
Smoothness, straightness, roundness, length and sheen.
Sweat-cured, sharpened, balanced, tested, fitted.
The springiness, the clip and dart of it.

And then when he thought of probes that reached the farthest,
He would see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past
Evenly, imperturbably through space,
Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless--

But has learned at last to follow that simple lead
Past its own aim, out to an other side
Where perfection--or nearness to it--is imagined
Not in the aiming but the opening hand.

by Seamus Heaney

POSTSCRIPT

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightening of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you'll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.

by Seamus Heaney

Liam Neesen reads poems by Seamus Heaney:

*************************************************************


English Poets from World War I

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
   Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
   Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
   Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs--
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
   And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
   Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
   The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

by Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918

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 out 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 tired, outstripped Five-Nines* that dropped 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.*

by Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918

*Five-Nines were German cannon that frequently fired shells holding poison gas.

*Dulce . . . mori is from Horace’s Latin and may be translated as “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”

Alex Jennings reads the Wilfred Owen anti-war poem:

STRANGE MEETING

It seemed that out of battle I escaped 
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped 
Through granites which titanic wars had groined. 

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned, 
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred. 
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared 
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless. 
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,--- 
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell. 

With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained; 
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground, 
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan. 
'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.' '
None,' said that other, 'save the undone years, 
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, 
Was my life also; I went hunting wild 
After the wildest beauty in the world, 
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair, 
But mocks the steady running of the hour, 
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here. 
For by my glee might many men have laughed, 
And of my weeping something had been left, 
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold, 
The pity of war, the pity war distilled. 
Now men will go content with what we spoiled, 
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled. 
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress. 
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress. 
Courage was mine, and I had mystery, 
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery: 
To miss the march of this retreating world 
Into vain citadels that are not walled. 
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels, 
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells, 
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint 
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war. 
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were. 

'I am the enemy you killed, my friend. 
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned 
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed. 
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold. 
Let us sleep now....'

by Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918


Aftermath

HAVE you forgotten yet?...

For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked a while at the crossing of city ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you're a man reprieved to
       go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same--and War's a bloody game...

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz--
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on 
       parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front line trench
--And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack--
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads--those ashen-gray
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?...
Look up, and swear by the slain of the war that you'll never forget!

by Siegfried Sassoon, 1886–1967

BASE DETAILS

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath 
I'd live with scarlet Majors at the Base, 
And speed glum heroes up the line to death. 
You'd see me with my puffy petulant face, 
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel, 
Reading the Roll of Honour. "Poor young chap," 
I'd say -- "I used to know his father well; 
Yes, we've lost heavily in this last scrap."
And when the war is done and youth stone dead, 
I'd toddle safely home and die -- in bed.

by Siegfried Sassoon, 1886–1967

‘Blighters’

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin 
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks 
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din; 
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls, 
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,” 
And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls 
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

by Siegfried Sassoon, 1886–1967

Source: The Old Huntsman and Other Poems (1917)

DOES IT MATTER?

Does it matter?--losing your legs? 
For people will always be kind, 
And you need not show that you mind 
When others come in after hunting 
To gobble their muffins and eggs. 
Does it matter?--losing you sight? 
There’s such splendid work for the blind; 
And people will always be kind, 
As you sit on the terrace remembering 
And turning your face to the light.
Do they matter-those dreams in the pit? 
You can drink and forget and be glad, 
And people won't say that you’re mad; 
For they know that you've fought for your country, 
And no one will worry a bit.

by Siegfried Sassoon, 1886–1967




THE SILENT ONE

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two -
Who for his hours of life had chattered through
Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:
Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went
A noble fool, faithful to his stripes - and ended.
But I weak, hungry, and willing only for the chance
Of line- to fight in the line, lay down under unbroken
Wires, and saw the flashes and kept unshaken,
Till the politest voice - a finicking accent, said:
‘Do you think you might crawl through there: there's a hole.'
Darkness shot at: I smiled, as politely replied –
‘I'm afraid not, Sir.' There was no hole, no way to be seen
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes.
Kept flat, and watched the darkness, hearing bullets whizzing –
And thought of music - and swore deep heart's oaths
(Polite to God) and retreated and came on again,
Again retreated a second time, faced the screen.

by Ivor Gurney, 1890–1937

Behind the Line

I suppose France this morning is as white as here 
High white clouds veiling the sun, and the mere 
Cabbage fields and potato plants lovely to see, 
Back behind at Robecq there with the day free. 

In the estaminets I suppose the air as cool, and the floor 
Grateful dark red; the beer and the different store 
Of citron, grenadine, red wine as surely delectable 
As in Nineteen Sixteen; with the round stains on the dark table. 

Journals Français tell the same news and the queer 
Black printed columns give news, but no longer the fear 
Of shrapnel or any evil metal torments. 
High white morning as here one is sure is on France.

by Ivor Gurney, 1890–1937

TO GOD

Why have you made life so intolerable
And set me between four walls, where I am able
Not to escape meals without prayer, for that is possible
Only by annoying an attendant. And tonight a sensual
Hell has been put on me, so that all has deserted me
And I am merely crying and trembling in heart
For death, and cannot get it. And gone out is part
Of sanity. And there is dreadful hell within me.
And nothing helps. Forced meals there have been and electricity
And weakening of sanity by influence
That's dreadful to endure. And there is Orders
And I am praying for death, death, death,
And dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath
Because of the intolerable insults put on my whole soul,
Of the soul loathed, loathed, loathed of the soul.
Gone out every bright thing from my mind.
All lost that ever God himself designed.
Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man,
Not often such evil guessed as between man and man.

by Ivor Gurney, 1890–1937


Louse Hunting

Nudes—stark and glistening,
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire.
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat, with oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.

Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the verminous brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

by Isaac Rosenberg, 1890–1918

On Receiving News of the War

Snow is a strange white word;
No ice or frost
Have asked of bud or bird
For Winter's cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow
From earth to sky
This Summer land doth know,
No man knows why.

In all men's hearts it is.
Some spirit old
Hath turned with malign kiss
Our lives to mould.

Red fangs have torn His face.
God's blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

O! ancient crimson curse!
Corrode, consume.
Give back this universe
Its pristine bloom.

by Isaac Rosenberg, 1890–1918       (Cape Town, 1914)


Yale University course Modern Poetry (ENGL 310) with Langdon Hammer. A representative sample of English poetry of World War One is surveyed. War rhetoric and propaganda are examined and challenged in Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and “Strange Meeting.” The relationship between home front and battle front is explored in Thomas Hardy’s “Channel Firing,”[see 19h Century Poets, page 3] “In the Time of ‘the Breaking of Nations,’” and “I Looked up From My Writing”; Edward Thomas’s “Adlestrop”; and Siegfried Sassoon’s “‘Blighters.'[see above]” Isaac Rosenberg’s “Louse Hunting”[see above] is discussed as a poem of ordinary experience in the trenches.


Dana Gioia has called Wyeth “perhaps the finest American soldier poet of World War I”:

CORBIE TO SAILLY-LE-SEC*

High staggering walls, and plank-spiked piles of brick
and plaster ~~ jagged gables wrenched apart,
and tall dolls' houses cleanly split in two~~
Rooms gaping wide on every cloven floor,
pictures askew that made your throat go thick,
and humble furniture that tore your heart.
"By God let's get out of here!"
                                We motored through
to the poplar marsh along the river's shore.
Sailly-le-Sec ~~ her church one candlestick
on a broken altar, and beyond it, part
of a rounded apse~~a dusty village husk
of rubble and tile. Low hills ahead, all blue,
and twinkling with the phosphorescent soar
of rockets leaping in the fringe of dusk.

by John Allan Wyeth, Jr., 1894-1981

*Two towns near Amiens, France where one of World War I’s last major battles occurred.

Harbonnières to Bayonvillers*: Picnic

A house marked Ortskommandantur#--- a great     [#army post, local HQ]
sign Kaiserplatz^ on a corner of the church,    [^Kaiser Square]
and German street names all around the square.
Troop columns split to let our sidecar through.
“Drive like hell and get back on the main road--it’s getting late.”
“Yessir.”
          The roadway seemed to reel and lurch
through clay wastes rimmed and pitted everywhere.
“You hungry?--- Have some of this, there’s enough for two.”
We drove through Bayonvillers--- and as we ate
men long since dead reached out and left a smirch
and taste in our throats like gas and rotten jam.
“Want any more?”
                 “Yes sir, if you got enough there.”
“Those fellows smell pretty strong.”
“I’ll say they do, but I’m too hungry sir to care a damn.”

by John Allan Wyeth, Jr., 1894-1981

*Harbonnières and Bayonvillers are townships in the Somme department in northern France.

************************************************

HUNGER

I come among the peoples like a shadow. 
I sit down by each man's side.

None sees me, but they look on one another, 
And know that I am there.

My silence is like the silence of the tide 
That buries the playground of children;

Like the deepening of frost in the slow night, 
When birds are dead in the morning.

Armies trample, invade, destroy, 
With guns roaring from earth and air.

I am more terrible than armies, 
I am more feared than the cannon.

Kings and chancellors give commands; 
I give no command to any;

But I am listened to more than kings 
And more than passionate orators.

I unswear words, and undo deeds. 
Naked things know me.

I am first and last to be felt of the living. 
I am Hunger.

by Laurence Binyon, 1869-1943

FOR THE FALLEN

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children, 
England mourns for her dead across the sea. 
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit, 
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal 
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres, 
There is music in the midst of desolation 
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young, 
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. 
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; 
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: 
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. 
At the going down of the sun and in the morning 
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 
They sit no more at familiar tables of home; 
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time; 
They sleep beyond England's foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound, 
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight, 
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known 
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, 
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; 
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, 
To the end, to the end, they remain.

by Laurence Binyon, 1869-1943

Source: The London Times (1914)