It is now a hundred years since the first poppies were worn to commemorate the young men who had been so brutally killed in the first world war. A lot has changed since then, BUT there are still wars and men, women and children are still killed. There is still an appalling and terrifying cruelty embedded in the hearts of far too many people and we STILL haven’t found any way of dealing with this plague in our midst. And it is a plague and it does need dealing with, more and more urgently as more and more people go on giving horrific evidence of it.
Cruelty does not happen on the spur of the moment, it is deeply engrained in the hearts and minds and feelings of very badly damaged and excruciatingly dangerous people, men and women alike.
So today on this hundredth anniversary, I’m writing this blog with pity for the men and horses massacred so terribly in the first world war, for the men women and children killed in so many terrible ways during the second world war and every other wretched war since. For the people killed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for all those men, women, children and animals hurt and tormented by the angrily dangerous people who live amongst us.
I shall wear my poppy at my literary event on Saturday, it’s already pinned to my black shawl as you can see.
And I shall use poems to express what those of us who abhor the cruel disease that stalks our society. The first is by Wilfred Own who died in the First World War and wrote some of the most moving poetry I have ever read. ‘I am not concerned with poetry,’ he said. ‘My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity… All a poet may do today, is warn.’
DULCE ET DECORUM EST
By Wilfred Owen
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.
The second poem is mine and owes a very great deal to Wilfred Owen. Repec’ Wilfred.
Poppies that once bled pity in the Flanders fields
Are ritualised today to paper prettiness.
It’s the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month
The exact poetic time when the war that was to end all wars
That should never, in all conscience, have begun
Dragged its ravaged, shell-shocked, blood-soaked length
To a stunned stop
In the dumb, dead darkness of a corpse-gorged year.
Now it is men and rivers that are gorged
In the greed and thoughtless muddle of our time.
And only winter stirs long-hidden truth,
When furrows fill with water
Whitely reflecting an impassive sky.
Bare branches darken in a north-east wind
And the old cold shrinks a sullen earth,
Smites the caked hides of shivering cattle
Soon to be killed to feed our appetites.
And touches our too sentimental skin.
Yet Folly still stands proud with its paper flower,
To parrot out the politicians’ lie.
‘They died that we might live’.
Not so. Not so. Oh, it was never so.
They died like cattle, herded, scared and young
Because, like cattle, they were sent to die.