War poets bring an impossible beauty and entirely new perspective to the most awful of subjects. On Wednesdays, we’ll receive a new perspective on these writers. Yesterday’s New York Times ran a front-page story on the writings of American soldiers recently killed in Iraq.
In the poems that have emerged from the conflict in Iraq, our soldiers are notably reticent about politics, and rarely invoke old myths of honor and glory. But they are eloquent about their feelings for their fellow-soldiers. In a poem to his fellow-officer and fellow-poet Siegfried Sassoon, written at the end of World War I, Robert Graves captured that special bond with striking honesty:
And have we done with War at last?
Well, we’ve been lucky devils both,
And there’s no need of pledge or oath
To bind our lovely friendship fast,
By firmer stuff
Close bound enough.
By wire and wood and stake we’re bound,
By Fricourt and by Festubert,
By whipping rain, by the sun’s glare,
By all the misery and loud sound,
By a Spring day,
By Picard clay.
Show me the two so closely bound
As we, by the wet bond of blood,
By friendship blossoming from mud,
By Death: we faced him, and we found
Beauty in Death,
In dead men, breath.
The poem opens with a gesture of disbelief and rough rejoicing at having survived. The casualty rate for officers on the Western Front was appalling, so the mere fact that Graves and Sassoon survived makes their friendship more lovely, and constitutes a firmer bond than a pledge or oath. In the second stanza, Graves probably borrowed the metaphor of a friendship bound by wire, wood, and stake, the strongest image in this stanza, from Wilfred Owen, who had written of fellowships “wound with war’s hard wire whose stakes are strong.” He later remembered that the news of Owen’s death reached him at the same time as the news of the Armistice, sending him out to walk “alone along the dyke above the marshes … cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.”
But it is the powerful final stanza that matters. In its formal intensity and compression, it mirrors the emotional intensity and compression of wartime friendships, formed quickly under heavy stress and often ended suddenly by death. By calling the force that binds the two men “the wet bond of blood,” Graves bravely acknowledges the softer aspects of his feelings for Sassoon. A friendship blossoming from mud suggests the conventional motif of the flower that springs from a grave, but it also allows the two males a metaphorical fertility. All of this rich imagery, however, is a prelude to the revelation of the true bonding force: Death. By staring Death in the face, Graves claims, the two men found beauty. From the dead men all around them, they drew breath.
Robert Graves, “Two Fusiliers,” in Complete Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), I, 37.
Wilfred Owen, “Apologia pro Poemate Meo,” in The Complete Poems and Fragments, ed. Jon Stallworthy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1983), 124.
Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That, ed. Richard Perceval Graves (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1995), 248.