Tomorrow marks a century since the Yugoslavian nationalist Gavrilo Princip fatally shot Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie—the violent act was precipitated by Austria’s long occupation of the Slavic territories surrounding Serbia, and of course it then precipitated the maneuvering of the Powers of Europe until, in August, the guns rang out and what they then called The Great War (and what we would, many years later, call World War I) commenced. The shadow of that war still hangs over us—World War II and all its aftermath are really dominos toppling in a chain leading back to the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance, to Versailles and the carving up of the world. Today, in Iraq, ISIS and the Kurds and the Maliki-led military forces are clashing over a fictional idea that was created by World War I, namely the idea that Iraq, a melange of faiths and ethnicities and national peoples, is a single country that can be ruled by a single government. Like Kevin Bacon, the Great War unifies all 20th and 21st Century conflicts—it’s hard to point to any war since then that is not connected, usually in only one or two moves, to what began in the streets of Sarajevo on the 28th of June.
As we go through the next few years of 100th anniversaries of key moments in that conflict, I know I’ll reflect from time to time on the poetry of that war. Most of the Pulitzers I’ve reviewed so far have been impacted in some way by WWI, and some have been explicitly interested in it (His Family and One of Ours, especially). My current Pulitzer novel deals with families forged in that war. So reflections on it, and on what the writers at the time made of it, are part and parcel of the long ongoing project here in which I try to make sense of my nation and its art.
Some of the Great War’s poems have already been featured here at one time or another, often on November 11th when I observe Armistice Day. I haven’t decided yet whether to return to any of them for a second look. For now, there’s plenty of unused material to work with, beginning with the verse written in this time of anticipation, when war was beginning to seem inevitable but no one yet could anticipate what that would mean. This summer, the summer of 2014, starts to feel that way with the news out of the Middle East—I hope I am wrong about that. Certainly, though, whether or not my country goes again to war, there are millions of people caught up today and for the foreseeable future in a war zone in Syria and Iraq. I think of them as well as of us, when I suggest that it’s time for us to consider this century’s history of war, and what we are to make of it. This is “Channel Firing”, written in that tense summer of 1914 before the war began, by Thomas Hardy:
That night your great guns, unawares,
Shook all our coffins as we lay,
And broke the chancel window-squares,
We thought it was the Judgment-day
And sat upright. While drearisome
Arose the howl of wakened hounds:
The mouse let fall the altar-crumb,
The worms drew back into the mounds,
The glebe cow drooled. Till God called, “No;
It’s gunnery practice out at sea
Just as before you went below;
The world is as it used to be:
“All nations striving strong to make
Red war yet redder. Mad as hatters
They do no more for Christés sake
Than you who are helpless in such matters.
“That this is not the judgment-hour
For some of them’s a blessed thing,
For if it were they’d have to scour
Hell’s floor for so much threatening…
“Ha, ha. It will be warmer when
I blow the trumpet (if indeed
I ever do; for you are men,
And rest eternal sorely need).”
So down we lay again. “I wonder,
Will the world ever saner be,”
Said one, “than when He sent us under
In our indifferent century!”
And many a skeleton shook his head.
“Instead of preaching forty year,”
My neighbour Parson Thirdly said,
“I wish I had stuck to pipes and beer.”
Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge,
As far inland as Stourton Tower,
And Camelot, and starlit Stonehenge.
Hardy begins where this tale will inevitably end—in the grave, among the dead, who are the nameless collective first person throughout this poem. They are uneasy in their rest because of the thundering cannons that echo through the churchyard, the sound of naval gunnery practice as Great Britain’s dreadnoughts prepare for the war that is to come. All nature is disturbed, it seems—the images in the second stanza are of a world knocked a little from its moorings, insecure.
God’s sudden appearance is strange for anyone who knows Hardy: his cynical atheism is at the heart of a lot of his work, and I’ve even explored it a little in a previous Poetry Friday post. But the cynicism remains even with the arrival of the Deity. He reassures the dead that it’s not the last trumpet—only the thudding of guns. A line like “the world is as it used to be” is in one sense soothing, but of course in context it’s also deeply depressing: the dead are being consoled by the simple fact that war and killing remain a major human preoccupation.
I’ll admit, I think the central portion of the poem is weakest for me—the attitude is too easy, too predictable, as God deplores the waste of all this energy on blood and death, and suggests that these folks are lucky it isn’t the Second Coming, since they’d all be doing hard time in Hell for their sins (although why God thinks any delay will change that, under the circumstances, isn’t really clear). I do like the dryness of God’s laugh “Ha, ha”, not a giggle or a chortle but that flat, open-mouthed laugh that blasts out of you when you can hardly believe what you’re seeing. It’s a rueful laugh, and it’s followed by a much sharper observation than the previous stanzas—that humanity is in such dire need of “rest eternal” that God’s considering just not waking anybody up, ever, and dispensing with this whole “glorious return” and “renewing of the earth” business that prophecy associates with the judgment day.
And the poem continues to improve, for me, after God’s exit: one of the dead, very naturally, asks if any of the centuries to come will bring a more peaceful era in human history, a better time than the days these sleeping souls once knew. The bones rattle as the corpses demur—no, they suggest, humanity is on some level unimproveable. The dead parson laments wasting his time on those sermons, the fruitless words cast out like seeds on rocky soil, doomed not to take root. Better, he thinks, to have spent his days in a little private pleasure, a little smoke and alcohol to while away this mortal life. And then that last great stanza as though the camera pulls suddenly back—no, “pulls” isn’t violent enough a word, the camera shoots backward like a fired munition—as we watch the thunder of the gunfire echo inland to Stourton Tower (associated with the “first” English king, Alfred the Great), then Camelot (deeper into the mythic past, and the legendary Arthur), and lastly to that monument under the starlight, the mute trilithons of Stonehenge. Peering farther and farther back in time, Hardy finally quiets down: he shows rather than tells us that we cannot see back far enough to an age before war, and implicitly invites us to imagine the long, bloody road ahead.
Channel Firing is not the most moving of the Great War’s poems, in part because it is written before the war itself begins. Hardy cannot yet know or draw on the agony of the trenches, the mad waste of a generation mowed down by machine guns and clouds of mustard gas. And because it’s grounded in Hardy’s trademark depression, it does seem to weigh us down with its burdens—there is no suggestion that war can be averted, or that humans have any real role to play other than as pawns in this never-ending cycle. But I see it as valuable, in part because I think it challenges me to argue with the poem, to suggest that there is a side to humanity it does not see. And in part because I think it reminds me how real these truths are about the human condition, that to fight and die is deeply ingrained in us, and that it will take more than kind intentions and a pledge not to forget to get us off of this course we’re on. The men and women who survived this war swore it would be the last such conflagration. They sent their children to die, again, 25 years later. I don’t think we should be fatalistic, but Hardy demands that I be realistic—when the dead hear the guns again, they will need to hear a better argument than I yet have, if I’m going to convince them that, this time, the cycle will be broken.