Poetry Friday: The Great War begins

So it comes—a century ago, now, Germany, claiming that necessity and self-defense alone drove them to such a dire strait, invades neutral Belgium en route to the fields of northern France, and the nations of the earth are almost all drawn in with them to a worldwide conflict.  We might be tempted to think that, 100 years later, we are wiser somehow—that we would not be susceptible to the same mistakes and irresistible urges.  But there is always a new nation to claim its hand is forced—to see in the eyes of its neighbors only threat and not the possibility of peace—and a new population of innocents to be trampled by the machinery of war as one army races over them to find the foe beyond.  Much as I think the Germans can fairly be blamed for a lot of the factors that led to the Great War, France cannot be set aside as innocent in the coming of that conflict, or the rest of the Great Powers of Europe, for that matter.  But the people of Belgium, especially the folk of its little villages and fields whose only sin was a desire to remain in their home and to defend it against any who would try to harm them—their innocence is unchallengeable, I think, and so those who died in the Flemish fields deserve a special remembrance.

So this Poetry Friday, in their honor and in honor of all innocents who are killed when nations go to war with reckless hands, I offer a poem by a favorite author of mine who is not particularly well known as a poet, but who always wished to be one—one of the great figures of English literature in the Edwardian era, Gilbert Keith Chesterton.  Here is G. K. Chesterton’s poem, “The Wife of Flanders”, written in the voice of a woman of Belgium addressing a German soldier standing before her:

“Low and brown barns, thatched and repatched and tattered,
Where I had seven sons until to-day,
A little hill of hay your spur has scattered. . . .
This is not Paris. You have lost the way.

You, staring at your sword to find it brittle,
Surprised at the surprise that was your plan,
Who, shaking and breaking barriers not a little,
Find never more the death-door of Sedan

Must I for more than carnage call you claimant,
Paying you a penny for each son you slay?
Man, the whole globe in gold were no repayment
For what you have lost. And how shall I repay?

What is the price of that red spark that caught me
From a kind farm that never had a name?
What is the price of that dead man they brought me?
For other dead men do not look the same.

How should I pay for one poor graven steeple
Whereon you shattered what you shall not know?
How should I pay you, miserable people?
How should I pay you everything you owe?

Unhappy, can I give you back your honour?
Though I forgave, would any man forget?
While all the great green land has trampled on her
The treason and terror of the night we met.

Not any more in vengeance or in pardon
An old wife bargains for a bean that’s hers.
You have no word to break: no heart to harden.
Ride on and prosper. You have lost your spurs.”

Chesterton is never a subtle writer, which can limit the effectiveness of much of his poetry, but here I think it works for him, both because the subject calls for bold strokes and because, under the circumstances, the blunt and direct voice of the speaker is perfectly consistent with how that woman in that moment might talk to someone else.  You can hear the crack in her voice from the beginning, the sad, wry observation that this army before her is a lost one—lost in the technical sense that her little Flemish town is not “on the way to Paris” by any real stretch of the map, and lost in the much more profound moral sense that, in seeking to do battle with their true foe, they have stained themselves with killing they can never wash clean.  The German before her, seemingly sent to seize property or gold or supplies from her farm as spoils of war, has some decency—he looks down at his sword, he is perhaps ashamed of himself, or at least embarrassed by this woman’s fearlessness in challenging him.  But decency is not enough to suit the occasion.

What, she asks, is Germany’s due in all this—what did she and her family, smaller today than it was not long ago, owe them?  Is Germany really going to plunder Belgium for materials and supplies, in addition to slaughtering her youth?  She reduces that vast scale of plunder to the personal and gut-wrenching, the notion that she is being forced to pay them a penny at swordpoint, as though she owes one coin for each murdered son.  And then she turns the tables again, since we expect her to say that nothing could ever repay HER for the loss of her sons, but instead she tells the German that nothing will ever be able to repay HIM for what he has lost by killing.  Chesterton lets her speak directly to the soldier’s inmost being, the soul that now carries a burden it cannot unload, the heart that will be heavier forever.  And she breaks that sentiment over him again and again, like the waves of a fathomless ocean, repeating incessantly that nothing she can give will free him from the chains he made for himself, that no amount of largesse will wipe out the memory of what these conquering boots have shattered.  Even her forgiveness—a gift so substantial and unlooked-for that we almost cannot imagine her extending it, and yet she raises it as a possibility—would not be enough to give the German soldier back what he threw away so heedlessly.

She will not bargain with him, not spend another word in castigating him for his sins or absolving him in impossible mercy.  There is no man left, she suggests, to deal with—“no word to break: no heart to harden”, she tells him, nothing to hurt or heal or help.  There is a bitter laugh in that last line, as she says “ride on and prosper”, because she’s already made it clear in every possible way that he will never find peace again.  Some violations cannot be undone; some cuts go too deep.

I don’t want to suggest that the Wife of Flanders (and/or Chesterton, if we assume he agrees with her) has the only way of looking at this situation.  I’m a great fan of mercy, myself, and forgiveness, and even in such terrible times I think they can hold immense power.  But she’s right to cast things as she does, I think—to argue that she has only lost the lives of those she loves, precious and priceless as they are.  The German soldier, standing before her, has lost something about himself that is even more terrible to lose, and more devastating to live with.  That poisonous effect of violence, working its way insidiously into everything about us, is what the 20th Century’s best minds grappled with.  There’s a reason men like Gandhi and Dr. King rejected violence even in the service of a good cause: they understood what it did to a person, how it malformed and scarred them, even under the best of circumstances.  As Joshua learns in WarGames, when it comes to war between the nations, the only winning move is not to play.

That’s not to say I think all soldiers naturally bear the scars the Wife of Flanders describes—obviously there are particular realities about Germany’s conduct in Belgium that made German soldiers particularly responsible for something particularly reprehensible.  But we cannot be too careful in what we choose to do, or endorse, as nations inch towards war—war leaves no one unharmed or unstained.  We have to remember the terrible price even the victor carries away from the field.  I’ll be looking at the works of some excellent Great War poet soldiers in the weeks ahead, because their perspective is key also, and tells us about a side of life the Wife of Flanders cannot give to us.  But I thought starting first with the civilian perspective was the right thing to do, and it’s her voice that I want with me as I look at war, both in the past and in this present hour, to ask what it costs, and who will pay that cost.

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