10 November 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/46

The Soldier Address His Body

I shall be mad if you get smashed about,
we've had good times together, you and I;
although you groused a bit when luck was out,
say a girl turned us down, or we went dry.

But there's a world of things we haven't done,
countries not seen, where people do strange things;
eat fish alive, and mimic in the sun
the solemn gestures of their stone-grey kings.

I've heard of forests that are dim at noon
where snakes and creepers wrestle all day long;
where vivid beasts grow pale with the full moon,
gibber and cry, and wail a mad old song;

because at the full moon the Hippogriff
with crinkled ivory snout and agate feet,
with his green eye will glare them cold and stiff
for the coward Wyvern to come down and eat.

Vodka and kvass, and bitter mountain wines
we've never drunk; nor snatched the bursting grapes
to pelt slim girls among Sicilian vines,
who'd flicker through the leaves, faint frolic shapes.

Yes, there's a world of things we've never done,
but it's a sweat to knock them into rhyme,
let's have a drink, and give the cards a run
and leave dull verse to the dull peaceful time.

Edgell Rickword

For Veterans Day tomorrow: a poem by a World War I poet. Rickword was an officer in the British army.

The soldier begins by addressing his body as if it were a separate entity, a buddy of his rather than something inseparable from his existence: perhaps the stress of war requires this sort of psychological divorce between yourself and the body you are constantly forced to put into danger. He is fond of his body/buddy; they've been companions through good times and also bad – not bad compared to war, of course (war and the constant imminent threat of mutilation or death loom over and shape everything this man says: he's not just a young man speaking to his body, he is specifically a soldier). Just the usual young man's bad luck: rejection by a girl, no booze at hand, a run of bad luck.

Moving into the second stanza, he's still not directly mentioning war, but the thought clearly underlies the track his thoughts do take: the whole vast and thrilling world he has not yet seen. He begins with easily identifiable and, for him, exotic and far-away lands, where people do things like eat raw fish (this was written long before sushi or even ceviche became international staples). His imagination (again, under the unspoken constant pressure of possible mutilation or death, and the fear of battle, and whether you will behave as a man and soldier should in battle) grows wilder, more heated: he dreams now of jungles writhing with snakes and creepers (creepers are creeping or climbing vines, here indistinguishable from snakes), and maddened wild things under the pale haunted light of a full moon: and then he moves into straight-out fantasy, in which hippogriffs and wyverns are real.

A hippogriff is the offspring of a griffin and a mare. A griffin has the body, tail, and back legs of a lion and  the head, wings, and forelegs of an eagle, so a hippogriff is a winged horse with the head and upper body of an eagle. A wyvern is a reptilian creature, with a dragon's head and wings and only two feet, and a barbed tail. I've never before seen the the hippogriff and wyvern described as working in concert as they do here, or seen the wyvern described as cowardly. These things may have been invented by the poet. He's also given the basilisk's paralyzing stare to the hippogriff. There may be another element here, though. Both hippogriffs and wyverns are found not in real life but in medieval bestiaries and books of heraldry: perhaps the two represent the ruling classes (marked by heraldic beasts, based in the Middle Ages, whose existence our age no longer believes in), working together to kill the "vivid beasts": vivid has its root in the Latin vivere, to live. These heraldic animals conspire to feed themselves off the anonymous but intensely alive beasts. And the beasts know this, they know that it happens when the moon is full, so they "wail a mad old song" – mad, just what the soldier said he would be if his body got "smashed about."

After the striking and perhaps allegorical appearance of the two imaginary beasts, the soldier begins to turn his thoughts back (always with the consciousness of possible imminent loss, of being snuffed out in a flash, or so crippled that he'll wish he had been) to the booze and girls he had mentioned in the first paragraph: only now they're all vivid and strange and new, very different from his English life: eastern European drinks like vodka and kvass, and southern European drinks like "bitter mountain wines." The scene is lively and erotic, with bursting grapes and slim girls among the vines; it is also evanescent, and the girls are flickering and faint, vanishing figures. Even if he were sent to fight on the Russian or Italian fronts, he would not have the experience of vodka, kvass, or wine, or of playing with slim girls among the vines.

And so his thoughts cool down, and he becomes the matter-of-fact good fellow, drinking and playing at cards and putting aside the hard yet fancy work of poetry. And this is how many of us see soldiers. It's a class-based view – that they're good but unintellectual fellows, doing our dirty work for us. But the speaker here has just shown us what mad poetry, what vividness, lie hidden under the drab surface, what practically unmentionable fears, what longing for life. He leaves "dull verse to the dull peaceful time" – war can be a surge of adrenalin, a dangerously exciting and appealing constant surge in place of the dullness of daily peacetime life. While war (with its intensified sense of the precariousness and preciousness of life) hangs over him, he will try to live as much as he can, even if all he has are booze and cards, and even if he knows they are only a weak substitute for the enchanting endless world he may never come to know.

Since this year marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, there have been a growing number of anthologies devoted to the poems and fiction inspired by the war. I took this poem from The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, but Penguin appears to have issued another, different compilation under that title. The one I have is the second edition of an older anthology, edited and introduced by Jon Silkin.

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