Sunday, November 11, 2007

Some November 11th Poetry

When I was a teenager, I discovered a small hardcover book, dating back to my mother's school days, entitled "Palgrave's Golden Treasury." In it, I found some of the most spectacular poetry of the English language that I have ever encountered - written by men and women (mostly men, of the dead, white variety, I think) who could communicate abstract, complex ideas while maintaining the highest standards of rhythm and rhyme (not so much of this lazy, upstart "free verse" stuff that seems to dominate today).

This is probably not the most moving or descriptive poem ever written on the subject of war, but it illustrates something about humanity and inhumanity that I think applies more and more to people in non-military professions. It remains one of my favourites. Reed himself didn't see combat during his service in WWII, and so this isn't a way to remember people who give their lives for strangers. . . but anyways, here it is.

b. 1914
To Alan Michell

Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine gloria

LESSON II: Judging Distances:

Not only how far away, but the way that you say it
Is very important. Perhaps You may never get
The knack of judging a distance, but at least you know
How to report on a landscape: the central sector,
The right of the arc and that, which we had last Tuesday,
And at least you know

That maps are of time, not place, so far as the army
Happens to be concerned-- the reason being,
Is one which need not delay us. Again, you know
There are three kinds of tree, three only, the fir and the poplar,
And those which have bushy tops to; and lastly
That things only seem to be things.

A barn is not called a barn, to put it more plainly,
Or a field in the distance, where sheep may be safely grazing.
You must never be over-sure. You must say, when reporting:
At five o'clock in the central sector is a dozen
Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do,
Don't call the bleeders sheep.

I am sure that's quite clear; and suppose, for the sake of example,
The one at the end, asleep, endeavors to tell us
What he sees over there to the west, and how far away,
After first having come to attention. There to the west,
Of the fields of the summer sun and the shadows bestow
Vestments of purple and gold.

The white dwellings are like a mirage in the heat,
And under the swaying elms a man and a woman
Lie gently together. Which is, perhaps, only to say
That there is a row of houses to the left of the arc,
And that under some poplars a pair of what appear to be humans
Appear to be loving.

Well that, for an answer, is what we rightly call
Moderately satisfactory only, the reason being,
Is that two things have been omitted, and those are very important.
The human beings, now: in what direction are they,
And how far away, would you say? And do not forget
There may be dead ground in between.

There may be dead ground in between; and I may not have got
The knack of judging a distance; I will only venture
A guess that perhaps between me and the apparent lovers,
(Who, incidentally, appear by now to have finished,)
At seven o'clock from the houses, is roughly a distance
Of about one year and a half.

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