I noticed Veterans' Day is marked for Monday on my Calendar, and there is no note at all for Sunday, November 11. I'll be flying my flag on both days. I just can't let Armistice Day pass with no notice of its significance.
I thought I would post a brief diary here, as well as flying my flag, to remember the end of the killing of World War I.
There are three events that shaped what we are, and that have the strange property, for me, that the more I learn about them the less sense they make. The first is the revolution in human thinking created by Classical Greek civilization, the second is the astonishing burst of creativity that was the Renaissance, and the third was the First World War. I own more books on the First World War than any other single topic, and every few years I acquire and read some more of them. Some are straight history, some are sociological/cultural studies, some are art books, some are memoirs, some are fiction written by survivors. And some are poetry. I thought I would remember the day with a few poems by one of the British War Poets that I suspect many of you have never heard of: Charles Hamilton Sorley.
Charles Hamilton Sorley was was born in 1895 and killed at the Battle of Loos on the 13th of October 1915. He was 20 years old, and had been serving in the trenches since May of 1915. In a letter to his brother he had written: "All illusions about the splendour of war will, I hope, be gone after the war." I was impressed by that statement, and even more impressed by an excerpt I found from a letter to his mother, discussing the work of another War Poet: "He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances, where non-compliance with this demand would have made life intolerable." I thought that was remarkably perceptive, especially from such a very young man. But what made his death especially hard to think about was the quality of his poetry. Here are three of his poems to remember on this day.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto,
'Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
Such, such is Death: no triumph: no defeat:
Only an empty pail, a slate rubbed clean,
A merciful putting away of what has been.
And this we know: Death is not Life effete,
Life crushed, the broken pail. We who have seen
So marvelous things know well the end not yet.
Victor and vanquished are a-one in death:
Coward and brave: friend, foe. Ghosts do not say,
"Come, what was your record when you drew breath?"
But a big blot has hid each yesterday
So poor, so manifestly incomplete.
And your bright Promise, withered long and sped,
Is touched; stirs, rises, opens and grows sweet
And blossoms and is you, when you are dead.
Saints have adored the lofty soul of you.
Poets have whitened at your high renown.
We stand among the many millions who
Do hourly wait to pass your pathway down.
You, so familiar, once were strange: we tried
To live as of your presence unaware.
But now in every road on every side
We see your straight and steadfast signpost there.
I think it like that signpost in my land
Hoary and tall, which pointed me to go
Upward, into the hills, on the right hand,
Where the mists swim and winds shriek and blow,
A homeless land and friendless, but a land
I did not know and that I wished to know.