I would like to submit for consideration a different poem as a more suitable and ultimately more resonant poem to guide our reflections this Remembrance Day: Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
‘In Flanders Fields’
“In Flanders Fields” begins with a haunting evocation of poppies growing between marked graves of the war dead in Belgium, a description delivered by those very dead. In Canada and beyond, the poem has become a mainstream literary representation of all the wars and casualties remembered on Remembrance Day.
I have always found McCrae’s poem unsuitable to commemorate the war or Remembrance Day. Its appeal may be attributed to its melancholy focus on the makeshift graves of the dead and its earnest attempt to create an empathetic connection with the reader:
“ … Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders Fields.”
What follows from this poignant memory of being alive, however, is a command to “Take up our quarrel with the foe,” and a warning that these dead will not sleep until we, the readers, avenge their death on the battlefield.
Unlike McCrae, Owen never identifies the “foe” as the German soldiers in their trenches, but rather directs his ire at those at the home front who perpetuate, or simply believe in, the propaganda glorifying the war. The same can be said for Owen’s compatriot writer and friend, Siegfried Sassoon.
In 28 lines, Owen strives to convey, as accurately and brutally as possible, the daily horror experienced by front-line soldiers. At once, his poem is conventional — adhering to iambic pentameter and a strict rhyme scheme — and highly innovative. His language is designed to provoke emotion in the reader, as we see from the opening four lines:
“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.”
The similes comparing the soldiers to “beggars” and “hags” are striking, but so too is the use of the first-person plural to describe the soldiers.
The words “sludge” and “trudge” stand out in this stanza for being distinctly vulgar in their context, while exemplifying the onomatopoeic language that Owen uses to help us experience the soldiers’ fatigue. The elongated vowel sound — “uh” — perfectly mimics the weary drag of the soldiers’ feet as they “trudge” through the muck.
The lethargic pace of the first lines swiftly accelerates when the soldiers are subjected to a gas attack:
“Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! — An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time.”
The reader must accelerate their reading pace and perhaps even experience a quickening heart rate alongside the soldiers.
‘I saw him drowning’
The rest of the poem is focused on the lone man who didn’t secure his helmet in time, and who the narrator is forced to watch entering his death throes:
“But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.“
These lines are thick with active verbs; the suffix “ing” dominates the description of the gas attack, and the lines that follow conclude the poem:
The biggest shock produced by “Dulce et Decorum Est,” though, is when we realize the victim is still alive at the poem’s end — or, still dying.
Owen does not allow this man to slip off into the ruminative afterlife experienced by McCrae’s war dead. He keeps his victim suspended in the act of dying as a way of preserving the poem’s fraught message. There is no peace for this man, until “you,” the reader, reject the “old Lie” and fight to end the war.
It’s the dream of every researcher to get their hands on a hitherto-unknown manuscript by the author in whose work they specialise. As you’d imagine, most never realise that dream. But on December 9 2014 at Sotheby’s auction house in London, I was lucky enough for it to happen to me. A school exercise book that had once belonged to Dylan Thomas, filled with 16 of his poems in his handwriting, was bought by my then-employers, Swansea University, for £85,000 and given to me to edit.
A PhD student, Adrian Osbourne, was funded to help me in my labours. A greater honour, and a more daunting, more thrilling task, would have been hard for either of us to imagine.
To begin at the beginning, however, some context. From April 1930, aged 15, Thomas began copying his completed poems into a series of school exercise books. In his short story, The Fight, the “D. Thomas” character notes how: “In the evening, before calling on my new friend, I sat in my bedroom by the boiler and read through my exercise-books full of poems. There were Danger Don’ts on the backs.”
In a letter of 1933, Thomas referred to an “innumerable” number of such notebooks. And, unlike most poets, he hung onto his juvenilia, carrying them around with him and raiding them for material until 1941. At that point, in the darkest days of the second world war, hard up and with a family to support, he sold the first four, which run from April 1930 to April 1934, to the library of the State University of New York at Buffalo. Scholars were given access to them and they were published in 1967 as Poet in the Making: The Notebooks of Dylan Thomas.
No more notebooks emerged during Thomas’s lifetime, nor – despite much speculation – did any appear after his death in 1953. Thus, the Sotheby’s notebook is the only one to have appeared, and it covers the period summer 1934 to August 1935 – making it a direct continuation of the first four.
The fifth notebook’s extraordinary nature as an object is matched by the story of its survival. Two notes contained in the Tesco’s bag in which the notebook was found allowed us to establish this. The first, a brief description by Thomas himself, shows that the last time he was in possession of it was early 1938.
After marrying in summer 1937, he and Caitlin Macnamara lived with Caitlin’s mother at her home in Hampshire until early 1938. The second note – by Mrs Macnamara’s maid, Louie King – revealed that after Dylan and Caitlin’s departure she was given the notebook, with other “scrap paper” they left behind, to burn in the kitchen boiler. King, however, withheld the notebook from its fiery fate – out of curiosity, sentiment, or for some other reason we know nothing about. When she died in 1984 the notebook passed to her family, who kept it, still a secret to the outside world, until 2014.
We now had three tasks – to transcribe the notebook poems, deciphering, if possible, Thomas’s many corrections and deletions. We then set out to compare them with the published versions and to work out what light – if any – they shed on Thomas’s poetic development.
It should be said that the fifth notebook poems are all published ones. Unlike its predecessors it contains no unpublished items (this may be why Thomas does not seem to have minded losing it). Where it differed was in the number of corrections it contained. The poems in the first four notebooks are almost always clean copies. In the fifth, many poems undergo radical revision, allowing us to trace Thomas’s creative processes at first hand.
Luckily, we were able to realise most of our aims. Thomas’s handwriting is clear, so most poems and corrections were easy to read. Some problems arose as the notebook progressed, and the poems grew more complex and worked-over. Usually, educated guesswork (not to mention my colleague’s keen eyesight) carried us through – although in a handful of cases we called in a technician armed with a super-photocopier. In the end only five words were unresolved.
Among the deleted passages were many of great beauty and originality, some of which Thomas reworked elsewhere. There were also three stanzas, in two of the poems, which had never been seen before.
Everywhere his incredibly rapid development as a poet was evident. Sometimes, even the tiniest item could alter our understanding of a poem; in I Dreamed My Genesis, the notebook confirmed that a comma should replace a full stop found in three print editions, making better sense of eight lines of the poem.
At the other end of the scale of significance, after poem eight, When, Like a Running Grave, we noted that Thomas had, unusually, written out the date in full: “26th October 1934” – the eve of his 20th birthday – with an emphatic line in the centre of the page. We know from the number of poems he wrote about birthdays (they include Poem on His Birthday and Poem in October) that they held great significance for Thomas. So we feel it is no coincidence that the poems that follow this point, beginning with Now and culminating in Altarwise By Owl-Light, the final poem, differ from these before it, and are the most experimental he ever wrote. Agonisingly aware of human mortality, of the end of youth, this emphatic dating marks the exact moment of Thomas’s momentous decision to adopt a more daring style.
The notebook, then, represents a kind of hinge in his early career, and this is something we could only have learned from the notebook itself, since the stylistic shift is completely obscured by the non-chronological order in which When, Like a Running Grave and Now were published. It grants us the privilege of witnessing, for the first time, the young Dylan Thomas at the height of his powers, seizing and reshaping his poetic destiny.
In their preference for the muddiness of everyday life over explicit engagement with their political and social issues, you can see a broad link between Glück and Tranströmer. On the surface, though, Morrison and Glück couldn’t appear to be more different. Morrison’s work lays bare both the lasting scars and the perennial nature of American trauma, whereas Glück’s work is altogether quieter, more local and apparently lacking that broad, socially and politically engaged canvas.
But look past the surface and there are affinities between the two writers. Since her early poems, Glück has been concerned with charting what it means to live as an individual in America. It is a nuanced, controlled form of lyric poetry that is as interested in what it has not been possible to say as what has been said – and the ways the latter haunts and shapes the former.
“I dislike being herded into certainty”, Glück has written. We live in an age in which certainty is valued above almost anything else. We appear to want, for instance, the certainty of a vaccine against COVID-19, the certainty that the pandemic will be brought to heel, and the certainty that we will not die, at least not yet and not like this.
But there is something greatly important in remembering that life, in all its forms – social, political, personal – remains incomplete, uncertain, and endlessly revised.
In Parable of the Swans from the 1996 collection, Meadowlands, two swans live: “On a small lake off / the map of the world”. The two swans spend much of their time studying themselves, some of their time studying each other. Ten years later “they hit / slimy water”.
Sooner or later in a long
life together, every couple encounters
some emergency like this, some
drama which results
It is a parable of domestic life, devastating in its directness, even more so in the way such dramas are repeated interminably behind closed doors only to be shoved aside when the door opens, replaced by a public face that projects only possession and assurance.
Individual becomes universal
The Nobel committee has heralded Glück “for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. It is a blanket phrase that might be applied to much lyric poetry.
But what has made Glück’s concern with individual experience resonate over the years is its quiet insistence that that even in the private sphere, everything is touched – and shaped – by the public sphere. No matter what we each might claim to the contrary, we are all the products of the world around us.
And it’s upon these affects and consequences that Glück shines such a clarifying light. It has done so, not by telling us this, but by showing us the ways it can be done.
It is a humble corrective to the discourses of power and authority – so often male – that colour and corrupt great swaths of what we are encouraged to view as important. We are each answerable to how we choose to live, or as the poet puts it in Parable of the Swans: “love was what one did.”
There is an argument that, after two years of self-inflicted controversies and incomprehensible decisions, the Nobel committee has elected to play it safe this year. Glück is not a polarising poet. In any case, there was an expectation that the prize would be awarded to a non-European female writer.
There is also an argument that in awarding the prize to a white American writer whose work is often characterised by critics as not having an explicit political dimension, the committee has deliberately chosen to sidestep what could have been an important and timely intervention into the necessary debates about diversity and inclusivity – debates which run the risk of being rendered invisible by politicians’ more explicit desire to be seen to be waging war against the pandemic.
No doubt there is something to these arguments. But to criticise the award on both of these fronts is also to neglect the very particular qualities and resonances of Glück’s work. Her preference for the discretion of lyric poetry has something very specific to say about the lives we choose to lead.