gertler-merrygoround.jpgA.E. Housman wrote this extraordinarily poem in 1895 (find other poems here). Of course it described the warfare of his century – Napoleonic Wars, The Indian Mutiny, The Boer War etc. But it is almost as if he can hear the echo of the 20th century’s drums already being carried into the end of the 19th.

Housman used the simplest poetic form – an ABA’B’ rhyming scheme – in less skilled hands, it would be childish doggerel – and sickeningly inappropriate. But the simplicity of form and rhyme actually contributes to the horror and the menace – making its sinister point simply but chillingly. What words could more aptly describe the battalions heading off to the Battle of the Somme than soldiers marching, all to die? For on the first day of the Battle of the Somme alone, at least 20,000 men were killed and 40,000 wounded. The battle lasted 4½ months and at least 1.2 million men from all sides were killed. And do you know what that destruction achieved – the allies advanced by 5 miles?

POEM XXXV
On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.

Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.

East and west on fields forgotten
Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
None that go return again.

Far the calling bugles hollow,
High the screaming fife replies,
Gay the files of scarlet follow:
Woman bore me, I will rise.

The painting is Mark Gertler’s The Merry-go-round (and currently on display in the Tate Britain, here in London). He painted it in 1916:

This work was painted at the height of the First World War, which seems to be its subject. Men and women in rigid poses, their mouths crying in silent unison, seem trapped on a carousel that revolves endlessly.

Gertler was a conscientious objector. He lived near London’s Hampstead Heath, and may have been inspired by an annual fair held there for wounded soldiers. The fairground ride, traditionally associated with pleasure and entertainment, is horrifically transformed into a metaphor for the relentless military machine. He explained, ‘Lately the whole horror of war has come freshly upon me’.

Official Tate Description

The 21st century looks no better. Heaven help us. Incredibly, though, heaven did: Titus 3:3-7

This Post Has One Comment

  1. War poetry is particularly poignant I think – maybe the association we have with the event, or the knowledge that many of the poets themselves experienced things beyond even their ability to express, or maybe its knowing that some wrote the words we now read just a short time before they themselves died.
    In my mind, most war poetry conveys:
    1. that war is so horrific (even today when we try convince ourselves that it can be clean, sanitised, targeted with surgical precision or easy) it should never be entered into lightly;
    2. that man is capable of great evil against his brothers and sisters, creation and against God;

    I’ve just realised I want to make about five more points, but I won’t because I started this ‘comment’ with the aim of sharing my favourite war poem. It is by Wilfred Owen – who on a lighter note I can identify with, because like me and you Mark, he was a ‘commoner’ with a posh friend (Siegfried Sassoon) – although there the similarity ends as I definitely don’t hero worship you (respect, yes – hero worship, NO!), and I certainly have not written 664 letters home to my mother!
    You are probably very familiar with the poem, and I’ll leave it to you to interpret why you think it appeals to me….

    The Parable Of The Old Men And The Young
    So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
    And took the fire with him, and a knife.
    And as they sojourned both of them together,
    Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
    Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
    But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
    Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
    And builded parapets and trenches there,
    And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
    When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven,
    Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
    Neither do anything to him, thy son.
    Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
    A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

    But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
    And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

    PS Is this the longest comment you have ever had?

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