Were John of Gaunt Alive Now

(with apologies to William Shakespeare)

 

This toilet bowl of fools, this lying crew,

This bog of infamy, this seat of knaves,

This other Russia, demi-tyranny,

This fortress built by Donald for himself

Against uprightness and the word of truth,

This loathsome breed of men, this evil world,

This pompous ass set in the west wing chair,

Which serves him in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to his House,

Against the entry of more flexible minds,

This fetid swamp, this mire, this hole, this Trumpland.

 

 

 

 

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Even More English Poetry from the Great War

Futility
Move him into the sun—
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields half-sown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.
Think how it wakes the seeds—
Woke once the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?
Mental Cases

Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jays that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain,- but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?

-These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.

Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
-Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
-Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness.

Wilfred Owen
1893-1918

 

English Poetry of the Great War

War has always produced poetry, traditionally paeans to courage, honor and self-sacrifice and celebrations of the warrior fighting and perhaps dying nobly and the soldier giving his life for his country.  The Great War initially produced such sentiments, and perhaps the best remembered English language poem of the war is In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, a Canadian physician, who composed the verse on 3 May 1915 in memory of a friend who had died at the Second Battle of Ypres.  (McCrae himself died of influenza in 1918.)  The poem succinctly captures two traditional aspects of war poetry: the honored dead and the sense of mission, now to be carried on by others, that brought them to the grave.

 

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. 

John McCrae

John McCrae 1914

But the Great War was unlike any previous conflict in history.  Firearms and cannon, the weapons of industry, had been present for centuries, but this was the first truly industrialized war.  Traditionally, the hideous face of war – the disemboweled men, the stinking bodies, the maimed survivors – had generally been ignored in favor of those noble qualities associated with men facing death.  Twentieth century weaponry blew away this romantic mantle.

It was now extremely difficult to ignore the utter horror and to see anything at all heroic in the mega-death of the trench lines. You no longer died on a field of green, exhorting your comrades with your last breath and confident you would be celebrated by them.  Now you died in the mud, choking on the gas or shredded by shrapnel.  Now you were incinerated or blown into nothing or buried alive by the artillery.  Now your comrades might never find you and were in any case likely to soon be casualties themselves.

And by 1916 the seeming pointlessness of it all, the sacrifice of thousands for a few yards of ground in a struggle that appeared to have no end, was wearing away old notions of glory and patriotism. Even Rudyard Kipling, whose son John was killed at Loos in September 1915, had doubts, writing the epitaph “If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Rudyard Kipling 1916

Rudyard Kipling 1915

At the beginning of the conflict the age-old sentiment of Horace (Odes 3.2.13) was paramount: Dulce et decorum est pro partia mori – Sweet and proper is it to die for the fatherland.  But the ghastly conditions of the trenches soon made a mockery of dulce et decorum, and it became less and less clear how one’s death benefited one’s country, especially when the generals, comfortable in their chateaux, did not seem to be given many opportunities pro patria mori.

Dulce et decorum est...

Dulce et decorum est…

...pro patria mori

…pro patria mori

 

Wilfred Owen, who was killed exactly one week before the war ended, reflected this disillusionment in what is perhaps my favorite poem from the whole bloody affair: Dulce et Decorum est.

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
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.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,-
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

 

Such images could hardly be more distant from the maudlin call of In Flanders Fields.  The environment of war may produce noble actions – and great literature – but it is after all impersonal slaughter, and the Great War demonstrated that in a way unmatched before or since.

Defending Ourselves

(I have not written poetry since I was in school – and some may judge that to be a good thing.  In ay case, I hope this rises to mediocre poetry rather than doggerel.  This was inspired by the constant mantra that Israel has “the right to defend itself,” a sentiment that echoes through the ages of warfare.”

 

To the Melian isle the fleet crossed the sea,

An army from Athens with words borne on spears:

“Our empire you’ll join or slaughtered you’ll be;

Though harmless you seem, we still have our fears.”

 

But neutral we’ve been and carry no blame;

No weapons we’ve lifted against any Greek;

Both Spartans and you we’ve treated the same,

And what threat can come from this city so weak?

 

“Oh, we are the strong and act as we will,

And you are the weak and suffer you must;

‘Tis the law of the gods we only fulfill,

And who dares to say the gods are not just?”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

Across the bridged Rhine the Fourth Legion fares,

Searching for Germans, whoever’s at hand,

Marsi or Chatti, Cherusci, who cares?

The foe must be punished for raiding the land.

 

The men must be butchered, the steadings all burned,

The women and babes enslaved and led forth;

Have mercy, great Romans, no fault have we earned;

It wasn’t our tribe, but those to the north.

 

“No difference it makes from where came the crime;

Examples are needed to deter the rest;

Barbarians you are and thus for all time

In guarding the empire this policy’s best.”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

Through Languedoc’s fields came the knights of the Lord,

Seeking the wretched who betrayed the Christ,

The Cathars, the heretics to be put to the sword:

“They scorned the true Church, with the devil they’ve diced.”

 

Béziers at once taken, the crusaders stream in,

Double ten thousand the souls in the town,

And many are Catholics with no trace of sin;

Then who are the true and who damned and struck down?

 

“Slaughter them all, let no one be spared;

No difference it makes for God knows His own;

He’ll sort them all out,” the abbot declared;

“He’ll rescue the true, and they’ll sit at His Throne.”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

The Vistula bridged, the Meuse left behind,

The Dnieper surmounted, the Seine crossed with ease,

By mechanized storm the war now defined,

And legions of grey may march where they please.

 

Rotterdam, Warsaw, broad London in flames,

The cities of Europe become victims of war,

The rubble and corpses that mark the Reich’s gains

From the isle of Britain to the Volga’s far shore.

 

Uncountable graves for an idea to defend,

Yet the pendulum swings and the hordes from the east

Fall on the lost Volk to tear and to rend;

“It’s proper we take our revenge on the beast!”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

The point man goes down, a round through the brain;

Men clutch at the ground but where the gook lair?

It must be that hamlet seen vague through the rain;

Salvation will come with a strike from the air.

 

A village has vanished – and what was its name?

The wounded come crawling from home become bier

And at the tall soldiers they scream out their blame:

Why have you killed us, and why are you here?

 

“We bring you your freedom by crushing the Cong

And eggs are oft broken in this sort of war;

The communists seek to do us both wrong

And they will not stop ‘til they threaten our shore.”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

All silent the death that falls through the night,

The weapons of men become Hand of God

To carve out revenge in blossoms of light,

And women and children are not spared the rod

 

“But we are the righteous against such a foe,

Who dares strike the land where the Chosen abide;

Their missiles rain down on our people below,

Our windows are shattered and good men have died.”

 

“Yes, they’re complicit, they refuse to fly,

Though warnings we spread where the bombing will be,

Hospitals and schools with rockets nearby;

It seems that they value their lives less than we.”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

A Lost Poem by Lewis Carroll

220px-LewisCarrollSelfPhoto[1]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Twas DC, and the lobby guys

Did gyre and gimble in the halls;

Of course they know what money buys,

The favors, votes, and pols.

 

 

‘Beware the Congressmen, my son!

    The nonsense speech, the bribes anon!

Beware the CIA, and shun

The frumious Pentagon!’

 

 

He took his veto sword in hand:

Long time the manxome jerks he sought –

So rested he by the White House tree,

And struggled for a thought.

 

 

And as he wondered who to blame,

The Congressmen, with pants on fire,

Along the street they whiffling came,

And all and each a liar!

 

 

One, two! One two! And through and through

The veto blade went snicker-snack!

He left them dead and took their bread

And went galumphing back.

 

 

And so were slain the Congressmen,

The people wept with joy and cheered:

‘O frabjous day!  Callooh!  Callay!

The scum need not be feared.’

 

 

‘Twas DC, and the lobby guys

Did gyre and gimble in the halls;

Of course they know what money buys,

The favors, votes, and pols.

A Lost Poem by Dylan Thomas

 

Palestine

Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into Zion’s night,

The people must resist at close of day;

Rage, rage against the killing of the light.

Since wise men in their hearts know what is right,

Because their homes are ruined by soldiers they

Do not go gentle into Zion’s night.

Good men, in Palestine, crying how bright

Their land might have been and gay,

Rage, rage against the killing of the light.

Brave men, who fought and put the Jews to flight,

And learn, too late, the children have to pay,

Do not go gentle into Zion’s night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

The U.S. has the wealth and pays the way,

Rage, rage against the killing of the light.

And you, my country, there on the feared height

Curse, cease support and shame, I prey.

Do not go gentle into Zion’s night

Rage, rage against the killing of the light.

A Lost Poem by Rudyard Kipling

The U.S. Burden

Rudyard Kipling

 

Take up the U.S. burden –

Send forth the best ye breed –

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve all corporate greed;

To wait in heavy harness

In Kuwait and Kabul,

To transform Arab culture

And send Islam to school.

 

Take up the U.S. burden –

In patience to abide

To veil the threat of terror

And check Islamic pride;

By opaque speech, not simple,

And never quite made plain,

To seek all corporate profit

And Haliburton’s gain.

 

Take up the U.S. burden –

The savage wars of oil –

Fill full the maws of tankers

And make the people toil;

And when your goal is nearest

The peace the world has sought,

Watch Banks and Wall Street Folly

Bring all your hope to nought.

 

Take up the U.S. burden –

No tawdry rule of law,

But drones and Hellfire missiles

Shall hold them all in awe.

The news ye shall not publish,

The facts ye shall not spread,

Go send abroad your living,

And bring them back as dead!

 

Take up the U.S. burden –

And reap the butcher’s bill:

The blame of those ye batter,

The hate of those ye kill –

The cry of hosts ye shepherd

Unto the western light: –

“Why brought ye us from bondage,

Our loved Islamic night?”

 

Take up the U.S. burden –

And dare to stoop to less –

And call again on Freedom

To cloak your greediness;

By all ye cry or whisper,

By all ye leave or do,

The peoples of the planet

Shall weigh your God and you.

 

Take up the U.S. burden –

Have done with truthful days –

The worldwide admiration,

The European praise.

Comes now, to search your manhood

Through these new fascist years,

Hard-edged with higher wisdom,

The judgment of your peers!