Strange Arts & Visual Delights
In this workweek that ends on Friday with Veterans Day, each day I am going to post a poem or two from the war, beginning today with poems written in 1914, and ending in poems written in 1918. I’ll also add some other items, including contemporary journal entries.
For the most part, I’ll be posting items I copied into my journal in 2017 when I was preparing to teach the literature of the First World War at Southern Virginia University. The conditions of another world war appear to be forming. Let Providence and chance, wisdom and stupidity combine to prevent it.
Today’s first poem is by Akhmatova.
IN MEMORIAM, JULY 19, 1914
by Anna Akhmatova
We aged a hundred years and this descended
In just one hour, as at a stroke.
The summer had been brief and now was ended;
The body of the ploughed plains lay in smoke.
The hushed road burst in colors then, a soaring
Lament rose, ringing silver like a bell.
And so I covered up my face, imploring
God to destroy me before battle fell.
And from my memory the shadows vanished
Of songs and passions—burdens I'd not need.
The Almighty bade it be—with all else banished--
A book of portents terrible to read.
Translation by Stephen Edgar. Source: http://www.worldwarone.it/2016/06/the-poets-and-world-war-in-memoriam.html.
The 12-year-old Prussian schoolgirl Piete Kuhr began a diary and wrote (1 Aug 1914): "At school the teachers say it is our patriotic duty to stop using foreign words. I didn't know what that meant at first, but now I see it—you must no longer say 'Adieu' because that is French. I must now call Mama 'Mutter'. At school they talk of nothing but the war now.” [Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis, ed. A War in Words: The First World War in Diaries and Letters]
On 4 August, Piete wrote: “The 149th Infantry Regiment is stationed in our town, Schneidemühl. They are going to be sent to the Western Front. This evening we heard the far off sound of the drums, bass drums and kettledrums. The music kept getting louder and clearer. We couldn't bear to stay in our room and ran out into the street.… Our regiment was marching down the street to the station. The soldiers wore new grey uniforms and black spiked helmets. They were looking serious. I had expected them to be laughing and rejoicing. A trumpet call rang out. A soldier as big as a tree came past me. I stretched out my hand over the fence and muttered 'Farewell!' He smiled at me and shook my hand. I gazed after him. Gradually the train began to move. It wouldn't have taken much for me to burst out crying. I went home by a roundabout way. I held my hand out in front of me, the one that the soldier had squeezed. As I went up our poorly lit steps, I stared at the palm of my hand. Then I quickly kissed it.”
Yves Congar, a French schoolboy in Sedan in eastern France, also began an illustrated diary about this time. This mixture of quotation and summary is from his entry for 25 August: "We are just getting up when mother comes up to me and says, ‘….Put your soldiers away, the Germans are coming.' I go outside after putting them away and I hear shooting and I see a plane in the sky. As soon as I am back inside, my big brothers come through the door. 'They're coming! They're coming! They're right behind us!' I go and look out the dining-room widow."
Yves watches through the wind as "the shooting starts." The German soldiers charge; he hears two massive thuds "as two horses fall dead in front of the window. Bullets whizz by in both directions." They can hear artillery, machine guns, and rifles; they hear the "Germans hitting Mr Benoit's door with their rifle butts, looking for French troops. Just to be safe they shoot Mr Benoit's dog, so that its barking won't interfere with their patrols."
In the evening, they hear bridges being blown up. "The Germans, fiends, thieves, murderers and arsonists ... set fire to everything: to our church in Givonne; to the chapel in Fond de Givonne Glaire; to Donchery, where they use incendiary rockets....." Next day, the Germans demand "a quarter of a million francs' worth of gold." (Source: A War in Words)
Sedan was occupied for almost the entire war.
I’ll end with this poem by a poet who died in November 1914:
ON THE EASTERN FRONT
by George Trakl
The winter storm's mad organ playing
is like the Volk's dark fury,
the black-red tidal wave of onslaught,
Her features smashed, her arms silver,
night calls to the dying men,
beneath shadows of November's ash,
ghost casualties heave.
A spiky no-man's-land encloses the town.
The moon hunts petrified women
from their blood-spattered doorsteps.
Grey wolves have forced the gates.
Translation by John Greening. Source: http://www.worldwarone.it/search/label/Poets