WW1 course, Lesson 1 – ‘The truth untold’: soldier poets as reporters.

Hello all,

Thank you for coming to the first session of the course. I enjoyed meeting those who are new to my courses and it was lovely to see so many familiar faces as well.

This is my first blog post ever!! Do feel free to post your thoughts about today’s session and the poems and prose extracts we read, and also to respond to other people’s thoughts.  To do so, please click on ‘Leave a comment’ at the top of this post.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

1. The poppies in Rosenberg’s poem ‘drop, and are ever dropping’ because they are rooted in blood, whereas the poppy he has picked from the parapet is described as ‘safe.’ How does Rosenberg use irony throughout the poem and do you think it is effective?

2. In what ways did the Expressionist poems differ from Owen’s and Rosenberg’s poems? Which did you prefer and why?

3. Having read the prose extracts, do any of you plan to read the books from which they are taken? If so, which book are you most likely to read and why?

3 thoughts on “WW1 course, Lesson 1 – ‘The truth untold’: soldier poets as reporters.”

  1. Hi Woody, this is my first response to a blog. I’m afraid I wrote it before reading your questions – but it is to do with poppies. I am concerned about our interpretation of poppies being coloured by their changing symbolism after 1921. Here is what I put together last night:

    Poppies and their symbolism

    “Poppy” today symbolises the victims of the First World War. When we are reading poems written prior to 1921 it is probably worth thinking about the other meanings that the poppy carried with it, remembrance is a later addition.

    They have been symbols of beauty, magic, consolation, fertility, eternal life, sleep, peace, imagination, pleasure and death. Used as offerings to the dead in Greek and Roman myths and also used as a promise of resurrection after death. Its analgesic properties have been known since ancient times.

    The use of the red poppy for remembrance was introduced by Royal British Legion about 1921 stimulated by John McCrea’s poem “In Flanders Fields” 1915.

    “In Flanders Fields”
    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.

    Prior to the First World War they were, amongst other things, symbols of homosexual love particularly in England (Wilkinson The Church of England and the First World War)

    Paul Fussell, in, The Great War and Modern Memory:, mentions the Gilbert and Sullivan musical, Patience, which opened in 1881. It contains the following lyrics:
    “…if you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand,
    everyone will say,
    As you walk your flowery way,
    …what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!”

    Fussell also refers to Two Loves, a poem written in 1894 by Lord Alfred Douglas. In a dream, the poet discovers in his garden a beautiful naked youth who has lips, ‘red like poppies’. The young man says, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.”
    Fussell suggests that John McCrea unconsciously expresses a certain homoeroticism in connection with the young friend whose death prompted the poem.
    “…Short days ago…We lived…Loved and were loved, and now we lie…”

    So for example when the poet talks of roots of poppies being in the soldier veins, we should I think forget the themes of remembrance and have the concepts of analgesia, everlasting, life, peaceful repose and love to think about.

    (I hope you enjoyed the G&S, Woody!)

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for posting and sharing lots of interesting points about poppies and their symbolism- much food for thought. I am particularly struck by your point about poppies having been symbols of homosexual love. You mention Paul Fussell – it was he who thought Rosenberg’s poem was the most successful of the First World War poems. I’d like to take up your final point, if I may, and use it to explore a few points about literature in general.

      It is inevitable that symbolism, definitions and views change due to linguistic and socio-cultural factors; can we, as contemporary readers, ignore these changes? Should we ignore those changes? Depending on how we approach a text, it is entirely possible to provide two (or indeed more) quite different, possibly even opposing, readings of the same text. A historical reading of Rosenberg’s poem would focus on the historical context in which the poem was written, which would lead us to focus on the author’s original intent determined by the circumstances in which he found himself when he wrote the poem. However, since Rosenberg wrote his poem, the poppy has become a powerful symbol of both the First World War and of remembrance. Is it possible, therefore, for us to read this poem now without considering the contemporary connotations of the poppy and what it means to us? If we, as contemporary readers, were to ignore any references, symbolism and meaning which speak to us today, what impact would this have on literature?

      Once a text has been placed in the public realm through publication, can an author hope, or even expect, to be able to determine how that text is received and understood? Should part of our reading of a text be inspired by our emotional response to the text? Can emotional responses be controlled and should they be controlled?

      To take a slightly different angle on this subject of intention versus interpretation, think about a Shakespeare play: should it always be performed in historical dress with an historical setting? Would we still be flocking to theatres if this were the case? What do you think about productions which retain the original language but alter the dress and setting?

      Think about a politician’s speech? Should we focus on the intention behind the words or how those words are interpreted? Do we hold politicians to account for how their words are understood or for what they meant to say?

      I’d be really interested to hear people’s views on this because it is relevant to how we view ourselves as readers and how we approach our reading, and will, therefore, inform our future sessions, both in this course and in future courses.

      (Another G&S reference, Mike – perhaps I should give them another listen!)

      1. Woody, as is so often the case, you have hit the nail on the head.

        I have been fascinated by the difference between “intentionality” and the “interpretation” of art for ages.

        An artist when creating the work has to deal with the world as it is known at the time. But since that includes human behaviour, many aspects of which are unchanging through time, much will resonant with subsequent audiences, irrespective of when they encounter it. Shakespeare is a prime example, much of his writing is considered timeless because the basic human traits he describes are visible in every age and “modern dress” versions can be made to work brilliantly. However, much of his humour is very much contemporary and is not appreciated by modern audiences.
        (Similarly, when WS Gilbert describes a nightmare (www.worlddreambank.org/L/LORDCHAN.htm) we are all aware of what he is describing as a human experience but references to railway carriages, bathing machines and penny ice and cold meat leave many in a modern audience behind)

        When we read a poem, see a play or listen to a politician (or indeed interact with any form of art) we have this contemporary/historical issue to deal with. It is unfair I think to pass judgement on an artist and the work they produce because modern audiences either do or do not get it. An example would be Wagner. He was vilified, and his music banned in the UK during WWII, because Hitler liked it.

        Looking at something with contemporary mental baggage is what we always do (we can never really transport ourselves back to the mindset we would have had when it was written) and it informs our emotional/intellectual response. If we are attempting to understand what the artist was doing I think it is important to be aware of the differences between then and now.

        It has been suggested that artists create their works with intent, a painter for example can spend months on one picture getting exactly as he wants it. Everything in the work is “on purpose”.
        Some critics de-construct art with this in mind. It reminds me of a BBC critic who was filmed arriving at a famous sculptor’s workshop, having walked past a collection of marble blocks in the field. He complimented the sculptor on that particular arrangement “of art” to be told “Oh, that’s just how the lorry dumped them.”
        The actual effect of something is by no means just what the artist put there “on purpose”.

        I think if we can disentangle the intent of the artist (the “on purpose” bits) then that tells us about the artist, The real effect of it – which includes the unintentional extra layers of meaning that time and the viewer’s experience add, tells us about the work itself.

        Of course, sometimes the artist is so prescient that the work (as “intended”) does speak down the ages. This is the case with extrapolations of how human societies work (rather than just how humans work).
        An example of this is from Utopia Ltd [sorry Woody, its G&S again] where a song describing the perils of limited liability companies resonates with problems which we have had, in the intervening years, with capitalism and banking misbehaviour. In the interests of space I haven’t copied the whole lyric but you can find it at this link) http://fee.org/files/doclib/feat6.pdf

        I think that the fun of looking at art is in getting what the artist meant then and in getting what it means to us now.

        (Blaming politicians for unintentional meanings in what they said is also fun – but not really fair!)
        see http://www.epicure.me.uk/speech.html (It is not all G&S!)


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