Saturday, 7 January 2012

Religion in WW1 poetry

The horrors of World War One were inflicted, in the case of England at least, on a society that still clung to the old certainties of Anglican Christianity. Brooke's concept of the "hearts at peace, under an English heaven" (from his poem The Soldier) is one that many would have found comforting and unassailable, at the start of the war at least. This confidence in the sheltering, caring presence of  a fundamentally English (or at least British) God can be seen everywhere, from Harold Begbie's confidence in Fall In that "England's call is God's" to the pervasive popular myth of the Angels of Mons.

In a fairly disastrous engagement with the superior German forces in the early days of the war the British forces were outnumbered and many killed. Yet the major legacy of that battle for many was the belief that angels had appeared in the sky and had protected British troops. this story was no doubt seized on by propagandists to strengthen morale, but it clearly had its foundation in a strong belief that God was on the British side and that God would protect His own.

As the interminable trench battles dragged on however, such comforting myths were largely forgotten, replaced in most soldiers' minds by contrasting myths such as that of the crucified soldier. Never conclusively pinned down this was the belief that German soldiers had captured a Canadian and tortured him by crucifying him on a barn door. Again, it is possible that this story too was amplified- maybe even invented- for propaganda reasons. however the fact of its popularity makes plain that soldiers responded to it. Their Christianity had come to be a symbol not of reassurance and protection but of pain and death.

This connection is movingly brought out in Siegfried Sassoon's poem The Redeemer, in which he encounters Christ, but dressed as an English soldier who "faced me, reeling in his weariness,/ Shouldering his load of planks, so hard to bear." Wilfred Owen too saw the parallel between the suffering Christ and the soldiers in the trenches. In a letter to his mother, written when he was in England training new recruits to be shipped over to the Front he wrote "For 14 hours yesterday, I was at work-teaching Christ to lift his cross by the numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirst until after the last halt. I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb, and stands mute before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”

Wilfred Owen had been set on preparing for the priesthood before his life was overturned by his time in France and it is fascinating to see how he struggled to reconcile his faith with the horrors he witnessed. In one of his angriest poems, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young, he recounts the story of Abraham and Isaac, a central myth in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths. With few changes from the text of the Authorised version of the Bible he retells the story, but placing it in  the setting of the war in France. So in the poem "Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,/And builded parapets and trenches there." Yet the twist he imparts at the end is the truly shocking thing. The original is a symbol not just of Abraham's faith but of God's mercy, for God offers Abraham a ram to sacrifice in the place of his son Isaac. Not so in Owen's poem. The story is the same until the last two lines:
"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."

However to me it is not Owen's anger in this poem that is most shocking, but the completeness of his loss of faith in the aptly named Futility. Here Owen takes a simple story of finding a soldier who had died in the night and makes of it a poem that encapsulates the bleakness of a man whose faith has died. Seeing the man lying dead in the mud Owen thinks of how God created man- breathing life into the clay with which he had formed Adam. Even now he cannot bring himself to make his rejection of God complete and he refers to the "kind old sun" instead, but to me the final lines in the poem are unequivocal. As a committed Christian a core tenet would have been that God created man out of the clay, that God breathed life into the world. The half-rhyme of "tall", "toil" and "at all" with its uneasy incompleteness seems to strengthen the desperate hopelessness as he writes
"Was it for this the clay grew tall?
- O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?"

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