Thoughts on remembrance, war and humanity

I posted this last year on Facebook but I think it bears repetition on Remembrance Sunday. I’ve always been interested by our fascination, as a society, with the poetry of the First World War. Especially when contrasted with the almost complete anonymity of the Second World War poets. Of whom Hamish Henderson was one of the most significant.

It’s Remembrance Day, so I thought I’d share an extract from Hamish Henderson’s Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica. It was written during, after and about the Allied campaign in North Africa in the Second World War. We all know the war poets of the First World War, few of us know poets of the Second World War.

This extract from the First Elegy does something wonderful and difficult. It values the enemy. Living and dead. For many the Second World War is the archetype of the just war. A war of good against evil. Is it that a just war provides less scope for poetry?

Or is it that we have lost sense of the humanity of our enemies?

Hamish Henderson, Jan 1942 from “End of a Campaign”

There are many dead in the brutish desert,
who lie uneasy
among the scrub in this landscape of half-wit
stunted ill-will. For the dead land is insatiate
and necrophilous. The sand is blowing about still.
Many who for various reasons, or because
of mere unanswerable compulsion, came here
and fought among the clutching gravestones,
shivered and sweated,
cried out, suffered thirst, were stoically silent, cursed
the spittering machine-guns, were homesick for Europe
and fast embedded in quicksand of Africa
agonized and died.
And sleep now. Sleep here the sleep of dust.

There were our own, there were the others.
Their deaths were like their lives, human and animal.
There were no gods and precious few heroes.
What they regretted when they died had nothing to do with
race and leader, realm indivisible,
laboured Augustan speeches or vague imperial heritage.
(They saw through that guff before the axe fell.)
Their longing turned to
the lost world glimpsed in the memory of letters:
an evening at the pictures in the friendly dark,
two knowing conspirators smiling and whispering secrets;
or else
a family gathering in the homely kitchen
with Mum so proud of her boys in uniform:
their thoughts trembled
between moments of estrangement, and ecstatic moments
of reconciliation: and their desire
crucified itself against the unutterable shadow of someone
whose photo was in their wallets.
Their death made his incision.

There were our own, there were the others.
Therefore, minding the great word of Glencoe’s
son, that we should not disfigure ourselves
with villany of hatred; and seeing that all
have gone down like curs into anonymous silence,
I will bear witness for I knew the others.
Seeing that littoral and interior are alike indifferent
and the birds are drawn again to our welcoming north
why should I not sing them, the dead, the innocent?”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s