Archive for November 2013

Football’s Match of the Century, Wembley, 25th November 1953.   1 comment

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The 25th November, 2013 marks the sixtieth anniversary of the so-called ‘Match of the Century’ at Wembley Stadium, between two national teams of England and Hungary. England had never been beaten on home soil by continental opposition and Hungary had gone twenty-four matches without defeat, winning twenty of them. Besides being the year of the Queen’s Coronation in the UK, it was also the ninetieth anniversary of the Football Association, now celebrating its 150th anniversary. The Hungarian ‘Golden Team‘ of the 1950s  had won international recognition in 1952 when they became Olympic Champions, beating Yugoslavia 2-0 in the final with late goals from Puskás and Czibor. Their 1953 international season began for the Hungarian team in April 1953 with a 1-1 draw against the Austrians in Budapest. Puskás played, alongside Czibor, who scored Hungary’s goal. However, some weeks later in Rome, the official Gusztáv Sebes ‘ensemble’ turned out for the European Cup match. The Olympic Stadium allowed eighty thousand spectators to watch with a mixture of awe and shock as the Magyars ran rings around their Italian opposition. Puskás twice found Lucidio Sementi’s net, followed up by a goal from Hidegküti. So the Hungarian team ran out of the new stadium as 3-0 winners. The team’s next match was in Stockholm where Puskás scored the opening goal as Hungary secured a 4-2 victory. Next came a clash with Czechoslovakia in October in Prague, with Puskás’ men securing an impressive  5-1 victory.   On October 11th, the Austrians were the opposition for the second time that year, this time in Vienna. This was Puskás’ fiftieth appearance for the national team. He didn’t celebrate with an individual goal, although the Hungarians were 3-2 winners. There were some unpleasant post-match minutes for the leader of the ruling Hungarian Workers’ Party, Mihály Farkas, who was there to present the captain with a beautiful twenty-four piece porcelain dinner service on the occasion of his fiftieth cap. In return, Puskás presented Farkas with a small silver cup, which were accompanied by some carefully chosen but sharp remarks about the situation in their homeland, which rather took the ‘statesman’ by surprise.

So it was that on 24th November 1953, ‘the Golden Team’ arrived in London, still unbeaten. The story of the match itself has been well told in documentary and feature films,  including the surviving recordings of the live television coverage, which is almost complete in both English (with commentary by Kenneth Wolstenholme) and Hungarian. In addition, there are many printed sources covering the match, from match programmes, to still photographs and newspaper reports. Some of these are inserted below, together with the sleeve notes from the recently released DVD.:

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With their emphatic 6-3 win against England in 1953 at Wembley, Hungary had become the first team from outside the British Isles to defeat England on home soil, and they had followed this up with a 7-1 humiliation in Budapest before the World Cup. Billy Wright was England’s captain on both occasions, as he was in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland,  in which  they beat the host team 2-0, before the losing to Uruguay in the quarter-finals, the team which the Hungarians beat in the semi-final to go through to the ill-fated 3-2 defeat in the final against West Germany. The Hungarian team recovered over the next two years, and their last match was another 2-0 defeat of Austria on 14th October 1956, just nine days before the Uprising began in Budapest, resulting in the invasion by the Soviet Union in November and the flight of many refugees, including sportsmen and women. Puskás went into exile in Spain, playing for the glory team of Real Madrid, and many other members of the Golden Team also left to play their football elsewhere. They therefore went down in history as the greatest team never to win the World Cup, and although qualifying for the finals since, most recently in 1982 and 1986, the Hungarian national side has never again looked like one which could lift the trophy, as it looked certain to in 1954.

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Tibor Bán & Zoltán Harmos (2000), Ferenc Puskás. Budapest: Aréna

Putting Away the Fear of Childishness: C.S. Lewis   Leave a comment

My younger son, Oliver, is ten, and loves the Narnia books of C.S. Lewis, who died 50 years ago today. I read most of them to him in English years ago, though we only finished The Last Battle earlier this year, as I thought it was ‘too grown up’ for him until then. Oliver is now reading The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe again in Hungarian. Lewis is reported to have said that when he was ten, he read fairy stories in secret and would have been ashamed had he been found doing so. ‘Now that I am fifty’ he said in 1952, ‘I read them openly. When I became a man, I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.’ Yet grown-up matters, which were preoccupying Lewis when he continued to write about Animal-Land (The Last Battle was written in 1956), find no mention in the Narnian books. In his autobiography, Surprised by Joypublished in 1955, he writes of two lives, the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’, the life of the intellect and the life of the imagination, being lived over each other, at the same time. The ‘outer’ is chiefly concerned with those things that he spoke about openly, whereas the ‘inner’ is essentially the story of Joy, or intense longing, working on his imagination. The Welsh word for ‘Joy’ is ‘hwyl’, which is not the same as happiness, and is close to ‘hiraeth’, which is a heart-felt longing, especially for one’s homeland. Narnia would never have come into being had Lewis not come to understand the deep meaning and purpose of Joy, what he defined in the books as ‘the deep magic from the dawn of time’.

As Walter Hooper has pointed out in his useful little book, Past Watchful Dragons: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis, as a child, was all too aware that religion seemed to be associated with lowered voices and stained glass windows. Wanting to make belief shine out in all its strength and splendour, he created the make-believe world of Narnia as one of the ways to ‘steal past those watchful dragons’.

Oliver was born without fingers on his right hand. C.S. Lewis was also born with a deficiency in his right hand; he had only one joint in his thumb, which kept him from taking up the hobbies and sports that interest most young boys. His manual clumbsiness was what drove him to write. When his family moved into Little Lea on the outskirts of Belfast in 1905, he took over one of the attics and there wrote his first stories, stories that combined his chief literary pleasures – knights in armour and dressed animals. When his brother came home from school in England, the attic became a shared land. Warren brought India into it and it became related to Jack’s Animal-Land (‘JacK’ was the name he preferred to ‘Clive’). They eventually merged into the single state of Boxen and, with great invention and patient endeavour the boys created a Boxonian saga spanning several hundred years. Ambitions run high and are almost solely concerned with money and political power. These were the chief topics of conversation among the group of friends who conversed with Lewis’s father. Although as an adult he came to hate these topics himself, as a juvenile Jack wanted his stories to reflect as nearly as possible the things that seemed important to adults.

In his autobiography Lewis defines Joy by relating three experiences from his early childhood. He remembered a morning on which his brother had brought a toy garden into the nursery. The memory of this evoked in him a ‘longing’ for the joy he had felt at that time. His second glimpse of Joy came through Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, a book whose ‘Idea of Autumn’ also plunged him into an experience of intense desire. The third glimpse came when he was reading Longfellow’s poem, Tegner’s Drapa and his mind was uplifted into huge regions of the northern sky. At the very moment he felt stabbed by desire, he felt himself falling out of that desire and wishing he were back in it. He tells us that Joy, the common quality to these three experiences, is an unsatisfied longing which is itself more desirable than any sense of satisfaction. This authentic Joy disappeared from his life when he was sent to school in Watford, Hertfordshire. A few years later he was a pupil at Cherbourg House in Malvern, Worcestershire. It was there, while looking at Arthur Rackham’s illustrations to Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods that his feelings of Joy returned. However, as this thrill became less and less frequent, he became desperate to ‘have it again’ and turned from one medium of Joy to another, hoping always to find permanent contentment. He experimented with erotic pleasure, but found that while ‘Joy is not a substitute for sex, sex is very often a substitute for Joy’.

Jack lost his virginity in Malvern, but it was the ‘potent, ubiquitous, and unabashed’ eroticism of William Morris’s romances which chiefly persuaded himself that sex might be the substance of Joy. Writing Loki Bound, a pessimistic Norse tragedy, he became a convinced atheist, and later wrote from Little Bookham in Surrey, where he had become a pupil of William T. Kirkpatrick, to his Belfast friend, Arthur Greeves:

You know, I think, that i have no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention – Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn’t understand…Thus religion…grew up…Of course, mind you, I am not laying down as a certainty that there is nothing the material world: considering the discoveries that are always being made, this would be foolish. Anything MAY exist.

When he went up to Oxford after serving in the trenches during World War I, Lewis was determined that there were to be no flirtations with the idea of the supernatural. All the images he associated with Joy were, he had concluded, sheer fantasies. He had at last ‘seen through’ them. However, all his reservations about the Christian faith were swept away one by one and, after long searching, he was brought to his knees in the summer of 1929 and forced to admit that God was God. It was in the sidecar of his brother’s motorcycle on the way to Whipsnade Zoo, in 1931, that he became a Christian. After that, the old bittersweet jabs of Joy continued as before.

In his personal epilogue to his book on his ‘Guide Book’ to Narnia, Walter Hooper argues that there should never be any attempt to read the Chronicles as Lewis’s ‘autobiography’. Writing about the desire for heaven as part of the desire for God, Lewis said that ‘the proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.’ The ‘old Narnia’ flowed into the ‘real Narnia’. In the penultimate chapter of The Last Battle, Jewel the Unicorn, arriving on the other side of the Stable door, expressed the feeling of all the others. He stamped his hoof, neighed and cried, ‘I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.’

After years of illness, Jack Lewis was taken to the Acland Nursing Home in Oxford. He went into a coma immediately, and a priest gave him extreme unction. Walter Hooper and other friends waited close by, and, to their amazement, he awoke and asked for tea. When he came home, he dictated many letters describing his feelings about his experience in the nursing home. He wrote, ‘the door was open, but as I started through it was closed in my face. I would rather have died, but apparently it is my duty to live. I am happy to do either, but – oh, I would like to have gone through that door.’

A few months later – the same day, the same hour, that John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas – the door opened again. This time he went through.

RIP, Clive S. Lewis

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Sources

Walter Hooper (1980), Past Watchful Dragons. London (Copyright, 1971 by Walter Hooper and the Trustees of the Estate of C.S. Lewis): Fount Paperbacks.

C. S. Lewis (1956), The Last Battle: A Story for Children. London: The Bodley Head.

St Cecilia’s Day, November 22nd: Patron Saint of Musicians.   1 comment

St Cecilia’s Day, November 22nd.

Earlier this year (July 2016), I found myself standing in front of the  stained glass window pictured above in the Cathedral of St Edmundsbury (Bury St Edmunds). Appropriately, an organ practice was taking place at the same time, and the impact of the sight of the window and the sound of the organ lifted my spirits after the political upheaval of the summer in Britain and reminded me of more important and pleasurable aspects of my life. Although I don’t really pay much attention to saints, I make an exception for St Cecilia as the patron saint of music, my first love. The poet laureate, John Dryden, wrote these words about her:

But bright Cecilia rais’d the wonder high’r

When to her Organ, vocal breath was given,

An Angel heard, and straight appear’d

Mistaking Earth for Heaven.

 

J: DRYDEN

 

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Saint Cecilia by Guido Reni, 1606

Saint Cecilia  was martyred for her Christian faith in A.D. 176, under the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, when both she and her husband were put to death. She was high-born Roman of a Christian family, and a great Church was built over the house in Rome which is said to contain her body, the Church of St Cecilia Trastevere. The present church was built in 1599, when Stefano Maderno claimed to have seen the body of the saint and carved her the sculpture of her lying on her side, uncorrupt, as he saw her.

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There are legends about her attracting an angel to earth by her singing and of her singing at her martyrdom. The thirteenth century Golden Legend tells of how she sang as she took three days to die:

And while the organs maden melodie

To God alone in hearte thus sang she.

This is the source for Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale. From this rather flimsy evidence Dryden attributed to her the invention of the organ, by which she added length to solemn sounds.

In the middle ages, guilds of musicians adopted her as their patron saint and painters produced works showing her playing the lute or the organ, or another instrument. At the time of the Reformation in Britain she went out of fashion, for many puritans were suspicious of music, which they thought was a dangerous cup of poison. Despite this, St Cecilia’s Day was celebrated in 1683, when the programme included a church service and an entertainment which included an ode, or poem of praise. In that year the Musicians’ Company was formed to keep the Day in a worthy manner, and each year after that the Company met at St Bride’s Church in London. Later, they transferred the ceremony to St Paul’s Cathedral, where in 1907 a stained glass window was presented in honour of the saint.

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In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries several provincial cities held similar festivals, including Wells, Oxford, Salisbury, Winchester and Devizes. Dublin and Edinburgh also staged celebrations in more recent times. These festivals inspired Odes by Purcell, to words Nicholas Brady, and by Jeremiah Clarke, to words by Dryden. In 1942, Benjamin Britten, whose birthday was 22nd November, also composed an Ode to St Cecilia. In 1946, after a public lunch at which the Lord Mayor spoke and the Poet Laureate recited a poem, there was a service at St Sepulchre’s Church and a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, attended by the Queen. Two orchestras took part and works by Purcell and more recent English composers, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Walton were performed, including Purcell’s Ode of 1692.    

Saint Cecilia with an Angel, Gentileschi

Hungary and the World, 1919-2008: A Powerpoint Presentation and Gallery   1 comment

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Click on this link to access the powerpoints:

Motivational Magyars (1996-2006)

Hungary and the World, 1919-2008

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Hungary, Europe and the USA, 1848-1918: Two Powerpoint Presentations   Leave a comment

 

Click on the links below to open the powerpoints

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Click on the links below to open the power-points for educational use:

Hungary, Europe and the USA,1849-1918

The Hungarian Revolution and War of Independence, 1848-9

The War of the Poppies – Peace at any Price?   1 comment

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In the 1970’s I was an ‘absolute pacifist‘, based mainly on my Christian faith and interpretation of Jesus’ words in the gospel. Having studied Wilfred Owen’s poetry for A Level, I refused to buy a red poppy when the British Legion volunteers came round. I told them that while I respected the memory of  the soldiers and sailors who died in a futile war (my Great Uncle was one of them), I would not wear a red poppy with General Hague’s name on it. At that time, the Poppy Fund was named the Hague Fund, after ‘the butcher of the Somme’ (a title which I have since discovered was somewhat unfair, and not the way in which the millions of ex-servicemen who turned out for his funeral saw him at the time).  Instead I wore a badge with a white poppy on it (the Peace Pledge Union didn’t sell paper poppies then). It said ‘Peace in our time, for our time’. At that point, I hadn’t studied the history of the thirties, ‘the devil’s decade’ and appeasement. Having done so in detail over the last forty years, it is no longer the red poppy I have a problem with, but the white.

From 1936-38, despite the obvious threat of continental fascism demonstrated by the Civil War in Spain, the Peace Pledge Union conducted a campaign in support of the National Government’s policy of non-intervention in Spain which was then turned into one of appeasement of first Mussolini’s chemical war in Ethiopia  and then Hitler’s seizure of Austria and Czechoslovakia. As a member of the largely pro-fascist and pacifist Welsh Nationalist Party commented at the time, this last act, approved by Chamberlain, was just another fascist way of murdering a small, defenceless nation without going to war about it. The Left in Wales, and throughout Britain, supported the democratic, Republican side against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler, but the brave volunteers of the International Brigades from working-class areas of Britain like the mining valleys of south Wales could do little against Franco and Mussolini’s troops, backed up by German bombers, like those who bombed Guernica and the refugees trying to escape the conflict. Pacifists like The Quakers helped to receive the Basque refugees brought from Bilbao to Southampton later in the war, but by then the cause  was obviously lost. In the meantime, The Peace Pledge Union fought and won by-elections, Oxford Union debates and signed up millions on its pledge cards. As one of its leading and longest-serving members, Lord Soper, later reflected, it was easy to get people to sign the pledge, but achieving peace in Europe was a far more difficult task.

So when Chamberlain returned from Munich in 1938, waving his piece of paper with the German Führer’s signature on it, and talking of ‘peace in our time’, he was cheered all the way to Downing Street.  The British public had been fooled into thinking that a permanent peace accord had been struck with Germany. The Peace Pledge Union was the major architect of this, and they were happy to take acclaim. Only a handful of Labour MPs, including Harold Nicolson and Clement Attlee supported Churchill in the House of Commons debate on the issue. They were condemned as ‘war-mongers’ in the House and the press, in November 1938.

So, if we base our remembrance purely on the historical record, it is the white poppy which bears the most shame. However, acts of remembrance are not, thankfully, the acts of historians alone. They are acts of commitment to the memory of all our families who died suffered, whether as civilians in Coventry in 1940, as sailors at Scapa Flow and in the Atlantic and Arctic convoys, or as soldiers in Afghanistan. We are not making historical judgements, which would leave us all shame-faced, neither are we in the business of apportioning blame. Like Donald Soper, we acknowledge all our mistakes of yesteryear, and then re-commit ourselves to what J F Kennedy described as the hourly, daily, weekly, task of constructing a peaceful future.  Sometimes that can only be done by fighting for freedom, as in Spain in 1936 or, more recently, and where I am now, in Hungary, in 1956.

That’s why, when I taught at Sidcot School in the nineties and noughties, I wore both a white and a red poppy together, despite the historical problems associated with both.  These days, I am happy to wear the red poppy on its own for the weeks before Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day, as a commemoration of those who gave their lives in the wars of the twentieth century, for whatever motivation, since it is not my place to judge them, or question their judgement or bravery. I try to honour their ‘sacrifice’ through my own commitment to make warfare something only referred to in the past tenses, something I hope that my children and grandchildren, yet unborn, will never have to deal with in their personal present or futures. As nurse Edith Cavell wrote on the eve of her death by firing squad in 1915, ‘patriotism is not enough’, but it does, at least, take us beyond our own narrow self-interest.

ARMISTICE DAY: Christ in No Man’s Land   1 comment

ARMISTICE DAY Christ in No Man‘s Land 

Now that the last of the veterans of the First World War have died, we are left with black-and-white movies, sepia photos, and a wide variety of art-work. Then we have the literature, especially the poetry, and this remains perhaps the most poignant testimony both to the nature and the impact of the conflict on the western front, if not elsewhere. And yet, it wasn’t until the era of the Cold War and Vietnam that the work of the soldier-poets of the trenches was fully recognised. Fifty years after a premature death in Flanders which prevented him from becoming the greatest poet in the English language since John Keats, a third generation, myself among them, discovered the power of Wilfred Owen‘s poetry as a ‘weapon’ against the warmongers of the late twentieth century. I still use my anthology of  ‘1914-18 in Poetry’ from which I learnt, by heart, many of his poems. They are anthems which still reverberate in my head, have shaped my adult values and formed the essential documents in my teaching about the Great War over the past thirty years.

The Poetry and the Pity

Owen was born in Oswestry in 1893 and from 1911 to 1913 he was a lay assistant to the vicar of Dunsden in Oxfordshire. His strongly Christian parents had always hoped he would enter the Anglican priesthood, and his Biblical upbringing had an obvious influence on his poetry in both its phraseology and theology of the justification of war.  In October 1915 he returned to England from his role as a tutor in France, in order to enlist as an officer in the Manchester Regiment.  Very early in 1917 he was on the front line of the Somme with the Lancashire Fusiliers. His letters to his mother reveal how shocked he was to discover the horror and muddle of war at the front in wintertime. In May he was invalided home with neurasthenia and sent to Craiglockart Hospital in Scotland. There, on 17 August 1917 he met Siegfried Sassoon, a much-published poet, who encouraged Owen to continue writing his war poetry. Although both poets came close to accept the principle of pacifism, both insisted on returning to the front to remain as leaders and spokesmen for the ordinary men in the trenches.

Just before the Shropshire lad left England to rejoin his company at the front, on 31 August 1918, Owen was planning a volume of poetry that he never lived to publish. He thought of it as a kind of counter-propaganda, as his scribbled preface to it reveals:

This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them. Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War. Above all I am not concerned with Poetry. My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why true poets must be truthful.

Doomed Youth

Owen’s best and most typical poetry is in harmony with this Preface. He stresses the tragic waste of war, and his characteristic attitude is one of compassion rather than anger. He fills us with a sense of pity for the dead who died such agonizing and undignified deaths. He makes us painfully aware of all the good that these young men, whether British, German or French, could have achieved if only they had lived. Pity, in Owen’s use of the word, was not self-pity. The sacrifice of the Cross represents the crossing-out of the capital ‘I’. Owen pitied others, not himself; his revisions of his poems gradually rid them of all mention of himself; his poems, like ‘Dulce et Decorum Est‘, present universal pictures of typical scenes of the Western Front, like the horror of soldiers suffering a gas attack.  He is concerned with the plight of individual soldiers when they are typical of the plight of doomed soldiers as a whole. Unlike Sassoon’s ‘young man with a meagre wife and two small children in a Midland town’, Owen’s men are unknown, unidentified, like the dead young man in ‘Futility’. This poem arraigns God in the most direct way for ever allowing Creation to take place:

Was it for this the clay grew tall?

O what made fatuous sunbeams toil

To break earth’s sleep at all?

His finest poetry, however, is not that in which he despairs; it is that in which his faith and his doubts are held in balance. Two types of tension give his poems their cutting edge. He seems unsure about whether God exists and whether pacifism is the only answer to war. He carries on an internal debate on these two problems just below the surface of his meaning; the consequent tension gives a terrible intensity to his poetry. Just as the rural poverty he experienced in helping the Oxfordshire vicar before the war made him doubt conventional Christianity, so his terrible experiences in France made him doubt any form of Christianity. Even ‘Exposure’, written during his first tour of duty in Flanders, admits that ‘love of God seems to be dying’. In ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth‘, his subconscious debate rises less respectfully to the surface, when he asks ‘What passing-bells for those who die as cattle?’ The bells represent the strong religious associations, while the phrase ‘die as cattle’ summons up the contrasting atmosphere of an abattoir.   ‘Apologia Pro Poemate Meo‘, written in November 1917, still professes a belief in God:

I, too, saw God through mud –

The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.

Other poems also profess a belief in an afterlife in which the the dead soldier is ‘high pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making’ and a shared conviction with ‘some’ who ‘say God caught them even before they fell’.  However, his poem ‘Greater Love’ expresses doubt as to whether it is possible for a good god to exist while such torturing agonies continue. It describes the dead as:

Rolling and rolling there

Where God seems not to care.

A similarly uncertain debate about pacifism is hinted at by his best poetry but rarely expressed directly. ‘Exposure’ briefly states the case against pacifism:

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn:

Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.

Dulce et Decorum Est has often been misquoted by the ‘white poppy brigade’ as evidence of his pacifism, but the ‘old lie’ that he refers to is not that soldiers should be prepared to die for their country, but that in doing so they were doing something ‘sweet’ or ‘decorous’. War, as he observed it in the face of a gassed comrade, was anything but…

Christ in no-man’s land

However, in his letters, Owen sometimes puts the case for Christian pacifism with passionate intensity:

Already I have comprehended a light which will never filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was, Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace, but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill…

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear his voice. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life – for a friend. Is it spoken in English only and in French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism.

Other poets, both civilians and soldiers, were moved to similar expressions of pity or protest based on Christian principles. Sassoon’s simple prayer of protest, ‘O Jesus make it stop’  echoed millions of cries from the trenches, while Kipling, his attitude to the ‘Great War’ changed by his son Jack’s death at the Front, compares the modern soldier’s agony to Christ’s agony in Gethsemane.  Like Jesus, the soldier in his poem prays that the cup of suffering might pass, but it doesn’t, and the soldier drinks it sacrificially in a gas attack ‘beyond Gethsemane’.

Ultimately, Wilfred Owen does not blame God for the suffering of the soldiers he seeks to represent in his poetry. In July 1918 he wrote to his mother from the Yorkshire seaside town of Scarborough, that he wished ‘the Boche’ would ‘make a clean sweep of ….all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading John Bull on Scarborough sands’. Owen condemns ‘the old’ in ‘the Parable of the Old Men and the Young’ in which he rewrites the story of Abraham and Isaac, envisaging the old man killing his son rather than obeying God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Another special target for  Owen’s satire was the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and insincerity of the Church. In ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’ Owen attacks the militarist chaplains:

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

On October 4th, 1918, after most of his company had been killed, Owen and his corporal captured a German machine gun and scores of prisoners. He was awarded the Military Cross for this feat. However, just one week before the Armistice, on 4 November 1918, he was killed when trying to construct a make-shift bridge to lead his company over a canal in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. His mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day at home in Oswestry, with the church bells ringing out in celebration of the cease-fire.

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‘Goodbye to the Mobilised’ , by the official French war photographer Jacques Moreau. Between 8.5 and 9 million servicemen and women from all warring nations were killed in action during the first world war

True and Just?

The recent poet Laureate, Andrew Motion,  believes Owen’s maxim about the ‘pity of war’ and the ‘truthfulness of true poets’ has held firm throughout the years, even in such wars, such as the Second World War, which are generally considered ‘just’. Poems about the Holocaust, or Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or the Bosnian War of 1993, also contain these essential ingredients, as those in the anthology for which Motion writes his afterword, show. This is especially important when the language of war is changed in order to disguise its realities. In the age of modern media transmission, euphemisms such as ‘friendly fire’ and ‘collateral damage’ need to be challenged by the poet’s scribble, just as much as in the trenches of 1914-18, if not more so. Images can be used to mislead; poets must not do so, not if they wish to remain true to their art. They have a higher moral, human calling, if not a divine one. As Motion points out, poetry ‘shows us, whatever our faith, we compromise, betray or wreck ourselves when we take up arms against one another’.

Poppies for commemoration

That’s probably why Owen’s poems are not among the most memorable of the first world war. The ones which are used for the purpose of remembering nevertheless contain ageless truths. That is why they form essential parts of our Acts of Remembrance, our collective commemorations. John McRae’s ‘In Flanders Fields’ also reminds us that the ‘Great War’ was an imperial conflict, involving what were then known as ‘the dominions’, including Canada, where McRae was born. He went to Europe in 1914 as a gunner, but was transferred to medical service and served at the front line during the Second Battle of Ypres.  His poem first appeared in Punch in December 1915. McRae imagined how the dead lying beneath the poppies of Flanders would call on future generations to sustain the causes for which they died. When the flowers were the only plants which grew in profusion in Flanders in the spring of 1919, they became the symbol of remembrance for the British Legion, collecting funds for the injured ex-servicemen and war widows:

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.

Left: Armistice Day in Toronto. Oil on canvas by Joseph Ernest Sampson

All her paths are peace…

Another poem we associate with Armistice Day ceremonies, especially the Royal Festival of Remembrance on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, held at the Royal Albert Hall, is Laurence Binyon’s ‘For the Fallen’. However, like McRae’s poem, it was actually written in the early part of the war and published in The Times on September 21st 1914.  It is based on the words and rhythm of the Authorised Version of the Bible in II Samuel, i, 23, 25:

….in death they were  not divided…How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!

Born in 1869, Binyon was typical of the older generation of civilian poets who wrote about the war. He wrote the poem while working at the British Museum, which he did for forty years, becoming Professor of Poetry at Harvard on retirement. In 1916 he went to the Front as a Red Cross orderly. The poem’s fourth verse is used today all over the world during services of remembrance, and is inscribed on countless war memorials and monuments:

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them. 

One poem which is better known as a hymn, and not especially associated with the First World War, is ‘I vow to thee my country’, often sung to the tune ‘Thaxted’ by Gustav Holst, part of ‘Jupiter’ in his ‘Planets Suite’.  The words, written by Cecil Spring-Rice (1859-1918), have been criticised as overly patriotic, especially the phrase in the first verse which pledges ‘the love which asks no question’ to the earthly country. This suggests a blind, uncritical, ‘my country, right or wrong, kind of patriotism. When he wrote it in Stockholm, between 1908-12, he was thinking of the notion of sacrifice, as he pointed out in a speech in Ottowa, on completing his revision of the poem in 1918:

The Cross is a sign of patience under suffering, but not patience under wrong. The cross is the banner under which we fight – the Cross of St George, the Cross of St Andrew, the Cross of St Patrick; different in form, in colour, in history, yes, but the same spirit, the spirit of sacrifice.’

His rewritten poem now became hymn, now set to Holst’s tune, published in 1925. The second verse about the heavenly kingdom was kept much as it was, but the first was altered significantly. The original poem had been belligerently patriotic, glorifying war. Leaving his role as British ambassador to Washington in January 1918, having encouraged Woodrow Wilson, the US President, to enter the war, Spring-Rice sent the new verses to an American friend with an accompanying note that read; ‘the greatest object of all – at the most terrific cost and most tremendous sacrifice – will, I hope, at last be permanently established, Peace.’ He died suddenly in Ottowa a month later.

Although England does not, yet, have a national anthem of its own, many people would like this hymn to be adopted in that role, both because of the tune and the second verse, which reminds us that, as Christians, and people of faith, we are subjects of two kingdoms, and that there are only ‘paths of peace’ in the heavenly one:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffereing;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.

Sources:

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: Transatlantic Press.

Ian Bradley (2005), The Daily Telegraph Book of Hymns

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War: Faber & Faber

E L Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry: University of London Press

 

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