The Cenotaph

Remembrance of warfare is a complex thing. There are forces for forgetfulness and memorial fighting inside us regarding war, and the entropic forces of time passing put a thumb on the scale as years pass. This Wednesday was once Armistice Day, the day when, for a mere two decades or so, countries celebrated solely the end of “The War to End All Wars.” In America this date eventually became Veterans Day, a holiday to celebrate all those who served in the military, particularly during wars—whereas we already had a spring holiday, Memorial Day, established in the years after our Civil War, to decorate graves of the fallen and to remember their deaths.*

In Great Britain and other countries in the Commonwealth, November 11th continued as the Remembrance Day, and the deaths of WWII or other subsequent conflicts were incorporated, and the holiday remained unchanged, save for the erosions of time. It remains a solemn day. The Sunday nearest the 11th has royal celebrations in London centered around a memorial there, The Cenotaph,** and it’s still customary on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to pause for a couple of minutes of silence to remember those who died seeking to reach that Armistice Day. This results in an odd divide: Armistice Day was generally a festive, celebratory holiday in 20th century America with joyful parades celebrating surviving veterans.

But that is just the surface of the complexity of the remembrance of war, where the questions of the wisdom or justification for a particular war are adjacent to the undeniable sacrifice of the war’s dead. Those questions are left to the war’s survivors who, from some level of power or acquiescence, made those judgements. In America, so fraught are those two strands of thinking about wars, that we have come to strictly segregate these two issues, out of fear or concerns that to speak of the evils of wars is to speak evil of our dead countrymen, or that to speak of the folly of some wars would denigrate the last full sacrifice.

The_Cenotaph_the_Morning_of_the_Peace_Procession_by_Sir_William_Nicholson

This painting by William Nicholson shows the temporary London cenotaph that was put up for the first Remembrance Day in 1919. Note the flowers strewn at it’s base, and a woman adding to them in this portrayal by Nicholson and echoed in Mew’s poem.

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Today’s piece, “The Cenotaph,”   was written by a British poet, Charlotte Mew in time for the first anniversary of the Armistice, the first Remembrance Day, in 1919. Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to follow along. It begins with nods to conventional rhetoric about the sorrow of those who lost loved ones, it voices sentimental tropes of the dead in “splendid sleep” and the grave as a bed. I was not sure how to perform those lines. Mew’s poem is complex, not just in syntax and some long lines and sentences that can trip up the breath. If one was to read it with only casual attention, more than three-fourths of it can seem a conventional Victorian poem of mourning—but read or listen to it all the way through!  It ends with a statement of anger so shocking that it should make you reconsider how you read the opening body of the poem. No spoilers here—it’s best to experience this by reading the poem or listening to my performance via the player gadget below.

In my performance I tried to subtly undercut some of those early phrases, but I’m not sure if I (or anyone) can successfully portray the totality of Mew’s poem. Musically I got to write a fanfare, something I hadn’t done before now, and then there’s a quieter, contrasting motif played at the end on a bassoon and two English horns.

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*In some ways the American Civil War experience was similar to the British WWI experience, as the levels of mass casualties Americans suffered in the mid 19th century conflict previewed the shocking casualties the British and Commonwealth soldiers suffered in WWI. America entered WWI late and suffered proportionally fewer deaths from the combat.

**The London Cenotaph in Whitehall, central to Remembrance Day activities in England, particularly since the advent of mass media, is not the only one. Many other cities erected their own versions. Cenotaph means “empty tomb” and the imposing markers were meant to be local sites for decorating and mourning the war dead that were largely buried near foreign battlefields as the logistical challenges of so many dead prevented them from being repatriated. Mew is not in fact describing the particular London Cenotaph in her poem, for when she wrote her poem it didn’t even exist yet, though it was planned and a temporary structure was in place by the first Remembrance Day in 1919. So like Keats’ “Grecian Urn”  it’s not a  cenotaph, but the concept of a great war memorial in the center of the marketplace that she grapples with.

Mew’s 1919 poem appears to be the first WWI poem to discuss the Cenotaph concept. I’ve yet to find the text of a 1920 poem by pacifist veteran Max Plowman written after the monument was completed, and there is this remarkable 1922 poem by Ursula Roberts, also called “The Cenotaph”  that seems to echo Frances Cornford’s non-war-related “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”  from 1910.

When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame

Modernist American poetry has two parents, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but it’s been awhile since we’ve presented any Whitman here. Dickinson is a subversive Modernist, ironically skewing the expected tropes. Whitman on the other hand is the provocateur, the poet who is proud to say right out front everything he wishes to change.

As Whitman prepared his 1860 edition of his evolving Leaves of Grass,  he was about to cross a Rubicon of a sort. He had decided that erotic material needed to be added to his great collection. Since he wished to be all-inclusive and unabashed, starting with himself, that material would vary, but it would include expressions of male homosexual longing and relationships.

Whitman in 1860 - caricature from Harpers Monthly

Walt Whitman as caricatured in 1860 in Harper’s Weekly

 

Once again, my knowledge of the historical context here is not extensive, but some brief reading this weekend indicates that to the mid-19th century American audience, the homosexual elements of what Whitman was to publish was little or no more disturbing than the erotic element generally. For a man who was already wishing to revolutionize English poetry with his free-verse and universalist message including what would surely be considered shockingly fleshy writing about desire, longing, and connection was certain to complicate his goals for a wide audience. His leading ally within American High Culture, the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, counselled him to not include, or to greatly tone down that material.

Whitman didn’t take that council. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass  included a section, Calamus, that was full of love and desire between men. Emerson was right, that would complicate Whitman’s task of revolutionizing American poetry.

When Transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson* asked Emily Dickinson if she had read Whitman shortly thereafter, Dickinson replied: “You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book but was told that he was disgraceful.” If one is of a speculative mind, one can imagine Emily Dickinson getting a plain brown wrapper delivery of Leaves of Grass  that she would never acknowledge.

This Monday is Veteran’s Day/Remembrance Day, and as he prepared the Calamus  poems Whitman was not a veteran or a survivor with war memories, as the American Civil War that would add another tremendous shaping force on his poetry was still more than a year off. Still he would write this moving comparison that I present today.

When I Peruse the Conquer'd Fame as published

Today’s poem as it appeared in the 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass.”

 

“When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame”  is a comparison of two things: fame and envy. Perhaps the fame part will strike you first, along with the implications of worth and value. The fame in the title most often comes to prominent men: victorious generals, Presidents who bask in their election and men who put their names on large buildings. The U.S. Presidents that Whitman would have had in mind then were bumbling ineffectual men, totally incapable of coming to grips with the immense and deadly crisis they were careening toward, but famous none the less.**  What generals would he have in mind? Napoleon or his adversaries perhaps, men who could shuffle the borders and crowned heads back and forth in tides.

And for comparison, Whitman sets out “the brotherhood of lovers.” Does he mean men who love men? As this is part of the homoerotic Calamus  poems section I think we need to accept that is significantly so. He goes on to praise the lovers who are steadfast in their love as aging and fate and even the numbing of time is arrayed against them.

This task of enduring love is not something unique to same-sex lovers, and I suspect that Whitman, the universalist, recognizes that too. But in his particular, he’s saying that unfaltering love which would not then be socially acknowledged is all the more extraordinary, though unknown compared to the war-heroes and political potentates.

Did Whitman, and I suppose myself in my choice to present this poem at this time, just dis veterans? That objection would assume that the two groups are mutually exclusive, at odds. That isn’t so. And if Whitman was here to answer he’d point out he spoke of Generals, Presidents, and rich men, not the soldiers he later comforted and whose wounds he dressed in the upcoming war.

And of course, in the U. S. today it’s Veterans Day, set aside for those who after their service may well have continued as or became those ardent lovers whatever their sexual orientation. We honor them for their service in the one regard, Whitman asks that we consider the second as well.

What of the other comparison, the one you may not have noticed, the one concerning envy? Whitman has chosen not to weigh his comparison between the two sets of roles only by their levels of objective fame, but specifically in the example of his own state of envy. He says he doesn’t envy those powerful and rich men—but of the “long and long” lovers, there he says he is bitterly envious.

Let me suppose Whitman was sincerely speaking here (he has almost no other mode in his poetry than sincerity). But there is an element in Leaves of Grass  where the poet speaking—“Walt Whitman” as the character in his great collection of poems—is meant to be an example, as his verse is an example, of an imperfect thing striving to find a different, better path to something new and not fully known. Whitman, like the best of Modernist art, like various America, like many veterans, ardent as a lover is running faithfully and with a heart open toward an affectionate and unknown future.

Once more I marshal the ranks of my marcato orchestral instruments for “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame”  into another “punk orchestral” piece. Harmonically, I’m working a three-chord trick here, just as if the composer/conductor’s podium was stocked with Ramones. Other than the use of a rock’n’roll drum set, the other unusual textures are mixed subtly into the low-end where there’s a contrabassoon line and Fender electric piano bass (ala Ray Manzarek). You can hear it with the player below.

 

 

 

 

*It’s possible that a canny Dickinson might have been telling Higginson what Higginson would want to hear, since Higginson, though au fait with political and social radicalism, was also of the opinion that Whitman was disgusting.

**Coincidentally, the U. S. President when the Calamus  poems including edition of Leaves of Grass  was published was James Buchanan, who may have been gay himself. Though Donald Trump has already selected Andrew Jackson as his favorite President, Buchanan may also prove to be indispensable to his legacy in that Buchanan has long been the consensus choice among historians as the worst-ever President of the United States.

Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day, Armistice Day

November 11th was first celebrated as Armistice Day, the day that World War I ended 99 years ago. As wars—even World Wars—continued after that war, the day has been pressed into other service. In the United States it’s Veteran’s Day, a day to think of and thank those that served in the armed forces. In the UK and Commonwealth Countries I hear it’s celebrated as Remembrance Day, making it more akin to the US Memorial Day.

Because I like modern poetry, and the most recent poetry I can use freely here is from before 1924, and because we are marking the centennial of World War 1, I’ve performed a lot of things from the the WWI era here, including poems about that war. Since many of you are new to this blog (traffic has grown considerably since this summer) I’m going to take this day to point out a few poems about the experience of soldiering, many of which are written by the veterans themselves.

“On the Troop Ship to Gallipoli”  has turned out to be one of the most popular pieces here. It’s my adaptation of a fragment written by Rupert Brooke. Brooke was a believer in the British cause in WWI, and this piece comes out of words he wrote shortly before his death of an illness he contracted while on the ship taking him to the front in Turkey. It’s a testament to people willing to put their life on the line for an idea.

 

 

“The Trenches St. Eloi”  is nearly a dispatch from the front in poetic form. It was written by T. E. Hulme, one of the founders of Imagism and modernist British poetry, though his own poetry is less known than it should be. St. Eloi was a major front in the trench warfare that stagnated for much of WWI. Eventually elaborate tunnels were dug at St. Eloi by Welsh coal miners in hopes of gaining an underground advantage. Hulme was wounded there serving in the British Army, came back to England to heal, and then returned to the war where he was later killed in action.

 

 

“South Folk in Cold Country”  was published in this form during the time of WWI, but it’s a translation (by Ezra Pound) of a work by classical Chinese poet, Li Bai. In it, the lot of the soldier sounds eerily similar to that Hulme was experiencing a thousand years later. Li Bai is the same poet that Pound used as the source for the more commonly anthologized poem “The River Merchant’s Wife.” Anthologies, and perhaps readers,  seem to prefer love poems to poems about war.

 

 

“Christ and the Soldier”  is by Siegfried Sassoon, who was a decorated hero of Britain’s army in WWI. However, he was at least as courageous in publically taking a stance against the war while still in service. A compromise was reached that he would be treated as a casualty of “shell-shock” at a asylum in Scotland rather than charged with treason or some other serious crime. Sassoon published poetry about the war during the fighting, but this one was held back and was not published until later.

 

As a break from the gravity of these men’s experience, let’s remember that the experience of soldiering, even in wartime, is not without absurdity. After WWII, several artists had a hit with a spoken word record written and originally performed by T. Texas Tyler called “The Deck of Cards.”  And it’s been occasionally revived, slightly revised, for later wars—which is only right, as the original concept of the disreputable deck of cards that symbolizes what is holy goes back to at least the 18th century. The song’s performer usually follows Tyler’s model and says at the end of the piece that they know it’s a true story because “I was that soldier.” Well, Tyler wasn’t from Texas and I’m not even sure he served in the second great war, but its enduring popularity says that the story of a disrespected common man who shows the brass that he’s just as pious and knows a thing or two is just so satisfying. English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock performed a parody of Tyler’s song from a more Dadaist angle a few years back, and this is my version inspired by Hitchcock’s. I’m not a soldier, but the story is  true: B. B. King did  ride a bicycle out of the Mississippi Delta to Memphis.

 

 

Finally, a complete change of mood, and perhaps more in the Remembrance Day or Memorial Day spirit, but here’s Spanish American War veteran Carl Sandburg’s elusive elegy to the peace all wars fail to, “Grass.”