Strange Arts & Visual Delights
French front line trenches, c. 1916 (source: Once Upon a Time in War, https://demons.swallowthesky.org/tagged/World%20War%20I%3A%20French%20Troops/page/5)
Henry-Jacques was a French soldier in the trenches in the First World War. He’s obscure by any standard, but his poems were republished a few years ago as part of the commemoration of the war.
This poem captures a peaceful moment in the war that nevertheless ends in death. The narrator sees himself in the dreams and struggles he ascribes to the German soldier, but his internal debate ends in his pulling the trigger. The poem captures many truths of the war, as I know them through reading, with this striking one: any relaxation of discipline or momentary lack of fear that led a soldier to poke his head above the parapet of the trench was likely to end in his death.
Much of the poem reminds me of Thomas Hardy's well-known poem, "The Man He Killed."
The languor of the autumn sun
ennobles the Forest of Argonne,
that wounded wood
where, knocked to the grass, the trees are dead;
or left in ruin,
leafless, branches hacked, trunks scarred;
or cut to the ground and black as timbers in a mine.
The paths are no more now than the narrow hallways
we traverse seeing nothing all day
but a patch of sky, the ghost of an oak that leans
and holds out a branch, or all of it that remains;
stacked sandbags; logs scattered
amid broken armor;
a treacherous loophole where a well-placed bullet
suddenly gets you in the gullet:
This is the frontier,
the barricade where lurk the watchers of the war.
Like the others, I am here,
eyes alert and sharp, hearing acute--
small task, enormous duty
to be guardian of the route.
My rifle loses its coldness in my hands--
and what if a fired-up German
were to rise from his trench and run
right at me? I can see his lines,
the pickets knocked sideways, the broken strands of wire,
the green-bellied sacks; and—souvenir
of some futile fight--
in the dirt, a cadaver trembling with swarms of flies.
But this day of calm and sun
has so much charm
for the men placed under arms
that a kind of sleep like new wine
appeases the desire to rage and murder.
A great hush,
a great sweetness,
a new song soars over us.
My marveling heart,
my sun-reveling heart,
my heart for once escapes the fight
and, freed from its immense duty,
ascends into the light
resurrected to love and hope and beauty.
But above a gap in the trenches,
a cap, a head appear:
a man we face is being drawn out by the dream--
the clear sky’s perfect tenderness,
the song lost overhead
in the white depths of a cloud,
the giddy sweetness he drinks in,
his piercing hope of living on.
So near, so far, O soldier I do not know,
in this moment I do not hate you;
man in green, man in blue, aren’t we the same?
In this moment, you and I—we think the same.
—My rifle is suddenly heavy in my hands--
Dream on, ignore the watching man,
The unknown poet who has you in his hands.
—What’s this cartridge for?--
We are both of us alike
in the sunlight.
—The stock rises to my cheek, ready to fire--
Isn’t war a shameful thing?
— O instinct for savagery that springs
from histories we know not of--
Keep dreaming, thoughtful enemy,
I do not wish your death.
—My finger is on the trigger, squeezes--
What use is any fresh regret?
—A gunshot in the wood called La Grurie--
I see his cap fly off. I cannot see his head.
The song flies off into the wood.
Such is war: not winning or losing,
But a man, like me, in a fate not of his choosing.
Pity is all I felt for him,
And I killed him.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.