Strange Arts & Visual Delights
For five days beginning today, I am going to post a poem or two from the Great War, beginning with poems written in 1914, and ending in poems written in 1918. I’ll also add some other items, including contemporary journal entries.
For the most part, I’ll be posting items I copied into my journal in 2017 when I was preparing to teach the literature of the First World War at Southern Virginia University. The class grows in importance for me as it recedes into the past, perhaps because the preparation for the class led me to read a large body of literature in a short time, reminiscent in a way of grad school but much more rewarding.
A year ago I wrote that the conditions of another world war appear to be forming. The events of the last year, and especially the last month, have only moved us closer to it. May Providence and chance, wisdom and stupidity combine to prevent it.
Today’s first poem is by Akhmatova.
In Memoriam, July 19, 1914
by Anna Akhmatova
We aged a hundred years and this descended
In just one hour, as at a stroke.
The summer had been brief and now was ended;
The body of the ploughed plains lay in smoke.
The hushed road burst in colors then, a soaring
Lament rose, ringing silver like a bell.
And so I covered up my face, imploring
God to destroy me before battle fell.
And from my memory the shadows vanished
Of songs and passions—burdens I'd not need.
The Almighty bade it be—with all else banished--
A book of portents terrible to read.
Translation by Stephen Edgar. Source: http://www.worldwarone.it/2016/06/the-poets-and-world-war-in-memoriam.html.
Diaries. These entries show two children and an adult philosopher dealing with the outbreak of war.
The 12-year-old Prussian schoolgirl Piete Kuhr began a diary and wrote (1 Aug 1914): "At school the teachers say it is our patriotic duty to stop using foreign words. I didn't know what that meant at first, but now I see it—you must no longer say 'Adieu' because that is French. I must now call Mama 'Mutter'. At school they talk of nothing but the war now.” [Svetlana Palmer and Sarah Wallis, ed. A War in Words: The First World War in Diaries and Letters]
On 4 August, Piete wrote: “The 149th Infantry Regiment is stationed in our town, Schneidemühl. They are going to be sent to the Western Front. This evening we heard the far off sound of the drums, bass drums and kettledrums. The music kept getting louder and clearer. We couldn't bear to stay in our room and ran out into the street.… Our regiment was marching down the street to the station. The soldiers wore new grey uniforms and black spiked helmets. They were looking serious. I had expected them to be laughing and rejoicing. A trumpet call rang out. A soldier as big as a tree came past me. I stretched out my hand over the fence and muttered 'Farewell!' He smiled at me and shook my hand. I gazed after him. Gradually the train began to move. It wouldn't have taken much for me to burst out crying. I went home by a roundabout way. I held my hand out in front of me, the one that the soldier had squeezed. As I went up our poorly lit steps, I stared at the palm of my hand. Then I quickly kissed it.”
Yves Congar, a French schoolboy in Sedan in eastern France, also began an illustrated diary about this time. This mixture of quotation and summary is from his entry for 25 August: "We are just getting up when mother comes up to me and says, ‘….Put your soldiers away, the Germans are coming.' I go outside after putting them away and I hear shooting and I see a plane in the sky. As soon as I am back inside, my big brothers come through the door. 'They're coming! They're coming! They're right behind us!' I go and look out the dining-room widow."
Yves watches through the wind as "the shooting starts." The German soldiers charge; he hears two massive thuds "as two horses fall dead in front of the window. Bullets whizz by in both directions." They can hear artillery, machine guns, and rifles; they hear the "Germans hitting Mr Benoit's door with their rifle butts, looking for French troops. Just to be safe they shoot Mr Benoit's dog, so that its barking won't interfere with their patrols."
In the evening, they hear bridges being blown up. "The Germans, fiends, thieves, murderers and arsonists ... set fire to everything: to our church in Givonne; to the chapel in Fond de Givonne Glaire; to Donchery, where they use incendiary rockets....." Next day, the Germans demand "a quarter of a million francs' worth of gold." (Source: A War in Words)
Sedan was occupied for almost the entire war.
Tuesday 18th August, 1914: In his private diary, LW notes that last night he was awakened suddenly at 1 a.m., when his lieutenant asked him to man the searchlight immediately. LW ran to do so, almost naked, in icy air and rain. ‘I was sure I would die’. He turned on the searchlight, then went back to get dressed. ‘I felt the horrors of war’, he notes. Writing this diary entry later, in the evening, he feels he has overcome the shock again, and resolves to hold on to life ‘with all my strength.’ (http://www.wittgensteinchronology.com/7.html)
Wednesday 19th August, 1914: Around this time, LW buys a copy of Tolstoy’s book The Gospel in Brief from an impoverished bookshop in Tarnów, Galicia, which has only this single book remaining (Monk, p.115; Waugh, pp.103-5). (Tarnów lies about 60km East of Kracow, so the Goplana must have sailed first along the Vistula, then South along the river Dunajec, to reach there). (http://www.wittgensteinchronology.com/7.html
Tuesday 25th August, 1914: In his private diary, LW notes that yesterday was a terrible day. In the evening the Goplana’s searchlight didn’t work, and when he tried to examine it, he was disturbed by the crew shouting, bawling, etc. He wanted to examine it more closely, but the platoon commander took it out of his hands. ‘It was horrible. I saw that there isn’t a single decent person in the whole crew’. He then wonders how to conduct himself in the future, should he tolerate this, or not? In the latter case, he muses, he would certainly wear out, but in the former case maybe not. He urges himself to keep himself together, and ends ‘God help me!’ (http://www.wittgensteinchronology.com/7.html)
Wednesday 2nd September, 1914: In his private diary, LW notes that he has been on searchlight duty every night, with the exception of yesterday, and that he sleeps during the day. He seems thankful for this, since being on the night-shift means that he is thereby ‘deprived of the wickedness of my comrades’. He then reports that yesterday they heard a huge battle that had already been underway for 5 days. [This could have been the victory by the Austrian 1st army at the battle of Kraśnik or the victory of the Austrian 4th army at the battle of Komarów (or both)] He also notes that yesterday he masturbated ‘for the first time in 3 weeks’, being ‘almost unsensual’. He records that he works a little bit every day, but is too tired and distracted. But he also notes that he began reading Tolstoy's ‘Notes on the Gospels’. ‘A magnificent work. But it’s not what I expected.’
In his notebook entry, LW explains that at least part of what his dictum ‘Logic must take care of itself’ means is that in a certain sense it must be impossible to go wrong in logic. He counts this ‘an extremely profound and important insight’.
Frege, he notes, had said that every well-formed sentence must make sense. But LW responds that every possible sentence is well-formed, and that if it doesn’t make sense this can only be because we have failed to give a meaning to one or more of its parts. (http://www.wittgensteinchronology.com/7.html)
I’ll end with this poem by a poet who died in November 1914:
On the Eastern Front
by George Trakl
The winter storm's mad organ playing
is like the Volk's dark fury,
the black-red tidal wave of onslaught,
Her features smashed, her arms silver,
night calls to the dying men,
beneath shadows of November's ash,
ghost casualties heave.
A spiky no-man's-land encloses the town.
The moon hunts petrified women
from their blood-spattered doorsteps.
Grey wolves have forced the gates.
Translation by John Greening. Source: http://www.worldwarone.it/search/label/Poets
Expanded and edited, 10 November 2023.
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