Wednesday 11 November 2015

More for Remembrance: A Singing War

The Blackadder version of the First World War - hellish trenches, futile slaughter, lions led by donkeys, etc - still seems to be the prevailing narrative, and Wilfred Owen at his harshest the poet of that war. Indeed, at 9 this morning, Radio 4 had Vanessa Redgrave reciting Anthem for Doomed Youth, and on Sunday, at a service in his Islington fiefdom, Jeremy Corbyn (that bewildered oldster you might have noticed at the Cenotaph) read Owen's Futility. These are powerful poems indeed, but Owen's war was his war; others had very different experiences and expressed very different feelings about it all. Among these, the poet and composer Ivor Gurney - though he did not ignore the horror - often found a kind of consolation in the masculine camaraderie of the shared ordeal. And he found music - as in this beautiful, if rough-hewn poem, First Time In...

After the dread tales and red yarns of the Line
Anything might have come to us; but the divine
Afterglow brought us up to a Welsh colony
Hiding in sandbag ditches, whispering consolatory
Soft foreign things. Then we were taken in
To low huts candle-lit, shaded close by slitten 
Oilsheets, and there but boys gave us kind welcome,
So that we looked out as from the edge of home,
Sang us Welsh things, and changed all former notions
To human hopeful things. And the next day's guns
Nor any Line-pangs ever quite could blot out
That strangely beautiful entry to war's rout;
Candles they gave us, precious and shared over-rations—
Ulysses found little more in his wanderings without doubt.
'David of the White Rock', the 'Slumber Song' so soft, and that
Beautiful tune to which roguish words by Welsh pit boys
Are sung—but never more beautiful than here under the guns' noise.

What was the 'beautiful tune'? Most likely it was Ar Hyd y Nos - All Through the Night. I guess we'll never know what the pit boys' 'roguish words' were...
The First World War was a singing war, especially among the Welsh (of course), but throughout the ranks and on both sides, as when Christmas carols, in German and English, drifted poignantly across No Man's Land during the short-lived festive truce.
And there is Siegfried Sassoon's glorious Everyone Sang:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on - on - and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away ... O, but Everyone
Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.

Ivor Gurney was not a casualty of war. Though he went mad soon after, most of those who write about him now think that this would probably have happened anyway; he was mentally unstable before the war, prone to dramatic mood swings. Though he returned obsessively to his war experiences, it was less often in horror than in quest of his lost self and life and, as ever, home. Some very fine poems of his live on, and some beautiful songs. Let's end this musical post with three of the best - In Flanders, Severn Meadows and Even Such Is Time (a setting of Walter Ralegh's great poem).

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