Monday, May 29, 2017

"As Swimmers Into Cleanness Leaping"

I was reading some of the so-called "War Poets" last evening, preparatory I suppose to Memorial Day, or perhaps more properly inspired by it.  Those poets were, of course, poets of the First World War.  Rupert Brooke, from whose poem Peace the title of this post is taken, was for me the most able of those poets.  He was also the most inclined to write of the war they called the Great War as truly great, as it seems to have been to him in some manner grand.  Not in showy sense, not in a glorious sense, but profound.  A means he may have thought by which men also became great.

It's unfortunate, then, that he died as he did.  His death wasn't grand, or inspiring or profound.  He died of a mosquito bite which became infected, on a ship on its way to Gallipoli.  In those days infections of various sorts could turn out to be fatal. 

That said, the image of death invoked by the title to this post is striking.  It's said Brooke was an atheist, but it's difficult to think of him as such while reading this poem, or sonnet.  If I interpret it correctly, which is always uncertain, one is blessed by the peace of death, transformed into a part of something very great indeed.  Something different from and finer than humanity or the world we humans have made.

His poetry is his memorial.  Is it a memorial of war, though? 

It's interesting in considering Memorial Day to wonder just what memorials of war are supposed to be, what they are and what they have been.  It seems to me that war memorials now are something different from what they were in the past.  It's likely we've always made such memorials, but for a different purpose or different purposes.  Ancient Roman war memorials abound.  There are the arches of Titus, Constantine, Septimius Severus; there are the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius.  They and most if not all ancient war memorials honored great victories of great men.  Although soldiers appeared on the memorials, particularly on the columns, they were not memorials of the soldiers themselves.

War memorials came to be erected to honor those who fought the wars only recently in the scheme of things as far as I can tell.  We see them beginning in the 19th century.  The late 19th century, I believe, is when they became common.  Even the memorial erected after the battle of Waterloo, the so-called Lion's Mound, though it wasn't intended merely to commemorate the Prince of Orange  but the victory over Napoleon, can't be said to be a war memorial as we know them now.

Perhaps they began with the U.S. Civil War.  That would seem to be when special cemeteries were set aside for those killed in battle, in any event.  Then came the First and Second World Wars, and more cemeteries, and tombs of unknown soldiers, and monuments, everywhere.

The memorials we're familiar with seem to be associated with war as it came to be fought not by professional or mercenary armies, but armies which were formed by conscription.  Or, perhaps, they came to be as war came to be fought by huge masses and came to impact on societies in general.  The losses incurred in the terrible wars fought beginning in the 19th century were so enormous and affected so many that it was felt necessary to memorialize them in ways that were different in quality and quantity from prior memorials.

Those memorials are altogether fitting, to paraphrase Lincoln at Gettysburg.  The sacrifices made should be honored, as they're beyond measurement.  And it's good we honor those who sacrificed themselves and not merely emperors and kings and generals who committed them to their fates.

Memorials are supposed to serve another purpose as well, though, or so it's said.  They're to serve to remind of those losses.  And doubtless they do.  It's curious, though, that while we remember we continue to wage war.  We don't forget the horrors of war but keep fighting wars, and then erect additional memorials to them and those who died fighting them.

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