Although the Armistice anniversary is in fact tomorrow on November 11, yesterday was Remembrance Sunday here in England, a deeply moving event that creates a cathartic space for all the ambiguous emotions surrounding the "glorious dead", as they are called on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, not just the dead of the First World War, but all those who have died in combat and are still dying.
The phrase "glorious dead" to me is suspect, however, a means by which stupid politicians try to whitewash the hideous waste of life in all wars, but particularly in the First World War, when 20 million died. The dead are glorious, but not because politicians say they are. They are glorious in their devotion to duty, to community, to each other; but their lives and the lives of their families are also unfathomably tragic.
The poet Wilfrid Owen was able to express these ambiguous emotions in his poems: the folly of war, the sounds of war, the feelings of the men in the trenches, the strange camaraderie with the enemy. He had no illusions as to the bungling, but he, too, did his duty, and he died in combat one week before the Armistice was signed.
His poetry raises unanswerable questions, which Benjamin Britten addresses musically in his shattering setting of some of Owen's poems. Weaving poetic fragments together with the words of the Tridentine requiem Britten evokes the sounds of war, fusing them with echoes of a heaven that must have seemed ironic to those in the trenches, surrounded by the staccato of the guns, screams of outrage and horror, mourning and pain. Yet, in the setting of the poem below, Britten and Owen together consider "Where is God in all this?" so that the final "In paradisum" is not an ironic declaration of nihilism, but the offering an implicit, even hopeful beginning.
It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,-
By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell.
With a thousand pains that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress.
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery,
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery:
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels,
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
'I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now....'