When I was in school, World War I didn’t get much attention, and the poets of World War I even less. That was a real shame, because the poetry that came out of World War I has so much to recommend itself to everyday readers.
First of all, many of the poems rhyme, because the poets tended to stick to formal structure. Second, the poems were usually about the war, and things that were in the news and inherently political. The poems had a message to get across that most readers would be able to grasp quickly.
I’m reminded of all this because of the debate about Syria. I edited a report this week about chemical weapons, and then this weekend, I opened the New York Times to find an analytical report on Syria (by Steven Erlanger) that opens with a reference to the poet Wilfred Owen and his remarkable poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”
Before the Latin puts you off, it means, “Sweet and right it is …”; the rest of the saying is “… to die for one’s country.” The poem, which you can read in its entirety here, uses the line to be ironic and biting, contrasting the motto with the effects of chemical weapons on soldiers at the front:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
I got a chill reading the poem again today, because it reminds me so much of what I love about literature: It’s a way for us to speak to each other, not only across divides of circumstance and birth, but also across space and time.