Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, October 7, 2013

Worms and Voracious Rats: Rickword's Vision of War

I find re-reading this poem a nice antidote whenever I find myself losing touch with the essential character of the war.

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German Dead on the Western Front

John Edgell Rickword (1898-1982) served on the Western Front and wrote a number of war poems. His war poetry was published in 1921 in a volume entitled Behind the Eyes. After the war he went on to a long career in publishing, editing, and writing.

Trench Poets

I knew a man, he was my chum,
but he grew blacker every day,
and would not brush the flies away,
nor blanch however fierce the hum
of passing shells; I used to read,
to rouse him, random things from Donne–
like "Get with child a mandrake-root."
But you can tell he was far gone,
for he lay gaping, mackerel-eyed,
and stiff, and senseless as a post
even when that old poet cried
"I long to talk with some old lover's ghost."

I tried the Elegies one day,
but he, because he heard me say:
"What needst thou have more covering than a man?"
grinned nastily, and so I knew
the worms had got his brains at last.
There was one thing that I might do
to starve the worms; I racked my head
for healthy things and quoted Maud.
His grin got worse and I could see
he sneered at passion's purity.
He stank so badly, though we were great chums
I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.