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

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

War Poet Edgell Rickword

By David Beer

Edgell Rickword (1898–1982) enlisted in the Artists' Rifles straight from school in 1916. Soon he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and eventually won a Military Cross. He was invalided out of the army in 1918, consequently losing an eye. He devoted most of his long life to editing, translation (of French authors), and political journalism. His limited but notable war poetry, first published in Behind the Eyes (1921), includes the much-anthologized "Trench Poets," "Winter Warfare," and "The Soldier Addresses His Body," This sonnet, less well known, is an interesting juxtaposition of movingly disparate images.


War and Peace

In sodden trenches I have heard men speak,
Though numb and wretched, wise and witty things;
And loved them for the stubbornness that clings
Longest to laughter when Death's pulleys creak;

And seeing cool nurses move on tireless feet
To do abominable things with grace,
Deemed them sweet sisters in that haunted place
Where, with child's voices, strong men howl or bleat.

Yet now those men lay stubborn courage by,
Riding dull-eyed and silent in the train
To old men's stools; or sell gay-coloured socks
And listen fearfully for Death; so I
Love the low-laughing girls, who now again
Go daintily, in thin and flowery frocks

Blind WWI Veteran
Here we have contrasting vignettes of a number of Rickword's memories. (The poem was written after the war.) He admiringly recalls the toughness of men living in intolerable conditions—even if their laughter is perhaps prolonged by a nervousness while living under the shadow of death. If you've ever heard an old wooden pulley creak when lifting a load, this image will be particularly effective. You never know when you will be the load. "Death's pulleys" indeed, hauling us up from life.

Then a change of scene—efficiently calm nurses doing their jobs in a hospital full of wounded and mangled men. It's a place haunted by blood and pain, yet the nurses go about their work, seemingly kind and tireless, moving to the accompaniment of anguished soldiers who now don't utter "wise and witty things."

Then the sestet jumps to the "Peace" part of the poem's title. For many an ex-soldier, peacetime is not going to be bright, as they well know even while being invalided home. They face an uncertain future of disability and poverty (not even a chair to sit in?) or at best degrading work—with nothing on their horizon but the creaking pulley.

The narrator isn't one of them, however. He is alive and well and so can delight in the sight of girls now far from pain and death, still walking confidently, and not in uniform but in colorful and sexy dresses. Before and after floods this poem.

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