Chapter 6, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

Back, then, to Dublin.

Summary— Chapter Six

Willie arrives at his father’s Dublin Castle quarters filthy after ten days in the line and the long journey back from Belgium. When he knocks on the front door his sister Maud does not recognise him. She and Annie are delighted to find her brother has returned home, but Willie insists that no-one touches him while he is lousy. The girls warm water to give Willie a bath.

Willie takes in the surroundings of his familiar home. He thinks of his father and finds himself unsettled by thoughts of the 1913 Bloody Sunday riot and his father’s role in the clashes. He ruefully reflects that, as a Dempsey builder during the lock-out, he was a scab. Once home, he feels traitorous to even think of these things.

Dolly and Willie’s father return home. Dolly embraces Willie. The two men regard each other affectionately. Willie thanks his father for writing to him; his father, calling his son a hero, says it was his honour. Willie’s clothes are bagged for cleaning and, in front of Dolly, Willie is washed clean in the tub by his father. Once dried, he puts on his father’s long johns and his old working suit. His father then hugs and holds Willie; though nineteen years old, Willie finds this comforting.

Willie’s leave passes quickly. He sees Gretta and learns her father will leave the army before being mobilised. He spends the last night of his leave with his father. He loves the older man deeply despite knowing his flaws. The two sit before the wood fire; Willie notices the marks his father made to measure his height. The two talk of his father’s impending retirement to Kiltegan after forty years in the force. His father asks about the war. Willie confirms that it is ‘rough’ in Belgium. His father confesses that he constantly thinks about and prays for his son.

Willie walks Gretta to her work as a seamstress on his last day in Dublin. He begs her to write more and she admits her failure to do so. He asks for their relationship to be formalized in an engagement but Gretta is firm. As much as she says she wants to be his wife, Gretta tells Willie they must wait to marry until after the war. Willie is not allowed near Gretta’s workplace so the pair must part. Willie glumly tells Gretta he loves her; she replies in kind and, despite himself, this cheers him up somewhat.

Later, before entering the Devoy barracks, Willie meets Gretta again. They kiss under the trees, lay down together by the canal side, and make love.

Questions

A chapter dedicated to Willie’s Dublin leave and the two most important people in Willie’s life at this point in the novel, his father and Gretta. It is revealing perhaps that the bulk of the chapter is dedicated to time that Willie spends at home, mostly with his father. It is only the end of the chapter, depicting Willie’s last day on leave, that features Gretta.

“The sentry at the castle gate gave him a right look as he walked in, like the ghost of war” (p. 70). Dublin Castle is an important location in the story, as the site of the Dunne family’s quarters, but it is also an important location in terms of Irish history and more specifically the 1916 rebellion. Learn about the history of Dublin Castle, especially in the years described in the novel. Does it alter or confirm your perception of the character of James Dunne (or indeed his family) to know its importance in the British administration of Ireland?

Dirt, infestation and cleanliness are important ideas in the opening scenes. What might these conditions represent for the different characters in the story?

“So James Patrick, a man of six foot six, stood his son William, a man of five foot six, into the steaming zinc bath, as indeed Willie’s mother had done a thousand times while Willie was a boy” (p.74). I found this a complex scene, full of pathos. Recalling the Dunne Family history, and the relationship between father and son, our sympathy is called on here at the same time as more complex and ambivalent feelings are evoked. Where in this sentence can we find the narrator provoking a sense of sympathy for the characters in the scene—and what detail do we find here that complicates this emotional response?

James Dunne is playfully referred to as “King of the Nits” (p.71) by Willie, and the narrator ironically observes later as he lathes his son’s body, “the lice must have been flying from Willie Dunne just like those poor men in Sackville Street from the batons” (p.74). The use of the metaphor here is revealing. In what ways might James Dunne be ‘King of the Nits’? Why are the drowning lice compared to assaulted workers? Don’t settle for one reading alone here. Try and tease out the ways in which these statements reveal or complicate character.

Read again the embrace between father and son described on pages 74 to 75. What exactly is so moving about this scene? In what ways do notions of masculinity and masculine reserve provide a key to understanding this scene?

‘We have to wait, Willie’ (p.77). What does this pragmatic judgement reveal about Gretta’s character, and her understanding of the situation she and Willie find themselves in? How is Gretta’s character developed here?

‘And they lay down together like ghosts, like floating souls, and she drew up her skirt in the greeny dark’ (p.78). What is being narrated in this scene? Is this the voice of the narrator alone, or does Willie’s response to Gretta indirectly intrude in this description? In what way does the description of Gretta drawing up her skirt complicate the description of “floating souls”?

Some thoughts

I must say I’m finding it an odd thing reading Barry. [Mysteriously deepens voice.] I’m not generally one for tears or getting choked up when reading books. I imagine it a bit like that old cartoon in The Beano where a load of little people live inside the skull of a bigger person, manipulating levers, shouting commands and getting into fights with each other as they control him or her (yes, I’m aware of Inside Out. I’m old, alright). So, I have this fantasy that sometimes when I’m reading, there’s this little guy wearing a ‘Critical Response’ t-shirt in my skull and he very often goes ahead and coshes the tiny chap wearing the ‘Emotional Response’ t-shirt in my head, and thus subdues him. And perhaps because of this I tend to like authors with a precision or violence about them: JG Ballard, HG Wells, Charles Dickens. Yet— and here’s the thing—when I’m watching movies, the roles tend to be reversed: Mr. Emotional Response gets to practice his choke-holds on Mr. Critical Response. So, on a Saturday morning with my five year old son, you may find me sniveling whilst watching Toy Story 3 or The Iron Giant.

Yet reading ‘A Long, Long Way’, I find myself so affected at times by events in the story I wonder whether the two hooligans in my head have forgotten that I’m reading a book. My emotional response makes me suspect myself. Is the source of the response I’m feeling actually there in the text, or is it largely within me? Am I, as a fairly repressed British man, projecting onto the text too much? Who knows.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I cried during the bathing scene, and I know there are good reasons for me doing so. I washed my own five year old son the night before reading the scene: it’s an everyday, intimate and wonderful thing for a father, to take care of his young son like this. I know that it can’t last: that my son will grow up, will take care of himself one day. So, in knowing your own hopes for your child’s future happiness and independence, there’s a pathos to this kind of physical care, because eventually it will needfully be rejected to some degree.

To bring this back to the experience of reading, I am therefore aware that I am approaching this particular text as a forty three year old father does (interestingly, Barry is himself a father who has spoken movingly about his relationship with his gay son). I am quite distant now from the experience of young love, and that may explain in part my lack of engagement in Willie’s relationship with Gretta. Which is to say that I am probably bringing my own limitations as a reader to my understanding of the text in a way that may be quite different to your understanding of the characters in the book. I’m assuming, after all, that you are probably a fairly young reader, an A-level student in all likelihood, and that this perhaps may mean that you read this novel with a mind to your experience of being parented (or not being adequately parented), or being a young lover, or whatever it is that you as a young person long for or find frustrating.

You will have your own insights and, yes, limitations too in reading novels. It’s good to be aware of these. You should engage in a little self analysis whilst doing your literary analysis. I’ve always found a piece of advice by the theorist Fredric Jameson useful when thinking about this. In his essay, ‘Beyond the Cave’ he tells us to “measure the whole extent of our boredom” when encountering texts, to judge our own alienation from different ideas, characters, narratives and cultures. Because if you have a problem with the text you’re reading, it may sometimes be a symptom rather of how you see the world. One of the joys of reading should be that it challenges you to broaden that understanding of the world around you. You know, I hated Charles Dickens when I was eighteen.

It’s dangerous to judge any novel by the simple mirror of your experience. It’s also an undoubted joy to find your experiences reflected in a book. It’s proved that way to me when reading this chapter at least.

Chapter 5, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

I’m hoping to take a breather soon enough so that we can reflect on some aspects of the novel. Certainly I’d like to write something about Barry’s narration: its use of dialect, its lyricism, and thinking more broadly about omniscient and free indirect narration. The character of Willie, of course. Historical context, too, which still I’m somewhat shaky on, as the previous post admitted, and am currently trying to rectify by reading Diarmaid Ferriter’s fascinating history, ‘A Nation, and Not a Rabble’. All kinds of things suggest themselves. Onwards we must go, however, if we’re to get this book completed by exam-time.

Summary— Chapter Five

Willie’s battalion is on rotation from the front and, billeted in the French city of Amiens, he is finally given a few days of free time behind the lines.

Willie and Pete O’Hara decide to hit the town and are guided to a well-liked estaminet for private soldiers. They quickly get very drunk there. Willie’s head spins as he drinks away memories of Captain Pasley and Gretta.

He and O’Hara dance with two women who lead them both down into a basement. Willie, extremely drunk, finds that he is being propositioned by a prostitute. He is at first abashed by the woman’s approach: O’Hara, less naïve than his friend, quickly begins to have sex with the woman he entered with. Willie gives himself to the woman with wonder and lust, and thus loses his virginity. He falls asleep and, when he awakens with a headache, O’Hara tells him it is time to go. As they leave Willie notices a rash on the thigh of the woman O’Hara has slept with. They make their way back to their billet through the city night.

Willie, still working in the support trenches, writes a long letter to Gretta. He tells her he is now in a quiet sector of the front, though the weather is now icy. Though this is a longer letter, it has the same structure as his previous missive: Willie writes in careful detail telling of his life at the front, and ends with an outpouring of passionate declarations of love for her. He continues to have trouble ending his letters satisfactorily. As he writes, a wish to confess about his night with the prostitute weighs on him.

O’Hara, it transpires, contracts a sexually transmitted disease from his tryst with the prostitute. It seems that Willie, luckily, does not.

Willie’s company finds itself rotated back into the front line again. It remains a quiet sector. One day he is drinking tea in a corner of the trench when a soldier new to the front, a Private Byrne, carelessly lifts his head above the line of the parapet. He is shot in the eye: blood gruesomely jets from the wound. Willie wants to ignore the incident at first but then attends to the young man.

He is struck by his own uselessness in the face of this violence. The young man is tormented for hours as they wait for the medical corps to arrive. Willie responds to the incident with cold despair; he has become hardened by the war. He reflects that the youth would be better shot dead on the spot. His own anguish, however, tells of the compassion struggling to be expressed within him.

A few weeks later, rotated back behind the lines again, Christy Moran has good news for Willie. He has been given home leave for a few days. Delighted for the younger man, he pleads with Willie to stay alive until then.

Questions

A short but interesting chapter. Willie’s willie at last sees action and, unscathed, lives to see another day. Then a gruesome moment in the line conveys just how unexpected death could be in the trenches.

“But he liked the bolts to be loosened on his concerns like any other soldier” (p. 60). Research the world of the First World War estaminet. In what ways is the estaminet somewhere where soldiers could escape the war and the norms and disciplines of respectable society? In what ways does the estaminet attempt to reproduce something approximating a conventional or ‘normal’ life for the soldiers?

“Maybe there was a poison in this tepid water” (p. 61). What does this line suggest about the effect of the war upon Willie? In this chapter we find more examples of the way in which the war is beginning to take a psychological toll on Willie. From the moment when Willie’s hands begin to shake at the thought of the deaths of the men on the supply line (p.30), there are signs of Willie’s developing neurotic response to the war. Trace a timeline of these—noting where he displays significant signs of, for example, anxiety, depression, paranoia, anger and dissociation in response to events around him.

As the stupefied Willie gazes at the prostitute who offers herself to him, his response to her is revealing: “Thick, thick black hair like a smudge of night she had, and clear, clever eyes the colour of dark blue feathers in a magpie. My God, he thought, she was like a Goddess. She seemed to Willie more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. ‘Money for fuck?’ she said.” (p.62). What does Willie’s metaphorical language about the woman before him reveal about his feelings and attitudes towards women (A-level students may find their previous study in Love Through the Ages useful here, in particular ideas informing the Courtly Love Convention)? In what ways is there a gap between Willie’s understanding of the transaction taking place in this scene and that of the young woman? Barry uses a technique known as intentional anticlimax at the end of this passage. What effect does this have on the reader?

“Why you call Willie?” said the beautiful girl, giggling” (p. 63). It’s a good question. Can you think why Sebastian Barry named his hero Willie?

There is an obvious hypocrisy in Willie and O’Hara’s actions, one that catches up with O’Hara when he catches an sexually transmitted disease and needs to see a nurse. “Oh, yeh, that’s great Willie, I’ll go and bring this to the nurses. Nice Irish girls. They’ll only be thrilled” (p.66). Similarly Willie, in writing his long letter, “every inch of it thought should he say something about the fallen girl of Amiens?” (p.65). What does this sexual encounter say about the lives of men at the front and how they relate this life to that at home? How do you judge Willie and O’Hara’s time at the estaminet?

“There needed to be a new sort of line officer like a veterinarian, he thought, because there was too much of this screaming and suffering. There was too much of it, too much of it, and it wasn’t love or anything close to it to leave a young fella screaming on the ground for three hours. It wasn’t love and it wasn’t even like being at a war and it wasn’t fucking right” (p.68). Follow the logic of Willie’s argument here. Is this a reasoned or an emotional argument? Indeed, is it an argument at all? Barry’s use of structure and language in this passage is revealing. What does it tell us about Willie’s state of mind?

I thought this an interesting chapter that developed Willie’s character. I’m warming to Willie a little, vacant though he often seems. Willie’s loss of virginity is another episode in his gradual disenchantment at the front, the loss of his innocence. The hardening of his attitude to the injured youth at the end of the chapter seemed a logical extension of this growth within him of “cold despair” (p.68). I felt the juxtaposition of the two encounters was clever by Barry—and I’m sure that the latter event, so revealing of Willie’s anguish, moved me in part because of the author’s clever use of structure.

Chapter 4, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

 

Onward, into a disturbing account of one of the most wretched episodes in the wretched history of warfare. Chapter Four:

Summary

Months have passed at the front and Willie is upset that Gretta has not responded to his letters. He writes to her declaring his love, and retains the hope that she loves him too, but feels more and more angry and humiliated by her lack of reply. Before leaving Gretta, it transpires that Willie has asked her to marry him, and she refused. He once understood the reasons for her refusal, but longing for her without remittance, he writes short letters that veer between lumpen description of life in the trenches and blurted declarations of love. Writing in this way sharpens his self-consciousness and anxiety.

It is now spring and the Fusiliers decamp to a section of line near the village of St Julien. The men relax somewhat, skinny dipping in the river together and playing football. They find a joy in their momentary leisure together, though the noise and bustle of the front is near. Disarmed and naked, they talk frankly at the riverside; amidst the aimless chatter Captain Pasley speaks of his worries about the manning of his father’s farm at home.

Soon the men are back in the line. They first make it their business to tidy a trench once badly kept up by French soldiers. They settle into a time of distracted dull fear there, until the day when, as Captain Pasley censors his men’s letters home and the platoon are relaxing after a satisfying meal, Christy Moran sees a strange yellow cloud floating over no-mans land.

It is a German gas attack, but the men do not know this. It is an inexplicable sight as it advances towards them. At first the fusiliers fire into the yellow fog, but cease firing when there is no sign of an advancing enemy. The lieutenants consult their commanding officers, who are as nonplussed as their subordinates. The fog eventually reaches an Algerian trench to the platoon’s right. Screams of torment there prompt Pasley to the thought that the smoke is poisonous. The fog reaches the Dublin fusiliers’ trench and inspires panic as Irishmen, like the Algerians, begin to die. Christy Moran asks for permission for the company to retreat, but Pasley declares he has no orders to allow it. As the chlorine begins to fall into their section and men die in the trench, Pasley assents to withdrawal, but refuses to move from his post. Willie and the still-surviving men climb the parados and run for their lives amidst the general terrified scatter, every man for himself. Officers behind the line stand confused by the soldiers’ sudden, mysterious capitulation. Eventually, Willie finds himself in the air beyond the gas, and collapses.

He awakens to the aftermath of the attack. Blinded men move in lines. The countryside is poisoned. Eventually, later in the week, reserve battalions move up to replace the massacred soldiers. Willie is bereft. He makes his way back to the section of trench and amidst the now-grotesque bodies of his comrades discovers the corpse of Captain Pasley. He encounters Father Buckley, blessing the bodies of the dead. The two awkwardly console one another. Over five hundred men of their regiment are dead. Later, Willie (a protestant) politely refuses communion with the priest.

When Willie sees Christy Moran again, he is furious at his sergeant’s brutal assessment of Captain Pasley’s refusal to run. As more men are brought up to the line to replace his comrades, he also begins to have an inkling of the nature of the war.

The survivors see out the summer into the freezing winter of 1916, hearing of more Irish losses at Gallipoli. They are posted away from the front. Willie’s platoon traverse the countryside. His memories of building reviving within him, Willie admires the roads and particularly enjoys singing marching songs, especially the ubiquitous ‘Tipperary’. Willie’s singing voice is admired but has been weakened by his faulty lungs, damaged by the chlorine gas. He also notes the damage to himself. He mourns Clancy and Williams and feels haunted by the ghost of Captain Pasley. The grief of death has lodged within him, and he secretly rails against the world.

Questions

A shocking and moving read, this chapter, as it surely must be if well written.

The stalling of Willie and Gretta’s relationship while Willie fights abroad is perhaps unexpected, given the account of the relationship we read in the first chapter. She is, to use a phrase used in theory, an absent presence at this point in the story. What does the silence of Gretta suggest to you about this couple’s relationship? In what ways might her silence reflect a larger truth about the presence of women in literature of the First World War?

Captain Pasley, who reads Willie’s letters to Gretchen, judges that Willie is one of those soldiers who “tried to write the inside of their heads” when writing home (p.43). What do you think is meant by this? Given the evidence of Willie’s letter to Gretta (p.38), is Pasley’s assessment accurate? How would you describe Barry’s presentation of Willie in this letter? What does it reveal about Willie?

The narration often uses free indirect speech: that is, the voices of the novel’s characters often merge with or are articulated through the voice of the narrator. This creates interesting ways of manipulating and moving between different characters’ perspectives, but inevitably in the story thus far, we have most often presented with the perspective of Willie Dunne. In this chapter, however, the omniscient narrator is used to voice the thoughts of Captain Pasley as he censors the men’s mail (see the paragraph that begins, “Captain Pasley was in his new dugout writing his forms…” (p.42)). Why might the author decide to give the reader access to the thoughts of this particular character at this particular moment in the novel, before the gas attack? In what way is Pasley’s reading relevant, in terms of storytelling, to the events that follow? How effective is this narratological shift of perspective?

Barry’s description of the gas attack is memorable and shocking. He cleverly selects surprising foci in his description of the attack that make it particularly strange and frightening. What does the narrative describe that emphasises the transformation of the familiar world into one completely unfamiliar and peculiarly terrifying?

“All the Irish were on the fire-step now, all along the length of the trench, some fifteen hundred men showing their faces to this unknown freak of weather, or whatever it might be.” Reading this sentence, and the whole of the gas attack sequence (p.43-8), how does Barry create tension within the text?

As Barry builds a sense of scene in this chapter, he returns again and again to the colour yellow— at first “yellow world” of the wild flowers and caterpillars that hang on them, then the “strange yellow-tinged cloud” itself, and finally the “yellow world” that Willie awakes to, with its men wearing bleached uniforms and yellow, greased faces. What could these different kinds of yellowness represent?

“If it were a battle proper, these men would never have turned tail. They would have fought to the last man in the trenches and put up with that and cursed their fate” (p.48). Besides this odd (and surely redundant) bit of moralising narration, Barry is, I think, both clever and subtle in reflecting on a broad sense of shame felt in the aftermath of the attack. Why could a gas attack be seen as particularly shameful in the theatre of war? In what ways does the use of poison gas differ to other more traditional forms of warfare? How do the characters focused on in the novel respond to the trauma of the gas attack?

The passage at the end of the chapter, where Willie finds pleasure in singing marching songs like ‘Tipperary’, seems significant to the narrative as a whole. The novel, after all, is called ‘A Long, Long Way’, a metalepsis of the fuller song title, ‘It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary’ (see the entry ‘Opening Lines’ and comments beneath for an explanation of this term). Song, therefore, has meaning in this text (and indeed was ubiquitous in the trenches during the war: see these entries about the Ragtime Infantry and read these poems by Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Ivor Gurney.) At the end of this chapter, how does Willie’s singing, and song more generally, cause us to reflect on the gas attack on the Royal Dublin Fusiliers? How significant is it that now, “when Willie sang too mightily he felt a dire need to cough” (p.58)?

Some thoughts

The gas attack in this chapter was exceptionally well written. Before writing an appreciation, it’s best to make clear that I currently have questions about Barry’s presentation of the attack at St Julien. This is presumptuous to a degree— Barry has plainly read deeply around the subject— but I’m still trying marry up elements of the historical record with the movements of Willie’s company.

On first reading, I had assumed that the gas attack depicted in the book is the gas attack of the early evening of 22nd April 1915, the beginning of the Battle of Gravenstafel Ridge, itself the first battle of the murderous Second Battle of Ypres. I thought this because this was indeed the first German gas attack of the First World War, and the absolute incomprehension of the Irish troops in the face of the new weapon depicted in the book is more readily explicable than it would be in any depiction of the later gas attack of the 24th May, when the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were massacred. The April attack took place, as depicted in the novel, during the day-time: moreover, there was an Irish presence in the line during the attack of the 24th, the Royal Irish Fusiliers being positioned north of Wieltje, though not in a position that precisely reflects that described in the novel.

The attack of the 24th May 1915 is the more likely source of the massacre described in the novel: 666 men of the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ were in the line that day, and of that number, 645 men died. This chimes with Willie’s observation that there were “five hundred men and more of Willie’s regiment dead” (p.53). Crucially however this gas attack took place at night, at 2.30 in the morning, quite unlike the attack described in the book. The question that presents itself, then, is what Irish battalion Willie is part of? Willie’s first letter home in the book gives as his address the “Royal Dublin Fusiliers… Fermoy” (p.16) yet even with joining up in August 1914, and training in Fermoy in December of that year, I can’t see how Willie would have seen action at all near St. Julien in May (as far as I can discover, the second battalion of the RDF was moved from Harrow to Bolougne in August of 1914).

I’m assuming that I’m missing something important here, and I’d appreciate any pointers from military historians as to how to make sense of Barry’s timeline in the novel. Of course, some might say that I’m making a category error here in bothering about this stuff. It’s fiction, you know? I think these things do matter in understanding a novel, however. If Barry has decided to conflate these two attacks, then he has done so with a purpose. That purpose would be well worth speculating on, especially as the presentation of the gas attack is so effective, so moving, so shocking. If however, I’m simply short of information, then that of course is well worth knowing too.

I don’t want to speculate on what is probably a matter of my own ignorance. The gas attack depicted in the novel may be historically accurate and it may not be. Indeed, the virtues of historical accuracy can weigh against the virtues of drama or plot or authorial intention, and art is one of the only pursuits in which we can say without blushing that sometimes by making things up we can get closer to the truth of things. Yet interesting ethical and aesthetic questions are opened up here regarding the lengths of literary invention desirable or permissible in writing a historical novel (as alluded to in my earlier post on the novel form).

Especially, I want to say, when reading something as convincing as Barry’s gas attack. What a piece of writing it is.

The great risk in writing about a First World War gas attack is to fall into cliché and simply retread where others have gone before. Two British works of art overhang any depiction of gas warfare during the first world war; Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, of course, and John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’. Both are referenced in Barry’s account of the St. Julien attack: in his description of “faces [that] were contorted like devils’ in a book of admonition” and the “long lines of men going back along the road, with weird faces, their right hand on the shoulder of the man in front”. A-level Literature students should as a matter of course read Owen’s and Barry’s texts together here, exploring their commonalities and differences.

Yet it seems to me that Barry’s creation stands well clear of the shadow of these more famous texts, and, by mark of its invention, to signal towards texts both more marginal and imaginative. In terms of the A-level exam, I would also want to explore the narrative strategy found in Robert Frost’s ‘Range Finding’ to explore how Barry uses the presentation of the natural world to momentarily decentre the human experience of war. Nature, it seems plain, is both a consolation and a source of grief in Barry’s novel, as it was for many of the poet-soldiers of the First World War. Its fecund life and beauty is a counterpoint to the ugly, wilful and mechanical destruction of man. The horror of the foaming caterpillars, fizzing grass, dying trees and silenced birds in the path of the chorine gas speak quite as loudly of the directionless violence of man’s death-dealing as does Barry’s horrifying description of the massacre of the fusiliers.

Another text I felt at the edge of Barry’s reference, peculiar though it may seem to some, is HG Wells’ ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1898). Peculiar because Wells’ story of an invasion of Earth by aliens from Mars might seem, at first blush, an irrelevance to Barry’s staunchly realist text. Yet Wells’ novel was one of the first to imagine such devastating gas attacks: Wells’ invading Tripod machines drop asphyxiating ‘black smoke’ over the cities and towns of Southern England in their march on London. Now, Jules Verne imagined a freezing gas used in artillery shells by dastardly Germans in his 1879 novel ‘The Begum’s Fortune’: but it is the message regarding imperialism that is made explicit at the start of Wells’ novel that I feel makes it peculiarly relevant to Barry’s novel. The narrator, who has lived through the Martian invasion, takes to task those who complain of the inhumanity of the invaders:

And before we judge of them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

It strikes me that the political roots of warfare are understated in the novel thus far, as the author focuses on the personal experience and horror of war. Yet in this description of the supposed inhumanity of the alien invaders and their deadly technology, Wells performs a similar trick to Barry. Colonialism and Imperial Wars—human pursuits, of which the First World War is a prime example— are refigured as assaults from beyond earthly nature, beyond humanity. Both writers manage to make the precarious empire of man both utterly strange and frightening. Indeed, I want to say that the gas cloud in chapter four is one of Barry’s most memorable characters yet: a “dark and seemingly infernal thing creeping along”, the disowned monster of the terrible and grasping intellect of man.

Chapter 3, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

Eastward ho! For Willie and co. Now:

Summary

Chapter three begins with Willie and his company manning a trench ironically dubbed Sackville Street (the name of Dublin’s main thoroughfare, later the site of the Post Office where the Easter 1916 rising began, and today named O’Connell Street, after the Irish political leader). Willie does not know where he is but notes the flowered graves that mark a great battle nearby (in fact, Willie appears to be stationed somewhere near Ypres; later, in April, the second battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers would see action north of the city in the small village of St Julien). Noticing the graves and the lingering grief of those on the front, Willie’s former romanticism begins to be replaced by traumatic fear. His hands involuntarily shake with the thought of the deaths of those in the supply party.

Sergeant Major Christy Moran satirically entertains Willie and company in a forward trench. He talks of how he longs to take a girl out on a date at home in Kingstown on Dublin bay, and contrasts the attractions of a woman with the revolting conditions (and revolting men) at the front. Captain Pasley then appears for the first time in the novel: he emerges from a dug out and consults Moran about missing rations. He appears generous and cavalier—he pleases his men by declaring he will ensure double rations the next day, and unselfconsciously alarms them by placing his head above the trench parapet to gaze out on no-man’s land. Pasley speaks admiringly of the beauty of the landscape and night sky, and evidently wins Willie and the company over, with his aristocratic air of confident and sensitive control. Pasley tells the men he will be leading a party out into no-man’s land that night.

Willie goes out that night as part of the wiring party with Pasley, Moran, Clancy and others. Willie carries immense wire cutters as they check four hundred metres of line in no-man’s land, looking for gaps in the barbed wire laid. As they fix the wire Captain Pasley spots a German patrol, and the group taking cover, Willie pisses himself in fear on the ground. Yet, as the Germans pass by, Willie is elated to find his fear has passed too. He grins in ecstacy at the knowledge he has passed this first test; that fear has not debilitated him. Moran and the rest of the crew, relieved, make their way back to the safety of their trench.

Questions

A short chapter, this, but important, and containing a first set-piece description of a common soldier’s task, wiring in no-man’s land. Barbed wire, first invented in the US as a way of penning cattle, was the first line of trench defence for armies on both sides of the Western Front: this Western Front Association article is particularly informative.

“Willie was not thinking of the killed supply party exactly. But his hands were.” (p.30) How does this sentence work? How does it describe Willie’s state of mind at this stage in the novel? How is it suggested that “thinking” works here? Try and answer these questions by breaking down the structure and possible meanings within the sentence; no shortcuts via Freud, please.

This chapter introduces the character of Captain Pasley to the novel. Earlier, Willie’s father is pleased to discover that Pasley would lead his son’s platoon, for “everyone knew the Pasleys and they were highly respected people and had a lovely garden there around their house”: he is sure the young Captain “would be a chip off the old block” (p.22). A number of questions suggest themselves about this figure. What kind of character is introduced to us in this chapter? What behaviour, what interests and observations mark Pasley out? In what way does he seem different to the men he commands? In what ways are these inflected by his class? What aspects of his character seem laudable—and what seem dangerous in this situation? How do the men regard him?

“So they rose up like shadows of the dead from their lair at the bulking of the night, a fierce frieze of stars rampant above” (p.32). A line like this, as the wiring party steps out into no-man’s land, has that remarkable poetic quality that Barry is well known for. Look again at this sentence, and consider how it works. What similes and metaphors does it employ, and what are their effect upon the reader? Where does the colloquial Irish voice emerge? What is the significance of the night sky here? (The sky is a focus again and again in trench literature, and not only because of the threat presented there to men). Barry writes in this lyrical way because, in all likelihood, he can write in no other way: so what does such a narrative voice bring to this First World War narrative? Are there any problems in using this narrative voice when writing about the First World War?

Drawing Links

This chapter’s focus on wiring in this chapter naturally calls to mind two important poems from the Oxford Anthology: Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’ and Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Dead Man’s Dump’. Gurney’s poem describes the momentary dilemma a private faces as his commanding officer instructs him to crawl through a gap in the wire in no-man’s land. Gurney’s poem is a beautifully written masterpiece of irony and understatement, telling of a kind of heroic rationalism that is, at one and the same time, anti-heroic. As a poem it’s colloquial yet lyrical, just as Barry’s writing is. Rosenberg’s poem, on the other hand, is one of the most grueling written during the war. It describes a wiring party traversing no-man’s land after a battle. Their carriage, containing wire and stakes, runs over the bodies of the dead as the soldiers, numb, cross the infernal space. It is a horrifying, anguished poem, part documentary, part existential scream. The situation Willie faces in the novel is more akin to that described by Gurney’s protagonist, though Gurney’s speaker (like Rosenberg’s) is far more self-aware than Barry’s creation. Both Gurney and Rosenberg, however, were privates during the war, subject to the commands of their COs and NCOs, and this most important fact influences all their wartime poetry. It also establishes another commonality with Barry’s creation, which through the character of Willie brings a welcome focus on the experience of the private soldier.

On a personal note I found in this a chapter a number of things to like. First, the swan’s feet submerged beneath the elegant body of the text: Barry’s hard graft of research really begins to show here. His easy and unshowy employment of his knowledge of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ campaign is impressive. Next, there is the writing itself, which occasionally has that poetic precision you find in a great writer such as Joseph Conrad—a rare pleasure in prose. I also liked the presentation of the character of Captain Pasley, added now to that of the likeably rueful Christie Moran. I think Barry captures an interesting class dynamic in this character’s relationship with his men, something true of the way the war threw members of different classes together (all in their proper order, naturally).

Chapter 2, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

Many apologies for the length of time between some of my posts here. For those not in the know, I’m off school at the moment, looking after my wife, who has leukemia. Thankfully this week I’ve found time to get back to the book.

So, without the slightest ado, let’s get to it.

Summary— Chapter Two

Chapter two begins with Willie Dunne reading a newspaper with his father on an evening. The paper that the pair read together runs impressive stories of patriotic commitment: accounts of different peoples from around the world mobilizing to fight on behalf of the British Empire. Willie recalls an Irish Times article recounting a (now famous) speech given by John Redmond that declared his conditional approval for the enlistment of Irish volunteers. Willie’s father notes scornfully that this call for enlistment in the cause of Home Rule is precisely the opposite reason many Ulstermen are volunteering. Willie’s father, as a loyalist, is hostile to both Redmond and nationalism, and instead extols to Willie the virtues of King, Country and Empire. Yet when Willie unexpectedly enlists, his father weeps. Willie’s sisters react excitedly, though his eldest sister Maud is tense.

Willie joins the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and by December is training in Fermoy, County Cork. He writes a letter home about the training there and his new friends, Privates Williams and Clancy. In January the soldiers hear with some ambivalence about Christmas truces with the Germans on the Western front. One of Willie’s particular problems at camp is finding the privacy to masturbate.

The narrative moves swiftly on to the day of the Fusiliers’ departure for Belgium. The regiment arrives at a railway station in Dublin and parades through the city on the way to the docks. The adulation of the crowd excites the marching men. Willie hopes to see Gretta and his sisters on the day, but does not.

The villages of England similarly salute the tired soldiers as they roll through on their troop train. The incongruity of Irishmen being cheered by the English is noted by some of the young men. Willie listens as they joke with one another. While his friends confidently talk, he remains reflective, dimly grasping a broader history and fate that takes men from all over Britain to the front. This confluence of soldiery in a great cause excites a sense of manhood in Willie.

The men arrive in France. They are thrilled to be abroad, taking in the small but significant differences of landscape to home. Willie’s sense of euphoria in his newfound vocation continues, but his overenthusiastic reverie ultimately overtakes him. After imagining a horse charge whilst travelling on a swaying transport, he vomits up his breakfast.

The men finally arrive at the trenches. The artillery bombardment they find is vicious and terrifying and ongoing. Willie feels the fear of war for the first time.

The narrative leaps forward. The platoon are eating together while Sergeant Major Christie Moran spies no-man’s land. Moran, exhausted and splenetic, curses the British Army to the amusement of his comrades. He damns it as the very institution that has repressed the Irish for centuries. Moran is on the edge; as he and his men perform their ablutions before taking the firestep at stand-to, his internal monologue escapes him and he talks ruefully to himself of his misfortune, overheard by the men.

Later, the men learn that the German bombardment of the night previous has destroyed the supply trench behind, killing the men there. There is nothing for the platoon to eat that night.

Questions

Here are some questions that occur when reading chapter two.

As Barry begins the second chapter he manages to convey some of the contemporary excitement in the press at the start of the war (pp. 14-15). How is this presented? How does Willie react to this excitement? In what ways does his father’s reaction to the news reveal tensions in Irish society?

Barry effectively conveys the emotional aftermath of Willie Dunne’s decision to enlist (p.15). How does Barry manage to do this- what relationships does he focus on? How do the reactions of his characters create an emotive impact?

Chapter two is largely preoccupied with Willie Dunne, his experiences, thoughts and feelings. He is presented as an innocent, even naive young man, subject to the desires of youth. What passages does Barry use to reveal important aspects of Willie’s character? Where does Willie seem innocent, where naïve, and where gullible to the reader?

Another feature of Chapter two is the introduction of Willie’s comrades-at-arms. These men are our most profound introduction to Barry’s notion of Ireland and Irishness so far. How does Barry first present Willie’s comrades? What kind of men are they? What kind of language do they use when they speak to each other? What sort of culture do they seem to come from?

It is important that you begin to get to grips with Irish history and the significance of the John Redmond speech referred to in this chapter. Follow the links I have inserted into the first chapter of the summary above. What do you now understand by the term ‘home rule’? Who was John Redmond– and what is his significance in the story of home rule? Why did John Redmond declare nationalist support for the enlistment of the Irish volunteers? By contrast, in ‘A Willie’s father in ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a loyalist and unionist. What do you understand by these terms?

For me, the second chapter of the novel is surprisingly brisk in pace— running from life in the Dunne household, to regimental training, to Willie’s departure from Ireland, journeying through England to Belgium and then finally seeing action on the Western Front in a swift fourteen pages. I thought the movement a little too theatrical for my liking, as if Barry were energetically shooing us to curtains up in Flanders (the use of a letter home to draw the sum of Willie’s training struck me as too economical, for example).

Barry is not afraid of utilising the worn stones of historical cliché in laying the path to his scene. Never such innocence, never before or since, and all that— and just because a saying is much repeated does not make it untrue. Yet Willie so far is an unremarkable character, performing the age-old narrative function of the wide-eyed youth thrust blinking into the fallen world of experience (see Candide, Oliver Twist, William Boot, Ballard’s Jim or any number of genre protagonists).

There’s the Irishness that’s undoubtedly interesting, of course, and the richness of the language that Barry reproduces in the dialogue and narration; but so far, the story rests on a too-easy sentiment that bothers me. But there is a reason why Sebastian Barry is a twice Costa-winning author, and I am just some Joe, teaching English literature in a secondary school in West London.

Opening Lines: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

1296369647558-r100
Mick Jagger’s inaccurate passport. Note, ‘Dartford’, not ‘crossfire hurricane’.

I’ve recently been reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘How to Read Literature’. Terry Eagleton was once one of academia’s most interesting and, if you can believe it, entertaining writers on literary theory: a bullish Marxist who put the catholic into Roman Catholic. His most famous book, ‘Literary Theory: An Introduction’ (1983) remains a scalpel sharp critical history of the field, and to its everlasting credit, it makes you laugh too. ‘How to Read Literature’ (2013) is a much more accessible if timid read, intended as a kind of instruction manual for students of close reading, a sensitive account of different ways of reading a text. I mention it because in it Eagleton writes an interesting chapter on the openings of novels. He begins by circling around this opening line from EM Forster’s A Passage to India:

Except for the Marabar Caves— and they are twenty miles off— the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.

His analysis of this line—which you’ll have to read the book for—stirs a broader commentary about novelistic beginnings:

As with the opening of a lot of novels, there is something of a setpiece feel to this, as the author clears his throat and formally sets the scene. A writer tends to be on his best behaviour at the beginning of Chapter 1, eager to impress, keen to catch the fickle reader’s eye, and occasionally pulling out all the stops. Even so, he must be beware of overdoing it, not least if he is a civilized middle-class Englishman like EM Forster who values reticence and indirectness…

The poise of the syntax… is elegant in an unshowy kind of way. It is deftly managed and manipulated, but with quiet good manners refuses to rub this in one’s face. There is no suggestion of ‘fine writing’, or of what is sometimes called ‘purple’ (excessively ornate) prose. The author’s eye is too closely on the object for any such self-indulgence.  

Reading this made me reflect on the opening of Barry’s novel. Eagleton, of course, is right about the beginnings of novels. It’s something every GCSE English teacher cynically preaches to his students when asking them to write creatively: make sure that first line is a doozy. Get the reader involved; get them asking questions. And indeed, we see Barry keen to impress in the opening of ‘A Long, Long Way’. Compare the first line of the novel—

He was born in the dying days.

—with the first line of the second chapter.

Willie Dunne was not the only one.

If you want to be kind, you might say that there’s a fair amount to be said about that first line, but heavens to Murgatroyd! There’s very little interesting to be said about the second. The former is crafted, colloquial yet lyrical, ambiguous; the latter is throwaway, formless and vague. So perhaps that opening sentence—

He was born in the dying days.

—is worth dwelling on.

If I were asked for a single word to describe this opening line, the one that I would use is portentious. In any story worth telling, the narrator knows something important that we don’t, of course. The thing that the narrator knows at the start of ‘A Long, Long Time’ seems to be beyond the everyday, however, and gestures towards something of great moment. He was born in the dying days. The line has an obvious tension, between the birth announced at its beginning and the dying days invoked at the end, as if to announce to the reader, this is a story of life and death, no less, of beginnings and endings. While there is no contradiction here—a birth can occur during the last days of a historical period, say, or regime—there is an ominousness about the line. This birth seems out of place, or more correctly, it seems to have occurred at precisely the wrong time—in the dying days. On finishing the line, it is the nature of those fearful days that the reader is poised to wonder about.

The line is composed in such a way as to lead us to this question. It has two parts, pivoting around that word ‘in’. The first half of the sentence reads ‘He was born in’. The text begins, then, with the simple promise found in every realist novel, the creation of character from believable detail. We probably expect something documentary to follow: ‘Dublin’, perhaps, or ‘1896’, if we were particularly wonderful guessers. We don’t get it. The second half of the sentence holds off this satisfaction, for the mysterious man who is the subject of the sentence was born “in the dying days”.

The surprise we might feel when we read this follows on one level the nature of our everyday encounter with language. If we went to Wandsworth town hall, say, and asked a registrar when or where a particular person was born, we would be surprised to receive an answer like “He was born in the ripe fullness of time”. Similarly, if we read a newspaper obituary that read “He was born in a crossfire hurricane” we would suspect either the dead man was Mick Jagger, or the writer was cheerfully describing a very traumatic birth indeed. Our first expectation in many, but by no means all circumstances, is to have a literal and the factual statement follow the words, ‘He was born in’. What in fact follows is metaphorical and idiomatic.

Now, because this is a literary text, this isn’t quite as bizarre as the situation outlined above. We are schooled to expect surprising metaphors and florid language in literary texts, and our use of language, after all, is contingent on circumstance and expectation. And indeed the phrase ‘in the dying days’ is not so strange as to be outlandish. It is an idiom, a figure of speech familiar enough to many English speakers, that means ‘in the last days’ or ‘at the end of’. As a phrase we commonly find it appended with ‘of’ and then, again, a phrase or word more concrete: ‘the Nineteenth Century’, ‘the fin-de-siecle’, ‘British rule in Ireland’, ‘1896’, and so on. In paring back the longer, more precise idiom to the ambiguous metaphor that is its stem, the text cleverly holds off the reader’s satisfaction of meaning for a second time.

It also revives what was previously a dead metaphor— that is, a piece of language so overused as to have lost its original interest and suggestiveness. Once clipped of its withered leaves and knotted wood, the stem phrase left, ‘In the dying days’, now regains a little suggestive life. ‘The dying days’ now begins to darkly hint at apocalypse, at the end of days, rather than being merely some simple verbal colour used for describing historical dates or periods. Even if this were not a novel set during the First World War, we might begin to see the shadow of those coming events in this first line.

Finally, the abbreviation of the phrase also suggests another characteristic of Barry’s writing style. I am not simply referring here to the author’s surprising lyricism, his foregrounding of metaphorical techniques more commonly expected in poetry than prose. Rather, it is the writer’s use of idiom that is interesting. For in writing of ‘the dying days’ there is a sense that Barry is employing colloquial as much as poetic language—that he is using a familiar language about a familiar subject. That familiar language, it seems logical to propose, is the everyday language of the English-speaking Irishman (the name is for the dialect proper is Hiberno-English). And the familiar subject for these Irishmen? Endings, clearly: of the unmourned Nineteenth Century, of British rule, and of those Irishmen subject to the violence of that rule, with its history of immiseration and famine. This opening line tempts us to listen in on, and get closer to this conversation of the Irish, where mention of ‘the dying days’ at any time carries its own irony of history.

He was born in the dying days: this sentence may have only seven words, but it contains several surprises. All the better, then, for us to read on.

Chapter 1, a summary: Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

images

 

So, we begin our reading. This post will hopefully be quite functional. You will need, come exam-time, a way to refresh your minds about the content of the novel. That will be the function of these summaries, and I will tag each of them (look right!) as ‘Chapter Summaries’.

After writing my summary, I’ll ask you a series of questions I want you to consider. You can answer these questions (or offer an opinion on the first chapter) below the line in the comments section.

I’ll write a more detailed response to the first chapter in a subsequent post. But for the moment, here is my summary of the first chapter of Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’.

Summary— Chapter One

The novel begins in Ireland in 1896. A child, Willie Dunne, is born as a thunderstorm rages outside the Rotunda maternity hospital in Dublin city centre.

One of Willie’s early memories is recounted: the contentious visit of King Edward the Seventh to the city in 1903. Willie’s childish recollection is only that the King was “as big as a bed” and that his father, James Dunne, a policeman, was on duty on a “big white horse” that day.

Willie is brought up with great affection by both his mother and father; but his mother dies in childbirth when Willie is twelve, and Willie is brought up by his father and three sisters. As he grows, Willie deeply feels her loss. Moreover, his father’s hopeful expectations that Willie will follow in his footsteps and become a policeman are frustrated by Willie’s small physical size. Willie feels his inadequacy keenly.

The narrative leaps forward to early 1914, when Willie is just short of seventeen years old and has become a fairly contented apprentice builder. Willie regularly runs an errand for his father to take offerings of food to a Mr Lawlor, a neighbour living in a slum tenement dwelling nearby. There he meets Gretta Lawlor, a thirteen year old girl with whom he falls in love.

Mr Lawlor, a carter and marcher on behalf of trades union recognition, was severely injured in street fighting accompanying the Dublin lockout of 1913, beaten by Dublin Metropolitan Policemen under James Dunne’s command. He scorns Willie’s father’s sympathy for him as a sign of the policeman’s doubt as to the morality of the DMP’s violent strike-breaking. He seems to the young Willie a cussed but principled man.

Like many of the Dublin poor forcibly dismissed after the lockout, Mr Lawlor joins the British Army. His duties mean he is often away from home. At first lustily infatuated with the beautiful Gretta, Willie’s visits as the year progresses lead to a growing intimacy and love. The young couple’s relationship remains secret to their fathers, but even given the Lawlor’s poverty (set against the Dunne’s middle class respectability) Willie is confident that he can gain his father’s permission to marry.

At the outbreak of the war in August, Willie explains to Gretta that he is going to join the British Army. His motivation is hazy: he repeats early propaganda about murderous Germans, but more pertinently perhaps, his wish to please his father. Gretta is unhappy and does not want him to go, but Willie reminds her of his father’s opinion that a man should act according to his own thoughts and beliefs. The chapter closes as Gretta discloses that, ironically, these opinions are taken from the Christian philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas.

Questions

Here are some questions it occurs to me to ask about this technically accomplished first chapter.

The opening of the novel (pp. 1-2) seems concerned with beginnings and endings. What represents this in this early passage? Can you find examples of this tension within the text? Why do you think that Barry begins his novel in this way?

It seems to me that Barry very efficiently and economically manages to describe the life of William Dunne as a child (pp. 4-6). How does Barry manage to do this? What does he focus on to create a sense of depth of character? Why does this work?

Barry engages swiftly with the violent upheaval in Irish society at this time (pp.6-11). Why do you think that James Dunne sends food to Mr. Lawlor after the violent breakup of a union rally? Why does Mr. Lawlor tolerate the young William Dunne as he does? What, perhaps, might Barry be suggesting about conflict in Irish society in 1914?

William and Gretta’s relationship provokes some of the narrator’s most extravagant similes and metaphors in the opening chapter— “He was in love with Gretta like a poor swan was in love with the Liffey and cannot leave it, no matter how often the boys of Dublin stone her nest”, or “she looked like an angel, at least how an angel ought to look” (pp. 11-12). The narrator’s language is often lyrical, though it strikes me here that a note of irony is employed when describing their relationship. What does such language seem to say about Willie’s feelings for Gretta? What differences are there in the way the narrator presents Willie, and how the narrator presents Gretta? How does the lyrical narration affect the tone of the work?

I also wonder what interested you about this first chapter. I thought it a confident and above all controlled opening. This is a mature writer who has learnt that it is economy of detail that is most persuasive in establishing character and setting. I am also, however, somewhat perturbed by the elegiac and lyrical tone of the opening passages— this isn’t necessarily my kind of writing, but I’m keen to read on. Just as well, really.

Thinking Historically: Form, the Historical Novel, and Sebastian Barry’s ‘A Long, Long Way’

walter_scott_waverley_illustration_pettie-huth
‘Disbanded’, an engraved illustration for Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’, after a painting by John Pettie. (Wikimedia)

Before we begin reading ‘A Long, Long Way’ we would do well to ask ourselves some basic questions about literature and how we tell stories about history. What kind of story are we going to read? Indeed, what do we already know about ‘A Long Long Way’ by Sebastian Barry?

Barry’s novel, written in 2005, tells the story of a young Dubliner, Willie Dunne, born at the turn of the nineteenth century: turning in pretty quick time from recounting his unremarkable childhood to his ultimately grueling experience as an Irish soldier in the British army during the First World War.

This is about as brief a summary as it is possible to give, what screenwriters call a logline, but it’ll do for now. We’ll avoid spoilers, because we are going to read this story together.

From this summary we already know enough to start locating Barry’s novel within the traditions of literary form. In the following post, I want to focus first on a useful definition of what form in literature actually is; then, I want to examine more closely the type of novel that Barry adopts to tell his story, known as the historical novel.

Form

You’ll recognise the term ‘form’, of course. You’ll have been taught about form, structure and language in English lessons since way back when. This doesn’t mean, however, that the term ‘form’ is necessarily easy to understand, as I can testify from a decade of teaching. In fact, of the three terms mentioned, I would say that form as a concept is often the most difficult to fully grasp. This is because it’s often intuitively simple to recognise form- to see that that some texts are similarly shaped, while others are recognisably different. Yet it is far more difficult to understand or explain why certain forms are as they are, and what categorical details make them similar or different to others. If you’re doing the AQA English Literature exam, recognising and understanding form is important: Assessment Objective 2 demands that students “analyse ways in which meanings are shaped in literary texts, with particular focus on the structures of texts as a form of shaping.”

So what is form? Briefly described, form is the organisation, shape or framework for any literary composition, and these forms of literature develop historically. Writers tend to work within the framework of form that they have inherited from previous writers. Form helps shape a writer’s work, supplying an already-evolved framework for him or her to work within and adapt. The expectations we have of form also of course shape an audience’s expectations.

Whilst there are many forms in literature, the three major forms tend to be identified as poetry, plays and novels. These forms have historical roots in the particular societies out of which they grew. Poetry is the oldest literary form, the product of oral prehistoric cultures: a spoken, rhetorical form that developed out of religious and social rituals such as commemorating the heroes and the dead of a community in battle, or celebrating patron gods and goddesses. Drama develops later, first in Europe in classical Greece: there, drama grew out of an extension of public religious rituals and festivals, becoming in democratic Athens a focus for the acting out of ethical and social dilemmas before the public. The modern novel is, by comparison, a very recent invention, emerging in the eighteenth century as a form explicitly concerned with the individual and his or her interior life. While there is a broad debate about what impelled the invention of this remarkable new form, critical opinion generally holds that it developed out of a new emphasis on the individual that ran in parallel with the development of bourgeois Capitalism in the West. The novel, in this sense, can be understood to be an active part of the invention of the individual and individualism in the modern age.

Form, then, is historically derived and grows out of a particular social content: the lives of specific peoples, in specific societies, at different stages of development. These forms remain available for subsequent generations to adopt and adapt.

The Historical Novel

Even the three major forms contain many other forms and subgenres, and these again are historically derived. Let us consider two novel genres: the Gothic novel and the historical novel. In 1814 Sir Walter Scott wrote ‘Waverley’, the novel that is generally accepted to be the first true historical novel. By contrast, Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’, similarly generally accepted to be the first Gothic novel, is a fiction set in medieval times and was written before Scott’s novel, in 1764. Despite the fact that ‘The Castle of Otranto’ is set some time between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, it is not read as a historical novel. Why?

The answer is that Walpole’s novel does not seek to realistically evoke the medieval period; the medieval setting is in fact secondary to Walpole’s interest in creating an appropriately fantastical and beguiling time and location for a supernatural tale of haunted castles and talking skeletons. ‘Waverley’, on the other hand, romantically recreates the lost world of the Scottish highlands at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion, describing in detail the social tumult that accompanied the death of the clan system and the birth of Enlightenment Scotland. It is not that the adventures of Edward Waverley are particularly plausible in ‘Waverley’ that makes this latter a historical novel; it is, rather, the fact these adventures (however unlikely though they be) are rooted in a particular material narrative of Scottish history, without which the story of Edward Waverley could not in any meaningful sense be written.

How might the invention of this genre be said to be historically derived, then? Marxist literary critics such as Georg Lukacs argue that the historical novel is invented at the beginning of the nineteenth century precisely because the French revolution and the triumph of bourgeois society across Europe led to a new consciousness of history as a dynamic narrative, as a story in which there is social rupture and radical political change— a narrative that could be written. The same critics would argue that the Gothic novel stems rather from an earlier secularisation of the West, caused by advancing industrial Capitalism. This secularisation led to English writers expressing a growing fascination with the Catholic ‘Old World’ of Europe as exotic, mysterious, enchanted and grotesque. Indeed, in the more fully industrialised and secularised eras of the Victorian age and beyond, the Gothic has grown increasingly popular as a genre; just as the popularity of the historical novel has continued to grow in the ever-more forward-facing and rootless societies of the industrial West.

Engaging with History

Clearly, ‘A Long, Long Way’ is a historical novel. The book tells a story set over a hundred years before. Moreover, the story is set at the time of two great historical fractures; one in the history of Europe and the world, the other in the history (or rather, histories) of Great Britain and Ireland. The first, of course, is what contemporaries called the Great War; the second, the period of political upheaval during the 1910s and 20s known as the Irish Revolutionary Period. Many critics would argue that the degree to which the novel engages with this history of state violence and revolution will, to some degree or other, determine whether in literary terms it is a successful historical novel.

Yet it may be that Barry has no interest in wars or revolutions at all. It may be that he has chosen, as in fact many historical novelists do, to a present a particular age as a picturesque or interesting backdrop, to create a fascinating setting that adds romance and spice to a tale. One contemporary definition of the historical novel is indeed simply a novel set in the past, after all. Such texts can be fun— the film industry alone makes a lot of money out of them. And indeed, even historical novels that play with historical setting or adapt historical detail to contemporary expectation are not always naïve: it is possible to explore history as one adaptable form of storytelling among others, as a kind of narrative itself (the term for this kind of narrative about other narratives is metanarrative). This can certainly be one kind of engagement with history; though such gaming with narrative will often willfully cleave the reader from a sense of particular time and place within the text. Another name for this state of being cleaved from history, of rootless character and an immersion in a seductive but empty world of objects is Postmodernity, the age in which all of us live, but contemplating that is for another post entirely.

The author’s engagement with history in ‘A Long, Long Way’ could be manifested in any number of ways in the book. The inflection that the narrator gives to this encounter with history will be determined by any number of choices. What is the author interested in exploring? Romantic love? Comradeship? Perhaps a sense of nation or familial belonging? Hatred and betrayal? Trade Union agitation in early Twentieth century Dublin? The violence inherent in European imperialism? The author is not limited to pursuing one of these ideas. Will the story follow the soldier Willie Dunne throughout? Will his character be stationed in Ireland? On the Western Front? In Turkey or Iraq? The story the author wants to tell will engineer and encourage certain encounters with history and exclude others. Will his story reproduce the content of other tales of the First World War? What political or moral lessons will it wittingly or unwittingly propagate?

As readers we need to be sensitive to the presentation of history that we find in ‘A Long Long Way’, and react to it critically. In writing a historical novel, an author makes decisions about a period and the people who live in it, some of which may be conscious, others unexamined. We need to recognise that what we read is the product of certain choices the author has made: it is a construct. Characters, setting, the plotting of events, all are authorial constructions, and to attend to them as such is to refuse an innocent response to the book and to seriously engage with literature as literature. By the same reasoning, as readers, we also need to be self-reflexive in approaching the text, willing to be challenged on our own assumptions about history and what literature should be.

My next post will summarise Chapter One and ask for some first responses to the novel.

Dead Man’s Dump – Isaac Rosenberg

‘Dead Man’s Dump’

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan,
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended–stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you?
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their souls’ sack,
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half-used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘an end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay,
Their sinister faces lie;
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silences.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living word the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break,
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight,
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

NOTES

A soldier going wiring— that is, setting up entanglements of barbed wire in No-Man’s Land— takes limbers (carriages) full of wire across the battlefield. These carriages, pulled by mules, pass near the bodies of the dying and run over the bodies of the unburied dead.

Dead Man’s Dump: Bernard Bergonzi, in ‘Heroes Twilight’, recounts the inspiration for ‘Dead Man’s Dump’ in this way: “Rosenberg described the genesis of this poem in a letter to Edward Marsh, dated 8 May 1917: ‘Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather by carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I don’t think what I’ve written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it Ill make it fine…’”. (sic) (p.113)

“The plunging limbers over the shattered track / Racketed”: In his novel ‘Sixty-Four, Ninety-Four!’ RH Mottram writes of “a string of square boxes on wheels, known as limbers… being drawn with a springless rattle”. In the events described in ‘Dead Man’s Dump’, the limbers are pulled by mules led by the soldier. Here the limbers similarly rattle noisily (note the onomatopoeia of the word “racketed”) as they bump along, “plunging” on the broken track that runs through the battlefield. Rosenberg begins this poem with a detailed, descriptive realism.

“rusty freight”: the limbers contain long spools or coils of rusty barbed wire, for use in defence against German attack.

“Stuck out like many crowns of thorns”: The barbed wire overspills the top of the limbers, their coils resembling the crown placed on Jesus’ head before his crucifixion. The simile recalls this torment, and with a conventional symbolism suggests the suffering inflicted on the common soldier in battle.

“the rusty stakes like sceptres old”: The limbers also carry the metal stakes which are rammed or, corkscrew-like, twisted into the ground to support the barbed wire: these, perhaps, have nub-like heads that remind the poet of “sceptres” (ceremonial staffs held by royalty as a symbol of authority). The contrast implied by the comparing a rusty metal pole with such a prestigious object ironically attributes to the fence-stakes a magical power or authority on the front line, demonstrating their power over men.

“To stay the flood of brutish men / Upon our brothers dear.”: To “stay” here means to stop. Bergonzi interestingly suggests that the image of an old sceptre holding back a flood recalls the “fruitless” actions of the legendary British King Canute (who tried to command the tides of the sea)— suggesting the wire may similarly also fail to hold the tide ( or “flood”) of the dehumanised enemy (“brutish men”) back.

“The wheels lurched over sprawled dead / But pained them not,”: The wheels of the limbers roll over the insensible bodies of the dead in No-Man’s Land. This horrible task, described by Rosenberg unflinchingly (“their bones crunched”), is the horrifying inspiration for the poem.

“They lie there huddled, friend and foeman…”: There is an equality or “kinship” (brotherhood) in death on the battlefield for all these “men born of women”.

“Shells go crying over them / From night till night and now.”: The shrieking sound of the shells that go “crying” over the dead men ironically recall the terrible cries of those who will mourn the dead. The repetition of “night” draws out and slows the following line: the unburied bodies continue to be exposed to the violence of battle.

“Earth has waited for them…”: Earth is personified here as a kind of monstrous goddess, famished and anxious (“fretting”) for the death of the men, “all the time of their growth”. This is a bleak vision of life as a brief time of vigour before inevitable death and decay— before being reclaimed by the dust.

“Now she has them at last!”: the earth has caught the fighting men at the height of their youth and strength (“in the strength of their strength”). Her power is greater than theirs, however, and they are “stopped and held”. Rosenberg also perhaps here suggests the frozen pose of men’s bodies half caught on the wire where they died— “suspended”.

“What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?”: Another typical Rosenberg question, much like the poet’s question to the rat—“What do you see in our eyes?”— in ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’. The phrasing of this question is difficult: It seems to speculate on Earth’s nightmarish obsession with reclaiming or consuming the dead men’s now “dark souls”.

“Earth! Have they gone into you?”: With urgency, the poet addresses Earth herself, desperate to know where the men’s souls have gone.

“…flung on your hard back / Is their soul’s sack”: the men’s bodies are compared to sacks lying on the “hard back” of the ground, “emptied of God-ancestralled essences”. This metaphor suggests that the men’s souls— their “God-ancestralled”, or God-created essences— have left the cheap and heavy material of their bodies.

“Who hurled them out? Who hurled?”: Rosenberg voices the essential horror of this casting out (“hurled”) of the precious soul from the body in the moment of death. Again, Rosenberg is not afraid of reminding us of the terrible lack of meaning that seems to be presented to man by the horror and death of the Western front.

“None saw their spirits’ shadows shake the grass…”: There is almost a sense of wonder at the easy passing of the insubstantial soul, and an easing of the hysteria of the previous lines. Note the softening sibilance of these lines.

When the swift iron burning bee / Drained the wild honey of their youth”: The pastoral imagery here— of a bee drinking honey— suggests the draining of blood from young men by the “swift iron” of bullets. To compare a bullet to a bee works aurally: both ‘buzz’ or ‘zip’ as they fly. The alliteration found in the phrase “burning bee” might also be intended to recall, at some distance, the sound of guns firing.

What of us, who flung on the shrieking pyre…”: The poem turns its attention to the survivors who, bemused and guilty, continue living. A pyre is a pile of wood, burnt during ritual cremations, or as in ancient Celtic ceremonies, to sacrifice the living: here Rosenberg seem to be subverting the notion of sacrifice, transforming its transcendental Christian connotations into horrific images of the burning the living (continuing the metaphor of “burning” from the prior stanza).

Our lucky limbs on ichor fed, / Immortal seeming ever?”: Ichor was the golden blood of the ancient Greek gods (compare the earlier image of “wild honey” running through the veins of the youthful soldiers). This classical reference recalls Homer and verse composed in praise of heroes; though the questioning and irony here— that the surviving soldiers are far from immortal— conveys a sense of bemusement at the men’s survival.

Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us, / A fear may choke in our veins…”: The poet anticipates the burning of the survivors in the conflagration of battle, and this causing death through sheer fear.

The air is loud with death, / The dark air spurts with fire…”: the verse becomes regular at the start of this stanza, using iambic trimeter (“the AIR / is LOUD / with DEATH”). Rosenberg depicts an immediate, apocalyptic scene with an insistent, strident rhythm aided by strong alliteration and assonance: it is the relentlessness of the war that he seeks to convey.

Timelessly now, some minutes past, / These dead strode time with vigorous life…”: the stanza now changes rhythm, the lines lengthening. Time also becomes problematic here: the near past, only “minutes past”, when the men marched ‘in time’, is now gone forever, ended by the shrapnel of shells.

“Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home…”: almost a stab at sentimentality here– the dying men dream of distant home.

“A man’s brains splattered on / a stretcher bearer’s face…”: the open affection of the previous line (“dear things”) is immediately undercut by the grisly realism of a stretcher bearer, his face smeared with gore, attempting to lift the body of a dying man from the battlefield.

“His shook shoulders slipped their load,”: the revulsion the stretcher bearer feels as he realises that the man’s brains are on his face leads to an instinctive, horrified shrug– so that the injured soldier’s body slips from his grasp. The clever sibilance in this line seems to suggest both the bearer’s difficulty with the slick body (which falls from his grasp), and the dying man’s loose hold on life.

“The drowning soul was sunk too deep / For human tenderness”: the man dies. What remains becomes a lifeless thing, pitiful but inert. Note that Rosenberg uses images of drowning in this poem to suggest the moment of death.

“They left this dead with the older dead, / Stretched at the cross roads.”: the stretcher bearers leave the man with a pile of older corpses. The image of leaving the body “at the cross roads” here is haunting, recalling myth— the crossroads are a place for travellers on a journey, and here that journey marks the movement of the men’s spirits to another world. The act of leaving sacrifices at crossroads is especially associated with ancient and pagan myth; Hecate, a powerful Greek goddess of magic, death and rebirth, received dedications there. Rosenberg therefore uses what is known as a ‘liminal’ image, suggesting here an uncertain road from one state to another. In a sense this poem seeks to show that No-Man’s Land is a terrifying ‘liminal’ place, a strip of land where the living and the dead meet: a crossroads between life and death.

“Burnt black by strange decay, / Their sinister faces lie;”: in this hellish image the decomposing bodies— “burnt black” with their “sinister faces”— seem to threaten the living, though they remain inert and motionless, “joined to the great sunken silences” of the non-living.

“Here is one not long dead;”: the soldier’s roving eye alights on a body fresher than the rest. He imagines or recounts the dead man’s last living moments as he hears the “far wheels” of the limber-truck moving towards him. These moments are defined by a grasping confusion as the man clings to life, which Rosenberg suggests by using contradictory, paradoxical phrases and images that subtly undermine their own claim to meaning. So, for example, there is the dying man’s “dark hearing”, which uses colour to describe an aural process of diminishing hearing; a “choked soul”, describing the soul in terms of a strangulated body, reaching out; the wheels of the limber-truck speak “living words”; the dying man’s intelligence is “blood-dazed”; and so on. Cutting through this confusion is the pitiful terror of the man as he waits to be found, “crying through the suspense of the far-torturing wheels”.

“Swift for the end to break, / Or the wheels to break,”: the phrasing here continues to suggest confusion and a desperation to live (what will ultimately “break”? – “the end” or “the wheels”? If “the end” breaks, does that uncertain phrasing mean he shall live or die? Similarly, if “the wheels” break, does that mean an end to the torture of waiting, alone, for death?). This uncertainty is ended by quickly advancing death itself. Rosenberg describes this through an image of drowning beneath a tsunami-like diluvian flood, “the tide of the world”: it is this which finally ‘breaks’ “over his sight”.

“Will they come? Will they ever come?”: the desperation of the dying man reaches its greatest height as he waits for a fellow human being to find him.

“Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules…”: the poem moves towards its grim conclusion; the mules pulling the limber trucks draw close by. The visual perspective of the dying man, lying on the ground looking upwards, “with his tortured upturned sight”, is emphasised in these lines; he sees the mule’s hooves and their twitching (“quivering”) bellies, and the “rushing wheels” of the limbers. The repetition of the words “mixed… mules… mules… mixed” seems significant too, perhaps intended by Rosenberg to suggest the sound of the turning (perhaps squeaking) wheels that greet the soldier as they ride over the ground.

“So we crashed around the bend”: the sense of perspective suddenly shifts back again to the soldier who is out wiring. The adjective “crashed” suggests a clumsiness to the wiring team that is quite removed from the quietly tortured personal drama related just prior.

“We heard his weak scream, / We heard his very last sound…”: the anaphora (that is, the repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of a line) of “We heard his… We heard his…” seems to relate something of the mechanical response of the wiring soldiers to the horror around them as they work, their necessary desensitisation to the carts’ “wheels” grazing a “dead face”. The reader feels immediately the terrible pathos and irony of the moment, Rosenberg having effectively organised the narrative of the poem so that a response of horror or shame is unavoidable. On the other hand, it also seems that it is only by reconstructing and then reflecting on such a grim battlefield scene that the dehumanised battlefield can be made human once more. ’Dead Man’s Dump’ attempts to reclaim the thousands of anonymous deaths that took place in No-Man’s Land back to the world of memory and the living– reclaiming them from the insensible wheels of war that turn throughout the poem.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This long poem is one of the highest regarded of the war. It is also, plainly, one of the most detailed, explicit and therefore brutal accounts of the horror of the First World War. It is so because the reader is taken on tour of the battlefield, fresh with corpses and the cries of dying men, and is told of the necessary numbness of those forced to soldier on. Sassoon’s ‘The Rear-Guard’ (p.177) is another such a poem that uses realism to evoke the sometimes hellish nature of war on the Western Front; Owen’s poetry can work in a similar way, especially ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, ‘Exposure’ and ‘Insensibility’ (pp.188-92). While this poem is, I think, unlikely to some up in Section 1b, it does have many useful points of comparison to other poems that describe man’s inhumanity to man.]

Break of Day in the Trenches – Isaac Rosenberg

‘Break of Day in the Trenches’

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

NOTES

At dawn a sentry standing on duty pulls a poppy from the top of the trench he guards. A rat jumps over his hand. At first amused, the soldier reflects on the animal’s presence on the front line.

Break of Day in the Trenches: Dawn in the trenches was an important part of the soldier’s day: before dawn ‘stand to’ took place, when soldiers would man the fire-step in preparation for an attack. The speaker in this poem seems to be alone at dawn, however, and in a thoughtful or whimsical frame of mind. Rosenberg himself described the poem in a letter to his friend Eddie Marsh as “a poem I wrote in the trenches, which is surely as simple as ordinary talk” (Stallworthy, p.165).

“The darkness crumbles away.”: As the poem begins, the night is ending, and, like the earth at the top of the trench, “crumbles away”. This is a poem that constantly reminds the reader of the presence of earth and dust: from the perspective of the rat who scurries close to the earth among the corpses, to the soldiers who are in constant close proximity to the dirt of the front— in life as in death.

“It is the same old druid Time as ever,”: the druids were the priesthood of the ancient British pagan religion. In his ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, Stallworthy writes that here “we can see the figure of Old Father Time personified as a druid (standing perhaps before a druidic sacrificial altar)” (p.166). Dawn, Stallworthy explains, was the customary time for druidic sacrifice— which, of course, was also often human sacrifice. Yet all this is conveyed with what seems like a light, popular allusion— a reference to the familiar image of Father Time, sickle in hand.

“Only a live thing leaps my hand, / A queer sardonic rat”: A rat appears and runs over the soldier’s hand. The rat is described whimsically: the soldier’s sense of surprise is followed by clear amusement at the animal’s peculiar (“queer”) expression, which suggests a mocking or scornful (“sardonic”) look. The rat is the first of two symbols that Rosenberg uses to subvert the pastoral mode in this poem. In the pastoral nature is idealized and opposed to the corruption of the world of men: a typical example might be Shelley’s ‘To a Syklark’. In ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, on the other hand, it is the much-loathed rat who seems to be contemplating men— as Paul Fussell notes, “perfectly aware of the irony in the… [swapping] of human and animal roles”.

“As I pull the parapet’s poppy / To stick behind my ear”: The second focus of contemplation in the poem is a flower— a poppy growing out of the parapet (that is, the top of the trench wall). The soldier pulls the poppy from the earth and places it behind his ear. The poppy, of course, is a familiar symbol of war: its redness, above all, being associated with the blood of dead soldiers (see my notes for ‘In Flanders Fields’, below). There seems something romantic, amused, even devil-may-care about the soldier’s unsoldierly gesture: more suitable perhaps to the actions of a young boy, or a lover. Note the alliteration here, whose ‘pah-pah-pah-pah’ may suggest the sound of far-off gunfire.

“Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew / Your cosmopolitan sympathies”: The rat seems oddly amused (“droll’). Here the voice of the poem becomes directed towards the rat, addressing him wryly. The rat has more freedom than the soldier who is subject to military laws that forbid fraternisation with the enemy. If the soldier shared the same “cosmopolitan sympathies” as the rat— to be ‘cosmopolitan’ means to be careless of nationality or affiliation when approaching others— then he would be shot.

“Now you have touched this English hand…”: The rat is free to roam, and the soldier seems to take pleasure in its carelessness about Nationality. Remember that Rosenberg hated the war and the army with a particular passion, fighting only for money to help his family. Rosenberg, a working-class, Jewish poet-artist, was doubtless used to being an outsider, due to his class, race and creative inclination. His ironic identification with the hated trench-rat is very much a source of the poem’s power: it allows a kind of grim objectivity regarding human affairs to be expressed in an almost playful, leavened tone.

“Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure / To cross the sleeping green between”: Blake’s Songs are once again referenced here by Rosenberg, as in ‘On Receiving News of the War’. Here the reference to “the sleeping green between” recalls Blake’s poem ‘The Ecchoing Green’ (Blake’s spelling).  Note the easy colloquial tone of the writing here, with its affirmative asides: “…soon, no doubt, if…”.

“It seems you inwardly grin as you pass / Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes”: the rat seems aware of the irony that he, normally the subject to man’s dominion, now wanders freely amongst the bodies of the dead. These are the same idealised, classical bodies that Brooke seems to evoke in ‘Peace’: well-sculpted men of “sharpened power”, now broken in death. Their bodies here, lying in the dirt, seem to figure the end of one ideal of heroic manhood: but perhaps also the collapse of Western civilization.

“Bonds to the whims of murder”: the dead men were tied (“bonds”) to the seemingly  arbitrary commands of those who directed them to ‘murder’— a strong word, this, in connection with soldiering.

“Sprawled in the bowels of the earth, / The torn fields of France.”: the soldier’s corpses are metaphorically described as lying within the earth’s guts; a metaphor that seems extended by the image of France’s ‘torn’ fields, and the sense that the country has been violently eviscerated by the war.

“What do you see in our eyes…?”: the poem now becomes interrogative. This passage particularly recalls William Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. ‘The Tyger’ interrogates how it can be that such a deadly creature as the tiger could be created by a ‘good’ God. The questioning here and the elemental imagery describing battle (“shrieking iron and flame / Hurled through still heavens”) echoes much in Blake’s poem, but most clearly perhaps the apocalyptic fifth verse after the creation of the tiger: “When the stars threw down their spears, / And watered heaven with their tears, / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the lamb make thee?”. The rat is an emblem of death, like the tiger; but the heavier condemnation for both creature’s existence seems to fall on those agents in both poems that allow them to be or flourish— God in Blake’s poem, man’s violence in Rosenberg’s.

“What quaver— what heart aghast?”: Again, Blakean syntax here (that is, the line is constructed in such a way that it recalls William Blake’s writing). Does the rat see fear (a “quaver”) in men’s eyes? Or perhaps the rat sees terror (“heart aghast”) within?

“Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins / Drop, and are ever dropping;”: the poem concludes with a clever return to the flower which the soldier picked from the parapet at the poem’s beginning. The reference to poppies “roots” which are “in man’s veins” is a return to the old notion that poppies flourished whilst growing on the blood of dead soldiers. Like the poppy that the soldier in the poem picked (thus killing it), these poppies continually “drop”: like the dead soldiers who nourish them.

“But mine in my ear is safe— just a little white with the dust.”: for a little while, the poppy behind the soldier’s ear is safe, declares the soldier. There is an irony to this, however: the poppy plucked from the earth is now dying. The whitening of the dust seems to signify the beginning of this journey towards death. The soldier’s observation seems aware of the irony:  that man’s actions mean that safety is unlikely— that the “dropping” of another poppy is at best delayed for the short while this dawn scene lasts.

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This poem is one of the most richly associative in the whole anthology: Jon Stallworthy has himself written that this is one of his favourite First World War poems. It straddles many areas of interest for students: it plays with the pastoral mode; it subverts symbols conventionally associated with the war (rats and poppies); it does so in a realistic way, giving a strong flavour of everyday life for soldiers in the trenches; it contains its own implied critique of the classical, ‘heroic’, muscular values prevalent before the war; and it has strong mythic overtones. It is indeed one of the great masterpieces of First World War poetry, and expresses the momentary pleasures and everyday horror of the war without sentimentality. I always feel that ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’ is a key poem in Stallworthy’s anthology; it is a poem that can be linked to many of the other poems in the collection, both good and bad.]