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Rudyard Kipling’s war poetry, the obligations of Veterans Day, and Gayle McLaughlin.


Stashed in: Writing, Poetry!, Poetry

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Even as Kipling was repressing his doubts about the nature of the war and the death of his only son, there was a sort of revolution of poets at the other end of the country. In a mental hospital in Scotland were confined, because of their opposition to the war and their “battle fatigue,” men of the stature of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. Just contrast what Kipling and Owen wrote. I’ll first cite Kipling:

                                          Our statecraft, our learning,

               Delivered them bound to the pit and alive to the burning

               Whither they mirthfully hastened as jostling for honor.

               Not since her birth has our Earth seen such worth loosed upon her!

               … But who shall return us our children?

Wilfred Owen decided to rework the ancient Bible story of the binding and killing of Isaac by his father Abraham. If you recall, Abraham listened to his god’s instructions and carried them out until the last moment, whereupon an angel called him out of heaven, telling him to “offer the ram of pride instead” of Isaac. In Owen’s poem, the action follows this form until the angel makes an appearance. At this point, old man Abraham turns remorseless:

               But the old man would not so, but slew his son.

               And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

Reading them today, it is surprising how closely the two poems converge. In both cases, fathers grieve in different ways over the slaughter of their sons. They also brood over the paternal responsibility for the bloodletting. This introduces elements of ambiguity into the reflection.

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