A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield
This engaging and timely revisiting of the Great War during what is for countless families the centenary of many a great uncle’s death, such as my own in September last, is not the first time this truly visionary poet has illuminated further our understanding of the horrors of war, in which 20,000 from the British Army were slaughtered on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
‘Slaughtered’ is a much abused word, but here it is appropriate because they were, as the diarist Alan Clark contentiously and famously stated, lions led by donkeys to their deaths, ‘on an appalling and unprecedented scale,’ notes Armitage.
As the presenter of The Grear War: An Elegy on BBC television two years ago, Armitage is on terra firma. Then, he wrote seven poignant poems derived from or inspired by correspondence or mementoes of the time, including In Avondale – a mother is informed that five of the eight sons she sent to war will not return – and Considering the Poppy, inspired by a poppy (now faded and glass encased in the British Museum) from the Western Front that a soldier bequeathed to his wife.
Armitage has never failed to be affected by poets like Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves who reflected directly on the horror of war and who drag the reader with them through the barbed wire and mud. It is arguable that Armitage has written more poems about this cataclysmic event than some of the famous Great War poets, such as Francis Ledwidge.
There is too, more so in England than in Ireland, which suffered a political meltdown in its aftermath, a tradition of contemporary poets (Ted Hughes) revisiting and vicariously imagining what these young men must have gone through, a not impossible task thanks to the graphic verse of Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, whose voice, alongside that of A.E. Housman, is discernible in A Poetic Response to Photographs of the Somme Battlefield.
Although A Shropshire Lad was published a decade before the war, it has portents of a great calamity around the corner, and Armitage, and this is my take, weaves Housman’s Romantic pessimism and Virgil’s Georgics to great affect, particularly Virgil’s tendency to offer vivid insights into agriculture and nature.
Armitage’s tone, naturally, is as didactic as Virgil, but the mood is darker, with the realisation that the restoration of life prior to the war, a great Virgilian theme, is unlikely and, in any case, impossible after the apocalyptic onslaught:
‘A time will certainly come in these rich vales
When a ploughman slicing open the soil
Will crunch through rusting spears, or strike
A headless iron helmet with his spade
Or state, wordless, at the harvest of raw bones
He exhumed from the earth’s unmarked grave.’
The backbone to this collection, with aerial photographs which have never before been published, is a road that runs straight as an arrow from the towns of Albert to Bapaume, and which dissected the Battle of the Somme. You sense the weight of incompressibility of the utter wastefulness of life on the poet’s shoulders, but bloody good poems surface, like the bleached bones of young men doomed a century ago.