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Sunday, October 03, 2010

It is good and honourable...

You have to be fair, it is refreshing sometimes to have a government capable of raising the level of political and cultural discourse in this country. In this case, I refer to the discussions that have been sparked off by David Cameron's choice of Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est' for National Poetry Day on Thursday.

The Prime Minister says that this is his favourite poem which, as Harry Ricketts says in the Independent on Sunday is surprising:

He is, after all, Prime Minister of a country involved in a protracted, much-debated war, and Owen's mind- and stomach-churning account of a gas attack hardly underplays the horrors of combat.

Though the most surprising thing for me is that a Conservative might endorse the sentiment that dying for your country is not necessarily good and honourable. How things move on.

Personally, I share Cameron's admiration for Owen, though I would choose another poem as his best, both for its poignancy and the way it embodies the rest of his work. Strange Meeting is, in my view, by far one of the profoundest poems to emerge from the First World War:

'Strange friend,' I said, 'here is no cause to mourn.'
'None,' said that other, 'save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.

However, if I were to choose a poet of that era as my favourite I would have to plump for W.B. Yeats. His An Irish Airman forsees his Death captures the futility of the conflict from a more neutral perspective, whilst his Easter 1916 is a classic:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmer name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.

At the end the poem rises to the eerily prophetic:

And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse--
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That is my nomination for National Poetry Day, a repeat from my October 2005 nomination I note.
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