Last year I followed a link from Tom Hillman (@alas_not_me) on Twitter to one of his 2017 reflections on war and reading. At the Alas, Not Me blog, Tom consistently writes thoughtful reading reflections and books studies, often connected to J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and other mythic, classically-inclined writers. In 2018, Trevor Brierly wrote a guest post, “When Books Went To War,” which first brought my attention to how deeply important reading was to our trench soldiers of the great 20th-century technological wars. Tom’s thought drew me further into this question, and led me to write “The Poets Behind C.S. Lewis’ Paragraph about WWI, with Wilfred Owen.”
Besides the striking title, “A Head Full of Homer, A Trench Full of Blood,” I found the first thought about the “comradeship of poetry and war” compelling. I hope Tom’s article, which I reproduce in full, is a way to make your Remembrance Day reflection more meaningful. I would also encourage you to read my background pieces, “Marching as to War: C.S. Lewis on His Way to the Front Line” and “The Transformative Power of Memory: Lewis and the World Wars.” #WeRemember
The comradeship of poetry and war is one of the most ancient relationships humanity knows. They have served together on the plains of windy Troy and walked eye deep in the hell of the Somme. Sometimes it is all thrill and glory, sometimes horror and shame, sometimes the hypocrisy of promoting the first and pretending the second doesn’t exist, or worse, doesn’t matter. Having read a lot of Homer and a lot of history, and having been a young fool once held captive by the romance of the Lost Generation, I long ago found myself drawn to the cataclysm of the Great War and the brilliance of its poets. From them I learned, in a way that only illuminated Homer, of the kaleidoscope of terror, disgust, and mad valor that people know in war.
My late brother was in Vietnam. As often happens, he had little to say about it, especially to people like me, who had no clue of what it had been like. Once, though, when we’d both had too much to drink, I asked him if he’d been afraid in battle, and for once he answered. It all happened too fast for fear, he said, when you were in the middle of a firefight; it was beforehand, while waiting, that you were afraid, and afterward, when the things you’d seen and done came home to you. Then he added in one of the most savage voices I’ve ever heard, ‘It wasn’t the fighting that got to you. It was the mud and the come and the scum and the f***ing every-day.’ Years later, when the country began to try to make peace with all the internal turmoil the war had caused and veterans began to have reunions, I asked him whether he was going to his. ‘Tommy,’ he said, ‘I love those guys like brothers, but I never want to see them again.’
So I often read the WWI poets and wonder what it must have been like for them to go off to war, young men with heads full of Homer. Did it defend them, at least at first, from the shattering reality of dismemberment and death? Did it lead to a greater disillusionment if that defense failed? And for those who did not ‘lose the day of their homecoming’, as Homer would have said, what about looking back years later? Did it help them come to an understanding they could live with? And what did it take and what did it mean for them to talk about it? Did the ghosts of who they were have to drink the blood again in order to speak once more, as the shades Odysseus meets in the underworld do (Odyssey XI.100ff, Fagles)?
The war itself has been so often described by those who saw more of it than I that I shall here say little about it. Until the great German attack came in the Spring we had a pretty quiet time. Even then they attacked not us but the Canadians on our right, merely “keeping us quiet” by pouring shells into our line about three a minute all day. I think it was that day I noticed how a greater terror overcomes a less: a mouse that I met (and a poor shivering mouse it was, as I was a poor shivering man) made no attempt to run from me. Through the winter, weariness and water were our chief enemies. I have gone to sleep marching and woken again and found myself marching still. One walked in the trenches in thigh gum boots with water above the knee; one remembers the icy stream welling up inside the boot when you punctured it on concealed barbed wire. Familiarity both with the very old and the very recent dead confirmed that view of corpses which had been formed the moment I saw my dead mother. I came to know and pity and reverence the ordinary man: particularly dear Sergeant Ayres, who was (I suppose) killed by the same shell that wounded me. I was a futile officer (they gave commissions too easily then), a puppet moved about by him, and he turned this ridiculous and painful relation into something beautiful, became to me almost like a father. But for the rest, the war—the frights, the cold, the smell of H.E., the horribly smashed men still moving like half-crushed beetles, the sitting or standing corpses, the landscape of sheer earth without a blade of grass, the boots worn day and night till they seemed to grow to your feet – all this shows rarely and faintly in memory. It is too cut off from the rest of my experience and often seems to have happened to someone else. It is even in a way unimportant. One imaginative moment seems now to matter more than the realities that followed. It was the first bullet I heard—so far from me that it “whined” like a journalist’s or a peacetime poet’s bullet. At that moment there was something not exactly like fear, much less like indifference: a little quavering signal that said, “This is War. This is what Homer wrote about.”
All Lewis’ understatement — a shell every twenty seconds all day is not an attack, the discomfort of the leaking boots — all his nonchalance — the zombielike marching, the parenthetical ‘I suppose’ — all his modest impotence — ‘futile’, ‘puppet’ — can, I think, lead the unwary into misapprehending his final statement. Which is not glib. It all turns upon ‘quavering’: the ‘imaginative moment’ hangs trembling between ‘fear’ and ‘indifference’, but is much closer to fear, an experience he can process only by means of his education. Yet he places War, with a capital W, first, as it came home to him in this moment, and Homer second. The emphasis is on War; Homer is the imaginative tool that was at hand. He’s connecting Homer to the primary reality of War, not War to the secondary reality of Homer.
I would be interested, on a very personal level, to know if this was all Lewis felt as this thought came to him with the ‘whine’ of the first bullet. If I could ask him only one perfectly impudent question, it would be about this moment. For, while I have not been to war, thank God, I once had someone who had been shot lie bleeding in my arms. He was a young man I barely knew who was shot by another young man I barely knew as the result of a profoundly stupid argument. He died not long after we reached the hospital. As I sat in the emergency room and looked at all his blood all over me, I could think only of Lady Macbeth. Even now, just as Lewis says of himself, the rest of my experience that summer evening long ago seems cut off from me, though I can see it all quite clearly in the distance. The blood and Lady Macbeth remain. In that moment, however, I was ashamed of myself. I held this dying boy in my arms and all I could think of was Shakespeare? Now I know better. Now I know that it was the imaginative tool that was at hand.
Did Lewis have such a feeling? I don’t know, but a remark he made several years after the war makes me think he must have done. On 22 April 1923 in a letter to a friend he wrote of the wretched post-war death of a fellow veteran still suffering from his experience:
‘Isn’t it a damned world — and we once thought we could be happy with books and music!’