’Ware Wire

Following the other day’s post about “Naming of Parts”, I spent a good part of the rest of the day reading poetry from the World Wars. I learned that Henry Reed wrote several war poems, collectively titled Lessons of War, of which “Naming of Parts” was merely the most famous. (The others are also quite good.)

I also learned that when Wilfred Owen dedicated his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” to “a certain Poetess,” the poetess he had in mind was Jessie Pope, who wrote poems in the vein of “’Ware Wire!” (1915):

When the beagles are running like steam,
When the plough is as sticky as glue,
When the scent is an absolute scream,
And there’s wire in the fence to get through—
Who waits to look after his pal?
Hung up?— then he’s out of the fun.
Torn, muddy, and blown, every man on his own—
That’s the time-honoured rule of the run.

There’s wire in the fences of France.
There are bullets that whistle and spit.
The word goes along to advance,
And the wire clutches somebody’s kit.
“Hold hard! I’ll unhook you, old chap.
No hurry. — Oh, rubbish! — What rot!” Shots patter and thud, shells burst in the mud.
“Don’t pull! Now, you’re clear— no, you’re not!’

Well, that’s how the business is done.
A sportsman will brook no delay,
With hounds it’s life and death run,
He’s out for himself all the way.
But when black Eternity gapes
There’s time and there’s patience enough.
A case of ’ware wire, and a pal under fire—
“No hurry”— that’s British-made stuff!

Owen describes the horrors of the trenches in less sanguine terms:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

“Out of the fun,” indeed.

Posted 2018-06-20