An Only Son - Poems from Above the Dreamless Dead

Mar 23, 2018

The trench poets of WWI depicted the difficult realities of war. Here a soldier's comrades watch him as he sleeps.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

This is Denise Low, a regular contributor to HPPR and 2nd Poet Laureate of Kansas. Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics, edited by Chris Duffy, is one of the selections for this season’s HPPR book club. Today I want to look at some of the fine poems in this illustrated anthology.

Joining of words and images is part of our daily screen-time lives. Poetry, the oldest literature, adapts to these times and still has the ability to gut-punch audience members.

This one has a bit of humor embedded in it, gallow’s humor. It is about a rat in the trenches:

Break of Day in the Trenches by Isaac Rosenberg

 

The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet's poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men's veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust.

How these vivid literary works convey the emotions of this terrible, great war that was supposed to end all wars.

Rudyard Kipling is a more well-known poet represented in Above the Dreamless Dead. I know him from children’s stories, but his verse related to World War I is striking. His two-line poem “The Coward” is an epitaph:

“I could not look on Death, which being known, / Men led me to him blindfold and alone.”

This is from a collection of epitaphs that Kipling wrote about the war. Here is another, not in the book, entitled

“An Only Son”: “I have slain none except my Mother. She / (Blessing her slayer) died of grief for me.”