Poems from Above the Dreamless Dead

Feb 18, 2018

One of the trench poets of WWI described marching soldiers in this way, "knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge . . . And toward our distant rest began to trudge." Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots.
Credit Ernest Brooks / 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. Let me give an example from the book, this poem by Wilfred Owen, “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

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.

Those last lines, from Horace, translate as, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Owen died in the last year of World War I.

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.”

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.