monday verse: spring offensive

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Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
Carelessly slept. But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.

Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like an injected drug for their bodies’ pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.

Hour after hour they ponder the warm field—
And the far valley behind, where the buttercup
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.

from Spring Offensive by Wilfred Owen

At first glance, this week’s photograph may not appear to be terribly relevant to the poem, but bear with me.

I recently acquired a copy of this book via the internet. Nine Modern Poets is a collection edited by one E.L. Black, who was apparently the principal of a College of Education near Darlington, and it was first published in 1966. I assume that it was aimed at secondary school students, and indeed a stamp in the back of my second-hand copy indicates that it was previously the property of Small Heath School and Community Centre in Birmingham. I am familiar with the collection because it was one of my ‘O’ Level English Literature set texts in 1986.

The nine poets in question are W.B. Yeats, Wilfred Owen, T.S. Eliot, John Betjeman, W.H. Auden, R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. You may wish to entertain yourself by matching the poet to his photograph on the cover. It’s a real shame that no female poets were considered worthy of inclusion by Mr Black, but I suppose it was 1966, and to be fair it’s not something that occurred to me at the time. However, you have to hope that a collection published for 15 and 16 years-olds today would have a more representative gender balance.

That aside, it’s a really good collection, with short essays introducing each poet and his work, and it was my first exposure to most of these writers. The ones I clearly remember studying are Owen, Betjeman, Larkin and Hughes, but I’ve either forgotten some of the others, or I independently read more from the collection. I’m sure it was reading Refugee Blues and Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love from this book that sparked my interest in Auden, for instance.

Which brings me, somewhat belatedly, to the reason for quoting from Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive. Our English teacher was most insistent that we learn several of the poems by heart, so that we could quote from them in our exams. He actually set this learning as homework, and tested us by having us recite them in class. I probably thought this was a bit of a pain at the time, but I’d definitely like to thank him now. I can still reel off many of the poems I learned from this collection, and I have continued to easily absorb and remember both poems and song lyrics ever since. This clogging of my brain with essentially useless information may explain why I have trouble remembering what I did last week, but that’s another story!

At the time, I was particularly keen on the work of Wilfred Owen. I have chosen these opening lines from Spring Offensive because I love the way Owen introduces hints of foreboding into what would conventionally be a poem celebrating spring, particularly the lines about the brambles clutching and clinging like sorrowing hands. The tone and pace of the poem changes radically in the second half, as you’ll see if you follow the link and read the whole thing.


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