How can we begin to deal with the enormity of war? To offer some comfort or hope that doesn't airbrush the experiences of those who lost their lives, but is not so stark that we suffer from 'overload'?
One of the things that makes Owen's poetry so readable and enduring are the beautiful metaphors. In each poem are things we can relate to (sun, snow, fields unsown, summer, wasp and midge, little brambles...) that lead us into scenes that we can only imagine. Whever the reality is too much, we can catch ourselves again in the bittersweet beauty of nature, or enduring human compassion, and read on.
Three of Owen's poems are matched with three german poems, all by poets who were also killed in action during the first war. In each we also find this juxtaposition of nature and war, the mixture of strangeness and familiarity making the contemplation of the circumstances easier to bear.
Move Him into the Sun is the first line of Wilfred Owen's Poem Futility. The soldiers move one of their comrades, who has not woken from sleep on a cold morning, into the sunshine, hoping that its touch will wake him... whispering of fields un-sown.
What passing-bells for these who die as Cattle - so begins Owen's Anthem for Doomed Youth, a sonnet that vividly describes the sounds of the battlefield, asking where the usual rites of passage are - prayers, bells, candles, orisions (meaning funeral prayers). The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells and the stuttering of rifle fire stand in for the usual trappings of mourning on the battlefield itself. Owen answers his own questions in the last section of the poem, describing those at home waiting and watching for news. What candles may be held to speed them all? / Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes /shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes...
Halted against the shade of a last hill is the opening line of Spring Offensive, a poem that describes the warmth and beauty of a summer afternoon. It is in sharp contrast to the battle that is taking place over the crest of the hill, which they must shortly join. When the quiet word comes that they must ready themselves for combat, it is as if they set themselves against the sun itself: like a friend with whom their love is done. They crest the hill and join the battle, but even here nature reaches out to them: and soft sudden [butter]cups opened in thousands for their blood.
The final section of the poem asks why, after all the impossible heroics of battle, no one speaks of those who were lost. This section of the poem is not set to music, because the whole of this work is intended as a response, commemorating specifically those who went under.
More about Wilfred Owen can be found at
Durch die Büsche winden Sterne - Through the bushes wind the stars - is the first line of August Stramm's poem Traum - Dream. Stramm (1864 - 1915) was already an impressionist poet and librettist before the war, and his war poetry is sometimes stark, and can be quite brutal. He plays explicitly with meanings and un-meanings of the german language, which can be generally difficult to translate. In this poem, however, he describes, in quite beautiful words, what is essentially a list of the initial stages of the decomposition of a body. The escape of air and liquids are paired with words meaning breezes and showers, and swelling with words for flowers and winds rising. Tucher reisen - cloths tear has thus a double meaning, and the final line Fallen schrickt in tiefe Nacht stands both for the waking scream from a nightmare, or for the final shriek of the fallen.
Walter Flex’s most famous work The Wanderer between both Worlds reflects his search for meaning in the midst of war. Both in his pre-war nationalism and the later appropriation of his work by the third Reich, he presents an extremely problematic figure. Paradoxically, his book is full of passages about the warmth of nature and sunshine as a sustaining and healing force in between bouts of combat, which form an extraordinarily close parallel to Owen’s text in Spring Offensive. It is for me a stark and poetic example that even in enmity, opposing sides retain a common humanity, regardless of their protestations to the contrary.
In his own words:
“As a volunteer I lay, like a hundred nights before, on the grenade-sown forest floor as a listening post, and gazed with wind-hot eyes into the flickering chiaroscuro of the stormy night, through which restless floodlights wandered over German and French trenches. The showers of the night storm swelled up over me. Strange voices filled the flickering air.
Above helmet and barrel of gun sang and whistled, shrill and plaintive, high above the hostile army lying lurking in the dark, the razor-sharp shrieking of migrating gray geese to the north... The column of our Silesian regiment crossed over from the Bois des Chevaliers to the Bois de Vérines, and the wandering army of wild geese passed ghostly over us all. Without looking at the interlacing lines in the dark, I wrote a few verses on a piece of paper: ... "
In the last verse, Flex writes: Wir seid, wie Ihr, ein graues Heer - we are, like you, a gray army. This is probably intended to be addressed to the geese, but I take it explictly to reflect the similarity of the plight of soldiers on both sides. This line is the reason for the inclusion of this poem in this musical setting. It would also be disingeuous to attempt a survey of the first world war without acknowledging, even to the smallest extent,the excitement and cameraderie that existed in the trenches. Flex describes this heady mix of energy and despair and the rush to the close. He clearly does not expect to survive: Und fahren wir ohne wiederkehr - And we journey without return. The last line again invokes the rushing sound of the geese from the opening: Rausch uns im Herbst eine Amen - Rustle us up in the Autumn an Amen. This Autumn, our Amen is intended for all.
An einen vermißten Freund! - To a missing friend is the title of a poem by Goldfeld who was killed in the war, but about whom nothing more is known, not even his first name. The poem was relatively recently discovered by Peter Appelbaum whilst researching the contribution of Jewish soldiers to WWI. Presciently Goldfeld writes: You have no grave, no cross, but you are missed, whether you lie in a dark thicket, or sunk into the mud, or were slowly killed by an enemy soldier. Where and how and where and... Why? I do not know; death in the forest lies silent. This poem stands as a counterpoint to the others. It moves from loss back towards nature, as the soldier's body is incorporated into the land.
Nun bist du Land, das einst der Ackrer pflügt,
Du bist das Korn, das einst den Wald besiegt.
Du bist das Brot, das einst der Landmann isst,
Du bist die Kraft, wenn wieder Friede ist.
Now you are the land, that once the farmhand ploughed, / you are the corn, that once crowned the fields, / you are the bread, that once the man of the land would eat, / you are the strength, when peace comes again.