Recommended Reading: Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

"Enlist" poster by Fred Spear Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-1129

“Enlist” poster by Fred Spear
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WWI Posters, LC-USZC4-1129

This May will mark 100 years since the Lusitania, a Liverpool-bound British passenger liner, was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank off the coast of Ireland, killing nearly 1200 people on board. While the United States did not enter World War I until 1917, when unrestricted submarine warfare and the Zimmerman telegram had finally swayed public opinion against neutrality, the 1915 tragedy was still fresh in American minds, and a century later questions still remain about the sinking.

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake* is the meticulously researched tale of the Lusitania‘s final voyage, focusing on the ship, its passengers, the U-boat that sank it, Woodrow Wilson, and a top-secret British intelligence unit that could have saved the ship.

It’s also a fascinating portrait of 1915 America—its attitudes, tastes, movements, styles of dress, and even writing peculiarities (I was struck by the description of the Arts and Crafts movement, which sounds very similar to the DIY/maker culture that’s floating about today [for parodies, see Portlandia]).

photo (18)Mr. Larson follows several passengers throughout the voyage, including Charles Lauriat, a famous Boston bookseller who was transporting priceless works by Thackeray and Dickens to England; a pair of brothers who joined the Lusitania’s crew at the last minute; Theodate Pope, spiritualist and architect; and families with young children. The Lusitania sailed with an unusual number of children aboard, which makes the account of the torpedoing, sinking, and rescue effort particularly difficult to read, since so many children were killed (of thirty-one infants aboard, only six survived). Some parents were separated from their children, and entire families fell together to the bottom of the sea.

The direct responsibility for this horrible event rests squarely on the shoulders of the U-20’s commander, Walther Schweiger (who had once fired on a marked hospital ship), but Mr. Larson makes the case for other indirect causes of the disaster. A delayed departure, fog, conflicting messages sent to the Lusitania‘s captain, orders that the ship shouldn’t run at top speed—all of these played some role in setting the ship in Schweiger’s path.

And that path was being tracked by British intelligence, though they did not share information with Cunard that could have prevented the sinking—but why? Mr. Larson’s suggestions are intriguing.

The book only falters, in my opinion, in its over-focus on Woodrow Wilson. While Mr. Larson shows how hard Wilson was working to keep the country out of the war (Wilson’s strongly-worded notes to the Kaiser after the sinking were the target of Onion-like satire, and the political parallels with the present day are hard to miss, especially given Wilson’s fondness for golf), I was often taken out of the story’s grip when the book detoured into Wilson’s relationship with Edith Bolling; I felt that story belonged in another book. Wilson’s political maneuverings and diplomatic philosophy could have been more strongly juxtaposed against those of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty when Lusitania sank. I would have liked to see more focus on Churchill, as well.

Dead Wake is well-written and suspenseful, even though the outcome of the sailing is a foregone conclusion. I found it hard to put down, and I’m happy to have had the opportunity to read one of Mr. Larson’s books.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

“Who now shall refill the cup for me?”

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, and Armistice Day and Remembrance Day in other parts of the world; we honor military veterans on this date because the armistice that ended World War I went into effect in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

I thought I’d mark the day by discussing a poem by one of the war poets; as regular readers know, the literature of the Great War is one of my particular areas of interest, though I’ve been delayed  when it comes to my World War I Reading List post (I should have it in time for the centenary of the end of the war . . . ). However, since I’ve talked about Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Rosenberg, and Blunden already this year, I thought I’d detour (though that’s a misleading word) into the work of one of their contemporaries.

"Tolkien 1916". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Tolkien 1916”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Typically pictured as a twinkly-eyed, pipe-smoking scholar,  J.R.R. Tolkien is not often remembered as a veteran, though readers of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit may know that he served during the First World War; he fought in the Battle of the Somme. Most of his comrades were killed after he was sent back to England to recover from an illness; he spent the rest of the war weak and ill, though he served in various garrisons on the home front.

In the preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote, contradicting those who supposed the work was an allegory for the Second World War, that the book was not an allegory, and that in any case the war that shaped him first began in 1914: “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” In 1918 Tolkien was twenty-six.

Here’s a link to Tolkien reading “Namárië,” or Galadriel’s Lament, the poem of the week in honor of Tolkien and all other veterans. He reads the poem in Elvish (Quenya, for those keeping score), and you can read the English version below the video.

If you’d like to read more about Tolkien’s experiences during the First World War and their influence on his writing, reliable sources recommend John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

“Fair she braved War’s gaunt disease”: Edmund Blunden’s “The Festubert Shrine”

As you probably know, World War I began 100 years ago yesterday.

Today, here’s Edmund Blunden’s “The Festubert Shrine,” and old-fashioned sort of poem that features a few arresting images. It’s a glimpse of the war’s destruction of significant local sites, in this case a shrine to Mary in the French village of Festubert. In Festubert, as in many places, buildings that had stood for hundred of years were damaged or destroyed by shelling and shrapnel.

Most of Festubert was rebuilt after the war.

Edmund Blunden survived the war. A prolific poet and critic who became Professor of Poetry at Oxford, he died in 1974. Flanders poppies were laid on his grave.

A Not-Quite Reading List for the Centenary of World War I

All summer long, I’ve wanted to post a World War I reading list, a syllabus, if you will, of literature related to the Great War. Today would be the perfect day to post such a list, since it’s now officially 100 years since the war began.

When my list reached thirty titles, however, it became clear that a long post will have to wait until August. In the meantime, here’s a preview of some of the titles I’ll be talking about.

World War 1 Lit Collage__CarolynOliverIt’s my very first collage (as you can tell, I’m sure). I’m moving into the twenty-first century, Dear Readers.


Robert Graves’s “Recalling War”

Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves survived the war. He went on to become a prolific writer, penning over one hundred books and becoming especially famous for his poetry, translations of classical texts, work on poetic inspiration (The White Goddess) and his novel I, Claudius.  (Seriously, Dear Readers, if you haven’t seen the miniseries based on the novel, go get it. It’s made for binge-watching, and features a plethora of stars: Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, and — my personal favorite — Patrick Stewart. With hair.)

photo (93)Graves is also justly famous for his only autobiography, 1929’s Goodbye to All That, considered by many to be the best memoir that came out of the war. It is, by turns, wry (, dramatic, darkly funny, and elegiac. It’s absolutely worth reading, and I heartily commend it to your attention.

Graves’s poetry about the war is not as well-known as Sassoon’s or Owen’s, but it too rings with the depth of feeling only born out of horrendous experience. In “Recalling War,” Graves borrows Homer’s knack for comparing the brutal business of war to those events common to homely life; in Graves’s poem, the speaker remembers the guns “Nibbling the walls of factory and church / Like a child, piecrust; felling groves of trees / Like a child, dandelions with a switch!” In these lines, Graves reminds us that nothing — church, work, nature itself — remains untouched by war.

“Recalling War” finds the speaker looking back twenty years after the war’s end, wondering, “What, then, was war?” He answers himself,

No mere discord of flags
But an infection of the common sky
That sagged ominously upon the earth
Even when the season was the airiest May.
Down pressed the sky, and we, oppressed, thrust out
Boastful tongue, clenched fist and valiant yard.
Natural infirmities were out of mode,
For Death was young again; patron alone
Of healthy dying, premature fate-spasm.

and later in the poem,

War was return of earth to ugly earth,
War was foundering of sublimities,
Extinction of each happy art and faith
By which the world has still kept head in air,
Protesting logic or protesting love,
Until the unendurable moment struck –
The inward scream, the duty to run mad.

It is a bitter remembrance, and Graves offers us no comfort in the poem’s final lines:

Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall:
A sight to be recalled in elder days
When learnedly the future we devote
To yet more boastful visions of despair.

You can read the full poem at The Legacy Project.

Siegfried Sassoon’s “The General”

Siegfried Sassoon survived World War I and was one of its most famous poets; he was a mentor to Wilfred Owen and friend to Robert Graves (who I’ll be writing about in another post). Sassoon is one of the characters in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the first in a remarkable trilogy of books about the war (and yes, I’ll be writing a Pat Barker post too).

Sassoon was an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, beloved by his men and given the nickname “Mad Jack” for his daring exploits, which often amounted to near-suicide missions.

In 1917, Sassoon sent a three-paragraph letter (which you can read in full here) to his commanding officer and several newspapers (it was read later in Parliament) protesting the war. Here’s the second paragraph:

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

Though he could have been court-martialed for sending the letter, Sassoon was instead declared unfit for duty — thanks to the offices of his friend Robert Graves — and sent to convalesce at Craiglockhart hospital. (This “convalescence” is the subject of Regeneration.)

In 1918, Sassoon published Counter-Attack And Other Poems, a slim volume that includes some of his best work. Like Owen and Rosenberg, Sassoon writes of the grim and grisly sights of war, in poems whose immediacy is driven home by the use of dialogue. He reserves special contempt for those who do not fight themselves — the press, women, generals, even himself, haunted by ghosts in the poem “Sick Leave”:

In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
“When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”

Sassoon decided to return to the front to fight in solidarity with his men, to do his best to protect them from the enemy — even if that enemy was the man supposedly leading them all. Here’s the bitter, nearly-funny poem “The General”:

“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.


You can read the full text of Counter-Attack and Other Poems at Project Gutenberg or Bartleby.

Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches”

One of the undeservedly under-read poets of World War I is Isaac Rosenberg. Like Wilfred Owen, Rosenberg died in 1918, and so the promise of his poetry was cut short along with his life. The many contradictions in his work are perhaps best summarized in a paragraph from The Poetry Foundation’s brief biography:

Isaac Rosenberg may be remembered as a Jewish-English poet, or a poet of war, but his poetry stretches beyond those narrow categories. Since Rosenberg was only twenty-eight when he died, most critics have tended to treat his corpus as a promising but flawed start, and they wonder if he would have become a great poet had he lived. Rosenberg’s status as an English poet is thus still debated: he was a Jewish poet, he was an English poet; he was a war poet, he was a painter-poet; he was a young poet; he was a great poet and a minor poet. In his brief career, Rosenberg created a small selection of poems and a great many questions.

Self-portrait in a Pink Tie, 1914 Isaac Rosenberg Source: Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

Self-portrait in a Pink Tie, 1914
Isaac Rosenberg
Source: Imperial War Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

“Break of Day in the Trenches” is, I think, a masterful poem, and the poem of Rosenberg’s featured today; his other poems aren’t to be missed, though. For example, his bleak humor breaks loose in “Louse Hunting,” and “Dead Man’s Dump” is sheer visceral horror in a poem.

Rosenberg’s speaker/soldier in “Break of Day in the Trenches” is a man who’s in the thick of war, watching the darkness “crumble” into dawn — a dangerous time favored for “going over the top” to attack enemy trenches. The only sign of life in the trenches, besides our speaker, is the “queer sardonic rat” who grazes his hand as he reaches for a poppy on the parapet. In the nightmare world of war, it’s only the rat who can afford “cosmopolitan sympathies” — moving freely (and feeding well) on both sides of no man’s land. The speaker addresses the rat bitterly:

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.

He wonders what the rat sees in the soldiers’ eyes as the mortars and shells fall from the sky, these soldiers who resemble the carefree youths of prewar poetry, or the boys marching in propaganda posters. As if turning from an answer he doesn’t want to hear, the speaker readjusts his focus in the poem’s final lines:

Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—

Just a little white with the dust.

Poppies, associated with sleep and death, are the symbol of this war in particular; people in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand still wear the poppy on Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day as it’s known there, or Veterans Day, as it’s known here (the stars of Harry Potter attended at least one premiere with the red-orange flowers pinned to their clothes), and sometimes for the days in November leading up to the 11th.  You’ll notice here in the United States that around patriotic holidays the VFW hands out “Buddy” poppies in thanks for contributions to its veterans’ assistance programs.

In Europe during the Great War, the red poppy was a weed that grew over battlefields, no man’s land, and near the trenches. In Rosenberg’s poem, these poppies grow out the blood of killed men, perhaps men the speaker has watched die. Like the men, the poppies “Drop, and are ever dropping” — except for the one the speaker has tucked behind his ear, in small act of defiance toward the death that surrounds him. It’s not an uncomplicated gesture; the poppy, plucked, will die, and the dust suggests the inevitable end of humankind: “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, and The Great War

As most of you know, this year marks the centenary of World War I. Although the war did not officially begin until the end of July 1914, its precipitating event — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo — took place on June 28, 1914. To mark the centenary, this June, and for the rest of the summer, I’ll be writing from time to time about the literature of the Great War, since it’s a special interest of mine.

This month, weekly poetry posts will feature poetry of the First World War, and so you’ll notice that the Poetry Concierge will take a brief hiatus, appearing sometimes on Fridays before picking back up in July.

photo (84)Today I’d like to point out two of the war’s most famous poems, Rupert Brooke’s “The Solider” and Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” I am neither the first nor the last to place the two poems side-by-side, but it’s an instructive experience, I think.

Both Brooke and Owen were British soldiers, and both were writing poetry before the war began. Both died during the war. Brooke died in 1915 of an infection following a mosquito bite, before experiencing the horrors of trench warfare. Owen, on the other hand, experienced the full terrors of life and death in the trenches. He was killed on November 4, 1918, and his mother learned of death on Armistice Day, just one week later.

Brooke was a writer of pleasant, light verse; had he lived, it seems unlikely that his work would have surpassed the popularity of his short sonnet sequence 1914, in which “The Soldier” appears. Like John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,” the poem approaches death with sadness, but concludes that death is noble in the service of patriotism. Here are “The Solider”‘s famous opening lines:

If I should die, think only this of me:
      That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.


“Think only this” — not “think about why I died, and others like me.” Such sentiments, of course — though they capture the  pre-war atmosphere with gracious diction and memorable phrasing — are obliterated by poems like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est“. Here are its opening lines:

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.

The juxtaposition of the verse’s formal components with its brutal content is just one part of Owen’s brilliance. The poem describes a gas attack; the speaker is haunted by the vision of the man who couldn’t get his mask on in time. Initially, the speaker is distanced from the dying man thanks to his own gas mask: “Dim through the misty panes and thick green light, / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.” Then, an incredibly well-placed stanza break, and a switch from the past to to the present tense to bring the sense of immediacy, already created by the detailed language, home: “In all my dreams before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.” Drowning without water.

The poem deserves to be read in its entirety, but if you’re squeezed for time, here are its blazing final lines, addressed to the audience — Brooke’s audience — that hasn’t seen war firsthand:

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.

For those of you who cut Latin class from time to time: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, drawn from one of Horace’s odes, means “How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.”