Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Ovus’, and photograph of Walter Benjamin
With the centenary of the onset of World War One approaching (as we are reminded daily), I’m thinking a great deal and reading about the war. Michael Gove knows what he is doing when he sets his sights on ‘left-wing academics … happy to feed myths’ about the war. I’m from the generation that came to maturity half a century after the war had ended – a generation for whom the Great War seemed as relevant as the war then raging in Vietnam. What Gove is attempting to do is refashion the collective memory of the war and its interpretation so that it can be read as being simply about (in his words) ‘patriotism, honour and courage’.
But for a great many of those who experienced the war – whether painters, poets or the common foot-soldiers who met their end, Blackadder-style, in a fusillade of machine-gun bullets going over the top – the war was endured, with a courage and bravery we can only imagine, as the bloodiest conflagration in human history up to that time: as pointless and horrible carnage. In those four years a great many people ceased to believe in the idea of progress – or in the verities of patriotism and the glory of dying for one’s country.
Walter Benjamin, the German Jewish literary critic and philosopher writing in 1940, gave expression to this sense of historical progress being a cruel illusion in a much-quoted passage. Benjamin, then aged 48, had lived through World War I and its aftermath – economic collapse, failed revolution and the rise of fascism – and saw it as a ‘catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin’.
In 1921, Benjamin had purchased a Paul Klee drawing, The Angel of History. It was his most prized possession and continued to obsess him as the Nazi regime closed in. In 1940, a few months before his death, Benjamin penned a very personal interpretation of the drawing, not obvious to most viewers I would guess, but a powerful statement nonetheless of how the events of the 20th century – world war and Holocaust – shattered the 19th century certainty that history represented human progress:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned towards the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
– Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1940
Benjamin was destined, only months after he had written these words, to become one more lifeless body among the millions of those lost in the catastrophe of the 20th century. In 1940, seized by the fascist authorities in Spain as he attempted to escape across the Pyrenees from France, he committed suicide.
Spencer Gore, From a Window in Cambrian Road, Richmond, 1913
For this post, I thought I would offer a sequence of poems in which the authors give voice to their premonition of impending conflagration, or of the onset of war marking a turning point, a catastrophe that would transform everything. Beginning with an extract from TS Eliot’s Preludes, written in 1910-11:
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.
And then the lighting of the lamps.
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.
‘Prophecy’ was written by the German Expressionist poet Alfred Lichtenstein in 1913:
A death-storm from the distant north.
Stink of corpses everywhere,
Mass assassins marching forth.The lump of sky in dark eclipse,
Storm-death lifts his clawpaws first.
All the scallywags collapse.
Mimics split and virgins burst.With a crash a stable falls.
Insects vainly duck their heads.
Tumble rolling from their beds.Walls in houses crack and bend.
Fishes rot in every burn.
All things reach a sticky end.
Buses, screeching overturn.
—translated from German by Christopher Middleton
Volunteers queuing in front of a recruitment office in London, 1914
No doubt ‘MCMXIV’, written in 1964 by Phillip Larkin will be anthologised endlessly during this centennial year. It’s a great poem that, filtering impressions from old photographs and newsreels, has almost single-handedly come to define our image of those August days in 1914:
Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;
And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day—
And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;
Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.
The mood of enthusiastic patriotism swept across Europe, and it was during those days that Alfred Lichtenstein wrote ‘Leaving for the Front’ with its deep sense of foreboding:
Before I die I must just find this rhyme.
Be quiet, my friends, and do not waste my time.
We’re marching off in company with death.
I only wish my girl would hold her breath.
There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m glad to leave.
Now mother’s crying too. There’s no reprieve.
And now look how the sun’s begun to set.
A nice mass-grave is all that I shall get.
Once more the good old sunset’s glowing red.
In thirteen days I’ll probably be dead.
The poem was penned on 7 August 1914: seven weeks later Lichtenstein was dead.
German soldiers on the way to the front in 1914
Tom Paulin has suggested that Ted Hughes, born in 1930, belonged to ‘that slightly different species’ – a generation ‘who took in the blood of the First World War with their mother’s milk, and who up to their middle age knew Britain only as a country always at war, or inwardly expecting and preparing for war.’
Hughes’s father had come through the First World War, psychologically scarred by his ordeal and the trauma of witnessing the slaughter of nearly all his friends and fellow soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915. He was one of just two per cent of his regiment to survive. Hughes’ poem ‘Six Young Men’ articulates a sense of the futility of war, but also of mortality in general: one day all that will be left of us will be a face in a photograph.
The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.
All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed; From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.
This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s-land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.
Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.
That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.
George Grosz, Explosion, 1917
Yvan Goll was a German citizen with Jewish antecedents, born in 1891 in Alsace-Lorraine – the borderland disputed between France and Germany. His wandering life as an exile was to reflect the turmoil in Europe in the first half of the century. Goll identified himself with the new wave of German expressionism that flourished in Berlin before the First World War. Like Kathe Kollwitz, he was a socialist pacifist and in 1914, to escape conscription into the German army, he took refuge in Switzerland. There he published poems and articles critical of the war – including, in 1915, ‘Requiem for the Dead of Europe’. In 1939, to escape Nazi persecution, he emigrated to the USA, where he continued to write. In 1947, dying from leukaemia, he returned to Paris. Despite sixteen poets from countries across the world giving him their blood, he died there in February 1950.
Let me lament the exodus of so many men from their time;
Let me lament the women whose warbling hearts now scream;
Every lament let me note and add to the list,
When young widows sit by lamplight mourning for husbands lost;
I hear the blonde-voiced children crying for God their father at bedtime;
On every mantelpiece stand photographs wreathed with ivy, smiling, true to the past;
At every window stand lonely girls whose burning eyes are bright with tears;
In every garden lilies are growing, as though there’s a grave to prepare;
In every street the cars are moving more slowly, as though to a funeral;
In every city of every land you can hear the passing-bell;
In every heart there’s a single plaint,
I hear it more clearly every day.
Paul Nash, Ruined Country. Old battlefield, Vimy, near La Folie wood, 1917
American poet Carl Sandburg, the son of migrants from Sweden, was born in the Mid West, drove a milk wagon and later worked as a bricklayer and a farm labourer on the wheat plains of Kansas. He became an active socialist, involved in working class struggles and the civil rights movement. In 1898, he had volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American War. ‘Grass’ was published in a 1918 collection of Sandburg’s poetry, and is a timeless meditation on war in the ageless voice of nature:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work –
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.
CWR Nevinson, The Harvest of Battle, 1921
‘The Second Coming’ by William Butler Yeats was written after the war was over, in 1919. It gives powerful expression to Benjamin’s later vision of a storm blowing from Paradise, rousing a ‘rough beast’ from slumber – an apocalyptic vision of 20th century horrors yet to come:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight; somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?