Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Easter, 2015.

The shadow of the Great War seems to have lain particularly heavy across these last few months.  Perhaps it will not clear until 2018, and probably we would be sadder and wiser if it did not.  Several things have led me to brood on it: listening to a great deal of English music from that era (Grainger, Quilter and early Howells), my ever-deepening interest in Edwardian poetry, including those who were in fact lumped together as the 'Georgians' (Masefield, W.W. Gibson, Edward Thomas, Bridges, Drinkwater, etc.) and also an awareness of my own age, which a hundred years ago would surely have destined me for the trenches.  All of these - music, poetry and youth - that war wounded, even where it did not stamp them quite out.

Even Easter is darkened, and though I feel reluctant to post the following poem of Edward Thomas, I think there is a duty to read it this year, and indeed to learn it by heart [1]:


The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

These lines need to be read twice at least, because there are at least two phases to the blows with which, one by one, they smite the reader.  The writer and journalist Peter Hitchens has on several occasions written powerfully about this poem, and about how 'it gently takes you by the hand and then suddenly, fiercely makes you weep' [2].  Indeed it does, and in several ways.  For one thing, it seems to rest upon three wholesome English words, 'left', 'should' and 'never', whose plainness seems to rarefy into gleaming rock under the poem's immense weight.  Nevertheless, the poem's full sense is hidden until ruthlessly unveiled by those very last words 'never again'.  

Then even these words let fall a second blow, as modern readers realise with Hitchens that 'No Englishman gathers flowers for his sweethearts in the woods any more. That world is dead. Everyone who lived in it is dead, having had no time to pass on its customs to his sons and daughters' [3].  This poem measures and records the extent of the war's pernicious reach: into the very earth of an English woodland floor and, almost unseen, into the present day.  Most men these days, no doubt along with their girlfriends, would squirm and scoff at the idea of gathering flowers - and at the old music and old verse - and we know they would - and that war is why.

Flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood, Easter, 2015.
Everything in this poem's vision is upside-down and back-to-front, so the unexpected presence of those flowers becomes the proof of the unnatural, indeed inhuman, absence of young men, and an encounter with a clump of flowers begets thoughts of distance, dissipation and death.  It is also worth remembering that the poem was written in Eastertide.  Thomas has not only the ordinary life of ordinary folk in mind; he surely sees a hideous inversion of Easter itself.  Where Mary Magdalene came upon an empty tomb that proclaimed the nearness of the resurrected Christ, Thomas finds a flourishing flower-bed declaring the end of England.  Where Easter was the day of Christianity's birth, was the war the death of Christendom?  

This is Peter Hitchens's view: he gives the Great War as the first point at which Britain, and indeed Europe, ceased as a whole to believe Christianity seriously.  He thinks it 'safe to say that the two great victorious wars of the twentieth century did more damage to my own country than any other single force.  The churches were full before 1914, half-empty after 1919, and three-quarters empty after 1945.  And I would add that, by all but destroying British Christianity, these wars may come to destroy the spirit of the country' [4].  I suppose there is little surprise that the British people as a whole lost their faith afterwards.  I may not praise them for it, but neither do I feel willing to blame them.

And yet, and yet... there is still a faith to uphold; the churches await us still; there is a crucifix in them all; the empty tomb remains; the old question is still asked of us.  It may be that the Great War has so changed the course of history that it will in time bring this country, even Europe, to an end.  This seems likely, for in many ways ours is a dying civilisation, and there is much sorrow in store for those of us who are fond of Britain.  Believers in God, however, must take themselves in hand.  There is plenty of hope in this country still, if sought in the right places, and the Church as a whole is alive and healthy, and forbids us to despair.  And even if all civilisations rise and fall, Easter remains undiminished.  All the sins of men were paid for on the Cross; even the Great War was paid for on the Cross, and Easter triumphs over even the Great War and even all the sins of men.  That is not said glibly by me, but plainly by Christ.  The vision of Easter remains clear, if we can manage, and have the courage, to behold it.  


[1] Thomas, Edward.  Collected Poems. (London, Faber, 2004).  p. 63.  See also 'The Cherry Trees', p. 112.
[4] Hitchens, Peter. The Rage Against God (London: Bloomsbury, 2010). p. 57.

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