Birdsong and The Penguin Book

Length: 3387 words

A consistent theme manifested by many of the trench poets was one of detachment which separated those at war from those at home. Although both soldiers and civilians were united in feeling at the start of the war, this patriotism soon faltered as the soldiers realised the truth of war. However, a gulf was created by this detachment, exacerbated by the media’s diluted portrayal of the reality of this experience, causing a potent and impenetrable sense of ignorance in the attitudes pertaining to the war for those who did not witness this truth themselves.

This progression of the evolving gulf is profoundly depicted in both Birdsong and The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, as hatred induced by the war was directed, at times deservingly, to many different parties. The fact that those at home could not comprehend the anguish seen and felt in this war, placed the soldiers and those at home in different worlds.

Owen poignantly stresses how the sacrifice these men made in his poem Apologia Pro Poemate Meo, and furthermore how any sense of compassion directed towards them did not come close to the magnitude of what they have done. The quote itself alludes to how many of the soldiers were detached from those at home, where at first support and empathy may have been welcomed, it was now so insignificant it became a futile effort of trying to connect these two different worlds.

Conceivably the most significant aspect about poetry and literature during the war is the time period in which they were composed, as this knowledge provides basis for critic’s to either expose yet accept a writer’s naivety due to inexperience, or simply criticise their inability to comprehend the reality of the situation. Birdsong, a modern novel written by Sebastian Faulks in 1993, provides a retrospective account of the war experience, which although evidently has the advantage of hindsight, to many critics is less realistic as the author is never directly involved in the war.

Despite this, it is evident the purpose of this novel was to provide a generation which was generally “quite ignorant”1 about war with a more profound insight into the actuality of what occurred and dispel idealistic perceptions which may have already been well embedded in their minds. This focus on warning the future generations may not as effectively capture the altering relationship between the soldiers and those at home; however, many see this detachment from the war as providing an unbiased and somewhat equitable judgment on the views in such an emotionally charged time.

Conversely to this, the aim of Jon Silkin’s anthology, The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry, was more personal, as he endeavoured to define “what I thought was excellent”. Containing various poems written during the war period, Silkin’s anthology imparts a unique perspective of war, proficiently rendering the altering sentiments of those at war and at home throughout this anguished period in which lives where destroyed “not by death but by war”.

The advantage in capturing the changing relationships between those at the front and those at home evidently resides with Silkin, as his anthology manifests the views of individuals who were actually directly involved with the war, which when ordered chronologically reveals a distinct progression, ultimately moving from optimism with undertones of fear, to despondency and engulfing anguish. A profound insight into the initial mood of the nation is imparted by Rupert Brooke’s infamous poem The Soldier, having been composed at a time when war was merely an impending threat.

Although Silkin’s initial aim was to include “poems which were neither diluted nor amerced by patriotism”, he atypically chose to include debatably one of the most patriotic poets of this time. To many critics this was simply an attempt to highlight and expose the naivety which engulfed the nation as they were led into war, Brooke’s title “The Soldier”, indicative of how he believed this generalisation applied to all soldiers, not simply himself. The traditional sonnet structure this poem retains effectively induces the notion of romanticism, which conceivably many soldiers associated with going to war.

Moreover, a potent sense of allegiance to one’s country is manifested by Brooke with the use of pastoral imagery, believing a soldier’s “richer dust” will be “concealed” in the foreign fields for eternity, alluding to how many perceived dying for their country as a noble and rewarding deed. Furthermore a profound maternal role is provided to England, as Brooke illustrates how this country “bore, shaped, made aware” the soldiers. The use of the personification evidently endeavours to inspire vigour in the reader, as if they are in fact defending their own mother.

This notion is re-iterated by Brooke’s clever use of the metaphor in the form of a pun “suns of home”, which although literally may refer to the idyllic vision of home he has rendered, may also be perceived as providing the soldiers with a sense of kin with their country. A sense of religious conviction emanates from the poem as Brooke explicates the reason for fighting, being to restore “An English heaven”, bestowing a virtuous outlook to the war cause.

This expression of a noble, self-sacrificial attitude to war received rapturous welcome throughout England, this poem being seized upon as a vital patriotic boost at a time when the populace was beginning to realise the true horror of the war and was essentially supported and reflected by many of the soldiers. Although many embraced the patriotic optimism presented by Brooke, a vast number saw through this fai?? ade and endeavoured to unearth the true reason for soldiers going to war, none other so notably as Charles Sorley.

Sorley’s reaction to The Soldier, exposing Brooke to be “far too obsessed with his own sacrifice”2, depicts how many felt his generalisation of the soldier being content with this sacrificial deed did not apply to them. This is perhaps why Sorley’s poem When you see millions of the Mouthless dead uncharacteristically possesses a sonnet structure, endeavouring to parody Brooke’s poem, however, this time to expose the reality of war, as evident from the stark imagery such as “gashed heads”.

The overly punctuated form of the poem, with concise phrases such as “Nor tears” and “Nor honour”, while placing emphasis on the futility in mourning for men who’s “blind eyes see not your tears”, also forces the reader to read at a more subdued pace, inducing a solemn and mournful tone. The use of colloquial language as Sorley states how “It is easy to be dead” contradicts the illusions of grandeur many of the soldiers may have retained, as he portrays dying for one’s country as an unimposing task.

The time period in which this poem is extremely significant, having been Sorley’s last poem, written in 1915. Sorley’s involvement and loyalty in the war effort supports his poem as he had first hand experience of the angst of war, whereas Brooke saw very little action and did not even experience trench life to a large extent. The remembrance and sacrificial air that surrounded each individual soldier is disregarded by Sorley, depicting how within “the o’ercrowded mass” perceiving “one face that you loved” is almost an impossible feat, dispelling all romantic notions those at home may have felt.

Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong effectively portrays both of these opposing views as the novel progresses, depicting the evolving gulf between those at the front and those at home, as he allows his characters to return to England on leave after being deeply immersed in the angst of war. To many soldiers “the trenches became home, whilst Britain became the alien environment”3, which is complied with in many scenes throughout Birdsong. As Weir explains, “parents and friends carry on their lives with no care”, much of society unperturbed by war, which is essentially why he feels he cannot continue to live here.

This is reflected by his inability to handle the situation, turning to alcohol at war as well as home, depicting how the two areas were both as equally threatening to the soldiers yet in very different ways. Similarly, Stephen’s return home had brought him no “feeling of affection or deep welcome”, which depicts how war has removed his ability to ever assimilate into his previous life. Stephen’s revelation that “No one in England knows what it’s like” is generated in Owen’s poem Apologia Pro Poemate Meo, as he endeavours to explain the deep-rooted bonds formulated in the depths of war.

Despite this attempt, Owen elucidates how “except you share” this “sorrowful dark of hell” you are unable to comprehend the veracity of war. This typifies how many soldiers felt those at home could not understand what they have been through and in turn did not wish to explain, the gulf therefore evolving further to lack of communication. The variation in genres results in the relationship between those at home and those at the front being depicted in very different ways, yet essentially the sentiments remain constant, conceivably Faulks being influenced by some of the poetry throughout the war period.

Along with Faulks’ advantage of hindsight, he was also able to develop these changing views over the whole of the novel, palpably depicting how views changed as time progressed in the book. The poets, although being directly involved with the war, were limited to only depicting certain events or snapshots of what was occurring. Generally these writers used poetry as a form of catharsis or escapism, as their thoughts leaked out onto the page, it may be hard to relate to one’s contemplations when there is no real insight into the individuals themselves.

This is why many critics believe Faulks may in fact portray the evolving gulf more effectively, as the story soon becomes more than a war novel, the readers becoming well acquainted with the characters and empathising with their plights. This highlights the diverging aims of each form of literature, essentially being attributable to the time of writing, the poets wanting to simply show the reality of their present whereas Faulks wanting to help the modern generation appreciate what happened in the past.

Besides this manifestation of a soldier’s inability to integrate into society, Birdsong depicts the lack of understanding exhibited by those at home. This is highlighted as Weir returns home and endeavours to elucidate how “terrible” the war has been, only to be told that “the papers” have revealed it all, depicting the public’s blind faith in the media. Conceivably this is why Weir directed much of his own hatred “particularly” towards his own family, wishing ” a great bombardment would smash down along Piccadilly”, more importantly depicting how gradually the enemy was changing to those at home.

Although Weir was in an alcohol-induced state at this time, he may in fact be voicing the sentiments of many of the soldiers which they would not voice unless their inhibitions were lowered. Much of Sassoon’s poetry complies with this notion of a changing enemy, as explicated in his disparaging poem The General. Sassoon’s allusion to the general as an “incompetent swine” shows his evident aversion to the politicians and generals who are driving the war effort, endeavouring to both expose and attack their ineptitude as they lead men to their death.

In addition to this, Sassoon shows obvious criticism to women at home through his poem Glory of Women, as he implicates them as the essence of naivety for those at home. Glory of Women, which although initially seems to possess a praising tone as deduced from the title and the sonnet structure, has Sassoon’s prominent sense of sarcasm littered throughout the poem. The animosity towards women is portrayed through the satirical tone of the poem, conceivably relaying the message to all those at home.

Sassoon explains how these women have a romanticised view of war, believing all soldiers to be “heroes”, yet this admiration only extending to those who were “wounded in a mentionable place” and not to those who truly warranted such recognition. The uniquely disjointed structure of the poem, the last three lines portraying the homely image of a “German mother” who’s “dreaming by the fire” is generated, endeavouring to contradict public view of the enemy, emphasising how women don’t have the ability to empathise with their German counterparts.

Many critics perceive the closing image of the German mother “knitting socks” for her son who is already dead as an attempt to shock those at home out of the ignorance they have found peace in. In contradiction to this, the fact that some women wanted to contribute to a greater degree, as witnessed in Nora Bomford’s Drafts, depicts how it was not the women’s choice to be so inadequate.

The realisation that soldiers are going to “God-knows-where”, complies with Sassoon’s notion that women have no idea of what the war is actually like, however, as Nora Bomford was conscious of this fact depicts how not all women believed exactly what they heard in the media. The innocent imagery of a woman “in bed” with “ribbons in” her “nightie” is generated by Bomford, illustrating the ineffectualness that some women felt, perhaps even being frustrated by the fact they were not permitted to participate in the war.

This is re-iterated as Bomford elucidates why such a gulf has been created, being due to “sex, nothing more”, endeavouring to emphasise how women should be given the same opportunity. To many critics, and conceivably Sassoon, this may once again highlight the ignorance of women, as Bomford wants to partake in war, not knowing the anguish and pain that she would experience if this did in fact ever happen. The use of antithesis as Bomford depicts her present condition as “So dreadfully safe! , generates the common sentiment among women and perhaps others at home that they should be helping the soldiers, even if they were to be in life-threatening danger. Wilfred Owen, just as Sorley expressed in his poem When you see millions of the Mouthless dead, saw no honour in death. Smile, Smile, Smile, one of Owen’s later poems, displays acrimony towards those at home, patronising those who claim “They’re happy now, poor things”, just as they belittle the suffering of soldiers with empty pity.

However, Owen was not blindly angry with those at home, directing his criticism to the misleading headlines fed to the public which insinuated the soldiers fought to keep “this nation in integrity”, keeping “the casualties” in “small” print, showing how the truth was in essence hidden. An allusion to the diluted portrayal presented by the media is also seen in Birdsong as Stephen elucidates how “there was no news of war on the front page”, generating the notion that the media endeavoured to draw the public’s eye from the real occurrences of war.

Both these views emphasise how instead of aiding the situation, the diluted portrayal from the media simply resulted in the widening of the gulf to a further extent. Many soldiers felt a potent inability to return home after being immersed in such a life-changing experience, as being at war for such a long period at such an impressionable point in their lives altered their perception of what life meant.

Primarily, upon Weir’s return home he first notices how the “denseness of silence pressed his ears” which depicts the drastic and almost overwhelming change in atmosphere, shifting from constant noise to an “eerie silence” which may have discombobulated many of the soldiers home on leave. Despite Weir’s expectation and anticipation that the “familiar wash of normality would come over him” restoring him “to his old self”, he was left untouched, without “any sense of belonging”.

This poignant revelation portrays how many soldiers could not integrate back into their own past lives, Faulks generating the notion that war has stolen both their present and future within society. Even more significant is the reaction of those at home to returning soldiers being “frightened” by these almost ghost like “passive beings” as rendered by Faulks, typified by Stephen’s leave as he endeavours to find a sense of familiarity amongst the “civilians”. The air of hostility between Stephen and a store clerk during this time exemplifies many soldiers inability to merge back into the normalcy of society.

Although the store clerk dealt with Stephen with a “formal politeness”, his “involuntary recoil” reveals the notion that many of those at home understood the abhorrent conditions these men were in, however, instead of accepting and empathising with this they treated them with discern. As Stephen contemplates what “repelled the man”, believing it may be the smell of “lime or blood or rats”, we perceive how he has been infected by war, unable to recover fully from the paranoia that surrounded his life. Further affects of trench life on the soldiers are exposed through much poetry and literature pertaining to the war.

The drastic physical change common amongst soldiers is perceived in Birdsong, as Isabelle notices how Stephen has “changed almost beyond recognition”, perhaps alluding also to his demeanour as well as appearance. Sassoon similarly describes the effects of war is his poem Repression Of War Experience, however, he emphasises upon the mental and emotional turmoil these men felt rather than the physical. The imperative tone of the poem, as the soldier instructs himself to “Now light your pipe”, generates an internal monologue as a guide to maintain a sane mind after witnessing such abhorrent events.

The degradation of the soldier being left to “listen to the silence”, the use of antithesis showing the contrast from the constant noise of war, depicts the loneliness many soldiers may have felt, which may have in fact been self-inflicted. Similarly, Elizabeth’s discovery in Birdsong that one of her grandfather’s fellow soldiers has been in a nursing home for almost fifty years, not receiving even one visitor typifies how the gulf between those at the front and at home can never be breached.

Sassoon’s attitude to war is manifested with the use of a metaphor, the soldiers being symbolised as “moths” that “scorch their wings with glory”, showing how many received these injuries as they endeavoured to be recognised as heroes in the war, perhaps to please those at home. Towards the end of the poem an irrational tone is generated by the disjointed language the soldier “going crazy”, as even though he is “summering safe at home” the sound of guns “never cease”, portraying the inescapable inner anguish soldiers felt.

The notion that soldiers retain this inner turmoil within themselves is re-iterated by Stephen as he claims “we will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us”, typifying effectively the extent of the gulf and how it can never be repaired. This complexity of feelings towards those at home, and moreover the whole war experience exemplifies the immense mixture of emotions soldier’s felt during this period.

The patriotism that engulfed the country on the brink of conflict deteriorated for those at war and at home by the end of the war, causing many soldiers to redirect their hatred to the war itself, rather than the Germans, the generals or those at home yet still retaining a love of England, often expressed indirectly in reference to nature. From scrutinising both prominent and insightful poetry and literature pertaining to the war, it becomes apparent how not all soldiers resented those at home.

As war induced rage amongst the soldiers, it was at times unthinkingly directed to those at home; however, these aversions were at times warranted. Birdsong depicts the lack of understanding exhibited by those at home, as Faulks endeavours to show the gulf from the perception of a soldier returning home from war. The naivety demonstrated by those at home, showing blind faith in the media and even more significantly endeavouring not to associate with returning soldiers shows how much of this hatred was in fact justified.

Many poets, notably Sassoon and Owen express a similar aversion towards those at home, Sassoon choosing to attack them with the abhorrent images of war he had to endure, whereas Owen generally endeavouring to appeal to their emotions. In essence the feelings felt towards those at home altered gradually, as soldiers became more immersed in war they became detached from their previous lives and those at home, having to concentrate on their present, with no hope of a future.

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