Remembering well: poetry, pity and truth

By Jill Segger
November 18, 2016

The 2016 season of remembrance is over. But the challenge of how to remember well never leaves us.

The annual disagreements about poppy colour and indeed, about the pressure to wear a poppy of any hue, are done for a while and having kept my written and broadcast contributions on the topic to a minimum this year, I have found a spiritual space in which to reflect upon what the Quaker Testimony to Truth asks of us in relation to remembrance.

Wilfred Owen's words “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity” are well known, and together with silence – its close kin – poetry has guided me to a necessary place of discomfort this year.

It is the instinct of most people to attempt to comfort the anguished. But can that be done by drawing on falsehood? How far may we justifiably go in shielding the bereaved from reality or in helping them to construct a shelter built on sand? Siegfried Sassoon's poem The Hero began to nag at my conscience when I first read it as a teenager. The pain does not diminish as maturity brings a deeper experience of suffering.

'Jack fell as he'd have wished,' the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she'd read.
'The Colonel writes so nicely.' Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. 'We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.' Then her face was bowed.

The real circumstances of Jack's death are concealed by the officer who visits the bereaved mother and the compassion exercised is probably the line most of us would choose to take. But if compassion as 'suffering with' is to be honoured, we need to be sufficiently stern with ourselves to realise both the futility of violence and the pull towards creating ways of thinking that will protect us from facing that abyss of meaninglessness. Once again, it is poetry which cleanses the perception, acknowledging our frailty whilst reminding us of its capacity to delude : ...human kind/Cannot bear very much reality.

This is not just about the physical horrors of violent death. The grieving mother in Sassoon's poem needed to sustain a vision of her son's death as something sanctified by high purpose. So much of the language of remembrance is wrought to this end. The 'giving' of lives; the ennobling 'sacrifice' ; the 'growing not old'. War is failure. It is the failure of politics, of diplomacy, of vision, of “man as a thinking animal”, in John Steinbeck's powerful phrase. And the price of that failure is paid by the combatants who did not grow old because their elders made of them a sacrifice. They did not 'give' their lives, they were robbed of them, in their youth and their valour. We find the reality unconscionable and seek our sanity in platitude – the 'old lie' of Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est.

How are we to deal with this? Who would want to twist the blade in the unimaginable wound? I bring a question, not as yet an answer. But in the silence of Meeting for Worship on Remembrance Sunday, I found a way-post: the Testimony to Peace and the Testimony to Truth are inextricable. Liturgies and rites of remembrance are shaped to draw us away from those desolate landscapes where truth seems too dangerous to be faced – an existential threat which may bring us crashing down in grief and despair. However solemn, well-crafted and impressively executed the familiar rituals may be, they are in danger of being the enemy of peace so long as they serve to gloss the failure and utter waste of war.

On the afternoon of Remembrance Sunday, our Meeting laid a wreath of white poppies at the town's war memorial. The military ceremonial had long finished and the streets were quiet as around 30 of us gathered to read short quotations on peace and the making of peace before remaining a while in silence. Without the displacement activity of pageantry, martial music and uniformed spectacle, we could only stand with our own sorrow and penitence. It is a hard place to inhabit but it is perhaps where we may begin to learn how to remember with honesty and therefore with hope for a better future.

Remember Young Soldier by Wilfred Owen, killed in action one week before the Armistice of 1918:

It is the smile
Faint as a (waning) myth,
Faint, and exceeding small
On a boy's murdered mouth.

Remember the words of a great poet of our own time. Geoffrey Hill, who died only a few weeks ago ...a nation with so many memorials but no memory.

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© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

Keywords:truth | remembrance | poetry
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