Reflections on Peace, Poetry and War

Yearnings to escape the horrors of our worst selves.

The specter of nuclear war has risen again, it haunts our dreams for the first time in decades.  The “end of history” was supposed to have completed that chapter, but of course that evokes our own narrow vision of the world.  For those in the shadow of North Korea and for nations and peoples that fall in range of a seemingly inevitable nuclear Iran, those halcyon peaceful days of the end of history never existed.  Indeed, for all of us, “peace” never lasts, never endures, we all live in the shadows of chaos, war and share the nightmares of human nature and none of us can escape the horrors of our worst selves.

Trying to make logical sense of it is an impossible task, to get into God’s mind, to understand His will and his plans is a temptation that we all have, but it only leads further into a never-ending depressing fall into the abyss.  I will make sense as best I can by leaning on the writers and poets, the ideas and thoughts that speak as visions, and speak to hope.  Hope is indeed a dangerous thing, but hope and faith are all that ties us, tethers us, and anchors us from that endless abyss.

We yearn for peace, but peace is allusive.  Peace in our lives, peace in the world, it has never been, and never will be the norm.  We are blessed to live in a nation that has known peace as we have.  May we continue to be so blessed, though the horizon is darkening, and night is before us. 

The yearning is strong, but again, is so allusive.  William Butler Yeats wrote in his poem “Lake Isle of Innisfree” that “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow”.  Indeed.  Wendall Berry sought answers in his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things” which opens “When despair grows in me”, and “I come into the peace of wild things” closing with “I rest in the grace of the world and am free.”

And peace for the world, we also yearn for it, sometimes we become blinded by its allure.  Infamously British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938 proclaimed we have “Peace for our Time”, yet just a year later the world would become fully engulfed in a war that would kill tens of millions.

Turmoil rakes at our souls and in our minds.  Greed, hatred, conquest and all the great sins rile through us as people and as nations.

Nowhere can we trace the modern yearning for peace more clearly then to horrors of the First World War.  We still live in the shadow of the devastation of that war a war that would mold and set the entirety of us for the next 100 years, a war that would shape our psyche and transformed us in ways that we are still trying to understand and grapple with.

Perhaps the greatest poem of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” laments the tragedy and horrors of the great conflagration of WWI, the war that destroyed Western Christian Civilization and began the downward spiral.  Written in 1922, just four years after the close of the war, Eliot’s modernist poem, would speak in lines such as ‘April is the cruellest month’, ‘A heap of broken images’, “I Had Not Thought Death Had Undone So Many’, and ‘These Fragments I Have Shored Against My Ruins’.

The poem, while describing the fallout and ruin of WWI, falls back and draws on the greatness of our Civilization with references to Shakespeare, Dante all the way back to the Punic Wars.  The great draw of Western Civilization fold into this epic poem on the fall of Christendom.

Just two years before Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” W.B. Yeats also saw the War for the devastation and destruction that it would prove to be in his great poem “The Second Coming”, a partial stanza:

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

WWI shook the world; indeed it ended the world that Europe was.  For WWII was just an extension of the First War, the fall out of which sees the rise of Nazism, Hitler the Holocaust, the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Stalin, the Gulag, the rise of Chinese Communism and Mao, the Khmer Rouge and the coming killing of tens of millions more.  WWII may have ended for America with VJ Day in August of 1945, but for the millions trapped and imprisoned in the countries of Eastern Europe, in the Soviet Union and Communist China and how many other places, it would last for decades more.  WWI’s shadow is very long.  All due to missteps and a needless charge to war.

Again, we can look to poetry to explain just how WWI changed everything in our world.  The war brought about a flourishing of what become known as War Poetry, particularly the poetry of English writers, who captured the fall of that idyllic society, the Victorian age closing, the loss of innocence, the end of European culture and greatness, the slaughter of almost a million men in the horrific trenches of Flanders and France.  Just to recite one poem, from one of the lesser-known War Poets, Ivor Gurney, but it is a poem that captures that fall from grace as well as any:

To His Love

He's gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We'll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.

His body that was so quick
Is not as you
Knew it, on Severn River
Under the blue
Driving our small boat through

You would not know him now…
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side.

Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red we
Thing I must somehow forget.

The despair of that War led many into the arms, indeed into the dreams of utopian fantasies from fascism, Nazims and Communism.  Western Christendom had failed, fallen, and bankrupted itself in the eyes of many, in Europe especially.  How could it have not?

One classic example of that is the great poet, writer and essayist, Ezra Pound.  The brilliant expatriate American writer that helped shape all of 20th century literature, who “made” Eliot’s “The Waste Land” the poem that it became, would then fall into the thrall of fascism.  He became a war time apologist for Mussolini, spewing anti-Western tracts and anti-Semitic bile on radio broadcasts from Italy.  He would end his life, disgraced, from an insane asylum to self-imposed exile in Italy.  His contributions to literature, his brilliance is noted, but dwells in dark shadows.

WWI shook our world, worse, in many ways it destroyed it and our damaged our souls.  We are still living amidst its ruins, the fading beneficiaries of the glory laid down from the centuries previous.  We yearn for that peace daily, to great ends, even a peace that can be more destructive than the chaos we try and escape from. 

What can the poets of the past teach us?  It seems to be peace at all costs.  Many historians have made such accusations of the WWI War Poets, that the horrors of the war led to an overwrought search for peace and later appeasement, a poetry that seemed to only focus on the horrors and senselessness of the war and nothing of the heroics, the cause itself of defeating German militarism, the ultimate sacrifices that were made.  The merits of that war can be argued another time.   But poetry, in of itself is not considered marital, it is often seen as idealistic, romantic, and illusionary, it is not the stuff of Sparta and the conquering hordes upon horses and Viking pillaging and conquest. 

Perhaps, but war is not always just, not always wise.  Poetry speaks for our souls and yearnings and humaneness.  We march to war with parades and drumbeats and tossed flower petals.  The Union ladies set up summer picnics on the hills over the first Battle of Manassas, full of such excited expectations.  Until it wasn’t so exciting, and they had to flee in the face of a Confederate rout.  And then four years of hell and hundreds of thousands of dead.  Can Ivor Gurney be faulted for remembering the Cotswold’s in contrast to four years of trench warfare and true hell?  Is Wendall Berry being too “romantic” to think of the small farmers in their homes over the Kentucky River in relation to the horrors of war?  Maybe we do have something to learn from the poets, all in balance, all in perspective.  Avoid war, always, but also prepare for war.  That is not appeasement.

For our own lives, for our nation and for the world, the struggle to find that peace and to remain free, to not succumb to false hopes and the pull of a false security are warnings that must be heeded.  For at the end of the day, there is only one final peace.  We must remember, there is always hope, there is always faith.  To close, we go to the great 19th Century English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who in “God’s Grandeur” wrote:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Michael Finch is the President and Chief Operating Officer of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His new collection of poetry is Wanderings in Place.

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