There Died a Myriad

Originally posted on the old blog on Memorial Day 2005.

On Memorial Day, I'm always reminded of the poems of war because, perhaps more than any other form of literature, they paint of it a picture that is more real than romantic (except maybe in Tennyson). In particular, I am reminded of the poetry of World War I, because that war seems to have been such a shock to the poet's senses that all of the poems that it inspired express a horror at war. Too often on Memorial Day, and other such days when we are called to remember the sacrafices of veterans, as we should, we glorify not only their sacrafices, but the often unnecessary and always inhuman wars in which they were forced to make them.

Everyone knows "In Flanders Fields" and "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death" (which is one of my favorite poems on any topic), but there are others which I think are equally deserving of widespread recognition. My favorite among them is Ezra Pound's "Ode Pour L'election De Son Sepulchre," of which I'll give you a bit:

These fought in any case,
And some believing,
pro domo, in any case...

Some quick to arm,
some for adventure,
some from fear of weakness,
some from fear of censure,
some for love of slaughter, in imagination,
learning later...
some in fear, learning love of slaughter;

Died some, pro patria,
non "dulce" not "et decor"...
walked eye-deep in hell
believing old men's lies, then unbelieving
came home, home to a lie,
home to many deceits,
home to old lies and new infamy;
usury age-old and age-thick
and liars in public places.

Daring as never before, wastage as never before.
Young blood and high blood,
fair cheeks, and fine bodies;

fortitude as never before

frankness as never before,
disillusions as never told in the old days,
hysterias, trench confessions,
laughter out of dead bellies.

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,

Charm, smiling at the good mouth,
Quick eyes gone under earth's lid,

For two gross of broken statues,
For a few thousand battered books.

That poem references another very good WWI poem, with each of the Latin phrases ("pro domo," for home; "pro patri," for country, and the line, "non 'dulce' not 'et decor," non sweet, not with honor):

"Dulce Et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!---An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,---
my friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

The old Lie, by the way, when translated into English is, "It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country."

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I first read Owen's poem in high school. Brought back some good memories. Thanks!

"all of the poems that it inspired express a horror at war."

That's actually not true, but most people believe it's true so i don't blame you for getting it wrong. There were pro-war poets too - try googling for Jessie Pope, who was much more famous than Wilfred Owen at the time. Maybe there's some scope for psychology experiments about people's perceptions of the First World War. I heard about an experiment in which German children kept repeating the "official" version of what it was like for their grandparents in Nazi Germany, even after their grandparents had told them the very different story of what it was really like. You might find a similar thing with WWI.

Owens poem I heard in junior high..1963 perhaps. I lived then in a college town in California and relatively speaking, a liberal enclave amidst farm country conservatism.

The Pound poem I heard in high school and again, louder I hear the poem by Owen. The local was Reno, a more conservative place but the year was 67 and viet nam had woken many who slept through the 50's. A line or two of it will come to mind with the right conversational cue...those cues come often these days.