Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nations trek from progress, as empty causes devour flames of genius

For doomed youth, Wilfred Owen wrote, there would be flowers formed by ‘the tenderness of patient minds, and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.’

Wilfred Owen: outstanding voice of the First World War
sacrificed to it
On 4 November 1918, with German resistance collapsing in France, French, British and American troops launched a new offensive. Apart from the war historians, nobody very much remembers what that was all about. We remember even less whether it was particularly important or not to force a way across the Sambre canal.

In fact, I have only the vaguest idea where the Sambre canal is. And in a world in which the only German soldiers on French soil are there by invitation, the idea of their fighting with each other for the possession of that obscure waterway strikes me as nothing short of madness. Germany is, after all, the most powerful and wealthiest nation in Europe and we tend to dance to its tune, without a bayonet or a bullet to enforce its will.

But back on that day in November 1918, Second Lieutenant Owen tried to take a group of men across that insignificant canal. He paid for that attempt with his life. A slow dusk came when the drawing-down of the blinds was for the poet himself. One more week and he’d have made it: yes, he died a mere week before the violence stopped in any case.

We were deprived of perhaps the finest war poet of that particularly senseless war. We may have been deprived of an outstanding poet of the peace that followed. A peace shot through with conflict, but of the social rather than the shooting kind, and which quickly degenerated again into renewed military butchery – in a single generation, as the second world war followed the first.

What words might Owen have found to sing that decline?

Poetry, of course, lived on, so that today we can read about ‘raising earthwards our cathedrals of hope’, a longing for this life rather than heaven, a hope that Owen would have recognised. As he would have resonated in sympathy with the idea of raising cathedrals ‘in demand of lives offered on those altars for the cleansing that was done long ago.’ Owen’s life was offered for a cleansing that left the world no less tainted.

Those cathedrals raised earthwards were celebrated by Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian prisoner of conscience who later became a Ghanaian politician and diplomat, but who was at all times a poet.

Kofi Awoonor:
another poet sacrificed to a cause
He died last weekend in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. He died when Islamist militants decided to wreak vengeance against civilians for Kenya’s military engagement against their movement in neighbouring Somalia. He died when armed believers decided to kill or maim at random, sparing only Muslims.

The blinds have come down for him too. Awoonor has been offered like Owen on an altar for a cleansing just as misguided. Owen proclaimed that ‘nations trek from progress’; so it seems do movements sure of their faiths, and one has now claimed his successor.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the imperial dreams of France, Britain, Germany, Russia and America, seemed important enough to sacrifice millions, including a poet of world stature. Today all those concerns are of little moment, but the poems maintain their capacity to move and amaze. How did the world gain by Owen’s death?

A century from now, I wonder whether the points of theological controversy that seem so crucial today, the beliefs that drive some to persecute Muslims, others to kill in the name of Islam, won’t also have lost their burning urgency.

And people will wonder what was served by the deaths of all those innocents in the Westgate mall. Or how the world was made a better place by depriving it of Kofi Awoonor.

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