Monday, February 20, 2012

Downton Abbey

If you heard my screams last night, it was because the last installment of the second season of Downton Abbey came to an end. I am not a band wagoner on this, and I've hesitated to even address this officially, but I have found that I must. The story that has warmed my heart now during two wintry Januarys, and this year's February, puts into action all that I've ever learned of the period. And I write now to reveal that it is poetry that introduced me to the drama, not the show's creator, Julian Fellowes.

While in graduate school, I took a wonderful class of Modern Poetry. Several evenings were spent discussing the work of the World War I poets, and it is here that the story unfolds.

First we have Wilfred Owen. A young man, who after having met Siegfried Sassoon (another war poet) during a brief return from the front, returned to the front with a renewed zeal to capture his experiences in verse. He died in France before the Armistice, and his poems were published posthumously. One of my particular favorites of his is the sonnet:

Anthem for a Doomed Youth (1920)

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
       - Only the monstruous anger of the guns.
       Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
       Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
       Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
       The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Typically, sonnets are meant to be beautiful, and I suppose Owen locked up the horrors of the war in the structure of it, an English sonnet (abab cdcd efef gg). The 'Anthem' from the title lends a religious connotation ... a funeral service. The 'passing -bells, ' signal death, by the 'guns' and 'rifles' rapid rattle.' The alliteration of 'rifles' rapid rattle' is hard and fast. The war is loud and frenzied. The prayers, 'orisons,' are 'hasty,' as I would expect them to be in the trenches. No voices are heard except for the 'choirs' of shells, and the 'bugles calling for them from sad shires.' The bugle would play out taps, the angels call, and the 'shires' are the homes that the boys fighting have left behind. The second section of the poem moves to the domestic front. The quiet of the funeral. The 'girls' brows shall be their pall,' the pall being the death cloth/shroud. The 'slow-dusk' is death coming slowly. And the alliteration of 'drawing-down' slows the pace even more so, indicating that death is drawn out in little deaths every day. As one can imagine it to happen in the trenches at the front.

While studying these poems, the professor showed scenes from the film All's Quiet on the Western Front to illustrate the brutality of trench warfare. Downton Abbey also showed in its war episodes the trenches, and the heir to the estate was wounded in a scene very similar to what Owen describes in his poem. At the end of the last episode, Julian Fellowes was shown on set for the war scenes and he even yelled out, 'I want it loud ...'

One of the other story lines in the show is that of the Irish chauffer. He is into politics, in love with one of the daughters, and he has the desire to marry her and move back to Ireland to fight what will become the Irish War of Independence. So of course, I couldn't help but be reminded of Yeats' poem:

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (1919)
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

One thing that wasn't shown in the Downton Abbey's war scenes was airplanes. WWI was the first war where airplanes were used in battle. The average live expectancy of a pilot was three weeks.  Yeats' good friend was fellow Irishwoman, Lady Gregory, and her only son died in WWI, as many only sons died. The title of this poem is very important to understand. It is an 'Irish' airman, not a British one, though he is Irish-Anglo. Let's look at the poem.

The pilot will meet his 'fate,' because he is a flier, and has a life expectancy of three weeks. He does not fight his enemy, 'those that I fight I do not hate.' Nor does he fly to protect Britain, 'those that I guard I do not love.' He says, 'my country is Kiltartan Cross,' which is a small town near Coole, which was one of Lady Gregory's residences in Ireland. His countrymen are 'Kiltartan's poor,' who are the Irish Catholics. He explains that his involvement, his fighting, does not affect them as they have nothing to lose ... it isn't their war either, 'No likely end could bring them loss/ or leave them happier than before.'

So why does he fly? It is not for patriotism, that has been established, 'nor law, nor duty bade me flight; for public men, nor cheering crowds.' Rather, it is 'a lonely impulse of delight.' 'Lonely' is a key here. Yeats is political and he surely sees the Irish-Anglo as being as isolated as the Catholics were in Ireland. The airplane is certainly above the trenches that Owen talks to, so it could be delightful. There's no rapid firing; instead, it is only a 'tumult in the clouds.' He is rather ambiguous as to his role in the war, the 'waste of breathe' repeated demonstrates this feeling. Perhaps in his mind, the only thing that matters is right now, 'in balance with this life, this death.' His end is a balance of life and death, which is actually anyone's at any given moment, I suppose.

And the last poem that comes to mind is T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. And for the sake of my reader's consideration, I will only address several lines, as it has taken me more readings than I can possibly remember to get a handle on this master work. It is a poem that I think of often, probably because it is so challenging, and well, brilliant. While watching the last several episodes, I wasn't really very happy with the story line of Lord Grantham carrying on with the maid when he'd been very in love with his wife all along, but I suppose as Eliot writes, the war ruined what was of England. It had to reinvent itself, and since Madonna wasn't around yet, they didn't know how to do that! Oh goodness, forgive me, we need a little levity as I move through this ....


APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm’ aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,
My cousin’s, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.    (1922)

The poem, as whole, is one of fragments. The title shows that it is not only the 'land' that is a 'waste.' 
By separating the normally compound word, Eliot points this out to the reader. The poem is also a questpoem. The first line of the first section begins, 'April is the cruelest month.' April is the month that the 
pilgrims began their quest to reach Canterbury. To read Eliot, one needs a very strong background in 
the Bible, all literature, and everything else because he makes constant allusions to the past. The man 
dug the past. He also was not English. He was born in America. And his crazy wife? Well, she was 
institutionalized for what we now know to be a hormone imbalance. He wasn't great with the ladies ... he didn't get them. Just read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. And the first lines of this poem.

Eliot continues with 'breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull 
roots with spring rain.' Egads! Sexy, sexy, sexy. But he wants none of it. Spring is universally 
recognized as the symbol of birth and beginnings. It is lustful.The bulbs are pushing up out of the dead ground (England after the war) because that is what nature does. It is painful. And it is wanting. The Earth is reborn, but can England be born again? Eliot would rather forget and writes, 'Winter kept us war, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow, feeding/ A little life with dried tubers.' He likes numb. The worst has passed, let's not move, and have only what we need to survive. The next lines of the poem speak to before the war, childhood memories 'staying at the arch-duke's.' Of course, it was the assassination of said duke that started WWI.

At the end of Season II, we are in this time after the war. Characters have died in the war and others aredead from the outbreak of the Spanish Flu that killed millions of Englishmen. The story has faithfully followed my poetic education, and I look forward to Season III and more evidence of the idea that I have that life is poetry. 

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