Our sentimental addiction to "Paths of Glory" — A Remembrance Sunday meditation

Edgell Rickword (1898-1982)
Readings: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

Trench Poets by Edgell Rickword, MC (1898-1982)

I knew a man, he was my chum,
but he grew blacker every day,
and would not brush the flies away,
nor blanch however fierce the hum
of passing shells; I used to read,
to rouse him, random things from Donne —
like ‘Get with child a mandrake-root.’
But you can tell he was far gone,
for he lay gaping, mackerel-eyed,
and stiff, and senseless as a post
even when that old poet cried
‘I long to talk with some old lover's ghost.’

I tried the Elegies one day,
but he, because he heard me say:
‘What needst thou have more covering than a man?’
grinned nastily, and so I knew
the worms had got his brains at last.
There was one thing that I might do
to starve the worms; I racked my head
for healthy things and quoted Maud.
His grin got worse and I could see
he sneered at passion’s purity.
He stank so badly, though we were great chums
I had to leave him; then rats ate his thumbs.

—o0o—

Archilochus (c. 680–c. 645 BC), the soldier and ancient Greek poet who is credited by some with the invention of the Elegy, wrote:

No man dead
Feels his fellows’ praise.
We strive instead,
Alive, for the living’s honour,
And the neglected dead
Can neither honour
Nor glory in praise.

(Fragment 231 trans. Guy Davenport: 7 Greeks, New Directions, 1995 p. 61)

“No dead man feels his fellows’ praise.” Indeed not. Not only this, of course, for no dead man feels any fear at the terrifying sound of passing shells and neither do they feel delight at the poetry of Donne, Gray and Tennyson, something Edgell Rickword found out whilst keeping company with his dead chum in a trench on the Western Front during 1918.

The leaders of nations, neither those of ancient Greece, those who held power during the two World Wars of the twentieth-century, nor our own present day politicians, have ever liked to admit this truth and the picture before you today allows us to see a perfect illustration of this.

In March 1918 an exhibition called “War” was about to open in the Leicester Galleries in London. It proved to be a very popular show.  Due to be included in the exhibition was this painting by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946).

"Paths of Glory" by Christopher R. W. Nevinson (1889-1946)
However, at the beginning of 1918 Nevinson was told by the official censor of paintings and drawings in France, Lieutenant-Colonel A . N. Leethat, that his painting would not be passed for exhibition. Nevinson ignored this but decided to display it but with the addition of a brown strip of paper stuck across it upon which was written a single word, “CENSORED”. For this he was reprimanded, not just for displaying the painting, but for using the word 'Censored' without authorisation.

The painting was entitled "Paths of Glory". The dark irony of these words is, I think, obvious, but the full weight weight and resonance of these particular words, especially when attached to this image, would have been far greater to our early twentieth century forebears than it is for many of us today. Why? Well, as some of you will already know the words come from Thomas Gray’s (1716—1771) once well-known “Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard” — a poem learnt by heart by countless children even into my own day. It was, as you have heard, the second poem that Rickword reads to his rotting chum.

Gray’s poem is a sustained meditation on what he feels he learnt whilst contemplating one night the "rude forefathers of the hamlet" who lay sleeping in their unadorned graves in a village church graveyard. The two stanzas particularly relevant to us today are as follows:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:—
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

Gray sees like so many before and since, that death is the great leveller but he sees more than this. He sees, as did Archilochus, that the dead are not going to be moved by either our praise or honour. As Gray writes in a later stanza:

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

No, they cannot and it is this fact that has been central to my own Remembrance Sunday meditations in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War.

As I have observed the various centenary events so far — including the 888,246 ceramic poppies installed at the Tower of London — I have been left with a nagging feeling that, as moving and powerful as many of these events have been, they are too much about us, the living, and, as such, they are sentimental.

What I mean by this is best expressed by the philosopher Roger Scruton in his book “Culture Counts — Faith and feeling in a world besieged” (Encounter Books, 2007, p. 50) where he observes that:

“Sentimentality . . . is habit-forming. And those to whom it appeals are frequently unaware of its principal characteristic, which is that it is a pretence. Sentimental words and gestures are forms of play-acting: pretending to noble emotions while in fact being motivated in another way. Thus real grief focuses on the object, the person lost and mourned for, while sentimental grief focuses on the subject, the person who grieves, and whose principal concern is to show his fine feelings to the world. Hence, it is a mark of sentimentality that the object becomes hazy, idealised, observed with no real concern for the truth.”

Scruton’s words remind us of the stark truth that lies behind so many of the big public events surrounding the commemoration of the outbreak of World War One, namely, that the dead soldiers themselves become hazy, idealised and observed with no real concern for the truth.

Rickword and Nevinson are important artists because they do not succumb to sentimentality and they bravely and honestly bring  sharply back into focus those dead soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Please don’t mishear me at this point. I’m not here thoughtlessly to dismiss everything about our current public remembrances; nor am I making some hidden argument for a pacifism which is unable properly to honour the dead of war. Not at all, for though I often wish it were otherwise, I feel that old Ecclesiastes’ words remain for us, at least at this very early moment in our species’ development, painfully and depressingly true. There are, alas, still times to kill and times for war. I also find myself thinking that there remain  many significant moral and ethical values that should be defended by us — even unto death, even though exactly when and how this should be done is never simple nor clear. There is also still a time to speak of honour and to praise the war dead for their bravery and sacrifice made on our culture and society’s behalf.

But surely, surely, we must never let all these things that concern us, the living, obscure the real object of our remembering today, namely the dead themselves, the absolutely dead of all our human conflicts and who, as the Kohima Epitaph so powerfully says, gave their todays for our tomorrows.

Rickword’s poem and Nevinson’s painting help here because they are so effective at taking us away from fuzzy sentimental generalities that concern us to real individuals, the real object of our concern. Before us in Gevinson's painting are two of them now.

They have no more today . . .

no more tomorrows . . .

no more feelings of fear, that is true, . . .

but neither have they any more feelings of love and delight . . .

and no more ears to hear of honour, praise or poetry . . .

In referencing Gray, Rickword and Nevinson seem to me to be right in strongly suggesting that the paths of human glory have a disturbing tendency to lead us all too swiftly to the endlessly repetitive realising of the picture before us.

But, what continually disturbs me about so much of our public culture’s remembering is that it still seems to be encouraging us to continue to walk down paths of glory. Sentimental remembering is precisely what helps this state of affairs flourish and continue, and this is why we should be so openly critical of all such remembering.

It is sentimentality that obscures a central fact about war, namely, that it kills real living individuals. Millions upon endless millions of real living individuals. And, though an impressively large number, the 888,246 poppies are but the tiniest fraction of those killed in war. To be truthful to the truth the installation wishes to gesture towards, the sea of red would have to spill unstoppably out of the moat and into every home in the land, the commonwealth and, eventually, into the whole world and the homes of friend and foe alike.

The strange thing is we can only properly approach the truth the poppy installation seeks to reveal when we have courage to reduce these large numbers to ones and twos. Today I have tried to reduce it only to Rickword's chum, and to Nevinson’s two dead soldiers.

But this is a truth that is really still “CENSORED”.

I would venture to suggest that there may be no more fitting a way to remember the bravery and sacrifice of the war dead than for us to build a memorial made out of all the brown strips of paper that have been and still are used to obscure us to the brutal truth of war and to the dangers of our continued sentimental addiction to paths of human glory.

Amen.
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