For reasons that are not entirely clear even to me, I have been reading and listening to everything I can find about conditions leading up to World War I. I won’t even try to describe the causes; they can’t be tidily summarized.
According to the excellent instructor of a UC-Berkeley course I’m listening to via “iTunes U,” the emergence of Germany as a unified nation— its hundreds* of independent principalities, duchies, kingdoms, electorates, and other sovereign units having been conquered or cowed into submission during the 19th century, ultimately by Prussia under Otto von Bismarck — fractured the delicate “balance of power” in Europe. Unrest in the Balkans, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, and a complicated web of alliances that kept changing, even Europe’s network of railroads — these were factors, too.
Those in power seem to have thought that the war would be over in a matter of months. But no one had ever seen a war like this. Once it started, the politicians and the generals couldn’t figure out how to end it, the instructor says. “Earlier wars were over when either side lost a major battle,” he explains, adding that these “earlier wars” had largely been fought without the dazzling new technology of artillery, chemical weapons, aircraft, and trains… nor had they utilized the trenches that made occupation of enemy-held territory so damnably slow.
The official count of war dead is under 17 million, including 1.5 million murdered during the Ottoman Empire’s campaign of Armenian genocide. Many historians believe that civilian casualties—including those from disease—are higher than reported, however, and estimate that nearly 20 million people died as a direct or indirect result of the so-called Great War. The website www.centre-robert-schuman.org reports more than 40 million casualties—”20 million deaths and 21 million wounded. The total number of deaths includes 9.7 million military personnel and about 10 million civilians. The Entente Powers (also known as the Allies) lost about 5.7 million soldiers while the Central Powers lost about 4 million….”
*Prior to 1806, the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation… had included more than 500 independent states. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unification_of_Germany
AS TWENTY MILLION DIED
It wasn’t even hate that made the armies
wait imperiled in the long scar spanning
boundaries, bisecting fields—the long
scar from the mountains to the sea.
Their hearts were far from the artillery,
the lethal gas, the twisted wire— in
Ireland, perhaps, beside the hearth,
a baby on one knee.
It wasn’t hate that made the nations
send their young men off to war, with
rifles and too little more. In parliaments
and palaces were pride and fear enough,
ambition, and this theory and that;
and as they strategized, exchanging futile
plans and making promises in
desperation, as they wagered though
the banks were dry, fate laughed and
damned their schemes and snatched her
human sacrifice. The princes and the
ministers of war stood by, resigned and
horrified by turns, as twenty million died,
and even now, when more than ninety years
have passed, no one is certain why.
Who could have known that it would last
so long? —this lottery of lives begun when
leaders failed to lead or to inspire and
armies marched despondently to where
the trains were leashed, impatient-
seeming, monsters straining with kinetic
energy, to chase each other, iron on
steel, with only minutes’ separation,
greedily devouring miles, as powerful on
the incline as on the plain, speed
unabated till they stopped at last,
expelled their loads, insentient
machines that they had always been,
though they had carried men but left
their hearts behind as if these sons,
these fathers, and these husbands might
thus tend the tidy fields and spend the
evening by the fire — such humble
aspirations, honest work and well-
earned rest, how could they possibly
accept the gray reality that fate,
unsatisfied, and war’s momentum would
determine otherwise? They did what
pawns have always done: Until their
countries were impoverished, until the
money to subsist was gone, they kept on
Many who survived were broken when it
ended (though in truth the giant only
slept); some would heal, some wrote in
poetry and prose of what they’d seen,
what they’d endured, what they had
witnessed of man’s inhumanity to man;
but there were those returning to the
land, if land remained, who never spoke
of it, and no one knows if they believed
that fortune had been kind in keeping
them alive or if, instead — their
comrades missing, maimed, or killed
by what they did not understand
sufficiently to hate— they wanted
nothing but oblivion and would have
gladly shared their fellows’ fate,
to perish in the ruined countryside
and lie amid the final stillness of
the twenty million who had died.
* * *
How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Free E-Course Assignment 37.1
Chapter 11: Living Poetically
Join now! Find details about this free E-course at Lesson 1 …
We’re almost done! This is the final assignment for Chapter 11, and Chapter 12 will be the last chapter.
I recently wrote a sestina for a poetry contest. I thought, why should I have to suffer alone? So I am asking you to write a sestina as well.
It’s a rather demanding form, but it’s a very good exercise for “writing poetry and living poetically,” because, while your left brain is busy putting the puzzle pieces together, your creative, intuitive right brain remains free to romp and frisk.
Below is Wikipedia’s definition of sestina:
A sestina (also, sextina, sestine, or sextain) is a highly structured poem consisting of six six-line stanzas followed by a tercet (called its envoy or tornada), for a total of thirty-nine lines. The same set of six words ends the lines of each of the six-line stanzas, but in a different order each time; if we number the first stanza’s lines 123456, then the words ending the second stanza’s lines appear in the order 615243, then 364125, then 532614, then 451362, and finally 246531. This organization is referred to as retrogradatio cruciata(“retrograde cross”). These six words then appear in the tercet as well, with the tercet’s first line usually containing 1 and 2, its second 3 and 4, and its third 5 and 6 (but other versions exist, described below). English sestinas are usually written in iambic pentameter or another decasyllabic meter. —Wikipedia
Let’s see if I can clarify that a bit.
- Choose six words. We’ll call them A, B, C, D, E, and F.
- Your sestina’s first stanza will have six lines. The first line will end with Word A, the second line will end with Word B, the third line will end with Word C, and so forth.
- You will write five more six-line stanzas. The six lines in each stanza will also end with Word A, Word B, and so forth, but in a different order for each stanza, as specified in the pattern below.
- The seventh stanza will have three lines. All six words will appear in these three lines, as follows: A and B in the first line, C and D in the second line, and E and F in the third line.
Here is the pattern, using the words I chose for my sestina (than, round, day, wide, great, countryside):
Line 1-than (A)
Line 2-round (B)
Line 3-day (C)
Line 4-wide (D)
Line 5-great (E)
Line 6-countryside (F)
Line 7-countryside (F)
Line 8-than (A)
Line 9-great (E)
Line 10-round (B)
Line 11-wide (D)
Line 12-day (C)
Line 13-day (C)
Line 14-countryside (F)
Line 15-wide (D)
Line 16-than (A)
Line 17-round (B)
Line 18-great (E)
Line 19-great (E)
Line 20-day (C)
Line 21-round (B)
Line 22-countryside (F)
Line 23-than (A)
Line 24-wide (D)
Line 25-wide (D)
Line 26-great (E)
Line 27-than (A)
Line 28-day (C)
Line 29-countryside (F)
Line 30-round (B)
Line 31-round (B)
Line 32-wide (D)
Line 33-countryside (F)
Line 34-great (E)
Line 35-day (C)
Line 36-than (A)
Line 37-than (A), round (B)
Line 38-day (C), wide (D)
Line 39-great (E), countryside (F)
…And Then We Shall Return
Now, here is my poem:
Laverne and I like nothing better than
to climb the oaken steps that circle round
and round up to the steeple; to this day
intact with bell and rope, its windows wide
and open in the summer to the great
green quilt of rolling countryside.
And in the autumn, this same countryside
is rusty red with sorghum, riper than
the melons, yellowing upon their great,
thick, ropy stems. The fruit grows round
as basketballs — not striped and lush and wide
like watermelons picked on Labor Day.
We try, Laverne and I, ‘most every day
to mount the steps and view the countryside,
horizon to horizon. On the wide,
wide world beyond, we ponder gaily then,
imagining the wonders of the round,
revolving planet: bustling cities; great
metropolises, great blue seas, and great
the mountain forests we shall see some day,
and then we shall return: The world is round,
our place in it the motley countryside,
in which our twisted roots are deeper than
the sun is high, the stormy seas are wide.
Wide seas, wide roads we do not crave, but wide
green fields of corn and wheat; and harvests, great,
sweet-scented harvests, more abundant than
the ones before. We pray for cool, dry days
so laborers can clear the countryside;
and sometimes, in the evenings, they sit ‘round
a blazing campfire, as the full, bright, round
and heavy harvest moon throws shadows, wide
as haystacks, on the now-still countryside.
Is there, in all the earth, a work as great
and satisfying as a harvest day?
Is there a job more fine and noble than
the farmer’s? More than seasons turning ‘round
the wheel, each day is new-made glory, wide
as seas, great life-bestowing countryside.
* * *
Please send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
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