Carol Ann Duffy
As we prepare for the funeral of Harry Patch, the last British soldier to fight in the First World War, new Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy has marked the occasion with a sombre yet supremely uplifting poem.
Poetry and war have long gone side by side in English literature.
Some of our greatest poets were also soldiers, including of course Wilfred Owen. Drawing inspiration from this link, Last Post recalls lines from his most famous First World War poem Dulce et Decorum est, before moving into more metaphorical territory.
In an exclusive interview, Carol Ann said: “These poets who were also soldiers did not glorify war but responded to it.
“In the 21st century, whether we are women or men, soldiers or non-soldiers, we should all contribute a voice to the tragedy that is war.” She added: “I felt I should also honour that great tradition of poets who were also soldiers. I had been thinking about Afghanistan and trying to enthuse new war poetry among contemporary poets.”
At its core, Last Post imagines what would have happened to those millions of soldiers if time was reversed. If they hadn’t been scythed down but got up, returned to the trenches, to the cafes of rural France and ultimately to homes and loved ones. In essence Carol Ann is saying that this is what would have happened if poets had been in charge not war-mongering empire-builders.
She said: “I imagined the dead of the First World War rewound.
“So, had they not been slaughtered, had a young man not been killed by shrapnel, my poem brings him back to life.
“It ends with the image of a poet putting away his notebook and smiling. In a way it’s an attempt at healing and being at one with the world.
“The poem is a tribute and blessing, even an apology, on behalf of poetry and all poets.”
Her message – as relevant to today as yesterday – is that no one should forget Harry Patch’s contribution or Wilfred Owen’s.
And in the years and decades to come, Carol Ann’s voice will also be heard with a swift relevance.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home –
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now to die and die and die.
Dulce – No – Decorum – No – Pro patria mori.
You walk away.
You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too –
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert –
and light a cigarette.
There”s coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queueing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.
You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly write it backwards,
then it would.
Carol Ann Duffy