Britain's Poet Laureate Remembers The Great War

09/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Carol Ann Duffy, Britain's new poet laureate, published a poem last week to commemorate the death of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, two of the last surviving British veterans of the First World War (the men were a whopping 113 and 111 years old, respectively). The effort is Duffy's first official poem as laureate, a dicey proposition given all the negative attention that has recently surrounded the position. Her predecessor, Andrew Motion, couldn't wait to retire from the post, and his uninspired efforts helped spur The Times Online to offer that "The gap between the public poem and the greeting card was closing rapidly."

Given such a climate, Duffy's poem is a surprising success. Not only is "Last Post" accessible, and a fitting tribute to those who served in World War I, but it is also simply a damn good poem with rich imagery, cinematic movement and poignant ending. Here's the full text:

Last Post

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 queuing 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 tell it backwards,
then it would.

The poem, notably, makes a nod to Wilfred Owen, one of Britain's best known (and loved) war poets. Owen, who was killed just a week before World War One ended, broke from the literary tradition of glorifying battle. In a letter home to his mother, he wrote, "All a poet can do today is warn." Duffy quotes Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" (which I've included below) in her epigraph, and plays off of it again at the end of the first stanza." The Latin line, originally from Horace, was well known to Englanders at the time and was used as a sort of propaganda. It translates to "It is sweet and fitting, to die for your native land." The bitter irony with which Owen employs it is as clear as the horrors of war that he so expertly conjures up. Here's the poem in full:

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Poetry can't "truly tell it backwards," as Duffy said. But, as Owen proved so powerfully, it can help take us there, and as Duffy demonstrates, it can help us to remember--together--those who actually were there.