The poets and the World War: "The Cenotaph" by Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew (1869 - 1928)
The dilemmas of commemoration and memory of grief are not new and you might only think about epic poems to detect their early expressions in poetry. But staying away from poetry for a while and embracing architecture in our speeches, still today we show sometimes a puzzled face in front of the pieces of architecture built to preserve the memory, symbols of a waste of life that is as much colossal as the lost they try to represent. All countries showed in the aftermath different ways to express the worship of war casualties and this fact is somehow visible in a different architecture, that is the most "public" among the arts or at least the one with a highest "pedagogical" impact and effect on population. A cenotaph for example is a structure built to remind of dead people that are buried elsewhere, basically it's an "empty tomb" (the original Greek word stands exactly for this). We could think about cenotaphs as tombs that evoke the presence of unburied soldiers. In Italy, after World War I, the government led by Mussolini started the construction of several ossari, that are enormous cubical blocks of concrete, often built in panoramic (almost spectacular) areas of a given landscape formerly battlefield. The ossari were erected to preserve the bones ("osso" is the Italian word for "bone") of thousands of soldiers and therefore they are not actually "cenotaphs". When reading today's poem proposal by Charlotte Mary Mew, one of the thoughts that comes to mind is that Italy was not a fervid proponent of World War I cenotaphs in the postwar times. While travelling around Italy, you won't find lots of cenotaphs but more often memorials, monuments, many commemorative plaques and the already mentioned ossari, especially in the northeastern regions. Anyway, this is only collateral thinking coming from reading the poem, even if it's once again the proof of the multiple resources coming from poetry. 

The poem below was first issued in 1919. There is a kind of turning point in the verse that says "It is all young life: it must break some women's hearts to see". The strength of the last part is even surprising. The poem offers the real opportunity to read some lines that put our tranquil beliefs about memory, myths and commemoration under a hard test. Once more, here is the chance to return on this "uncomfortable" poet that committed suicide in 1928 by drinking disinfectant during a treatment for her neurasthenia. Her "thorny" literary legacy probably suffers from being a hinge really in between the Victorian age and the new "modern" era. Even after reading "The Cenotaph", we're almost forced to admit that there is no redemption and no regeneration in spring.


Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;
There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,
Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.
But here, where the watchers by lonely hearths from the 

   thrust of an inward sword have more slowly bled,
We shall build the Cenotaph: Victory, winged, with 

   Peace, winged too, at the column's head.
And over the stairway, at the foot - oh! here, leave 

   desolate, passionate hands to spread
Violets, roses, and laurel with the small sweet twinkling country things
Speaking so wistfully of other Springs
From the little gardens of little places where son or 

   sweetheart was born and bred.
In splendid sleep, with a thousand brothers
                                  To lovers - to mothers
                                  Here, too, lies he:
Under the purple, the green, the red,
It is all young life: it must break some women's hearts to see
Such a brave, gay coverlet to such a bed!
Only, when all is done and said,
God is not mocked and neither are the dead.
For this will stand in our Market-place -
                                   Who'll sell, who'll buy
                                   (Will you or I
Lie each to each with the better grace)?
While looking into every busy whore's and huckster's face
As they drive their bargains, is the Face
Of God: and some young, piteous, murdered face.