I Saw a Man This Morning

June 15, 2008

I Saw a Man This Morning

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die;
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.

Fair broke the day this morning
Upon the Dardanelles:
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.

But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean Sea;
Shrapnel and high explosives,
Shells and hells for me.

Oh Hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?

Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese;
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days’ peace.

Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knowest, and I know not;
So much the happier am I.

I will go back this morning
From Imbros o’er the sea.
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart

A soldier-poet encounters a paradoxically vivid dead-to-life experience one morning. The man he meets at the start may be another soldier but is more probably himself, caught between a natural question and the answer he cannot provide: do I wish to die? If it is all internal hesitation, then this exteriorisation of a desire to live on is interesting as it serves to bring clarity to the choice of death the poet does not understand fully or whole-heartedly want. Now, with his doubts humanised and so systematically released, he can come to terms with an impending doom that the day will bring. By the poem’s end, he will call on Achilles to come alongside him instead and stir him to more properly heroic non-personal endeavours.

In fact, the line between the mythic and the real blurs as thoroughly here as the line between living and death, the personal and the social. What also merges is the wish to live and to die, the coldness of morning and of death, sea-shells and “Shells and hells”, mythic Helen and the illusory object of war, etc. The echo of “Hell” in “Helen”, like the echo of “shells” in “hells”, stresses this and recovers the root of death in essential desiring. The ambiguity is a means through which one idea is made to lend strength to, buttress, another idea, this testifying in turn to a private weakening of spirit. On this fateful morning, the poet cannot live as strongly the life he needs to face death. As such, he invokes Achilles for grand courage, his giving shape, if not completely substituting, the courage he is not confident of possessing.

Gwee Li Sui

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One Response to “I Saw a Man This Morning”

  1. Hyman Says:

    The reader will certainly discover the backgrounds of these men in addition to life on the trails
    and also villages in the South.


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