Thursday, 25 February 2010

John Allan Wyeth: 'Souilly: Hospital'

The penultimate sonnet of John Allan Wyeth's This Man's Army, quoted below with permission, typifies that poet's brutal candour. Whether in a French brothel, reporting the obliteration of comrades hit by bombs, or hinting at the onset of the flu epidemic at the end of the war, Wyeth writes with a dispassion more troubling than emotional engagement.

This time, however, Wyeth's encounter with some German prisoners-of-war does provoke an unusually personal response. Soldiers of the Great War fought a largely invisible enemy, which meant that direct encounters with prisoners-of-war inspired shock as well as various more predictable feelings of curiosity, disgust, brotherhood, sympathy, pity and anger.

Here is 'Hospital', from the section titled 'Souilly'.


Fever, and crowds---and light that cuts your eyes---
Men waiting in a long slow-shuffling line
with silent private faces, white and bleak.
Long rows of lumpy stretchers on the floor.
My helmet drops---a head jerks up and cries
wide-eyed and settles in a quivering whine.
The air is rank with touching human reek.
A troop of Germans clatters through the door.
They cross our line and something in me dies.
Sullen, detached, obtuse---men into swine---
and hurt unhappy things that walk apart.
Their rancid bodies trail a languid streak
so curious that hate breaks down before
the dull and cruel laughter in my heart.

The first thing I notice is that the poem is astonishingly heavy with adjectives. Count them: 'long slow-shuffling line', 'silent private faces, white and bleak', 'long rows', 'lumpy stretchers', 'cries wide-eyed', 'quivering whine', 'rank with touching human reek', 'Sullen, detached, obtuse', 'hurt unhappy things', 'rancid bodies', 'languid streak', 'so curious', 'dull and cruel laughter'. That is coupled with Wyeth's penchant for sentences lacking an active verb --- he belongs among the most painterly of poets, his eye moving meticulously from scene to scene. (It comes as no surprise to discover that Wyeth was known as an artist in later life.) Here is a poet who wants the precise description, the exact image, and will keep trying until he gets it right. When he does, the effect is unforgettable: 'touching human reek', for example, reanimates the physicality of 'touching' to reverse the word's more usually positive connotations. The 'reek' is so bad that it molests the body.

That assault prepares for the arrival of the German POWs, their own bodies 'hurt' and 'rancid' but their very presence enough to make something in the poet die. It is hate which dies, or which at least 'breaks down', but only to be replaced by a reaction more disturbing: 'the dull and cruel laughter in my heart'. What is the poet laughing at? The absurdity of the war? The absurdity of the Germans' languor? The destruction of any sense of sympathy for the enemy? The fact of the enemy's physical embodiment? Or that their bodies give off an odd smell? This represents --- to use the appropriately German word --- a form of schadenfreude; the dull and cruel laughter is the laughter of the victor over the sullen vanquished. The Germans' presence inspires in the poet something far worse than the simple certainties of hatred.


  1. The opening line stopped me with "fever" and "cuts"; not a very welcoming hospital. Then the chiming yet withholding rhyme scheme in his sonnet: abcd abcd abe cde. Then, as you indicate, several curious words: touching, obtuse, hurt, languid. I detect a sense of kinship amid the gloom, and bitter laughter at the cruel Human Comedy of a battlefield hospital with rival combatants reduced to dull and reeking not-quite-men.