Saturday, November 11, 2006

Pro Patria

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the guns fell silent on the Western Front and, at least in France, the Great War ended.

Veterans Day, first commemorated in the United States the year after the armistice and made a federal holiday in 1938, was originally called Armistice Day. Last year on this date, I marked the occasion by posting what may have been the most popular poem of that war, "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae. This year, I offer a poem by Owen Seaman entitled "Pro Patria."

The title is based on a line from the Roman poet Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. (It is sweet and proper to die for one's country.)

Pro Patria

England, in this great fight to which you go
Because, where Honour calls you, go you must,
Be glad, whatever comes, at least to know
You have your quarrel just.

Peace was your care; before the nations' bar
Her cause you pleaded and her ends you sought;
But not for her sake, being what you are,
Could you be bribed and bought.

Others may spurn the pledge of land to land,
May with the brute sword stain a gallant past;
But by the seal to which you set your hand,
Thank God, you still stand fast!

Forth, then, to front that peril of the deep
With smiling lips and in your eyes the light,
Steadfast and confident, of those who keep
Their storied scutcheon bright.

And we, whose burden is to watch and wait--
High-hearted ever, strong in faith and prayer,
We ask what offering we may consecrate,
What humble service share.

To steel our souls against the lust of ease;
To find our welfare in the common good;
To hold together, merging all degrees
In one wide brotherhood;

--To teach that he who saves himself is lost;
To bear in silence though our hearts may bleed;
To spend ourselves, and never count the cost,
For others' greater need;--

To go our quiet ways, subdued and sane;
To hush all vulgar clamour of the street;
With level calm to face alike the strain
Of triumph or defeat;--

This be our part, for so we serve you best,
So best confirm their prowess and their pride,
Your warrior sons, to whom in this high test
Our fortunes we confide.

Seaman did not fight in World War I. The poem thus is written from the perspective of one "whose burden [!] is to watch and wait." This, perhaps, is the only way one could write a poem that glorifies World War I the way "Pro Patria" does.

Wilfred Owen, a better poet than Seaman, also wrote a poem based on the line from Horace. But because Owen fought--and died--in the war, his poem, "Dulce et Decorum Est," conveys something very different.

The contrast between these two World War I poems demonstrates the wisdom of Erasmus, who wrote, "Dulce bellum inexpertis."