Sunday, February 24, 2008

Cold in your bones

After my latest excursion to Harbin (not nearly as cold as the first one 3 years ago, but plenty cold enough when exposed to the penetrating wind), I have been brooding on the effects of prolonged extreme cold, both on the physiology and the emotions. I confess, I do get rather spooked by it (there were several times in the last few days when, after incautiously snapping away with my camera for too long in the biting wind, gloveless or with inadequate gloves, my hands were in so much pain I really thought I might have given myself early-stage frostbite).

Strangely enough, there don't seem to be too many poems about frostbite - apart from the Yukon ballads of Robert Service, perhaps. This, however, is a great poem on the experience of hypothermia: one of Wilfred Owen's somewhat lesser-known First War poems, one of my favourites. There are so many wonderful lines in this: I particularly like "Dawn, massing in the east her melancholy army..."



Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us....
Wearied, we keep awake because the night is silent....
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient....
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
But nothing happens.

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
What are we doing here?

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow....
We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn, massing in the east her melancholy army,
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of gray,
But nothing happens.

Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence,
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause and renew.
We watch them wandering up and down the wind's nonchalance,
But nothing happens.


Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces.
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed -
We turn back to our dying.

Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn,
Nor ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit,
For God's invincible Spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born;
For love of God seems dying.

Tonight, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)


FG said...

The poem is quite something. It chills me.

The British Cowboy said...

Man, you can't post Owen. Or at least not without some warning.

Froog said...

What, "This is a Wilfred Owen poem and it's going to make you feel really cold" isn't enough warning?

The British Cowboy said...

No. There needs to be some kind of link that actively takes me to poetry that will depress me deeply.

Froog said...

I thought I was that link.

Obviously I'm missing my mission. Now I'm depressed.

The British Cowboy said...

And supposedly early stage frost bite can kick in pretty early. I have scars on my arm from being outside in shirt sleeves in Chicago in a windchill of around minus 40F.

Also, I was in Minneapolis just after it went non-smoking indoors. They had a ticker along the bottom of the TV screen warning about the cold which said "Danger - exposed skin will suffer damage in 5 minutes." The guy next to me picked up his packet of smokes and looked at me and say "lucky I can smoke one in 4" and left the bar. They breed them hardy in Minnesota, I tell you.