The Mother of Beauty: World War I in Word, Image, and Song

Published below is the text of a talk I will give tomorrow to commemorate the Armistice centenary as part of a series of events entitled “FTCC Remember World War I: 1914-1918.”

“Death is the mother of beauty,” wrote Wallace Stevens, one of the few poets of the Lost Generation who did not actually serve in World War I. “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” wrote John Keats 100 years earlier. These twin ideas are a premise—and a promise—I have had ample opportunities to test over the last three years in my preparations for this very moment. And now we gathered here in this auditorium have another such opportunity: This bugle, so hauntingly played by FTCC student Mynia Hughes, served in the trenches of World War I. Its dents—the scars of battle—cause it to be slightly and poignantly out of tune. Yes, the plaintive notes of “Taps” on that bugle are beautiful to me. So are the poppies whose red splendor inspired Major John McCrae to write the famous “In Flanders Fields” a mere thousand days before he died of pneumonia and meningitis while serving at a Canadian field hospital in France. The poor soil of Flanders was richly fertilized by the nitrogen from explosives, the lime from demolished buildings, and the blood and bones of soldiers who gave their lives there, creating a blanket of scarlet over no-man’s land.  Continue reading

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One Doomed Youth–and 17 Million More

From July to November 1917, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was a shell-shocked second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment; he was suffering from shell shock and was under the care of W. H. R. Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital. There, he became close friends with Siegfried Sassoon, who became his poetic mentor and helped him revise the following poem, one of his most memorable: Continue reading

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Sloganeering: Fake Language Is the Problem–Not Fake News

Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford (courtesy of Shutterstock, 2018)

I have not posted anything on my blog since September 21–over a month ago, my longest dry spell since I began it in May of 2016. Significantly, this hiatus coincides quite neatly with the weeks that have elapsed since the political circus that began on September 27, when Christine Blasey Ford made a public accusation of being sexually assaulted 36 years ago, and ended on October  6, when Brett Michael Kavanaugh was sworn in as the 114th Associate Justice of the United Stated Supreme Court. This coincidence is not accident; in fact, I began and made a few notes for the current post as early as October 5. I suppose I should reveal now that I had even collected plenty of evidence of the point I wanted to make. Unfortunately, it was all on one side–the one I have considered the wrong side for the last 45 years. So I kept looking for more–in vain. Continue reading

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Grammar, Meet God

Michelangelo, “The Creation of Adam” (1508-1512)

Although I care deeply about language and am passionately interested in its origins and characteristics, I have no claims as a linguist. Therefore, what follows comes more from my heart than my head–mostly emotion tempered with a bit of knowledge cobbled together from lifelong interest, a graduate-school class on modern English grammar, and a few quick searches on Google. And I suppose it includes a smattering of faith as well.

Let’s start with nouns. No matter what our level of linguistic expertise, we all have a strong sense of what it is to be a noun. We learned in the third grade that a noun is the name of a person, place, or thing. Then we expanded our understanding of “thing” to include abstract ideas like . . . well, interest and grammar and faith, and even metaphors like heart and head. And we pretty instinctively know how nouns behave, so we are willing to accept the existence of gerunds and infinitives–i.e., that verb forms can actually act in a sentences as nouns. Linguistically, a noun can be the subject of a verb, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition. Syntactically (in English), nouns can occur with definite and indefinite articles and with adjectives. Continue reading

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My Brief Encounter with Erney Krongard

Despite the apparent obscurity of this World War I-era postcard, the charm of its rough sketch of doughboys at the front and the accompanying doggerel prompted me to buy it from eBay along with others more charming still–and of much more historical interest. However, I was even more enchanted by the cryptic message on the reverse:  Continue reading

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Nothing’s Fair

For more than two years, I have been immersed in a project designed to commemorate the centenary of World War I in my freshman composition classes and–this November–across the campus of the community college where I teach. I have already chronicled some results of this venture elsewhere on the blog, so I won’t repeat them here; if you’re interested, you can find the previous posts by typing “World War I” into the search field on the right. However, I will return briefly to the most precious gift I have received during the entire two years–the ability to experience firsthand the horrors of life and death on the Western Front through the books I have read. They have been mostly novels, some written soon after the war by veterans or their contemporaries, an equal number of more recent vintage. Continue reading

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Saying Goodbye to Maggie

Maggie the Waif

On November 1, 2016, a calico cat now known as Kedi (after the movie) gave birth to four kittens. By the beginning of December, even though the calendar had not officially passed the winter solstice, the weather was cold, and she found shelter for her brood in a broken-down Mazda Miata convertible missing its plastic rear window. My husband Pavel, the owner of the car, had become a crazy cat lady soon after we adopted our first cat, Eppie, in 2010. So when he found this family in his car, he brought them inside and put them in a spare room sequestered from our other cats. They were all sniffling and snorting and coughing, so he took them to a veterinarian, who helped them recover. The kittens were three males in tuxedos and a ginger female, who became Maggie. As kittens do, they soon won our hearts. Continue reading

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The English Major and Ford Madox Ford: A Tale of Passion


Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and John Quinn in Paris in November 1923.









The Chemistry Major
At this late date, newly minted Medicare card tucked safely in my wallet, I suppose it’s time to admit, mostly to myself, that I have always been what Pavel calls “An English Major.” He certainly thinks so, with simultaneous admiration and contempt. Notwithstanding three years as a chemistry major with a math-physics minor, 4th prize in the Arizona State Math Contest, possession of the CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics (56th ed.), and calculus class at 7:4o a.m. Monday through Friday my freshman year of college, I imagine “liberal arts” was always written clearly on my forehead; fortunately, it wasn’t written backwards, so I had the excuse of not being able to read it. Daddy certainly knew it when he called me a lazy sow who didn’t know how to do anything but lie around reading all day; I’m sure he said “lay around,” but we’ve established that I’m an English major. And though he thought college for girls was a fool’s errand, he was willing enough to send me off to the University of Arizona (on full scholarship), slide rule in one hand and Look Homeward, Angel in the other, for something as respectable as a career in chemistry. Of course, Puritan that I was and am, I, too, thought that literature majors were rather fluffy and insubstantial even though I was in awe of the insouciance with which Judy Schneider raised her hand in Dr. Robinson’s American literature class, somehow with her elbow still old the desk, and made an offhand remark about, say, Wallace Stevens or William Carlos Williams, as though she had just been to his house for a Sunday afternoon of playing backgammon, drinking Bloody Marys, and reading the New York Times. Continue reading

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Bible Belt Billboards

I am very much aware of the Great Commission. I memorized it in Sunday school when I was about eight years old, at a time when the King James version was still in vogue and children still memorized Bible verses:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Matthew 28:19-20).

However, I drive 120 miles round trip between work and home every day, allowing me ample time to ponder such questions as how best to share the Good News.  In the process, I have come to deplore the manner in which the Great Commission is obeyed on Interstate 95 as it traverses the Bible Belt in rural North Carolina. Continue reading

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Bearing Witness: Reading and Telling the Great War

Midway through the World War I centenary, I decided that I would use that largely unacknowledged anniversary as the theme for my freshman composition class on writing across the curriculum. The students write a literature review about shell shock for the social sciences, a popular-science paper about chemical warfare for the natural sciences, and a literary or film analysis for the humanities. In the process, they learn about trench warfare and trench foot, maconichie stew and rum rations, Kitchener’s Mob and Craiglockhart War Hospital–just a few of the endless bits of trivia about that forgotten war that I myself have learned during my preparations for the course. The smell of lice infesting one’s body and of rotting flesh underfoot. The blazing fields of poppies in Flanders, nourished by the nitrogen and lime of war technology and the blood and bones of the boys who died there. The lines that Wilfred Owen wrote as a preface to the book of poems that remained unpublished until after his death in battle exactly a week before the Armistice: “My subject is War, and the Pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Continue reading

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