World War I ended on the 11th of November in 1918, one hundred years ago this weekend. The anniversary of that momentous event is something you should certainly recognize this week in your homeschool. We will be marking it several times here in the River Houses — today with our poem-of-the-week for the second week of November, “The Farmer Remembers the Somme” by Australian poet and novelist Vance Palmer (1885–1959).
This is a grown-up poem suitable for high school students (and their parents). The narrator is an ordinary farmer in Australia surrounded by his peaceful pastures, with cows grazing in the sun and friendly old neighbors laughing — but in his mind’s eye all he can ever see is the wasteland of the Somme battlefield he had fought in years before.
The Farmer Remembers the Somme
Will they never fade or pass!
The mud, and the misty figures endlessly coming
In file through the foul morass,
And the grey flood-water ripping the reeds and grass,
And the steel wings drumming.
The hills are bright in the sun:
There’s nothing changed or marred in the well-known places;
When work for the day is done
There’s talk, and quiet laughter, and gleams of fun
On the old folks’ faces.
I have returned to these:
The farm, and the kindly Bush, and the young calves lowing;
But all that my mind sees
Is a quaking bog in a mist — stark, snapped trees,
And the dark Somme flowing.
The Battle of the Somme from July to November 1916 was one of the deadliest battles in world history, with more than a million casualties. It completely devastated the landscape of the Somme River valley in France, and it established the pattern of vicious trench warfare that continued for two more years.
Another great writer who was a veteran of the Battle of the Somme was J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973), author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. If you want a comparative exercise to help your students think about Palmer’s poem, you can’t do better than to review the scene in The Lord of the Rings where the young protagonist Frodo passes through the Dead Marshes — a scene that Tolkien constructed from his memories of the Somme. Here is the startling film version of the scene — “a quaking bog in a mist” — as realized by director Peter Jackson:
Warfare scars the land, and it often scars the minds of those who experience it. Something to remember on this anniversary weekend.
What discoveries in literary history have you made in your homeschool this week?
❡ And the dark Somme flowing: If a special line or turn of phrase happens to strike you in one of our weekly poems, just copy it onto your homeschool bulletin board for a few days and invite your students to speak it aloud a few times — that’s all it takes to begin a new poetical friendship and learn a few resonant words that will stay with you for life.
❡ Explore more: For a brief historical review of World War I, turn to pages 370–375 in your River Houses history encyclopedia (riverhouses.org/books). That’s good section to read during this important anniversary week. You will find the battlefields of France on plate 63 in your atlas.
❡ Here, said the year: This post is one of our regular homeschool poems-of-the-week. Print your own River Houses poetry calendar for the whole year at riverhouses.org/calendars and follow along with us as we visit forty-eight of our literary friends.