Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Monday, October 1, 2007

A Less Well Known Lazarus from A Less Well Known War Poem

In class we recently studied some poems about war, including such "standards" as Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est" and Randall Jarrell's "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." Among the less well known poems we studied was "Still Falls the Rain" (1942), by Edith Sitwell, which--between the title and the poem--suggests that the topic is "The Raids. 1940. Night and Dawn." By "raids," of course, is meant the nightly bombardment of England, especially London, by German aircraft.

However, the poem turns out not to be about life (or death), per se, in London during the bombing. There are no images of the bombed city or of bomb-shelters. Instead the poem begins this way:

Still falls the Rain--
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss--
Blind as nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

That is, the poem begins not so subtly. It places the raids squarely in the midst of general human suffering and sin and in a Christian tradition and does not concern itself with this particular war (World Warr II), with the Germans, or with the British. It appeals to Christ insofar as he suffered, believe Christians, for the sin that, among other things, apparently keeps driving people to make war, so Sitwell is not focusing on who is bombing whom or on who "started" the war. As far as her poem is concerned, humankind started the war. She also alludes to Cain and, not honorifically, to "Caesar's laurel crown" (as contrasted, implicitly, with the crown of thorns). Conventionally, of course, we may be accustomed to thinking of World War II as needing to have been fought and to thinking that "the good side" won, so Sitwell's poem is disconcerting insofar as it perceives the war from a completely different framework, just as Robinson Jeffers, in his poems, viewed the war as a clash of empires. Neither Sitwell nor Jeffers takes a conventional, "popular" view of the war.

Later in the poem, the speaker urges Christ to "have mercy on us--/On Dives and 0n Lazarus./Under the Rain the sore and the gold."

The reference is not to the "famous" resurrected Lazarus but to a chapter in Luke (16, verses 19 and ff.), in which there is a rich man [Dives] who wears fancy clothes and dines extravagantly every night. A beggar named Lazarus appears outside the rich man's house, hoping for some crumbs but getting none. He's covered with sores, which the rich man's dogs lick. Thus the dogs treat Lazarus better than their master does. Dives and Lazarus die, the former going to Hell and the latter to Heaven. According to Jesus, Dives then looks over to the other side (to Heaven) and asks Abraham to send Lazarus over with some water. Abraham responds by saying (to paraphrase), "Sorry, it's too late; you made your choice when you were alive, and now you and Lazarus will be separated by a chasm."

By coincidence, this parable from Luke was the subject of a homily at my parish the same week, and the priest pointed out that even in Hell, Dives "doesn't get it." In Hell he behaves like a selfish rich person and asks Abraham to treat Lazarus as a servant. In a sense, the priest said, Dives's Hell is self-created; it is as much a mind-set as anything else.

But Sitwell's poem lumps Dives and Lazarus together, as the rain (and the bombs) fall, and asks Christ for mercy for everyone, rich person and poor person alike.

The parable--which Christ tells to the Pharisees, by the way--is hard to take because there's no second chance for Dives. The poem is hard to take because Sitwell sidesteps conventional ways of looking at war, at Germany's raids on England, and at World War II, and she goes straight for a Christian theme. I told the students it was perfectly all right not to like this poem, as long as they understood it--understood why they disliked it. Ironically, it may be easier to like "Dulce et Decorum Est," in spite of of the graphic images, because to mock empty, easy patriotism is more conventional now than asking Christ for mercy during a war. Sitwell not only invokes religion in time of war but a particular religion. She also invokes a less well known Lazarus from the New Testament.

We also studied some poems by an American Iraq-war veteran, Brian Turner, who has published a book of poems with Alice James Books in Boston. He, too, does some unconventional things with war poetry. You might look for his work.
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