Beneath the paving stones

IssueDecember 2008 - January 2009
Comment by Gerard Benson

The current set of Poems on the Underground contains two poems that relate directly to the 90th anniversary of the Armistice at the end of the first world war – the war often misnamed The Great War. We chose On Receiving News of the War by Isaac Rosenberg to celebrate the short life of a very promising poet and painter. And to draw attention to the savagery and brutality of war. Rosenberg joined the army as a private to supplement his family’s small income. He was killed in April 1918. He was 27 years old.

In previous years we’ve posted poems by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen among others. Sassoon outlived the war by many years but Owen, at the age of 25 was shot by a sniper on 4th November 1918, just a week before the cessation of hostilities.

Parting in Wartime by Frances Cornford was chosen for its clarity and simplicity, for the woman’s view it represents, for the emphasis it places on the continuity of human experience. As in ancient Troy, so in “modern” Euston station, war disrupts the lives of people – not only the combatants but their families…and by implication those around them.

The poem by the Afghani poet Partaw Naderi is not strictly a war poem. It treats of exile, the small personal tragedies that arise from the movement of peoples.

Gerard Benson is a co-editor of Poems on the Underground – placing poetry in the advertising spaces in London Tube carriages for the last 20 years. This season was launched with a concert entitled The Pity of War

On receiving news of the war

Snow is a strange white word.

No ice or frost

Has asked of bud or bird

For Winter’s cost.

Yet ice and frost and snow

From earth to sky

This Summer land doth know.

No man knows why.

In all men’s hearts it is.

Some spirits old

Hath turned with malign kiss

Our lives to mould...

O! ancient crimson curse!

Corrode, consume.

Give back this universe

Its pristine bloom.

Isaac Rosenberg

Cape Town, 1914

Topics: Culture