It is hard to believe that on the 13th of January one year had already passed since Jim died, just before the war in Ukraine started on the 24th of February. So often have I thought about what Jim’s reaction to all this would have been. I am not the only one who has often wished Jim was here to talk to. Fortunately, Jim has left us so many books. In that way he still speaks to us. The best choice for me in this time of war has been “The Root of War is Fear.” Reading it eases my mind because it gives answers to many questions. A number of times in conversations, Jim mentioned Thomas Merton’s letters to him. I was curious to know what was in the letters, and in “The Root of War is Fear,” he quotes from a number of them. The written word, be it prose or be it poetry, can be powerful, but it has to be read to reveal its message. Jim and I shared an admiration for the poetry of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), the English war poet who died in the trenches of World War I in France on the 4th of November 1918, just one week before the armistice. I had had a long conversation with Jim about Owen’s poetry. At the beginning of the war in Ukraine I found a photo on the internet of a cross on the side of a road in Ukraine. One of the arms of Christ is missing. It sparked my memory of a conversation with Jim and later also with Jim and Nancy.
It is a very powerful image that also makes me think of a poem by Wilfred Owen:
AT CAVALRY NEAR THE ANCRE
One ever hangs where shelled roads part.
In this war He too lost a limb,
But his disciples hide apart;
And now the Soldiers bear with Him.
Near Golgotha strolls many a priest,
And in their faces there is pride
That they were flesh-marked by the Beast
By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.
The scribes on all the people shove
And bawl allegiance to the state,
But they who love the greater love
Lay down their life, they do not hate.
How topical and poignant it is today when applied to the war in Ukraine concerning the role of priests and the church. Owen said, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity…. All a poet can do today is warn.”
This poem was written in late 1917 or 1918. It was used, together with eight other poems by Owen, by the British composer Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem, written for the consecration of the new cathedral of Coventry, England. The old 14th-century cathedral had been destroyed by German bombs. Britten and his partner Peter Pears were pacifists and conscientious objectors. They lived in the US during World War II.
It was on a beautiful spring day in 2013 that I went to Alkmaar to visit Jim and Nancy. Jim and I decided to take a walk and have coffee in town. During the walk we passed a war memorial on the location where five Dutch people had been shot by the Germans during World War II as a reprisal. I mentioned the war poetry of Wilfred Owen, which Jim knew well. I have sung in choral performances of the War Requiem a number of times and know parts of the poems Britten used by heart, as well as through listening to recordings. Jim mentioned that his friend A.J. Muste had known Benjamin Britten and received the recording Britten made of the War Requiem as a gift. He also mentions this in his memoir “Writing Straight with Crooked Lines.” Jim and I shared what these poems meant to us. As always when I talk about these poems, I had to quote from the last poem Britten uses in his War Requiem: Strange Meeting. It is a duet sung by the tenor and baritone soloists. In the recording I just mentioned, it is sung by the partner of Britten, the English tenor Peter Pears, and the German baritone Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, representing the two enemy countries in World War II: England and Germany. The poem is about two soldiers who meet each other in a collapsed trench after they died. They look at each other “…with piteous recognition in fixed eyes, lifting distressful hands, as if to bless…” They speak to each other, and one says, “… ‘strange friend, here is no cause to mourn’. ‘None’, said the other, ‘save the undone years, the hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours, was my life also’”… Finally, the one admits to the other, “‘I am the enemy you killed, my friend. … Let us sleep now.” Both Jim and I were in tears. Not long before I had this conversation with Jim, I had bought a DVD of the War Requiem recorded in Coventry Cathedral on the 50th anniversary of the first performance. I invited Jim and Nancy over to my house to come and watch this DVD. We were all in tears at the end. When the baritone sings the words “I am the enemy you killed, my friend,” the orchestra stops. The facial expression of the other soldier during the singing of these words is indescribable. For me, music, poetry and literature add a deeper layer of understanding to all the speeches and books by peace activists. I am forever grateful to have known Jim and cherish the memory of many moments spent together with him and Nancy. Reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen, or listening to Britten’s War Requiem, will for me always be strongly linked to Jim. It is a memory I cherish.
This poetry, and all the writings and sacrifices by all peace activists, will one day lead to peace.
Vincent van Buuren is a musician and photographer. He is active as a conductor, singer and reader at St. Nicholas Orthodox parish in Amsterdam.
Recordings of War Requiem - Benjamin Britten