A Stark Juxtaposition in Alice Meynell’s “Summer in England, 1914”
Alice Meynell’s poem, “Summer in England, 1914,” depicts a stark, vivid and harsh picture of the face of war versus the beautiful, tranquil and joyful face of nature. Born and buried in London, Ms. Meynell was afflicted with migraine headaches or “wheels” as she called them. Migraines cause excruciating pain and suffering, and Ms. Meynell captures and transfers these wrenching feelings to her poem. Woeful, suffering, sacrificial soldiers die in vain on beautiful landscapes as Ms. Meynell vividly depicts the incongruity of war and nature.
Meynell powerfully weaves dark, clear, brazen images of war and death with beautiful, redemptive images of nature and God. London is painted as a sane, just, and optimistic city that shines with beauty and co-exists in harmony with its natural surroundings. Her opening strophe commences with London possessing and enjoying “a clearer light. ” (1). Then, she concludes the initial strophe by exclaiming joyfully, “O what a sky has walked the world! ” (6). This bright portrait of nature’s beauty is pure and unspoiled, innocent and untarnished. Beautiful, meaningful, consistent rhymes are employed at the end of every line of this poem.
Meynell’s vivid and powerful imagery would suffice on its own, but the rhymes throughout the length of her work add another layer of beauty and clever quality. For example, nature provides beauty, tranquility and simple joy as Meynell concludes her second strophe with the rhyming lines, “Stroking the bread within the sheaves, Looking ‘twixt apples and their leaves. ” (11,12). Harsh juxtaposition is coiled for action in the following strophe. One of the most beautiful creations of nature, a rose, is observed, appreciated, and then suddenly contrasted with the throes of dying soldiers engaged in war.
The flower’s beauty, supple and inviting, offers a gentle litotes “while this rose made round her cup. ” (13). The rose’s co-existence and addition to the wonder of nature is rustled and disturbed by the ghastly image of “armies died convulsed. ” (14). Meynell’s debilitating “wheels” may have led her to use the powerful, stifling word, convulsed. This overt hyperbole of war’s terrible consequences lurches the third strophe into a dark portrayal of the futility and misery that plagues war and its combatants. War’s motives and effects are condensed into “wet corruption.
” (17). These effects are long-lasting and devastating as “a thousand shattered men,” if not killed, are physically and emotionally scarred for life. (16). Nature and love are betrayed by unnecessary and unnatural war as the middle strophe ends with “a league-long throb of pain. ” (18). Again, Ms. Meynell’s “wheels” may have led her to appreciate and convey a powerful, vivid picture of anguish. Stark contrasts between nature’s beauty and war’s horrors continue as war is repudiated with powerful imagery and clever rhythm and rhyme.
Half of the fourth strophe is filled with glowing praise for nature and its beauty, harmony, and tranquility. Tender flowers, birds, berries and peaceful, calm skies abound and flourish. Then, with a beautiful, thoughtful transition that mentions thriving “serried flocks and herds,” Meynell pivots again to the death and destruction that war inevitably produces. (21). The word, serried, is a clever and fitting choice because it is an uncommon, archaic word that can both describe compact rows of cattle and closely-packed ranks of soldiers marching lock-step in formation.
Within sight of the serried and congenial animals and plants, “Yonder are men shot through the eyes. ” (22). A greater, harsher contrast of imagery is difficult to imagine. Immediately and convincingly Meynell then closes her penultimate strophe with an entreat for love to shun the carnage of war. Love cannot acknowledge, abide or even exist in the confines of war. Man’s abomination, war, is incompatible and inconsistent with love and nature. Thus, the fourth strophe concludes with a beautiful rhyming and haunting plea for “love (to) hide thy face from man’s unpardonable race.
” (23,24). This race or quest for power and territory is rejected and condemned in the strongest terms as Meynell consistently and eloquently rails against war, its origins, its motives, its methods, and its grave consequences. Ms. Meynell’s final strophe is a climax that movingly mixes love, sacrifice, death and redemption from God. She vehemently questions the supposed romance of war and the sacrifice it entails when she asks, “Who said ‘No man hath greater love than this, to die to serve his friend? ’” (25, 26).
The ultimate sacrifice of death in war, putting oneself in harm’s way for the good of his fellow man and his country, is minimized and disparaged. When Meynell exclaims “Chide thou no more, O thou unsacrificed,” she pardons those who abhor and avoid war. (28). In the wake of war’s ugliness and futility, pacifism supplants belligerence, and the ability to resist, rebuke and avoid war becomes an essential virtue in her mind. Alliteration is employed in the Meynell poem’s final two lines, and religious redemption is reserved even for those who choose to fight and die.
Dying soldiers are embraced, saved, and loved by God. At the bittersweet moment of their demise, “the soldier dying dies upon a kiss, the very kiss of Christ. ” (29, 30). Despite the incongruity with nature and love that war exudes, even warriors who kill and are killed receive and enjoy salvation and forgiveness from their religious savior. This paradox of love and forgiveness coupled with the ravages and savagery of war is a thought-provoking conclusion to Meynell’s powerful, stark portrayal of war. It’s an optimistic close that makes recovery from war seem possible.
The decision to wage war, whether done in an instant of provocation or over years of calculation and trepidation, must be weighed painstakingly because war’s consequences are inevitably grave and enduring. Ms Meynell seems to conclude that war with its cruelty, ugliness and death, is never the correct route. However, given all of war’s negative aspects and ramifications, she concludes with hope since redemption is available to dying soldiers. Perhaps her formative years in Europe, including many years in beautiful Italy, led her to favor nature and its beauty over the ugliness and death of war.
In the middle of her life, she and her family converted to Roman Catholicism, and this significant religious commitment may have given her the strength and vision to forgive the soldiers whose cause she evidently scorned and abhorred. A quest for pacifism seems to permeate and dominate this poem on war. Finally, Meynell’s title, “Summer in England, 1914,” coincides with the beginning of World War I and precedes her death by less than a decade in 1922. Her birthplace and her tomb rest in this jewel of England. Known for its frequent gloomy, cloudy days, London is ironically described as clear and washed in sunlight as Meynell opens her poem.
She yearns for nature’s light to overshadow the darkness of war. Like the bitter, powerful throes of war, she had endured a life besieged with dreaded “wheels,” or migraine headaches. Concurrent with this painful, stifling malady, she had witnessed years of beauty and had feasted on nature’s bounty in scenic Europe, including the captivating, romantic country of Italy. These conflicting benevolent and malevolent experiences allowed her to convincingly and persuasively juxtapose war with nature in this powerful, beautifully written poem.Sample Essay of Paperial.com