Hardy vs Sitwell
During the war, the trauma for those at home was almost as terrible as those on the front line: waiting continuously for news of a death and not knowing whether no news was really good news. Hardy and Sitwell’s poems both reflect this by the way they portray the experience. Sitwell’s poem seems to be insulting those who can just ignore the outside world and still have fun whilst people are dying. The poem, particularly the second stanza, seems to be very heavy on the guilt (although he may be feeling guilty himself, it does seem like a ‘guilt trip’ to readers as well).
Hardy, however, seems a little less personal and less guilty. Sitwell’s finishing line ‘we dance, we dance, each night’ may seem like another part of this guilt trip, as I’ve previously mentioned, but it could also be showing how brave the people are at home by dealing with the situation at hand by ignoring it and acting like normal. However, when coupled with the strong image of sucking ‘dying breath’ and mentioning ‘those who hourly die for us’ it seems to be more like we’re taking their lives rather than bravely ignoring them.
The fact that what was relevant in 1899 was still relevant in 1914, 1918, and even today, gives Hardy’s poem an extra poignancy to those who have read it in the years since it was published. The ‘hourly posted sheets of scheduled slaughter’ have been a common feature of most wars, and it leaves a particularly striking image in mind because of this. It’s also very accurate in what it describes – it really does feel ‘hourly’ and yes, like ‘scheduled slaughter’. Of course, Sitwell wrote this poem whilst she was experiencing the feelings of the First World War, during a battle in 1916, but it doesn’t make Hardy’s poem any less relevant.
One of the ways that Hardy’s poem does seem less effective is that Sitwell uses a lot of words strongly associated with death, murder and war, such as ‘blood’, ‘death’, ‘mad’, ‘horror’, and so on, continuously scattered throughout the poem. This means that we’re always reminded of the subject area and its terribleness. Hardy’s poem only really hits you with this semantic field at the end, but instead of making the ending stronger, he ends with ‘from Ind to Occident’, which lowers the tone and gives it an almost anticlimactic feel.
Although it is anticlimactic in a sense, it also highlights the way that people feel the pain the same the world over – we all have to deal with the ‘scheduled slaughter’ at some point, even in ‘Ind’. It’s terrible but at least we can all empathise with others in the world – feelings are the same. War causes death for everyone, wherever and whoever they are. The comparison of the dancers to ‘the world’ by use of the word gyrating is also a powerful image utilised by Sitwell.
It speaks of the world continuing to turn even throughout this terrible war, and makes the world seem sympathetic to those who are experiencing their pain. The world does not normally ‘gyrate’, but rather turn continuously, and again, this makes the people and the earth seem like one being, both shuddering with the pain that this war is causing. Hardy actually uses a similar idea in his poem, in that he asks for his ‘land’ to ‘heave its pulse less gladly’ because it seems to contradict the pain that the war is causing.
The obvious difference, however, is that this doesn’t make the world seem sympathetic but rather cruel and cold, like it is laughing and ignoring the pain that is happening on its own terms. This is perhaps more powerful than the sympathy expressed in Sitwell’s poem, as we have a kind of human arrogance which expects everything to follow our lead – we expect the world to shudder and heave when we cry (and equally, the world seems to when we do) – but this concept feels strange.
The use of religion in Sitwell’s poem is evident from her first experience of God – ‘God is good’ to let us ‘still… ance’. However, she moves on to say ‘Though God die’ which is a bold expression (God isn’t supposed to die) and then that he dies ‘Mad from the horror of the light’ which is even more blasphemous. Although this seems to be anti-God at first read, when you explore it more it seems that she’s actually insulting humankind by being able to dance first through the sacrifice of other humans, and then finally through the sacrifice of God. God is dying and we are still dancing – this isn’t God’s fault.
This could be showing that some of those that stayed at home started to doubt God for letting the evil into the world, through the war – but not necessarily blaming him for what happened. Sitwell’s poem also seems to highlight a feeling of numbness that the First World War caused for many people – a type of shellshock for those who stayed at home. The terrible descriptions, the ‘dying breath’, the madness, the light ‘flecked with blood’ all contrasted with the bleak and boring last lines which causes us to imagine dancers carelessly or perhaps emotionlessly gyrating across the floor is at once both insensitive and anaesthetized.
To conclude, Hardy’s poem is a lot less ‘up front’ way of portraying the war from home. It’s a lot less personal and isn’t to do with the mass destruction that the First World War caused, just a general expression of the pain that war causes. Dancers, however, is dripping with poignant words that express exactly the amount of bloodshed that the World War I meant for many people, and seems to show that the civilians had a feeling of numbness towards the war, which is perhaps a more moving and effective feeling to express anyway.