Today is the centenary of the end of the Battle of the Somme, infamous for slaughter on an unimaginable scale.
JRR Tolkien, creator of Real Middle-Earth and much loved books like Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, was there.
Scrape your fingers along your greasy scalp,
pick out scabs, bits of lice with your nails.
You are a signal officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers
and your wife of 4 months, Edith,
sings and dances across the Channel
from the blood and death and mud
which is the Somme.
A shell-broken man bleeds on a stretcher,
gestures, gargles: you understand
and take his locket from around his neck.
The weight of words press full on you,
even when they are not words, just wet sounds.
It’s difficult to sleep; when you do,
you dream of a mariner
blown so far into the endless ocean
he’s accepted death. But he does not die:
he’s pulled off the deck of his ship,
taught, by beautiful natives of an alien isle,
A week after your battalion gets shredded on the wire
you interrogate a captured German officer,
map out enemy locations.
He accepts your offered water,
corrects your pronunciation,
suggests red ink for the man-traps.
In twenty years you will argue Beowulf
is not a pagan fragment or a poor allegory
but is a poem of lights opposing outer-darkness
where a man struggles against the beast
again and again and again
and is overwhelmed.