For those who recall Episode 3 of Band of Brothers…
Louis Simpson gives us a glimpse of fighting that pairs the pastoral with a death scene. It’s an unusual pairing, with a reserved tone all through the poem, even when the action shifts. Think about any war movie you’ve ever seen and there is always that sudden, jarring moment when innocence is lost and that new reality sets in. That shift is seamless here, especially toward the end.
Trees in the old days used to stand
And shape a shady lane
Where lovers wandered hand in hand
Who came from Carentan.
This was the shining green canal
Where we came two by two
Walking at combat-interval.
Such trees we never knew.
Here at the start, we see a connection to the known (romance) and new experience, and in the following stanza, we get our first inkling of trouble with this:
The day was early June, the ground
Was soft and bright with dew.
Far away the guns did sound,
But here the sky was blue.
Guns in the distance…blue sky. Sounds decidedly more like a walk in the park. The poem continues with some additional background concerning the invasion: “ships together spoke / to towns we could not see.” This, it seems, is a metaphor I didn’t catch initially, where “speaking” might stand of shell fire.
But Simpson is building toward something. The action then shifts…
The watchers in their leopard suits
Waited till it was time,
And aimed between the belt and boot
And let the barrel climb.
I must lie down at once, there is
A hammer at my knee.
And call it death or cowardice,
Don’t count again on me.
So then we have gun fire and the speaker is down. And then this part…it’s the even handed tone, the same as in previous stanzas that really stands out for me. It’s nothing but calm.
Tell me, Master-Sergeant,
The way to turn and shoot.
But the Sergeant’s silent
That taught me how to do it.
O Captain, show us quickly
Our place upon the map.
But the Captain’s sickly
And taking a long nap.
Lieutenant, what’s my duty,
My place in the platoon?
He too’s a sleeping beauty,
Charmed by that strange tune.
Two other metaphors here: death as a “tune” and death as a “nap.” And the last stanza, where this pastoral becomes a lament…Also, stanza breaks at “O Captain” and “Lieutenant” (some wordpress formatting issues I can’t fix…)
Carentan O Carentan
Before we met with you
We never yet had lost a man
Or known what death could do.
I’ve read this a few times over the years, but never really considered it a coming of age poem, but it is. In other poems, the subject might be about sex or driving a car, or some other kind of youthful epiphany. But here that epiphany is _the moment_ that changes everything, where the speaker finally understand the nature of it all.