O living pictures of the dead

Having posted that item on Geoffrey Malins’ book How I Filmed the War on his experiences of filming The Battle of the Somme, I thought it would be good to share with you this poem by that sturdy defender of Empire, Sir Henry Newbolt, which is his response to seeing the film. The title of the poem is The War Films, and it was written in 1917. Not everyone who saw the actuality films from the Western Front may have reacted it quite so religiose fashion, but it does indicate how profoundly moved many were by the sight, how the films triggered a profound sense of the great sacrifice being made by the troops. And it does have two particularly haunting opening lines:

O living pictures of the dead,
O songs without a sound,
O fellowship whose phantom tread
Hallows a phantom ground —
How in a gleam have these revealed
The faith we had not found.

We have sought God in a cloudy Heaven,
We have passed by God on earth:
His seven sins and his sorrows seven,
His wayworn mood and mirth,
Like a ragged cloak have hid from us
The secret of his birth.

Brother of men, when now I see
The lads go forth in line,
Thou knowest my heart is hungry in me
As for thy bread and wine;
Thou knowest my heart is bowed in me
To take their death for mine.

More poems may follow in future posts, but meanwhile I strongly recommend Philip French and Ken Wlaschin’s Faber Book of Movie Verse (1993), which has many poems about silent cinema stars and cinema-going, both contemporary and written in retrospect.

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