No. 50: Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen

It has been entirely fortuitous that this Little Black Classic has fallen into step with Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day.

I asked my friend Becky to choose for me after we attended Alice’s Adventures Underground together back in July, which I mentioned when I blogged about Mozart’s My Dearest Father.

And so here I am, a poppy pinned to my lapel, and the Great War poet sitting before me.

For any readers who perhaps aren’t familiar with this poppy the British wear from early November, or what Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day are, I will come to this shortly. But for now I would like to greet Wilfred Owen and give him the attention he duly deserves.


As with most Brits, I became familiar with Wilfred Owen at school. We studied the World Wars in depth for GCSE History and travelled to the battlefields of France and Belgium to better understand the terrible warfare that those fields witnessed from 1914 to 1918.

Reading Owen this month transported me right back to the battlefields and the British, French and German graveyards that we visited on that Battlefields trip.

In contrast, I read this Little Black Classic on a train down to Plymouth where my Mum’s family are from – you might remember from The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake.

Passing through Devon’s idyllic valleys, surrounded by folding hills dotted with frothy sheep, and blanketed with Autumnal trees, I couldn’t have been more far removed from the horrors of war.

But Owen brought it right to my train carriage.

A soldier himself, Wilfred Owen poetry’s strips bear life in the trenches. Unlike other primary sources, his direct experience and elevated language makes for highly emotional reading.

The very first poem in this Little Black Classic, ‘1914,’ perfectly summarises the terrible darkness that the First World War cast over the world in its first stanza

“War broke: and now the Winter of the world / With perishing great darkness closes in. / The foul tornado, centred at Berlin, / Is over all the width of Europe whirled”

The second poem of this collection is arguably Owen’s most famous, and transports me right back to my History classroom. Once I could have probably dictated ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ entirely from memory.

It’s a completely evocative poem. It perfectly captures the horror, the grime and futility of life in the trenches. It’s packed with filth and fear.

I can’t highlight sections for you here, I just wouldn’t do it justice. The poem should be read in its entirety.

So here it is. If you’re going to read something, please skip the rest of my blog and just read this:


It’s those closing, ironic words that are so haunting. “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori,” meaning “It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.”

Similarly, ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ draws a line under the terrible deaths of these young men who were mown down unceremoniously.


In contrast, the poem called ‘From My Diary, July 1914’ depicts the opposite of gruesome warfare. Instead, Owen fantasises about the idyll and beauty of the natural world, like “Birds / Cheerily chirping in the early day” and “Stirs / Of leaflets in the gloom; soft petal-showers.”

This calm jars with the chaos of the other poems in this collection.

Owen paints all types of soldiers. In ‘S.I.W.’ He gives us a soldier who kills himself, unable to bear the trenches any more, and in doing so disgraces his proud father, while in ‘The Letter’ it’s a man writing home to his sweetheart, instructing his friend to finish the letter if he is killed in action.

‘Mental Cases’ shows us the impact of shell shock, today more commonly known as post-traumatic stress disorder, while ‘Disabled’ presents men of all ages left physically scarred and dismembered.


I think perhaps the most poignant of lines for me is taken from ‘A Terre’:

“We used to say we’d hate to live dead-old, – / Yet now… I’d willingly be puffy, bald, / And patriotic.”

This really is a terrific collection of poetry. You don’t need to know anything about the First World War to read it; the collection simply gives some sense of life in the trenches and the devastation of war.

One hundred years might have passed but, in my opinion, these poem should be read and re-read to remind us.

During and after the First World War poppy flowers sprung up in the battlefields of Belgium and France, becoming an appropriate, blood-red symbol for the horror that took place.

And so, as led by the British Legion, many Brits wear a poppy on their lapels in early November to show that they are thinking of those that have given their lives in combat – both in the World Wars and in more recent conflicts.

All proceeds from poppy sales go toward financial and emotional support for members and veterans of the British Armed Forces.

This is not to say that every Brit wears one, and no one is expected to wear one. It is a matter of choice.

The second Sunday of the month is Remembrance Sunday where church services and parades are held across the country to remember the fallen.

Even in my home town, the smallest town in Kent, the local people gather on the high street to watch local organisations march up to our own war memorial.

On Remembrance Sunday this year I headed to the nation’s largest Remembrance ceremony at the national war memorial – the Cenotaph.

Every year the Royal Family, key members of Parliament and service men and women, along with the general public, line the streets to pay homage to those who have fought for our country and the commonwealth. The proceedings are televised.

This year, I grabbed my camera (and a much needed coffee) and made my way to join the throngs.

Upon exiting Westminster station, I saluted Big Ben and walked along Parliament Street to Whitehall, claiming my spot as near to the Cenotaph with some sort of a view.


To be honest, it wasn’t much of a spot. I was about three people deep in the crowd, despite having got there an hour and a half early. I saw a fair amount of the proceedings through other people’s cameras. You can imagine how deep the crowd was behind me once events actually kicked off.

I was between Big Ben and the Cenotaph, the Royal Family and other dignitaries joining from the other side, down from the Mall and Trafalgar Square. If you want to see pictures of these figures laying their poppy wreaths at the foot of the Cenotaph click here.

I did, however, watch the various marching bands arrive and we saw the thousands of veterans march, to applause, along to Westminster Abbey after the proceedings. Both were utterly thrilling. Here are some pictures of the various bands.




At the bottom of this blog, you will find my countless shots of the veterans.  There were thousands of them. It was amazing to watch them pass in all their uniforms, all shapes, sizes, nations.

Remembrance Sunday entails various songs and prayers but the main event is the two minute silence.

When Big Ben struck 11am (a wave of electricity still runs through me whenever I hear Big Ben chime – it’s one of my favourite sounds), cannons fired and silence answered.

I wasn’t sure what to expect on a London street, the pavements packed with onlookers.

But deafening silence reigned. No child spoke or cried. Cameras stopped clicking. All I could hear was the flapping of a plastic poncho, modelled by a lady ahead of me, and a bird singing. It struck me how unusual it was to hear a bird chorusing on a thriving London street.

The two minutes concluded with more cannon fire and the Last Post, which always manages to bring a tear to my eye.

I’m posting this on 11th November, Armistice Day, when the cannons of the First World War stopped firing at 11am in 1918 and the conflict ceased.

A two-minute silence is traditionally held at 11am on 11th November every year. Whether at school, or at work, much of the nation stops for two minutes to think and pay respects to our fallen.

Very poignantly, Owen died exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice on the 11th November 1918.

And so, this year, when my office stops for those two minutes, I will be thinking about Wilfred Owen and Dulce et Decorum Est.



Thank you, Becky, for your brilliant choice of Little Black Classic. ‘Enjoyed it’ isn’t the phrase, but I did really appreciate these poems.

Next time I will be reading Sinbad the Sailor.


As promised, here are just a few (no, I’m serious) of the veterans who marched along Whitehall.






No. 25: Circles of Hell, Dante

Good news – I’m alive and well! Feeling very conscious and rather guilty that I haven’t blogged in while, which will be explained in due course.

I said as much to one friend, who in turn said I shouldn’t feel guilty – writing should be fun after all. This was excellent advice (she’s wise beyond her years) but I’ve still been really keen to get this blog posted.

So here I am, at last. In actual fact, I read Dante’s Circles of Hell a few weekends ago, when summer was on the brink of falling. It was a hot, sticky day – a perfect reflection of the fiery flames of hell.

I’d not read any Dante before. Our paths crossed here and there at uni but never long enough to form a real bond.

My future brother-in-law (now, that is fun to say!) chose this Little Black Classic and I’ve been so excited to read it. I’m a bit of a Classical nerd, something I’m sure I will discuss when reading more specifically classical texts. Dante draws on so many ancient poems and myths, so I was enormously excited to read it.


Circles of Hell is taken from Dante’s epic poem Inferno, which is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso, altogether forming his Divine Comedy.

As the three books imply, this was not going to make for jolly reading, which, it must be said, I was rather looking forward to. I relish a misery read.

Dante was a thirteenth-centry Italian poet and was inspired by the Greek poet Homer, who wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Virgil, the Roman poet who wrote The Virgil.

In the Circles of Hell, the poet transforms himself into a character, who in turn is led through the circles of hell with Virgil as his personal tour guide. Please keep all arms and legs inside the moving vehicle at all times etc.

In the first canto of this Classic, called Gates of Hell, Virgil explains to us that those who are sent to the circles of hell “were void alike of honour and ill fame.”

Each circle behind these gates are intended for a particular type of sinner, with each specific fate designed to reflect that sin. Specifically, Virgil leads Dante and readers to pass through the circles of the lustful, the gluttonous, the wrathful, thieves and traitors, to name but a few.

As they are incredibly detailed and at times a little ambiguous, I thought perhaps I would touch on some stand out moments in Circles of Hell.

In the second circle, intended for the lustful, Dante sees some favourite faces from Classical myth – Helen, Paris, Achilles, Dido, Cleopatra to name a few.

One of the damned tells Dante

“There is no sorrow greater / than, in times of misery, to hold at heart / the memory of happiness.”

I really lingered over this. I think this is wonderfully melancholic and very perceptive. There are instances when life seems truly blue and happy memories cannot comfort but rather do the reverse. We all enjoy a good miserable wallow on occasion.

In the third circle, for the gluttonous, we meet Cerberus, another popular mythical creature:

“Cerberus, weird and monstrously cruel, / barks from his triple throats in cur-like yowls / over the heads of those who lie their drowned. / His eyes vermilion, beard a greasy black, / his belly broad, his fingers all sharp-nailed, / he mauls and skins, then hacks in four, these souls.”

Three-headed Cerberus makes Fluffy from Harry Potter look like Lassie.

But Cerberus isn’t the only creature to reside in the underworld. There are harpies, which are

“human from neck to brow, / talons for feet, plumage around their paunches, / they sing from these uncanny trees their songs of woe.”

*Shudder*. These are not the woodland creatures that I know and love. Take this charming stag that, this past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting. He settled not two metres from our picnic for a lethargic break, like a loyal dog.


‘So what’s the appeal of visiting Hell?’ I hear you ask. ‘Why would Dante be crazy enough to want to visit these monsters?’

Well, friends, he does encounter Cerberus and co., but Dante has the luxury of making a passing visit. Like us, the reader, and unlike the pour souls who now reside in fiery inferno for all eternity, he can leave.

Plus, he also has the opportunity of talking to the eternally damned, which is pretty cool.

For example, in the circle for thieves, one chap says:

“It pisses me right off … / far more than being ripped away from life, that you have got to see me in this misery.”

I could go on and on. Blood, tears, snakes, monsters, misery, shame, horror, slime, slobber, violence. The Circles of Hell has it all.

But Dante, in turn led by Virgil, leads us away and back in to the light.

The closing words of this Little Black Classic are my favourites, possibly of any of the Classics I have read thus far.

“Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.”

And thus, on the UK’s August Bank Holiday Monday, I set out for the iconic National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, one of my favourite places to London. It’s the beating heart of the city, with the Mall, Westminster, Soho, Piccadilly etc. branching off it like pulsing veins.

In contrast to the sunny day in which I read Circles of Hell, the bank holiday was dreary and wet. It poured and it poured. Constantly. A subtle indication that Autumn had arrived.

And so, like a true Brit, I headed out in to the rain with a sniffle and eternal optimism in tow… “It looks like it’s trying to brighten up.”

It did at least allow for this photo, in which I channelled my inner Gene Kelly. I had ‘Singing in the Rain’ stuck in my head for the rest of the day, much to the dismay of everyone around me.

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The Gallery is spectacular to explore. Like yours truly, you don’t need to know anything about art, you can just stroll leisurely before heading for a reviving cup of tea in the cafe.


It seemed appropriate to head out in search of art. My sister, who you hopefully remember from The Beautifull Cassandra, studied Art History at uni.

Mum says that with my sister’s art knowledge and my love of books, new worlds have been opened up to her, which is a lovely thought. It certainly does mean that I’ve been lucky to see a lot of art in recent years with my sister, who can point out things I wouldn’t ordinarily notice in a painting and explain it so eloquently that even I, a total simpleton, can understand.

With her and my future brother-in-law (!) in mind, I wondered the halls of the Gallery, passing all of its treasures.

Here I found Bartolomé Bermejo’s Saint Michael Triumphs Over the Devil, and turned into one of those irritating people who look at life through a camera lens, rather than just enjoying the exhibit for what it is.


It must be said, Saint Michael looks pretty calm for someone about to plunge a sword through a monster. Heavenly, ethereal, angelic – or a bit lifeless? I was instead drawn to the the Devil, a bat-like creature that leers and laughs at St Michael and visitors of the National Gallery.

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Prior to visiting the Gallery, I had earmarked two other paintings that I wanted to visit with Dante in mind. Which is where I come to the delay in this blog post…

Alas the National Gallery has been undergoing ongoing and indefinite room closures in retaliation to the threat of privatisation of public services. In a nutshell, an outside firm has been tasked with managing hundreds of Gallery employees, and there is a threat that employees who don’t transfer may lose their jobs.

Many staff have worked at the Gallery for decades, and so it’s a pretty huge deal to possibly have their jobs sold off.

Due to this, I checked the Gallery’s website every day for a week for more information, hoping the two rooms I needed would be opened to the public. I work on the Strand, a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square and the Gallery. (Yes, I am very very lucky. No that’s not sarcasm, I truly am lucky!)

I eventually emailed the Gallery, explaining that I wanted to publish my blog pronto and was waiting on these paintings being revealed to the public.

Within 24 hours I had a reply, and one of the wardens (who has worked at the Gallery for some 12 years) very kindly unlocked the two rooms that I needed so that I could take some photos.

I was taken behind the scenes of the gallery, through motionless, echoing hallways and giant locked doors, masterpieces looking down at me from their painted walls.



Here I was finally able to see Luca Giordano’s Mythological Scene with the Rape of Proserpina, which features our three-headed friend Cerberus.


Needless to say my pictures don’t do the artworks any justice. But, if I’m honest, Cerberus here seemed a little pathetic compared to Dante’s depiction. This guy with the staff looks like he’s throwing the monster a treat.


It was an epic painting – huge. But I was rather underwhelmed by Cerberus.

We then headed for David Teniers the Younger’s The Rich Man Being Led to Hell, a much smaller painting in contrast to the previous but I found it far more compelling.


It’s hard to take your eyes off the struggle between the fat, well-dressed rich man and the smirking devil. But if you look around them, there are strange wide-eyed toads and and lizards, who along with a band seem to be goading them along into hell’s fire.

I found it difficult to leave – it was like the devil was drawing me into his lair.

Eventually I did leave and, like Dante, was pleased to once more see the stars.

Thank you to my brother-in-law-to-be Matt for choosing this Classic! Matt, please speak to Katy for far more educated artistic thoughts.

Next time I will be reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Story.