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  • Of Trauma and Flora:Memory and Commemoration in Four Poems of the World Wars
  • Robert Hemmings

War is the normal occupation of man … war and gardening.

Winston Churchill1

In the autumn of 2004, just over ninety years after the beginning of the First World War, the Royal Canadian Mint launched 'the world's first coloured circulation coin … featur[ing] a red poppy … Canada's Flower of Remembrance.'2 As the 'Media' link on the Mint's website stated, this particular flower 'was launched into the collective Canadian consciousness as a symbol of our war dead through the immortal poem "In Flanders Fields"' (Royal Canadian Mint, 'Poppy'). Indeed the poem is literally immortalized by its physical presence on Canadian currency, including the ten-dollar banknote (since 2001), on monuments and plaques, and by its ubiquity in recital at commemorative services each November throughout Canada. While John McCrae certainly was Canadian, reading the poppy as a uniquely Canadian symbol, bound up in 'collective [national] consciousness' belies the symbolic complexity of this flower and covers and limits the hermeneutic possibilities present in McRae's poem.

To commemorate the war dead is an important national undertaking. From the Latin commemorāre, 'to bring to remembrance, make mention of,' commemorate means 'To call to remembrance, or preserve in memory, by some solemnity or celebration' (Oxford English Dictionary). Commemoration, then, has a function distinct from memory. In the cultural history of warfare, commemoration preserves through solemn celebration a loss of life that somehow benefits a greater goal, typically nationalistic. Inflecting that loss with sacrificial undertones and the [End Page 738] privilege of just cause, public acts of commemoration often exist in tension with individual memories that grapple with the personal and traumatic encounters that precipitate the loss of life. As Jay Winter argues, 'Commemoration was a universal preoccupation after the 1914–18 war' (28). It is seen in the creation of sacred sites, including the construction of elaborate cenotaphs, and the maintenance of war cemeteries in battlefields in France and Belgium, but also in the home countries of the fallen soldiers. And it is also evident in the production of commemorative art, which sought to include the dead by invoking their spiritual connection to the landscape or fabric of postwar society (Winter 72). While the centrality of spiritualism faded from cultural prominence after the conclusion of the Second World War (77), accommodating the war dead, trying to find meaning in their loss, is a need shared by any society immersed in war, and is certainly central to the poetry of the world wars. Poetry written by combatants during wartime (or shortly thereafter) at once participates in and undermines commemorative practices in complex ways, especially through the iconography of mourning, and the deployment of floral imagery. In this essay I interrogate the use of flowers in twentieth-century war poems by John McRae, Ivor Gurney, Keith Douglas, and John Jarmain, and open up their interpretive possibilities by arguing that flowers function multifariously, beyond national emblematics, to invoke the traumatic memories that their commemorative deployment seeks to obscure.

During the First World War Freud delivered a series of well-attended3 introductory lectures on psychoanalysis in which he expressed his understanding of trauma. He had observed patients 'fixated to a particular portion of their past as though unable to free themselves from it and [who] were for that reason alienated from the present and the future' (Freud 313). Freud attributed the fixity of this moment from the past to an individual's subjection to 'alarming accidents' or incidents 'involving fatal risks' or encounters with death (314). This fixation typically existed on an unconscious level, from which symptoms erupt in the form of invasive and repetitious hallucinations, dreams, and patterns of behaviour. What was being repeated was the affective energy of the encounter: 'It is as though these patients had not finished with the traumatic situation, as though they were still faced by it as an immediate task which has not been dealt with' (315). Freud noted that 'traumatic neuroses' abounded with 'special frequency' during wartime (314). Indeed the war and the years immediately following produced an unprecedented public awareness throughout the combatant [End Page 739] nations – especially...


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