Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics

My Latin teacher, Mrs. Jones, made me memorize this quote from the Aeneid  when I was 15--Sunt lacrimae rerum, et mentem motilia tangunt (There are tears of things, and they touch the human heart).   It pretty much sums up the book I just finished-- Above the Dreamless Dead: World War I in Poetry and Comics, edited by Chris Duffy (First Second, July 2014, YA on up)

Many of the poems of the WW I English poets that are anthologized here, illustrated by various graphic artists, were not new to me, but seeing them illustrated twisted, sharpened, and deepened my emotional reaction to them.  And my emotional reaction to the pity of it, and the horror of it, is so great that any intellectual response is dampened to the banality of "I don't like this one as much" or "Yes, that is great writing, and gee those are powerful images" (then taking a break in the reading to allow the eyes to clear).

So I can't critically review this one.

I can say, though, that I think it is a valuable book.  And that I think we need books like this, in a format that's friendly and familiar to young readers, that might shake the foundations of safe complacency.

"If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gurgling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

[Sweet and good it is to die for your country].

George Pratt's black and white illustrations, understated, matter of fact, help bring the point of Wilfred Owen's famous poem home.  

So yes, it's a good book, with the emotional heft of great poems made more so by the drawings.   And it's made education friendly by the ordering of the poems by their sequence in the war--The Call to War, In the Trenches, and Aftermath, by an introduction explaining trench warfare and poetry, bios. of the poets, and by notes about each poem and its adaptation.  You can go look at these things here at First Second

And moving on from there, more poetry comics, please, First Second!  They are such a useful and easy way to acquire cultural literacy.

Example:  On a much lighter and somewhat tangential note--Busman's Honeymoon, by Dorothy Sayers (the one in which Peter and Harriet are married) is full of quotations and references (I would like an annotated edition, please) and I finally (!), thanks to inclusion of Everyone Sang, by Siegfried Sassoon, realize where the line that comes into Harriet's head at one point "Everyone suddenly burst out singing" comes from.  It's not utterly tangential, because of course Lord Peter was himself a veteran of WW I....and this makes the peace he finds with Harriet all the more powerful.  As Sasson's poem goes on to say--

"And beauty came like the setting sun:

My heart was shaken with tears, and horror
Drifted away..."

Which Sayers doubtless knew and was thinking of, because she was smart without the help of poetry comics!

(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)

(for the first time in ages, I get to be part of Poetry Friday, hosted today at A Year of Reading!)


  1. Charlotte, I love that Latin phrase, and that you remember it to this day (and put it in this review - it fits perfectly!). It was SUCH a good book... but I walked around for hours afterward feeling rather dull with the horror of all war. I think you've done a smashing job of reviewing it, even if not 'critically.'

  2. I'm putting it on my list to purchase right now, if only because you remembered your Aeneid! (Arma virumque cano Troia qui primus ab oris...) not surprisingly, I also read Sayers and have the latest Paton Walsh out from the library. Think today is an excellent time to read it. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Oh wow, this sounds perfect for our current reading theme. Thank you for sharing this. :)

  4. Wow, powerful. That cover speaks, doesn't it?

  5. Thanks for the introduction to this title - one I look for. = )


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