Stephen Spender’s “Epilogue to a Human Drama” and Toge Sankichi’s “Dying” are poems detailing the destruction of two cities, London and Hiroshima, respectively, during or after World War II bombings. Spender wrote “Epilogue to a Human Drama,” hereafter referred to as “Epilogue,” after a December air raid of London during the Battle of Britain, which ravaged and razed much of England from Summer 1940 until Spring 1941. Sankichi wrote “Dying” from his vivid recollections of the surprise atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which decimated the Japanese city in less than a second. Both the Battle of Britain and Hiroshima were horrible, senseless, and vicious incidents that exacted gave tolls on innocent victims. Spender endured the Battle of Britain, and Sankichi experienced the horror of Hiroshima. The poets’ responses differ greatly in style and perspective, but each work clearly defines the ramifications of atrocities such as those committed against Spender, Sankichi, and the populations of London and Hiroshima.Order now
England’s Royal Air Force battled Germany’s Luftwaffe from August 1940 until May 1941. During that conflict, England was subjected to air raids day and night. When Hitler finally withdrew his birds of war, four hundred thousand British citizens had been killed, forty-six thousand had been seriously wounded, and one million homes had been leveled. After one raid, a relief team helped a woman who had covered been covered in powdered brick and plaster and was bleeding profusely. As they aided her, she repeated four words continually in a tone of quiet terror: “Man’s inhumanity to manMan’s inhumanity to man” (Jablonski 148).
Stephen Spender was in London for the duration of the bombings. He saw the demolition of surrounding buildings. He heard the droning of approaching bombers. He smelled the smoke of raging infernos. In his autobiography World Within World, Spender describes his mental condition during the raids as a “trance-like condition” and describes how he forced himself to think of places and things as merely mental concepts in order to avoid losing mental control (285).
Hiroshima’s destruction came without warning. Japanese High Command, which was located Hiroshima’s ancient castle, was alerted early to the approach of the Enola Gay by an observation post on the island of Shikoku. The High Command elected to sound no air raid warning because they considered it senseless to disrupt work in local armament factories due to a single plane (Bruckner 98). At precisely 8:15 AM local time, the fuse was lit inside the descending bomb. Seconds later, in a blinding flash of sheer energy, several million degrees of heat were unleashed on the people of Hiroshima. In less than a second, eighty-six thousand one hundred men, women, and children were burned to death. Seventy-two thousand were severely injured; many of who would die later from atomic bomb sickness (Bruckner 99).
Many survivors of Hiroshima place thanks for their lives on “many small items of chance or volition-a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one street car instead of the next”(Hersey 30). Toge Sankichi is one such survivor. In the introduction to his poem “Dying,” Sankichi reveals that he was three kilometers from Ground Zero and preparing to visit downtown Hiroshima when the bomb detonated (29). If he had left a few minutes earlier, Sankichi would not have survived the first few moments. Instead, he sustained cuts from shards of glass and atomic bomb sickness, which may have contributed to his early demise in 1953.
Spender’s “Epilogue” and Sankichi’s “Dying” differ dramatically in presentation. The titles illustrate the basic contrast. Spender’s poem is an epilogue to what he compares to a play: It is written after a raid is over and is a reflection of what Spender has witnessed. Sankichi’s poem possesses immediacy because his narration begins at the moment of detonation. Spender focuses his attention on the city of London as a whole. This viewpoint is possible because he had already experienced months of bombardment and had tried to separate himself mentally from the events transpiring around him. Critic A.K. Weatherhead noted that Spender’s poems are “detached from the everyday things of the world” (323). This is obviously true for “Epilogue,” and Spender describes his attempts at detachment in his autobiography (285). He surveys the effects of a “human drama” on the city as a whole. Spender details the effects on the West End, around St. Paul’s Cathedral, and on the soul of London.
Sankichi is caught in the suddenness of the atomic strike. Hiroshima had not suffered months of bombings as London had. Sankichi was not expecting the attack. Sankichi cannot afford to mimic Spender’s detachment. “Dying” is not a deliberately designed reflection like “Epilogue.” Instead, it is a panicked recording of a rapid assault of chaotic images. “Dying” depicts only what is occurring in the author’s immediate vicinity. The surprise and suddenness of the bombing prevent Sankichi from surveying the damage on a wide scale. He is too shocked and confused to think about anything except what is in his immediate field of vision.
Aside from difference in viewpoints, these two poems differ significantly in style. Spender writes “Epilogue” in a series of stanzas. Possessing no rhyming or rhythmic pattern, the stanzas are instead divided by topic. The first stanza describes physical damage to London. Daiches’s comment that Spender “could show a quiet descriptive control in descriptive or confessional verse” is obvious in this stanza (322). Spender paints a verbal mural of when “the gas mains burned blue and gold / And stucco and brick were pulverized to a cloud / Pungent with smells of mice, dust, garlic, anxiety” (2-4). These descriptions provide emotional fuel for his accusations in the following stanza. In the second stanza Spender discusses his opinion that this destruction could have been prevented. In lines ten through twelve he states that, “Then the one voice through deserted streets / Was the Cassandra bell which rang and rang and ran / Released at last by time,” comparing the air raid warning to the prophet Cassandra, whose predictions were always true but never heeded. In his autobiography, Spender explicitly states that Hitler could have been stopped in the 1930s and that the war could have been easily avoided (202). The third stanza discusses London’s resilience and leads into the metaphor of the disaster as a drama. Spender notes that “London burned with unsentimental dignity” (16). St. Paul’s Cathedral is used in the stanza to symbolize that dignity. On December 29, 1940, the cathedral stood virtually unscathed as buildings surrounding it were consumed by blazes. Emergency crews around the cathedral noticed that an incendiary was lodged in the building’s dome, readily to fall inside and destroy the centuries-old church. To everyone’s amazement, the incendiary fell the other way and rolled off the dome onto the street below, leaving the cathedral intact (Jablonski 146). This connotation provides the power behind Spender’s use of the cathedral as a metaphor for London’s dignity. The final stanza is the metaphor of the bombing as a play. Spender makes London, home to innumerable stages, as a grand stage on which “there were heroes, maidens, fools, / Victims, a Chorus” (27-28). He defines the actions of the players. “The heroes,” presumably the RAF, fight bravely. “The fools” try to make light of the situation with jokes. “The victims” wait for help. “The Chorus,” who are the volunteer relief crews, help victims make sense of the circumstances by “Praising the heroes, deploring the morals of the wicked / Underlining punishment, justifying Doom to Truth” (34-35).
While “Epilogue” is reflective and deliberate, “Dying” is immediate and urgent. Sankichi’s style bears no semblance of order. It begins with alarm and ends with confusion. There is no attempt to make sense of what has happened. While Spender uses symbolism, Sankichi has no need for it. His vivid images of gory chaos communicate on much stronger frequencies than any possible symbol. There is no thoughtful debate or metaphoric explanation. Sankichi fires direct descriptions that explain all possible dimensions of terror. The opening lines send the reader hurtling into alarm. Sankichi begins:
Loud in my ear: screams.
Soundlessly welling up,
pouncing on me:
space, all upside down. (1-5)
The lines are terse and blunt, reading like the panicked descriptions of a man short of breath, which is precisely what they are. Sankichi’s brief but harsh verse arrests the attention of the reader, bludgeoning him with frenzied depictions of pain and chaos. The first line, consisting of only an exclamation point, explains a shock so powerful that no words could describe its impact. Sankichi realizes that he is on fire. He douses himself with water, and “The clothes I splash water on / burn, drop off: / gone” (24-26). It is an additional five lines, probably actually less than a second, before he realizes that a sheet of molten lead is attached to his back. He screams in agony as “Eddies / of flame and smoke / blow down on my broken head” (36-38). Sankichi succeeds in transmitting horror by not describing the horror. He simply describes what is horrible: He does not need to say that it is horrible for the reader to understand the feeling. Sankichi describes “stomachs distended like great drums” along the road (56). He sees bits of flesh, an eyeball, and brain matter. As the reader becomes overwhelmed by these terrible images, so does Sankichi. His body still shrieking with pain, he falls to the ground. His shock quickly becomes confusion. Sankichi’s last lines are:
by the side of the road
cut off, dear, from you;
These two works and authors take very different approaches to the destruction occurring around them. Spender is detached and reflective; Sankichi is involved and immediate. They do, however, share confusion as to what is happening to their respective cities. Spender, surveying the damage, realizes this could have been prevented. Sankichi, witnessing unimaginable horror, simply asks “Why?” (78). Each of these poems serve as a testament to readers who have never experienced war of the often imagined but never fully comprehended costs of war and man’s inhumanity to man.
Bruckner, Karl. The Day of the Bomb. Trans. Frances Lobb. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company Inc., 1962, 98-99.
Daiches, David. The Present Age in British Literature. N.p.: Indiana University Press, 1958, 48-49. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1973, 322.
Hersey, John. Hiroshima. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1946, 30.
Jablonski, Edward. Terror from the Sky. New York: Doubleday and Company, 1971, 144-148.
Sankichi, Toge. Introduction. “Dying.” by Sankichi. Trans. Richard H. Minear. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry Volume Two. Ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998, 29.
Sankichi, Toge. “Dying.” Trans. Richard H. Minear. Poems for the Millennium: The University of California Book of Modern and Postmodern Poetry Volume Two. Ed. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998, 29-31.
Spender, Stephen. “Epilogue to a Human Drama.” Collected Poems. New York: Random House, 1955, 134-135.
Spender, Stephen. World Within World: The Autobiography of Stephen Spender. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.
Weatherhead, A.K. “Stephen Spender: Lyric Impulse and Will.” Comtemporary Literature. Vol. 12, No. 4. N.p.: Regents of the University of Wisconsin, 1971, 451-465. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Carolyn Riley. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1973, 323.
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