systematic deviation

Friday, October 20, 2006

War Medals

[This is the first of several successful assignments that will be posted here. All the posted assignments received an A- or above, and all demonstrate different ways in which the chosen question could have been addressed. The following is an ekphrasis:]

The kin crowded the laid out feast,
‘Round the heavily laden table
With men and boys boasting of a week’s worth
Of stories of working late and school mates
And all the endless toils.
Women working busily laying out the wares,
Refilling mugs and modestly accepting
Compliments on the full feast before them.
This is the way of the great gathering on Sunday,
A feast worthy of the working men it feeds, and the
Pride of the women who fashion it
After the group gathers in the sitting room around the
Roaring fire and with flames blistering and blazing
There heard beloved and ancient,
The story:
1917 was of the years
Men died for peace and glory.
My great uncle dear,
Lost his life, leaving us his story.

“Papa please show the medals,” an eager boy would say.
And always the dull, dirty tokens would be produced
And passed among the audience.
The ribbon on one is tattered and torn
But the red, white and blue stripes are clear.
The heavy, dull bronze is beaten and broke
Yet the strength of its meaning maintains,
For the family gathering ‘round to hear, its
History and heritage, a pride which none contains.
Looking now at its size, the medal fits neatly in
My glove
With a laurel wreath round the year,
The imperial crown above
Two crossed swords help form the star,
Was given to soldiers loved.

“Canadians serving overseas were granted such a token,”
Papa says, as his waiting family listens,
And again draws attention to the heirloom decoration.
On reverse, regiment written in stone, paired with the number
Of each war hero, proudly presented.
“The battle that beat our brave ancestor, gainer of such prize,
Was catastrophe like no other.
Trenches traced the battlefield, dirty dungeons for the soldiers
Sentenced to fight the German enemy.
Smoke, and shells thickened the air and choked the defenders.
The earthen holes, dug to shield our heroes, cave and collapse.
My great uncle and yours, lost his life in that dirty crypt.
He sailed,
November 1917, battle not won
To a field in Passendale.
We lost our beloved champion
And left only with his tale.

“So Papa, is his story all that is left?”
“Definitely not, my dear,” came a resonant reply.
“Bravery, duty and sacrifice are the life lessons learned.
Those virtues follow family through all weary and woe.
And though hardships may sometimes follow,
We have history and heritage to remind us that our
Path has been harder, and
Not only
Dirty tokens left behind,
From that grave cold and stony,
But a life kept in mind,
So we are never lonely.”





Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is written in the stock, bob and wheel form with deliberate use of alliteration throughout. “War Medals,” above, is written in an attempt to adhere to that form with the long, unrhymed verse as the “stock,” and the two syllable “bob” serves as an introduction to the four lined “wheel.” The “bob” and “wheel” follow the rhyming pattern ababa and tend to be much shorter lines than the “stock” portion. “War Medals,” contains random alliteration but Sir Gawain’s poet uses it skilfully and intentionally. The anonymous poet wrote during the alliterative revival and, “followed Anglo-Saxon poetic traditions, which used heavily stressed words at irregular intervals and alliteration” (Sir Gawain, 1). Sir Gawain and The Green Knight is highly structured and each word is deliberately written.

The poet elaborately describes material decorations and wealth by using an ekphrasis. An ekphrasis fully explains the detail and tangible aspects of the object but the poet’s purpose for using it is as layered and complex as the poem itself. The poem has meaning and symbolism layered so that the audience learns not to trust their instincts or initial response to events. The ekphrasis is a literary technique used for several different reasons. The obvious reason is to set a scene and describe people and the environment as a means of distinguishing class, wealth, and position. This is apparent through descriptions of Sir Gawain’s expensive shield and lavish environments displayed in his assigned room at the host’s castle. The more subtle and significant purpose of an ekphrasis is to symbolically remind the reader of predominant themes carried through the text. The description of Sir Gawain’s shield is heavily laced with religious reference and the moral code which he should be living by. The poet uses lengthy descriptions to reinforce the messages of good versus evil, worldly versus spiritual temptations, and the importance of virtue and community. The description of the luxurious furnishings of the guest chamber mirror the tempting wife’s beauty and symbolize that lush, tangible things can be deceiving. Religious reference and imagery subtly contrast greed, wealth, adultery and worldly goods which are all representative of mortal sin.

“War Medals,” explicitly describes the visible aspects of the war medals, their size, ribbons, texture, and emblem; but it also shows how a material thing can unite family and strengthen moral lessons taught in the past. The family gathers together carefree and happy to share a meal, as does King Arthur’s court in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. After their meal, they all gather around the patriarch and wait for stories to unfold and their relative’s heroic deeds to be praised. The war medals were chosen as an appropriate contemporary object because they represent valour, sacrifice, and duty. Sir Gawain’s tangible token is a green girdle which represents his own fallibility and weakness; but ultimately serves as a badge of wisdom, caution and humility for the community he returns to. In the “War Medals,” the tokens represent the death of a loved one, but also symbolize the strength to overcome obstacles and personal strife for the family who revere them.

The moral lessons and themes presented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are intricate and embody the spirituality of the time it was written. The themes are sometimes subtly layered and deliberate distracted away from, and other times blatantly presented. The “War Medals,” although secular and obvious, presents the message that hard times can be over come and good deeds live through the lessons they provide to the people aware of them. This message is delivered through the use of ekphrasis in describing the war medals.

References:

Baker, Chris. “The Long, Long Trail: The British Army in the Great War 1914-1918.” 1996. 22 September 2006.

Bradbury, N.H. “Memories & Diaries: A Gunner's Adventure.” First World War.Com: The War to End All Wars. September, 2001. 23, September 2006.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Joseph Black, et al. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2006. 235-304.

"Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Introduction." Poetry for Students. Ed. Marie Rose Napierkowski. Vol. 0. Detroit: Gale, 1998. eNotes.com. January 2006. 23, September 2006.

V.A.C Canada Remembers.” Veteran Affairs Canada. March, 2001. 22 September 2006.

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