Friday, 22 March 2013
"Behold the Man!" - Randall Jarrell's 'Eighth Air Force'
Ecce Homo, Antonio Ciseri, 1871.
This painting by Antonio Ciseri, depicting a crucial moment in the Gospels, is one of the most famous examples of a scene often depicted in art. Its perspective, that of a withdrawn observer, is particularly interesting and powerful.
At this time of year, many people reflect on the figure of Jesus Christ and what his life and death meant. As one of Jehovah's Witnesses, I will be attending the annual Memorial of Jesus's death along with fellow believers and friends around the world. [Updated for 2015: this year, the event takes place on 3 April] (Nisan 14 by the Jewish calendar. You can find some more information about this event on this link: http://www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/memorial/.)
This has also led me to think of a poem which I first encountered in university and which makes reference to the events surrounding the death of Jesus. The poem is 'Eighth Air Force' by Randall Jarrell.
EIGHTH AIR FORCE (Randall Jarrell)
As I have studied the Bible for so much of my life, due to its importance in my life as a Christian, I have also often found that being familiar with the Scriptures has had peripheral benefits in helping me to understand many literary references. The Bible is, of course, referenced in a multitude of ways in world literature. In 'Eighth Air Force', Jarrell uses the voices of Pontius Pilate (the governor of Judea) and his wife to reflect on the moral agony and dilemmas of war.
I remember studying this poem in a small seminar class, and writing an essay about it; when the professor handed back our essays, she mentioned that "one of you even looked up the scriptural references." I was just a little surprised that no one else had done so, which hopefully was not a smug reaction.
In any case, I found the way in which Jarrell wove together the voices of Pilate and his wife fascinating. "I have suffered, in a dream, because of him,/Many things" is a reference to the warning sent to Pilate by his wife: "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I suffered a lot today in a dream because of him" (Matthew 27:19). "What is lying?" is plainly a reference to Pilate's ambiguous philosophical query to Jesus, "What is truth?" (John 18:38). After his famous utterance "Behold the man!" (John 19:5), Pilate said (for about the third time) "I find no fault in this just man," (John 19:6) but caught in what he perceived as a moral dilemma, he still washed his hands symbolically and chose to give Jesus up to those who wanted his death.
Jarrell, in his sad, complex contemplation of men of war - "murderers" - calls up these Biblical references to indicate that he faces a similar moral dilemma. Although he concludes with "I find no fault in this just man" - humanity at war, here evoked by simple homely details - his conclusion is by no means free of ambiguity, and what he really thinks and feels is not at all certain. (Jarrell himself served in the Air Force and is known for other works of war poetry.)
I do know that the impression which this poem made upon me has never left me. I remember the images which appeared in my mind when I read it, and I remember being intrigued by the Biblical references. I even remember the fall of light in the classroom.
It seems to me that certain things - sometimes works of art - are memorable in life because a lot of things flow to and from them. The Scriptural references gave this poem greater significance for me than it would otherwise have had, I think. Many years later, I've developed an increasing interest in war poetry and the sad ambiguities which it encompasses, and this too may have something to do with this poem.