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 Its perspective, that of a withdrawn observer, is particularly interesting and powerful.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:

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.


  1. The way you've sorted out the various voices in the poem--Pilate's, his wife's, the poet's--I find quite interesting and wonder how many people have done this. As for the poem itself, the image of the puppy lapping water from a flower can as the drunk sergeant shaves I'm sure will really haunt me, it's so striking. Somehow I feel so sorry for that puppy, yet I'm glad for the others' sake (at least I think I am) that he is there. Remarque's 'Im Westen Nichts Neues' affected me powerfully in my long ago adolescence, along with a WWI veteran who was my great-uncle, and it was a small leap from all that to an appreciation for war poetry of that era. It stays with you.

    1. The small details of this poem have a terrible poignancy, which is somehow heightened by the narrator's indecision over what he's confronting. I forgot to say that this is a poem with incredible technical control, perhaps one of the "best" poems all in all that I've ever read. I remember Remarque's books making a strong impression on me too, but I think you make a good point, that often a feeling of personal connection (whatever its nature) may provide an especially powerful "way in" to a poem or any work of art.

      The older I get, and well over ten years since I left university, it seems I'm getting worse at applying "New Criticism" and just looking at the work in isolation...this whole blog seems to be about relating poems to my life! ;)

  2. I really liked discovering this poem through your post. I admit I need to read it many times more because it is still very enigmatic to me. Funny you mention your professor's surprise - one of mine once complained how no students knew their Bible anymore! And they are right, knowledge of the Bible is key to interpret and understand a lot in Western literature - (our buddie MacNeice is filled with references like these!). By the way, loved the new layout ;)

    1. I'm glad you found it interesting - I agree it is very enigmatic, which is probably another reason why it's stayed in my head all these years.

      Knowledge of the Bible seems so diminished that even literature students may have a hard time picking up on those references, though my impression from my years studying was that many literature students had more of an inkling than students in other areas might. It did surprise me though that a) the professor was surprised, and b) no one else had traced the references...

      Glad you like the new look for the blog - thanks!

  3. The words "counting missions" remind me of Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, where war was also a 'job' carried out by men whom some would describe as 'murderers', others as 'cannon fodder'. It seems there are many ways of bending the Sixth Commandment: 'Thou shalt not kill' has always been modified with talk of 'a just war' or defence of the death penalty. We are certainly a long way from living up to the standards set on Mount Sinai!
    I'm also struck by the way shock is expressed in the Irish or UK media when a victim of crime or the relative of a murder victim expresses forgiveness for the perpetrator: isn't forgiveness at the heart of Christianity? Obviously, not everyone in these islands is a Christian but millions profess to be, so why should a basic Christian value be considered so odd?
    If the man put to death this day over 2,000 years ago was alive today he would probably be a victim of phone hacking and headlines like 'Is this the most dangerous man in [insert country of choice]?' Gosh, maybe Hugh Grant is the new messiah!

    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment, where you raised many great points. I was intrigued and bewildered by the "murderers" reference, which I am still wondering about. I certainly wondered if there was another Biblical reference there that I was missing, or another literary reference and I'm still not too sure.

      You couldn't be more right about the rationalizations for killing found by so many, including many professed Christians - in fact, it's no wonder so many blame religion for its role in wars, which it tends to encourage rather than discourage. Jesus said that his kingdom was no part of this world (John 18:36), and told his apostles not to fight back when he was being arrested - what a huge contrast.

      The way in which words spoken in reference to Jesus are applied to warring humans in this poem is certainly daring and unsettling. I still can't quite get my head around it, and I wonder if the poet was only comparing the moral dilemmas of these situations, or if he also wanted to say that humanity has potential to be Christlike. It's very evident that he can't make up his mind at the end of the poem about these dilemmas, though he may also be saying that he doesn't want to judge his fellow soldiers, and himself by association...

      Regarding forgiveness, I wonder if this is sometimes viewed as being a quality of the weak. Whereas it actually takes immense strength and nobility. Even in so-called Christian lands, perhaps vengeance is now considered the more normal reaction to terrible acts, but vengeance is the easier and destructive route, as well as unchristian... Jesus's forgiveness of those who were betraying him and putting him to death may seem extraordinary, but it's not impossible to achieve, even for imperfect humans.