Remembrance Day: Ted Hughes’ ‘Six Young Men’

Each year, on the 11th November, I join in remembering those affected by war. I watch the French news and their ceremony (one hour before England) and then the English news. Each is flavoured, unsurprisingly, by their specific experiences of war. Locally, on the Plateau des Glières [Fr], the Maquis are remembered at the memorial there.

The War Memorial, represent the clipped wing, at the Plateau des Glières

The War Memorial, representing the clipped wings, at the Plateau des Glières

It’s poetry that touches me most of all and reminds me especially of the sacrifice made by those who have died. I think of all wars; all young men, women and children; friends and enemy; those of past, present and the future.

Over the last few years I’ve taken to reading Ted Hughes’ poem, ‘Six Young Men’, aloud, on Remembrance Day. It speaks to me of the paradox that there is an immense distance between those who have died in war and that there really is no distance at all. Hughes writes of one war but remembers all wars.

Six Young Men

The celluloid of a photograph holds them well –
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride –
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed. From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom, and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin-cans in no-man’s land,
Fell back dead with his rifle-sights shot away.
The rest, nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man’s photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk and weight:
And on this one place which keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) see fall war’s worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man’s not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or, fabulous beast more dead;
No thought so vivid as their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Such contradictory permanent horrors here
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One’s own body from its instant and heat.

Ted Hughes

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