Included in death’s haul late last month were a very old man — Paul Fussell — and a very young woman — Marina Keegan. Fussell, a literary and cultural historian, was most recently a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania; Keegan was a very recent Yale graduate and writer whose final Yale Daily News column has circulated widely online.

Fussell specialized in eighteenth-century British poetry, but achieved broader recognition through his twentieth-century books like Class: A Guide through the American Status System (1992), Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1980), and especially his breakout The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). This last book traces the literature read and produced by British soldiers who fought in World War I, including, most famously, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, and Edmund Blunden.

The Great War argues primarily, though by no means exclusively, that World War I shocked British literature (and the British) out of its long affair with Romanticism and into the ironic grounding that would come to define modernity. The war’s horrors were so great, so unprecedented, that literary language could only approach them at an ironic slant, never head-on — so great that all the old war-words like “glory” and “honor” lost their nineteenth-century meanings.

Fussell’s tome is hardly modest.

But the passage of The Great War that sticks with me is not its most sweeping; indeed, it concerns flowers. Poppies, to be specific. As Fussell notes, these blood-red blooms had attained a “ripe traditional symbolism in English writing” (including an association with homoeroticism) by the time Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914. Poppies have long stood in for sleep, oblivion, and death. Conveniently enough, poppies also proliferate in the fields of Flanders where many thousands of World War I soldiers died, as described so famously in John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” (a poem that Fussell delightfully skewers for its flat propagandism).

It’s hardly surprising, then, that poppies became a symbol for World War I casualties, and Fussell is more accepting of works that deploy the flower’s literary power with some subtlety. Poppies are appropriately blood-colored; they are supposedly fed by the dead bodies buried beneath them; in Isaac Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches” — the greatest World War I poem, in Fussell’s view — poppies’ “roots are in man’s veins.”

Fussell writes: “Pastoral has always been a favored mode for elegy, whether general or personal, because pastoral contains perennial flowers, and perennials betoken immortality.”

For all his excellent poppy work, Fussell never alights on a specific aspect of the flower that, for me, pinpoints the incomprehensibility of an end like Marina Keegan’s (Fussell’s death, at 88, is easier to understand than hers at 22). I didn’t know Keegan, but can’t stop feeling sad about her death.

So, poppies: I have to report an experience I had while studying abroad in France during college. I lived in a small medieval city surrounded by Cezanne-scapes of lime cliffs, olive groves, vineyards — the Provencal works. Walks to the countryside became a daily ritual. In May, the poppies bloomed gorgeously, and I giddily plucked a bouquet to take back to my apartment. But by the time I reached town, the spaghetti-thin poppy stems drooped over my fingers; the once-red poppy petals had shriveled to black. Poppies, as it happens, can’t be transported.

To put it another way, I couldn’t have poppies on my own terms. I had to go to them, and should have left them where they were. Death remains in the poppy fields, away from the homes to which we inevitably return, impossible to assimilate in our minds.

There is no “understanding” the death of Keegan, which captured national attention due to its timing and to Keegan’s remarkable accomplishments, including her commencement column.  Her evident talent suggests we would all have been reading her stories and books on short order (indeed, I read and shared her November 2011 New York Times article). There is no salve, though, in pondering what Keegan’s life might have been; there is only the acknowledgment of a lack.

(“Captured national attention” — “remarkable accomplishments” — “evident talent” — “short order” — precisely, Fussell might say: when trying to describe the unimaginable, bald cliché sometimes seems like the only option.)


 

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