The Litany of the Lost

In idolizing technology and worshipping strange progressive gods, we are at the mercy of the inhuman powers beyond our control.

The Statue of Cain by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden.
The Statue of Cain by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden. (photo: Shutterstock)

We did not heed the Cloud in the Heavens shaped like the hand Of Man … But there came a roar as if the Sun and Earth had come together — The Sun descending and the Earth ascending To take its place above ... the Primal Matter Was broken, the womb from which all life began. Then to the murdered Sun a totem pole of dust arose in memory of Man.

These powerful and evocative words are from “The Shadow of Cain” by Edith Sitwell, the first of her “three poems of the Atomic Age,” written during the psychological aftershock which gripped the world in the wake of the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Kenneth Clark, writing in Horizon in July 1947 as the Iron Curtain fell across Europe, recognized in Sitwell’s poem “a true prophetic cry” which reflected the post-traumatic stress, experienced on a global scale, as the world lurched from world war to cold war. Après le deluge … the Cold.

Another poem written in 1945, in the aftershock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was “Litany of the Lost” by Siegfried Sassoon. As with Sitwell’s poem, Sassoon’s lament for the dehumanizing and destructive effects of technolatry represents “a true prophetic cry”:   

In breaking of belief in human good;
In slavedom of mankind to the machine;
In havoc of hideous tyranny withstood,
And terror of atomic doom foreseen;
Deliver us from ourselves.

As with all great poetry, the opening verse of Sassoon’s lament is burgeoning with extra-textual meaning. It asserts that materialist philosophy, in its idolization of physics and its abandonment of metaphysics, had broken the belief in human good. Man was no longer seen as good or evil because he was merely matter, like everything else in the cosmos. And if man was merely matter, he didn’t really matter. Those with power could do with him what they liked. And this is what they did. Powerful men subjected their fellow men to the revolution of industrialism with its “slavedom of mankind to the machine”. And this industrialism gave rise, in turn, to industrialized ideologies, mechanized and determinist, such as Marxism, with its Hegelian certainties about the future, and Nazism, with its Nietzschean belief in the twilight of the gods and the emergence of the superman and the master race. This was the “havoc of hideous tyranny” which had been withstood during the War but which had given way to “the terror of atomic doom foreseen” with the dropping of the Bomb.

And so to the second verse:

Chained to the wheel of progress uncontrolled;
World masterers with a foolish frightened face;
Loud speakers, leaderless and sceptic-souled;
Aeroplane angels, crashed from glory and grace;
Deliver us from ourselves.

In idolizing technology and worshipping strange progressive gods, we had lost control of our lives and of our human destiny. We were at the mercy of the inhuman and inhumane powers we had unleashed but could no longer control. Chained to the wheel of progress uncontrolled, and possessed by our possessions, we had succumbed to a globalism beyond reach of any constraining power. Like Frankenstein, we stare in horror, with a foolish frightened face, at the monster we’ve created. Loud, leaderless, and lacking faith, we forfeit our inheritance, crashing kamikaze-proud from glory and grace, like fallen angels, intent on suicide. In gaining the world, we had lost our souls.  
And thus to the final verse:

In blood and bone contentiousness of nations,
And commerce’s competitive re-start,
Armed with our marvellous monkey innovations,
And unregenerate still in head and heart;
Deliver us from ourselves.

After the two world wars that had blighted the first half of the century, the “blood and bone contentiousness of nations,” we move forward with the profit and loss contentiousness of commerce, armed with nothing but technology, our marvelous monkey innovations, and seeing ourselves as nothing but naked apes, boundlessly clever but devoid of wisdom. Slaves to the alchemy which calls itself technological progress, we seek the elixir of life which will defeat death and the philosopher’s stone of limitless wealth. We seek to live unendingly, chained to the wheel of progress uncontrolled, and we seek to turn base metal, and plastic, and silicon, into gold, turning ourselves into creatures of “base mettle” in the process, unregenerate still in head and heart.

If Siegfried Sassoon emerges as something of a prophet in the lines of this poem, he was something of a prophet at a loss, in the sense that the poem is addressed, apparently, to nobody in particular. Who exactly is to deliver us from ourselves? It is clearly not ourselves, since we are the cause of our own demise. But is it God, or is it merely a rhetorical invocation to nobody, a cri de coeur to an invidious invisible void? Is it a scream in a vacuum? Unheard, unheeded?

It is unlikely that the poet could have answered these questions himself at the time the poem was written. He was, at the time, an agnostic, desirous of a faith he could not fathom and a peace he did not possess. Twelve years later, he would be received into the Church, finding the peace that had always eluding him in the One who could finally deliver him from himself. This peace and the peaceful resignation it brings were expressed in the final verse of another of Sassoon’s poems, “A Prayer in Old Age”:

I ask one world of everlasting loss
In all I am, that other world to win.
My nothingness must kneel below Thy Cross.
There let new life begin.