Dead Cow Farm

This image of Robert Graves comes from In his account of World War I, Robert Graves noted a staggering fact that, if it’s known at all, is too often forgotten and yet never should be: “At least one in three of my generation at school was killed [in World War I], and the average life of the infantry subaltern on the Western front was, at some stages of the war, only about three months.” I mention this fact now and here because it is vital in understanding his poem directly below.

Dead Cow Farm

An ancient saga tells us how
In the beginning the First Cow
(For nothing living yet had birth
But Elemental Cow on earth)
Began to lick cold stones and mud:
Under her warm tongue flesh and blood
Blossomed, a miracle to believe:
And so was Adam born, and Eve.
Here now is chaos once again,
Primeval mud, cold stones and rain.
Here flesh decays and blood drips red,
And the Cow’s dead, the old Cow’s dead.

— Robert Graves (1895–1985)

The following is a draft which Robert Graves corrected in his final manuscript. I include it here purely as a point of interest. Note the self-editorial acumen in how he changed the opening of his war poem (“I’ve read an ancient saga how” becomes “An ancient saga tells us how”):

Image from World War I First Digital Archive

Note his self-editorial acumen, as I say above and repeat again now, in how he changed the opening of his war poem — and the reason I repeat myself here is to emphasize that this is a war poem and cannot be properly understood outside the context of war. It simply cannot.

War is chaos.

World Wars are the most chaotic wars of all.

Retrospectively, when we have decades of history and the wisdom of history to draw from and when we therefore know the outcomes of wars — World War I, for example, wherein Captain Robert von Ranke Graves was badly injured and pronounced dead (forever after shell-shocked from this experience) — it becomes almost preposterously simple to let slip the chaos created by war. By this I mean that it becomes almost preposterously simple for us to lose perspective on the full context of war because that context slips away after the immediacy of the horror has passed.

It then becomes tragically simple to forget that when you’re living through the atrocities of wartime — as we are now living through precisely such atrocities in a bioterror war conducted with unprecedented covertness — the final outcome is totally uncertain. Will the malevolent chaotic forces responsible for the initiation of aggression prevail? Will the human-beings being attacked and living through these acts of aggression, striving to battle it back, lose their lives?

I say again: it becomes tragically simple to forget the chaos created by war — the utter and yet unutterable chaos that war generates.

Make no mistake, however, and please never forget: all war is chaos, and the outcomes are always far from certain.

Never forget also: the root of all war in found precisely in the initiation of force and aggression. It is found precisely here and nowhere else.

War is the instigation of force and aggression.

War is the instigation of force and aggression.

It is not the battling back.

War is chaos.

Chaos is the opposite of life.

War is by definition chaos, and chaos and the confusion created by chaos are precisely what the purveyors of force and the ministers of coercion seek first and most fundamentally of all to create and maintain in humankind: chaos and the terror and confusion that chaos generates.

The first two lines of Robert Graves’s poem deliberately (yet obliquely) echo the Book of Genesis — specifically, I believe, in how the beginning of time is biblically portrayed yet also very critically reinforced in Robert Graves’s mention of Adam and Eve— and also refers to certain Nordic mythologies (“an ancient saga”) of creation and how human life on earth began.

The Cow is a figurehead and symbol of ultimate good.

Thus the Cow is clearly capitalized in the poem to represent God, and I find in this fact the key to unlocking the entirety of Robert Graves’s brief, beautiful, yet cryptic piece and the fundamental meaning Graves intended, which meaning is profound.

Robert Graves, like all other war poets, was one soldier striving to speak for the countless millions of other non-writing soldiers — striving to articulate poetically the inexpressibly monstrous chaos created by war, including most terrifying of all the unknown outcomes of these acts of aggression and the initiation of force, which is malevolent chaos. And will it prevail?

The answer to that question is totally unknown ahead of time.

As a later poet memorably wrote, though in an entirely different context:

The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?

I have an answer to that question:

There is nothing greater than life.

The will is eternal.

Goodness is timeless.



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