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You're in a bar and the person across has the most stunningly bright blue eyes you've ever seen. The kind of blue that makes you wonder: where are the clouds? What do you say? "Er... I know this is kind of strange to say, but, well... er... you have the most amazing eyes-- like the sky!" You may be more aggressive about it, but this last part, this linking of what we see to pieces of nature, that's what is interesting. Why not automatically associate it with a piña colada jelly bean or the cyan blue of an old Chevy. It might just be easier to say "the sky". And, for those of us trying to sound sophisticated, it does lend a certain poetic depth. But, how did the sky become such a pivotal point of reference in descriptors today? How did the sky become a basis for metaphors, like the association of a dark sky with a bad mood, or a sunset with death?
The idea of describing the sky, or even using the sky in relation to a rather corny pick-up line seems common place today. But, more than a hundred years ago, the sky was not so readily described. Much of literature didn't even bother describing the sky, unless a dramatized sunrise or oddly shaped cloud could give the story an extra flare, simply because authors considered the sky as a literary feature to be too rudimentary to need description; I mean, after all, "just look up!" So, when did this trend start of revolving entire settings or introductions or moods around even the most calm and ordinary sky?
Well, it seems to have begun with the shot that lead all of Europe to stand-to: the shot that was heard 'round the world. The coming of WWI. The initial call for arms held hands with naïve glorifications of good old fighting. So much so that on Christmas, all the participating soldiers of WWI came together in No Man's Land, outside of the trenches, to share cigars and tut tut for old time's sake. Within the next four years, after thousands upon thousands of deaths and the endlessness of battle, all such whimsies were gone, along with the hope that lighted them. What on earth does this have to do with the sky? Patience, keep reading. Now, think for a moment: what must it have been like to be in these trenches? If you were in an English trench, for instance, they were crudely constructed, mud sliding in at the feet along with sheets of water when it rained; the smell and dust of dry earth surrounded all sides; the feel of encasement. What is the only escape? The sky.
Men would look up for hours on end. As they marched along trenches or hid in preparation, or even smoked a cigarette, they looked up at the sky, away from the continuous jail-like confinement of dirt. Not only this, but soldiers would have to stand-to at sunrise and sunset, always participating in scheduled drills at these times. Sunset determines when to call it a day; sunset is the time when one counts the dead. Sunrise is the time when men must go back to fighting, when energy, however depleted must be restored. A soldier's life literally revolved around the color of the sky.
Imagine having nothing beautiful or familiar to look at but the sky? Imagine smelling the stench of hundreds of men's excretions into one trench, of death, of rotten food. Imagine the mess of dirt and rags, of bones and flesh. You would look away for moments too. And to the sky you would go. The sky was no longer just an element of nature, but the “heavens” (Fussell 20). Sassoon, a soldier of WWI, wrote that “the sky was one of the only redeeming features of the war” (Fussell 52).
Great War poetry is heavy with descriptions of the sky, some poems completely revolving around it. Birthed into literature and humanity was a hyper-awareness of the sky and its role in everyday life. This is a perfect example of how the development of society, linguistics, even technology, greatly influence literature. Something I would have never thought of like being in a trench during WWI, can bring about some of the most beautiful recognitions of the sublime quality of a simple sky. This is the power of words; the sway of humanity; the warmth of literature. And, at the end of the day, what does literature influence? People. Do you see the ripples? Have they touched you yet?
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford UP, 1975. Print.
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Women in the World and the Ripple Effect Section, Sasha Martin:
I made my own major, The Nature of Emotion as investigated through literature, psychology, anthropology, cognitive science and other interdisciplinary fields, and am minoring in Creative Writing. I created Unleashed for the general empowerment and knowledge of women and men everywhere, and continue to be involved as editor, designer and writer. I am an editorial and PR intern for City Lights. I happen to love the Unleashed staff quite dearly, as well as readers like you. It's amazing what words can do! Feel free to email me at Unleashed. I hope you enjoy!