American War Poetry, Part V

Jumping forward to World War I, we have two poems that once again present differing views of war, and with this pairing we have the coincidence that both poets died in the war about which they wrote. Alan Seeger (1888-1916) graduated from Harvard in 1910 but then enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and was killed before the U.S. even entered World War I. Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was an aspiring poet who was working as a tutor in the French Pyrenees when war broke out. He eventually enlisted back in England and saw combat for the last two years of the war. He was shot and killed on November 4, 1918, and news of his death reached his parents in England on November 11, as armistice bells were ringing.

By the way, given the title of this series, I should probably acknowledge that Wilfred Owen is not an American, and therefore his “Dulce Et Decorum Est” is not really “American War Poetry.” But I decided that line was blurry enough in the case of world wars that it would be a crime to leave Owen’s work out.

Finally, a hat-tip to both Tim Peach and Dave Fitzgerald, who independently sent the Owen poem to me even before they knew I was going to do a series of posts on war poetry.

The Aisne (1914-15)

by Alan Seeger (1888-1916)

We first saw fire on the tragic slopes
Where the flood-tide of France’s early gain,
Big with wrecked promise and abandoned hopes,
Broke in a surf of blood along the Aisne.

The charge her heroes left us, we assumed,
What, dying, they reconquered, we preserved,
In the chill trenches, harried, shelled, entombed,
Winter came down on us, but no man swerved.

Winter came down on us. The low clouds, torn
In the stark branches of the riven pines,
Blurred the white rockets that from dusk till morn
Traced the wide curve of the close-grappling lines.

In rain, and fog that on the withered hill
Froze before dawn, the lurking foe drew down;
Or light snows fell that made forlorner still
The ravaged country and the ruined town;

Or the long clouds would end. Intensely fair,
The winter constellations blazing forth —
Perseus, the Twins, Orion, the Great Bear —
Gleamed on our bayonets pointing to the north.

And the lone sentinel would start and soar
On wings of strong emotion as he knew
That kinship with the stars that only War
Is great enough to lift man’s spirit to.

And ever down the curving front, aglow
With the pale rockets’ intermittent light,
He heard, like distant thunder, growl and grow
The rumble of far battles in the night, —

Rumors, reverberant, indistinct, remote,
Borne from red fields whose martial names have won
The power to thrill like a far trumpet-note, —
Vic, Vailly, Soupir, Hurtelise, Craonne . . .

Craonne, before thy cannon-swept plateau,
Where like sere leaves lay strewn September’s dead,
I found for all dear things I forfeited
A recompense I would not now forego.

For that high fellowship was ours then
With those who, championing another’s good,
More than dull Peace or its poor votaries could,
Taught us the dignity of being men.

There we drained deeper the deep cup of life,
And on sublimer summits came to learn,
After soft things, the terrible and stern,
After sweet Love, the majesty of Strife;

There where we faced under those frowning heights
The blast that maims, the hurricane that kills;
There where the watchlights on the winter hills
Flickered like balefire through inclement nights;

There where, firm links in the unyielding chain,
Where fell the long-planned blow and fell in vain —
Hearts worthy of the honor and the trial,
We helped to hold the lines along the Aisne.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Posted in Arts and Letters, Citizenship, Poetry. Comments Off on American War Poetry, Part V
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