This article by Mary Louise Gardner was originally published in the Journal of Education on May 29, 1919.
O! ’tis an easy thing
To write and sing;
But to write true, unfeigned verse
Is very hard!
So spake the sensitive and pious Welsh poet, Henry Vaughn, nearly three hundred years ago. Fifteen winters back a cautious and kindly American critic, while lecturing on the literature produced in this country, made this statement: “The woods are full of twitterings, but as yet there is no burst of song.”
It is quite probably that were this critic alive today he might not consider the present outburst real song. Outburst it surely is! One reliable book reviewer announced last fall that between April and October, 1918, there were produced in the United States five hundred book on war—many of them books of verse—and Mr. Braithwaite in his last Anthology of Magazine Verse has a list of seven hundred writers of “good verse”; moreover, certain critics contend that Mr. Braithwaite has omitted some of our best poets. In Carolyn Wells’ recent “Ballade of War Books,” her L’Envoi reads thus:—
Publisher, Printer, Editor, forbear!
Nor longer than you must, your lists extend;
Do let this gushing output stop somewhere!
Of making many war books there’s no end!
In truth, such a wealth of expression—good, bad and indifferent—has been poured out upon the book market that a report upon American War Verse must be a process of elimination, and suggests the division of war verse into two classes—jingles and poems. (And there are some perfectly good, intelligent readers who enjoy and defend the jingles!)
Why this outburst of poetry during the World War? Let Amy Lowell, the vigorous and versatile, make reply. “The war has brought about a welding together of the whole country, has produced a more poignant sense of nationality. Hyphens are submerged in the solid over-printing of one word, ‘America.’ This realization of ourselves drew us into an understanding sympathy with our Allies, hardly to be conceived of before. Such a result cannot be reached through a devotion to the teachings of materialism. The real truth is that at the time when many people were bewailing the growth of materialism, already beneath the surface the seething of a new idealism was in process. Long before the shadow of battle flung itself over the world, the travail of this idealism began. Slowly and painfully it took on a shape hidden away in the dreams and desires of unknown men…. Our poetry from 1830 to the Civil War indicates strongly the racial homogeneity of our poets. In their products our poets (Whittier, Bryant, Emerson, Lowell) showed that they were all of good English stock. Poe and Whitman were far ahead of their times, and hence have some following today; the other poets were largely phonographs to greater English poets dead and gone. Any theory carried too far ends in sterility, and freshness is gained only by following some other line. America could not produce poets, wiseacres said, for she was given over to materialism. But there was this new idealism seething under the surface and it has been brought to the surface by the war.”
This same question, Why the Outburst of Poetry, is met by Professor Charlton M. Lewis (Yale University) in this manner: “As in our Civil War, so in the recent struggle for self preservation, it was also a struggle for the establishing of a great idea upon which rested the hope of the world, and these years of ruinous militancy have also been years of unique intellectual and spiritual fermentation… The poetry of this war is not merely war poetry, not merely patriotic poetry; it is the poetry of an irresistible movement of human thought reinvigorated by the very crime that was designed to arrest it.”
In answer to the oft-repeated question, Of What Sort of Poetry Is This Outburst, Professor Lewis continues: “It differs from previous war poetry in that individual feats of valor do not sufficiently absorb the world’s attention, but the heroic long endurance of whole nations in the trenches. Arnold Winkelried has had no opportunity in this war to win liberty and immortal renown with one sweep of his arms, but we known that a million of his peers are sleeping in unnoted graves.”
In another way this war poetry has differed from the old kind, Professor Lewis affirms, and has shown in this second difference also the vastness of the conflict. “It was one of Macaulay’s commonplaces that war works no disturbance in the life of a great nation, for love, pleasure, and industry go on at home as before, while all the strain and shock are absorbed by professional fighters far away. The recent war poems of France and England at least remind us that today is a day of fireside heroisms such as Macaulay never could have dreamed…. The enthusiasm that inspires most of the war verse is not merely martial, not merely patriotic, but moral, and radiating in many instances a moral beauty. Also in a number of poems will be found consoling visions of actual benefits of war. They remind us that war is not wholly an inferno; that some of its torments are rather those of purgatory, wherethrough redeemed spirits find their way to their soul’s salvation.”
(This last statement of Professor Lewis’s recalls to our minds Theodore Roosevelt’s expression in “The Great Adventure”: “Let us pay with our bodies for our soul’s desire.”)
Again Professor Lewis: “Love of country flames brightest in time of trouble; and we, unlike France and Italy, and even England, have long lived unfamiliar with calamity. But although prosperous years have tempted us recklessly to squander our spiritual resources, these latest days have revealed the capital fund still intact, as some American verse written before April 6, 1917, proved. We are becoming that America is really to us what ‘dulce France’ has for 900 years been to the French. May the new consciousness remain to purify us for the victories of peace that must be won hereafter.”
Some critics have emphasized the introspective character of the English war verse and they have been disappointed that the French poets at first attempted to write a good deal as they had done before the war. Let these dissatisfied ones brood over this soothing critique made upon Professor Clarke’s Treasury of War Poetry: “There is with the poets militant more compassion, more goodheartedness, more bravery and sensitiveness, than with the others. In the dangers of their fearful life they have acquired a hold on real human passions. They have lived with the sincerity of men who may die the next minute, and in consequence what they write transcends minutes, and days, and years. They have wise kind words, while our poets at home splutter bloody barbarities. They are concerned with that which will not perish, though their bodies may immediately.
“Their poems, too, have discarded everything general, vague and ideal. They deal with the specific, the love of a little beauty in the desert, the death of a friend, the weariness and glory of fighting. No didacticism, no bitterness, no pride, and above all, no priggishness.”
Who reads this “outburst” of poetry? Ask any public librarian or camp librarian in the United States. There is what the publishing houses call an “unprecedented demand” for books of poems—old and modern, of war and of peace. Note your own experience when you have tried to get Foxcroft’s War Verse, Braithwaite’s Anthology for 1918, or Gibbin’s Songs from the Trenches at your public library or at the bookstores. Note the poetry magazines: Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, The Poetry Review of America, Poet Lore, The Poetry Society of America, The Poet Lovers of New York City and so on. Among the most eager readers of verse have been the boys in service. Alexander Woollcot, once dramatic critic of the New York Times, who went abroad to serve, wrote back last summer: "I never get over my surprise at finding that all soldiers read verse and most of them write it. The majority of them carry a little notebook in which they set down their own couplets and also copy off any poem that has touched or amused them.” And so the reading of poetry has seemed not a pleasing digression, a way to fill idle moments, “an embroidery on the garments of experience,” but a necessity for those who stayed this side of the mill pond and for those who went over to fight.
Who are these war poets? Many of them the very youthful and obscure. The war brought many a young poet to the front who otherwise might have been made to wait for a hearing. A New York Times critic says: “It is interesting to note that those poems which have widest circulation as magazine verse have least merit as poetry; and those that appear most modestly and with softest claims, come nearer to having a right to existence.” And in the comments made upon one of our war anthologies the reviewer observes: “It seems that in every case the great poet, that is the poet accepted as pre-eminent among the poets of his day, has fallen far short of great poetry; the minor-minor poets and the men who perhaps never wrote poetry before the war have done the things in this collection which are really poignant and worthy poems. The poems that are likely to have any measure of immortality, that really touch the heart and mind of a reader now and will shed a light and warm a sympathy in the reader a hundred years from now, are those of the obscure singer.
“There is a reason for this failure of the established poets. The obscure poet, the minor poet, if you please, has written his inmost human feelings, overburdened by the enormity of the war, scourged and humbled by the suffering of the war, contrite in heart, purged in mind by his own insignificance and helplessness in the face of human sacrifice; the better known poet, feeling the eyes of the world upon him, imagining himself the mouth-piece of his kind, hoping to surprise the attention of the world, seeing himself the stanchion of his nation’s flag, has frothed generalities and tried to move men by words with capital letters. His priggishness has so far removed himself from men’s hearts that he forgets their feelings and those sympathies which move them most, and listens only to his own voice sounding words and sees only himself a mighty man in the world. The greater poet has imagined that his position carries with it an ethical duty; he has forgotten himself as a young man, as an obscure singer; he is now a poet of weight to whom is fitting utterances of weight.”
Is not this encouraging? Does it not mean that poem writing is becoming more “democratic,” that our young men are seeing visions?
As a result of the wide reading of poetry every one has his or her special liking in contemporary verse. The lack of agreement in favor of any one particular poet is a wholesome indication of our native independence in making critical estimates. There were already various “schools” of poetry when the war began; the new singers have greatly enriched the field of choice. For our purpose, the war poems may be divided into two classes: those from the trenches and those produced by non-combatants.
Among the youthful “khaki poets,” two (in the eyes of English and American reviewers) seem to stand out conspicuously: Alan Seeger and Joyce Kilmer. Both of these men are among the “rich Dead” who, in the words of Rupert Brooke:—
Laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth.
Alan Seeger’s boyhood was spent on Staten Island within sight of New York City. Daily he looked upon the romantic and majestic scenes of “the gateway to the Western hemisphere.” His biographer says: “From New York embodying the romance of Power, his family moved to Mexico representing the romance of Picturesqueness. At fourteen he left Mexico to go to the Hackley School at Tarrytown, New York, for he seemed predestined to environments of beauty.” Then followed the four years at Harvard and the plunge into the life of Paris. At the end of his second season in Paris came the fateful August of 1914. Within three weeks after the beginning of war Alan Seeger, with forty other Americans, had enlisted in the Foreign Legion of France. For two splendid years he lived intensely, “loving life, yet almost exulting in the prospect of losing it.”
From a boy
I gloated on existence. Earth to me
Seemed all-sufficient and my sojourn there
One trembling opportunity for joy.
Never in his letters did he express regret for the choice he had made, though he admitted that “trench warfare is anything but romantic.” To his mother he write in June, 1915, a year before he was killed: “Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier.” In a letter to her two months later he said: “I have always had the passion to play the biggest part within my reach, and it is really in a sense a supreme success to be allowed to play this. If I do not come out, I will share the good fortune of those who disappear at the pinnacle of their careers.” He had just passed his twenty-eighth birthday when the great advance of his “escouade” of the Foreign Legion began on the field of Belloy-en-Santerre. On the evening of July 4, 1916, Alan Seeger went forward in the first rush to clear the enemy out of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. He was one of the victims of a German machine gun concealed in a hollow way. One of his hopes was then fulfilled, for he was granted what he had called “that rare privilege of dying well.” In one of his last poems, "Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France," Alan Seeger wrote his own best epitaph:—
And on those furthest rims of hallowed ground,
Where the forlorn, the gallant charge expires,
When the slain bugler has long ceased to sound,
And on the tangled wires
The last wild rally staggers, crumbles, stops,
Withers beneath the shrapnel’s iron showers;
Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours.
In his new book, “The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century,” Professor Phelps tells the story of Alan Seeger’s most widely known poem, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.” The young poet once “took a course in Irish” at college and Irish lore is the source of this poem. The Song of Fothad Canaine furnishes the fundamental figure of “a rendezvous with Death,” but is wholly different from Seeger’s in general purport. Fothad Canaine makes a tryst with the wife of Ailill Flain, but is slain in battle by Ailill on the day before the night set for the meeting. Then the spirit of Fothad sings the reiche (requiem) to the woman declaring: “It is blindness for one who makes a trust to set aside the tryst with Death.”
Joyce Kilmer also kept the tryst with Death. Those who have been following his career for the last five years believe that the German bullet which felled him July 30, 1918, at the Ourcq, slew a brilliant promise. He was only thirty-one years old, but he had had his “crowded hour of a glorious life” more than once, and he has left a record of achievement worthy of a life of many more years.
He was a bit of a celebrity at twenty-five, having then arrived in the pages of Who’s Who. We can almost measure the promise that the German bullet slew that day in the battle of the Marne, for Joyce Kilmer had already published three volumes of verse, “each one a seven-leagued boot’s distance from its predecessor.” He climbed in strides. His physical and mental energy, his moral earnestness, his passion for humanity and his timeless gayety remind one of Theodore Roosevelt.
Joyce Kilmer was in the best sense “all things to all men.” “His fellows in religion think of him as all Catholic; his fellows in literature think of him as one of themselves; the Irish persist in seeing chiefly the Irish side. Each one is right in seeing the one facet that caught his eye and in being devoted ever more to that facet.”
“A convert to Catholicism,” he wrote a friend, “is not a person who wanders about weeping over autumn winds and dead leaves, mumbling Latin and sniffing incense…. Nor is it necessary to decorate rhymes with rich ecclesiastical imagery and the fragrant names of saints. But in Faith we may find that purity and strength which are the guarantees of immortality.” Thus he is freed from the possible accusation of sentimentality in religion. He detested “writers who moo and coo with women folk about their blessed souls.”
Joyce Kilmer said of himself: “I am catholic in my tastes and Catholic in my religion, am socially a democrat and politically a Democrat.” It is as a Christian democrat that his brief military career should be estimated.
As a poet and writer in the Literary Digest, the New York Times, The Churchman and other papers, his labors through America’s three years of neutrality were exerted in behalf of the Entente. His poem, “The White Ships and the Red,” inspired by the torpedoing of the Lusitania, was one of the most righteous outpourings of wrath against the barbarism of German methods. In the German art and literature he saw movements directly opposed to the democracy of the Christian religion. He warned Americans against this insidious perverter of civilization But this was not enough. The deaths of Rupert Brooke and Alan Seeger were to him a solemn reminder that the true poet must follow wheresoever the vision shall lead him. “The poet must go where the greatest songs are singing” was his friend Christopher Morley’s way of expressing the same truth.
On Good Friday of 1917, the President of the United States declared war and on the evening of that day Joyce Kilmer was in uniform at Columbia University as a member of the Officers’ Reserve Training Battalion. There were three reasons why this young poet might have excused himself from the draft. He was above the draft age, he had the responsibility of a wife and four little children, and his vocation as a newspaper man was generally held to be an “essential occupation.” But he went to France in the fall of 1917.
“It is the pleasantest war I have ever attended,” he wrote back from France. “Nice war, nice people, nice country, nice everything.” Once, after describing the tumult of the day he added: “I don’t see what I can be after I come home unless I’m a fireman.”
Death always seemed so far from Joyce Kilmer that the news “killed in action” at the Battle of the Marne was well nigh unbelievable. His friends were reminded of the lines he had written several years before in the famous poem, “The 12.45” (the commuters’ midnight train to New Jersey)”—
Perhaps Death roams the hills tonight,
And we rush forward to give him fight,
for this was how he died—on a patrol rushed forth, on a little hill.
His own “Rouge Bouquet,” a copy of which was found in many a soldier’s blouse pocket, was read at the burial service. The “Farewell” at the end of each stanza was followed by “taps” from over the hill. Not one of the boys present will ever forget the occasion.
What matters death if Freedom be not dead?
No flags are fair if Freedom’s flag be furled,
Who fights for Freedom goes with joyful tread
To meet the fires of hell against him hurled,
And has for Captain Him whose thorn-wreathed head
Smiles from the Cross upon a conquered world.
All his poetry was marked by simplicity and sincerity. “His song was as old as the hills and as fresh as the morning.” He believed that every minute of life was worth living and was impatient of all “pessimistic nonsense written about it by lyrical whimperers and slackers.”
Although not a “khaki-poet,” Christopher Morley, one of Joyce Kilmer’s innumerable friends, may be mentioned here, for he belongs in the company of today’s youthful poets. He is scarcely twenty-eight years old, yet he has been on the pages of Who’s Who for several years. In his delightful book of verse, “Songs for a Little House,” one finds the splendid sonnet upon Kitchener’s death, “The Ballad of the Three Rivers” (the Marne, the Meuse, the Aisne), the lyrical “Pussy Willows in Belgium” and other poems worth while to the seeker of war verse.
Give honor to the gunboat that was not too small to die.
And Mr. Burnet’s recent poem, “When Pershing’s Men Go Marching into Picardy,” so inspired an American composer that a stirring piece of music has resulted.
Henry van Dyke’s “Red Flower” was among the first books of war verse published in this country. As a “diary in poetry” of his feelings and experiences in Europe from July, 1914, until he returned to the United States in 1916, it has a value of its own.
The so-called “obscure poets” mentioned in the early part of this article are represented in the early part of this article are represented in Herbert A. Gibbon’s Anthology—“Songs from the Trenches, The Soul of the A. E. F.” This collection will be recognized as that of the competitive prize poems received from the boys at the front by the New York Herald. The serious advocates of vers libre may be a bit shocked at some of the liberties taken with the free verse form in several of these poems. Those who have been on the quest of American war verse may wish to have mentioned: Robert Underwood Johnson’s “Poems of War and Peace,” Amelia Josephine Burr’s “The Silver Trumpet,” Private Divine’s “City Ways and Company Streets” and that stirring collection, “Fifes and Drums,” put forth by the Vigilantes of America.
Among the anthologies containing the American as well as the English and Canadian war verse are Professor J. W. Cunliffe’s “Poems of the Great War,” W. Reginald Wheeler’s “A Book of Verse of the Great War,” Professor George Herbert Clarke’s “A Treasury of War Poetry” and Carry Ellen Holman’s “In the Day of Battle.”
Only a few of the books forming a part of this veritable flood of war verse have been mentioned. There has been this outburst of song. It is continuing and there are signs of increasing Parnassian activity. And to what purpose?
The educational experts are stressing their theory that knowledge should function. Then may the rest of us indulge in the hope of the democracy of poetry, in the possibility of its functioning in the daily life of the multitudes?
Why not ponder upon these words of our American poet, Sara Teasdale, believe them and act upon them? Thus she speaks: “The writing of poems should be considered as natural as the writing of letters. Children should make up poems without the slightest embarrassment, and the time spent in school writing their own poems would be better spent than that consumed in learning arithmetic. Poetry is the most democratic of the arts, because no money is needed for long special training in learning now to compose it. It is the best antidote for the morbid repression that many of us have inherited from generations of Puritan ancestors. When everybody writes his own poems, two-thirds of the misery of the world will flow away singing like ice-locked rivers when the spring sets in."
Then all honor to the Who’s Who in American War Verse! And blessings on the day when every American shall be Who’s Who in American poetry.