Friday, April 17, 2015

Not one will care at last when it is done

In 1920, two years after the Great War had ended, American poet Sara Teasdale published a poem about spring rains. In 1950, science fiction author Ray Bradbury, inspired by her poem, published a short story with the same title.   

There Will Come Soft Rains by Sara Teasdale

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools, singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Like a fragile robin's egg, the 12-line poem breaks into two halves, the first six lines offering up the variety and vitality of spring, while the last six catalog emptiness and loss. 

The inverted syntax of the poem's title and first line places time in its future tense before the mention of rain, for this is a meditation on time, war, and memory.  The poem looks ahead to the future, and as it does so, it reinterprets many of the images that had been darkly associated with the First World War.  Unlike the "wild rain" of Edward Thomas's poem, the showers of Teasdale's poem are "soft." Unlike the "obscene, the filthy, the putrid" mud of Mary Borden's poem, in Teasdale's lyric, the "smell of the ground" carries the life-giving scent of the spring.  And unlike the "stiff and senseless" chum described in Rickword's "Trench Poets," whose unburied body recalls men who hung on the barbed wire of No Man's Land, in Teasdale's poem, robins perch on fence wire, "whistling their whims." 

In the shimmering sound of the swallows and the evening songs of the frogs, Teasdale asks us to listen as sweetness and harmony return to the world. 

But the second half of the poem echoes three times the words "not one":  not one will be left to know of the war, to care about the war, to mind "if mankind perished utterly."  While the first half of the poem suggests that spring and rebirth will bring healing to the wounds of war that have been inflicted on the landscape and the psyche, the tone of the second half of the poem is one of indifference rather than acceptance. 

Gassed, by Gilbert Rogers
Teasdale's poem now appears sadly prophetic.  Today in America, there are few who remember the First World War.  The Meuse-Argonne offensive is an unfamiliar name to many, despite the 26,277 American men who were killed and the 95,786 who were wounded in the battles.  The total American casualties of the war, estimated at 116,516 killed and 204,002 wounded, have largely been forgotten.  Teasdale's poem gives voice to the dead of the war in its final lines: "And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,/Would scarcely know that we were gone."  

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