At the time of the First World War, poems were a common feature of everyday life, and poetry was deeply connected to politics and current events. War poetry provided a key way of commenting on the war, and numerous poems explicitly referenced others, debating the meaning and purpose of the conflict. In early drafts, Wilfred Owen dedicated his most famous poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” to Jessie Pope, responding to and criticizing her view of the war (perhaps specifically addressing her poem “The Lads of the Maple Leaf”).*
The following two American poems debate not only the war, but ways of understanding the death of war poets. The first poem, written by Walter Adolphe Roberts, appeared in his collection Pierrot Wounded: And Other Poems (1919) and was reprinted in William Stanley Braithwaite’s Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1919. Prior to the U.S. involvement in the war, Roberts was the European war correspondent for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
For Poets Slain in War
Happy the poets who fell in magnificent ways!
Gayly they went in the pride of their blossoming days,
Each with his vision of Liberty, chanting its praise.
Seeger and Ledwidge and Pearse and Brooke and Péguy — **
Names that are songs in the saying, that surely shall be
Laurelled among the immortals, for all men to see.
Lo, they were darlings of destiny! Weakly we shed
Even one tear that they lie at the barricades red.
Splendidly dead for the Patria, splendidly dead!
—Walter Adolphe Roberts
Marion Doyle’s response appeared in Selected Poems for Armistice Day (1928). Doyle’s first collection of poetry, Strange Exodus, was published in 1934; prior to that, her work frequently appeared in magazines and newspapers.
(After reading “For Poets Slain in War”)
“Splendidly dead,” who dares such maudlin singing!
Seeger, Kilmer, Pearse, Brooke, and Péguy—***
Men who would today be gladly bringing
Daring gifts of song to tired humanity,
Sacrificed to Power’s lust for power,
Masked beneath the lie: “For Home and Honor.”
“Splendidly dead”—the pride of manhood’s flower
Crucified upon the cross of horror?
Face the truth: what need now to dissemble?
Mars and Kings have silenced all their singing;
They are dust and yet we start and tremble
At the white dove’s perilous slow winging….
Never I hear of their “splendid dying”
But I hear the voice of lost song crying.
* Anderson D. Araujo, “Jessie Pope, Wilfred Owen, and the politics of pro patria mori in World War I poetry, Media, War & Conflict, vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 326-341.
** The poets named are Alan Seeger (American poet, author of “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” killed while fighting with the French Foreign Legion at the Battle of the Somme on July 4, 1916), Frances Ledwidge, (Irish poet, author of Songs of the Field , killed at Passchendaele on July 31, 1917), Patrick Pearse (Irish poet, author of “The Wayfarer,” and one of the leaders of the Easter Rising, who was executed May 3, 1916), Rupert Brooke (British poet, author of “The Soldier,” died enroute to Gallipoli on April 23, 1915), and Charles Pèguy (French poet, author of Portico of the Mystery of the Second Virtue, killed in advance action at the Battle of the Marne on September 5, 1914).
*** To Roberts’ list of poets, Doyle adds Joyce Kilmer (American poet, author of “Trees,” killed at the Second Battle of the Marne on July 30, 1918).