Sunday, January 24, 2021

Verses to a Mule

Missouri Digital Heritage, Springfield Greene County Public Library 

In her essay “A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man,” Great War historian Lucy Betteridge-Dyson writes,  “Yet whilst the contribution of the horse is undoubtedly fascinating … it is his less glamorous cousin, the mule, who was the real equine hero of the Great War.” She continues, “what sets the mule apart from the horse and the donkey are his physical attributes combined with his personality. He is both more intelligent and diligent than the horse, in addition to being tougher and more resistant to illness and disease. It is these characteristics which made the mule an invaluable resource during the Great War.”*

Some soldier-poets even wrote poems honoring the army mule: 

Verses to a Mule**

I’d like to sing the virtues of a mule, brown, black, or gray;
To paint his personality in quite a pleasing way,
But Jim declares a mule’s beneath such eloquent respect,
And, saying which, his diction’s more emphatic than correct.

A mule-skinner is Jim, and you ought to see him drive:
The wheelers balk and, statue-like, they scarcely seem alive;
The leaders semi-circle  ’til they prance at Jimmy’s feet,
And Jimmy leaps politely up to tender them his seat.

A mule is nothing beautiful; no hymn or work of art.
It’s Jim’s belief he’s only ears and hoofs, without a heart,
Unkempt, a shaggy animal, who shies at every shack,
Who always waits his chance and kicks you just below the back.

Now, only beasts can sweat, they say, for gentlemen perspire,
But bless the tugging mules that pull your auto from the mire.
’Tis true, by conscience they object to backing where they stand—
That’s not a vicious habit in a military land.

Oh, he’s the brute who lugs your heavy rations to the door,
The brute who labors, hauling, from the quartermaster’s store,
The one who stumbles through the mud and always finds his feet,
With loads of hay and wood and coal and clothing, bread, and meat.

He looks at you as if his soul lay sleeping in his eyes,
He plods the roads as if the world for him held no surprise,
He pulls the combat wagons over ruts as high as trees,
He wallows where the others shrink and dirties up his knees.

So talk to him more gently, Jim, this homely beast of toil,
For he’s the only one can swim through Carolina soil;
And tuck him safe in bed at night and kiss him on the cheek—
And maybe, then, he’ll never kick you—more than once a week.
—Charles S. Divine*** 

British soldier & mule © IWM Q 16181

All combatant nations relied heavily on horses and mules, quickly learning that mules were more adaptable to the conditions of the First World War. From the mud of the Western Front to the barren landscapes of Gallipoli, mules transported supplies, carried the wounded, and hauled heavy artillery. The primary supplier of mules was the United States, exporting 180,000 mules to Britain alone during the war.†

When the U.S. entered the war, mules joined American troops in overseas service and proved indispensable; Pershing commented that one of the most significant logistics problems faced by the AEF was the shortages of animals. On several occasions, the service of mules and their handlers was nothing short of heroic: 

© IWM Q5773 John Warwick Brooke 
On 4 October 1918 [at Ergemont during the Meuse-Argonne offensive] all communication with artillery in the rear had broken down, and the commander sent for new telephone wire. All division trucks were bogged down in mud, and wagon horses faltered in their traces. So Sgt. Laurence M. Lumpkin loaded ten pack mules with the needed wire and headed for the forward position. German artillerymen spotted the animals and laid down a barrage that killed five of them. The remaining mules with Lumpkin did not panic, and they delivered the wire. After unloading them, Lumpkin galloped the five animals back to the point where the other mules had fallen, removed the loads from the dead mules, repacked his remaining five and brought back the rest of the wire. For this dangerous act he received the DSC, but the mules were given no official recognition. “Their behavior under fire, however, endeared them to the First Division.” ††

To learn more about military mules, see Betteridge-Dyson’s essay at this site, which also includes another example of mulish war poetry, “Musings of a Mule.”
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*Lucy Betteridge-Dyson, “A stupid mule is still smarter than a good horse, or a bad man,” Oh What a Ladylike War. Betteridge-Dyson’s article is a superb introduction to military mules.
**“Verses to a Mule” was first published in the Wadsworth Camp (Spartanburg, SC) newspaper, Gas Attack, March 2, 1918. This version appears in Charles Divine’s City Ways and Company Streets, Moffat and Yard, 1918.
***For more on Charles Divine and his war poetry, see “When Private Mugrums Parley Voos” on this blog.
†Emmett M. Essin, Shavetails and Bell Sharps: The History of the U.S. Army Mule, U of Nebraska, 2000, p. 147.
††Essin, p. 155. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020

A Belgian Letter

Kenneth MacLeish, c. 1917


On October 14, 1918, American aviator Kenneth MacLeish, attached to British Squadron 213, was on patrol over Belgium. The squadron encountered German planes, and in the air battle that followed, MacLeish shot down at least one German plane, but he and his Sopwith Camel failed to return to base. For months, no trace of MacLeish nor his plane were found. The squadron and MacLeish’s family and friends held out hope that he had crash landed and been taken prisoner by the retreating German army.

In late January of 1919, two months after the war had ended and more than three months since Kenneth had disappeared, the family received information that had come from a Belgian landowner. Kenneth’s brother Archibald MacLeish wrote of the impact of that news:

A Belgian Letter

Madame, it is my duty to make known
The brave death of a soldier. I had gone
Today, the Christmas morrow, to my farm
Hard by the town of Bruges, to see what harm
This wind of war had made among my walls
And in my garden, where the blackbird calls
First always in the spring. Madame, I went
With two old friends, an architect of Ghent
And one that had a factory of cloth
At Bruges before the war, true Belgians both
And truer friends to me: they'd not endure
That I should go alone. ‘You're never sure,’
They said, ‘what thing the Boche has left behind,’
And so they came. The road was hard to find
Even for me that sixty years or more
Have trudged each market day from Bruges to Schoore,
And all the farm was ruin, and a pool
Of horrid water — not a cart or tool
Nor any wall upstanding, save the stack
That shivered in the wind and warned us back.
In all that place there was no living thing

From The First Yale Unit, by David Paine
Save that the sudden gusts made stir and ring
Within the stark door frame the summons bell,
And on the hearth the water dripped and fell.
We went about the house to where the barn
Had fallen inward and the earth was torn
With shreds of iron; there both the stave
Of broken wood we found — you must be brave,
Madame — we found the body of a man,
An officer, and on his breast the span
Of golden eagle wings. There was a case
With papers and your name, and then the place,
The other side of the world, whence he had come,
And pictures that we thought must be his home.
Madame, we made a casket out of boards
And buried him — the merchant has the words
In Flemish, of the service for the dead,
For all his sons were killed, and these he said,
And then we made a grave above the foss
Within the garden wall, and set a cross
Marked with his name, and when the spring comes North
To heal the land with flowers, and the earth
Is clean again of the war, it will be good
To lie there by the wall, and feel the blood
Of rose and currant stirring in the loam,
And know that in the earth he has come home
Whatever home he sought; and where, one time,
Within his brain old questionings did climb,
Now will th’ unwondering roots of summer’s rose
Thrust, — and the beauty of the world unclose.
        —Archibald MacLeish (1920)

The British authorities who received the news wrote to the eldest MacLeish son that M. Rouse, the Belgian farmer, “had presented the plot on which the grave was situated to your mother, in case she desires to allow the body to remain in its present location…. One of your brother’s former classmates, Lieutenant John C. Menzies, is installing to-day a small headstone, properly marked, which we obtained in Calais. I can assure you that everything that can possibly be done is being done.”*

But everything possible would not bring back Kenneth MacLeish. His brother Archibald MacLeish, who served in the First World War as a field artillery officer with the American army, would go on to become one of America’s prominent 20th-century writers and a three-time awardee of the Pulitzer Prize. But he never forgot his younger brother’s death. In interviews conducted in the last years of his life and published in Reflections (1986), MacLeish shared his personal views of the First World War: 

Archibald MacLeish
What happened in the middle of the twenties was that it became pretty apparent, even to people my age and even to the people who had been involved in the war as I had, that the war, the Wilsonian rhetoric, and the British propaganda which my brother bought, was all an enormous fraud and fabrication; the war was nothing but a commercial war. There was no reason for it except reasons of commercial competition. There were no moral reasons, no humanitarian reasons, no humane reasons. Nothing. It killed millions of men. It slaughtered an entire generation. It's the most disgusting thing that has happened really in the history of this planet. Vietnam is just a smear beside it.**

Poetry helped MacLeish to make sense of his family’s tragedy. In the same end-of-life interviews, Archibald MacLeish spoke of what poetry meant to him: 

…poetry is the inward of the thing that history is the outward of. Poetry is constantly examining the human possibility. It is constantly examining the emotional life, which is by far the most moving part of human life. It's constantly in search of the question of man. What is man? What is man? What is man? History sees the end result. It sees what happens when a Franco collapses power down on a country like Spain. Poetry is inside that and sees what the destroyed possibility would have been, because a great part of our past is the past of failures.*** 

Flanders Fields American Cemetery, 
photo from Beinecke Library, Yale
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*Ralph D. Pain,“Kenneth MacLeish’s Path to Glory” in The First Yale Unit: A Story of Naval Aviation, 1916–1919, v. 2, Riverside Press, 1925, p. 363. Kenneth MacLeish was reburied in the Flanders Fields American Cemetery in Belgium. 
**Archibald MacLeish, Reflections, U of Mass P, 1986, p. 232.
***Archibald MacLeish, Reflections, p. 142.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

His flying was a poem

Jeffery Day

Miles Jeffery Day was one of the best-known poets in the Royal Naval Air Service during the First World War. His war poems were published in the London Spectator, and he had earned widespread recognition for his prowess as a pilot. His air combat victories qualified him as a First World War ace, and another officer remembers, “I had heard him spoken of as a young pilot in a seaplane carrier who could do things with an aeroplane that nobody else could do.”*

One of Day’s published poems was written in memory of his elder brother Dennis Ivor Day, a keen oarsman before the war who rowed for Cambridge (bow) in their win against Oxford in the 72nd Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race of 1914.  Five years older than Jeffrey, Dennis enlisted early in the war with the Royal Field Artillery. He was shot in the eye by a German sniper at Vermelles September 25, 1915 and died without regaining consciousness on Oct. 7, 1915. He was 23 years old. 

Jeffery Day’s tribute to Dennis intertwines his love for his older brother with a nostalgia for the fenland scenes of their boyhood home in St. Ives, Cambridgeshire. 

To My Brother**
………………………………….

Winter River At Dawn, Rad Dougall
This will I do when peace shall come again—
peace and return, to ease my heart of pain.
Crouched in the brittle reed-beds, wrapped in grey
I'll watch the dawning of the winter's day,
the peaceful, clinging darkness of the night
that mingles with the mystic morning light,
and graceful rushes, melting in the haze,
while all around in winding water ways
the wild fowl gabble cheerfully and low
or wheel with pulsing whistle to and fro,
filling the silent dawn with sweetest song,
swelling and dying as they sweep along,
till shadows of vague trees deceive the eyes,
and stealthily the sun begins to rise,
striving to smear with pink the frosted sky
and pierce the silver mist’s opacity;
until the hazy silhouettes grow clear
and faintest hints of colouring appear,
and the slow, throbbing, red, distorted sun
reaches the sky, and all the large mists run,
leaving the little ones to wreathe and shiver,
pathetic, clinging to the friendly river;
until the watchful heron, grim and gaunt,
shows ghostlike, standing at his favourite haunt,
and jerkily the moorhens venture out,
spreading swift, circled ripples round about;
and softly to the ear, and leisurely,
querulous, comes the plaintive plover's cry.
And then, maybe, some whispering near by,
some still, small, sound as of a happy sigh
shall steal upon my senses, soft as air,
and, brother! I shall know that thou are there.


Then, with my gun forgotten in my hand,
I’ll wander through the snow-encrusted land,
following the tracks of hare and stoat, and traces
of bird and beast, as delicate as laces,
doing again the things that we held dear,
keeping thy gracious spirit ever near,
comforted by the blissful certainty
and sweetness of thy splendid company.
And in the lazy summer nights I’ll glide
silently down the sleepy river’s tide,
listening to the music of the stream,
the plop of ponderously playful bream,
the water whispering around the boat,
and from afar the white owl’s liquid note
that lingers through the stillness, soft and slow;
watching the little yacht’s red homely glow,
her vague reflection, and her clean cut spars
ink-black against the stillness of the stars,
stealthily slipping into nothingness,
while on the river’s moon-splashed surfaces
tall shadows sweep. Then, when I go to rest,
it may be that my slumbers will be blest
by the faint sound of thy untroubled breath,
proving thy presence near, in spite of death.
       —Jeffery Day

Written in early 1918, “To my Brother” was one of Day’s last poems, written when he was just twenty-one years old. On March 8, 1918, the Huntingdonshire Post carried news that Jeffery Day and his plane had been shot down over the English Channel: 

On the 27th February he was flying a single-seater aeroplane, accompanied by one other aviator in a similar machine, and was scouting about 20 miles north of Dunkirk, when the two aviators were attacked by a German squadron, and in the fight which followed Mr. Day’s machine was brought down. The other airman escaped and returned to Dunkirk and reported that he had seen Mr. Day’s machine fall in the sea, and had seen Mr. Day climb out of his seat on to the back of the aeroplane as it floated, and that he had a Gieves belt on. A patrol was sent out as soon as practicable, and later on the same day a second patrol was sent out, and on the following morning a third, but all returned without being able to find any traces either of Mr. Day’s aeroplane or of him. As it was reported by the aviator who accompanied that no surface craft were in sight, the only hope that remains is that Mr. Day may have been picked up by a submarine and may possibly have been landed as a prisoner in Germany.***

No trace of Day or his plane were ever found. On March 15, 1918, the local paper printed an excerpt from the letter his parents received that informed them of their youngest son’s death: 

He was fearless and selfless, and his perfectly charming and open personality made him beloved by every one. He was as perfect a pilot as ever existed, his flying was a poem and his influence in the squadron was really priceless. He is a very serious loss to us, and I can perhaps only faintly realise the loss he is to you.†

Royal Naval Air Service take-off from ship

Had he lived, Jeffery Day planned to write a book on flying. A draft manuscript included these notes:  

I had quite made up my mind when I came down from my first flight I would sit down forthwith and with very great ease write some most superior verses on the thrill and grandeur of flying. Accordingly I immediately proceeded to evolve magnificent and fine sounding phrases describing what I felt sure it would be like, and to search diligently for suitable rhymes. However when I did come down, my only thought was to go up again …. and anyhow, why write verses when you might be flying? …. my mind was very full of half-grasped impressions, like a small bag packed tight with young eels, and out of that seething mass I couldn’t have picked one solid, sensibly worded impression for the life of me. It was silly of me to expect to write directly after my first flight, for one doesn’t sit down to write a rhapsody on strawberries and cream with a belly full of ‘em but with an empty bell, and a great desire for them.††

In their tribute to the pilot-poet, the Spectator wrote that his family had “lived for generations by the Ouse, and his boyhood was passed in the company of the river. It was his path into the kingdom of the imagination; it led him to poetry.”†††
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*Edward Hilton Young, “Memoir,” Poems and Rhymes, by Jeffery Day, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1919, p. 10.
**A 36-line first stanza was added to the poem when it was included in Day’s posthumously published Poems and Rhymes (Sidgwick & Jackson, 1919).
***“Flight Com. Day Missing,” Huntingdonshire Post, 8 Mar. 1918. 
† “Flight Com. M.J.D. Day: As Perfect a Pilot as Ever Existed,” Huntingdonshire Post,15 March 1918. Just one month later, the Day family received word that their eldest son, George, had been severely wounded by shrapnel. The local paper wrote, “Mr. and Mrs. Day have hope, which will be shared by everyone who knows them, that one of their gallant sons may be spared.” George survived his injuries and returned to St. Ives, dying in 1974.
††Jeffery Day, “Notes,” Poems and Rhymes, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1919, pp. 65–66.
†††“The Late Flight Commander Jeff Day [From the “Spectator”],” Huntingdonshire Post, 12 April 1918. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

An Anthology of Lost Voices

 

It’s not coincidental that one of my favorite words is serendipity, “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” The journey of writing, editing, and publishing International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices has been a circuitous one along twisting roads and unmarked paths, and I am grateful to everyone who has provided direction and sustenance along the way. This book would not have been possible if not for the support of so many who contributed to the surprising discoveries that are at the heart of the anthology. 

The kindness of strangers was one of the best of these discoveries, such as the generous review provided by the poet Ian McMillan:

Here is a superb anthology and work of scholarship that, in an astonishing feat of literary archaeology, cuts through the smoke and noise of the First World War to present us with poems that have been hidden in history's unforgiving mud for far too long. The poems are illuminated and set in context, and I hope that they will now take their place alongside the small number of First World War poems that everyone knows so well. Here is poetry’s abundance in the face of horror. 

What McMillan describes as “literary archaeology” often felt more like happy mudlarking as I searched the foreshore of archives and second-hand bookshops with an eye to spotting poems that were lost, discarded, or forgotten. Some of the finds are rather ordinary, perhaps even common, yet they tell rich stories about the past. Others are true treasures, but it is the search and excavation that have offered such delight. This project’s work has been a happy adventure, and it is my hope that readers will encounter the same pleasures of serendipitous discovery, finding valuable and agreeable voices, histories, and poems in this collection. 

International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices is published by Bloomsbury Academic Press. It can be ordered online at www.bloomsbury.com at a 35% savings by entering the discount code GLR TW5 on the first page at checkout. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Women Demobilized

May Wedderburn Cannan

In her autobiography Grey Ghosts and Voices, May Wedderburn Cannan writes,

The Census for 1921 had found there was in the country a surplus of women who, inconsiderately, had not died in the war, and now there was an outcry and someone christened them “The Surplus Two Million.” The Times suggested that they might seek work abroad; the unemployment figures were swollen with these unnecessary and unwanted persons.*

What was it like for women in the war’s aftermath? During the war, May Wedderburn Cannan had worked in a French railway canteen for British soldiers and in the Paris office of British intelligence. Her fiancé, Bevil Quiller-Couch, survived some of the fiercest fighting on the Western Front, only to die of influenza in February of 1919, while still on active duty in Germany (further details can be read here). 

At the war’s end, surviving soldiers who were demobilised returned as different men to homes that had changed dramatically from those they had left. But women, too, struggled to return “back to the empty world.” 

Women Demobilized
July 1919

Now must we go again back to the world
Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying,
And in the rain the sounding of Last Posts
And Lovers’ crying—
Back to the old, back to the empty world.

Now are put by the bugles and the drums,
And the worn spurs, and the great swords they     carried,
Now are we made most lonely, proudly, theirs,
The men we married:
Under the dome the long roll of the drums.

Now are the Fallen happy and sleep sound,
Now in the end, to us is come the paying,
These who return will find the love they spend,
But we are praying
Love of our Lovers fallen who sleep sound.

Now in our hearts abides always our war,
Time brings, to us, no day for our forgetting,
Never for us is folded War away,
Dawn or sun setting,
Now in our hearts abides always our war.
        —May Wedderburn Cannan

Cannan includes the first stanza of this poem in her autobiography, prefacing it with the explanation, “Losing one’s world, one still wanders in it, a ghost. It is for long, more real than the new world into which one knows (but does not want to know) one must presently move and live.”**  

She attempted to forget her grief in work, but found it difficult to secure a position. In one job interview, she was asked, “And at which University, Miss Cannan, did you get your degree?”

     I said I had hoped I had made it clear in my application that I had no Degree and the voice said coldly “the other ten candidates have all got Degrees.” 
     I thought, “Well, I’ve lost it,” and I thought “surplus two million”: and I collected my bag and my gloves and I looked at them all sitting round that long table and I said, “If I had got a Degree, it would have been between 1914 and 1918 and I preferred to be elsewhere. And what is more, Gentlemen” —I had got up now and pushed back my chair and made them a little bow— “I still prefer to have been elsewhere.”
     There was a horrid silence and then someone said loudly, “God bless my soul, the young lady’s quite right.”*** 

Cannan got the job. Describing her life at that time she writes, “I slept badly, woke dead tired, went early to work, and in the evenings, pulled the green shaded lamp down over my work and was happy to be alone.”†

Although Cannan suffered immense grief, she did not despair, writing, “I was fortunate because though I had lost everything, I kept so much. I did not believe that the Dead had died for nothing, nor that we should have ‘kept out of the war’ —the Dead had kept faith, and so if we did not grudge it, had we.”††

She explains further, “A saying went round, “Went to the war with Rupert Brooke and came home with Siegfried Sassoon. I had much admired some of Sassoon’s verse but I was not coming home with him. Someone must go on writing for those who were still convinced of the right of the cause for which they had taken up arms.”††† 

Near the end of her life, as she composed her autobiography, May Wedderburn Cannan reflected, “I suppose most of us have the desire to leave something behind us when we go into whatever there is (or is not) beyond the void. I don’t think I ever treasured any extravagant hope of leaving anything that would be remembered, but as the years have gone by and times changed I have been glad to think that at least I wrote a salute to my generation.”°
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
With sincere thanks to Mrs. Clara Abrahams, May's granddaughter, for all her support.

* Cannan, Grey Ghosts and Voices, p. 175.
** Cannan, p. 150. 
*** Cannan, p. 177. 
† Cannan, p. 150. 
†† Cannan, p. 148. 
††† Cannan, p. 113. 
° Cannan, p. 152. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Their Strange Eyes



AEF soldier of the 319th 

In October of 1918, the First World War was entering its fifth year and the influenza pandemic was killing millions. The October issue of Poetry magazine, edited by Harriet Monroe, published numerous war poems and a tribute to dead soldier poets (Lola Ridge’s “The Song,” shared earlier on this blog, also appeared in the October 1918 issue.)

One poem, with the haunting title “Their Strange Eyes Hold No Vision,” wrote of the toll that the war was taking not only on bodies, but on minds.

Their Strange Eyes Hold No Vision

Their strange eyes hold no vision, as a rule;
No dizzy glory. A still look is theirs,
But rather as one subtly vacant stares,
Watching the circling magic of a pool.
Blown Up by William Orpen
© IWM ART 2376

Now when the morning firing becomes tame,
Out in the warming sun he tries to guess
Which battery they’re after. “Let me see;
Which battery is there? which battery?
I wonder which…..” Again, again, the same
Returning question, idle, meaningless.
Startled, he sighs—or laughs—or softly swears;
Mutteringly something of dear names declares
In the bitter cruelty of tenderness.

The planes drift low, circling monotonously,
Droning like many a drowsy bumble-bee
Some summer morning. Only now and then
A whining shell, the mere formality
Of stupid war, calls back his thoughts again.

Suddenly near the unseen death swoops low,
Laughing and singing; and full pitifully
The startled eyes stare wide, but do not see
The whirling features of the genie foe,
Safe in his summoned cloud. The quiet skies
Tell not his surest comings. With waved wands
A mist springs from the earth, and swaying stands
A veiling moment ….. sinks …..
And there he lies
Face down, clutching the clay with warm dead hands.
            —Howard Buck

Howard Buck, a volunteer with the Norton-Harjes ambulance corps in France, describes the detachment of a desensitized and confused soldier. The man’s attempts to determine the enemy’s firing range are framed as meaningless, dreamy questions, far out of the soldier’s control. He can only stare vacantly at the “stupid war,” hypnotized by the drone of unseen circling planes that appear as “genie foe,” unaware that he will soon lie dead, “clutching the clay with warm dead hands.”
Howard Buck

Howard Buck was an eyewitness to the ghastly effects of war. He was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his actions on 7 September 1917, when he and fellow ambulancier Donald Jordan rushed to where “a shell had claimed many victims” and “resolutely came to the aid of the wounded who were brought back to the aid station under the continuing violent bombardment.”* In his poem “September 7,” Buck writes,

We lifted them, the broken, moaning men,
And those that never spoke,
And staggered back that glaring way again.

A bleeding brother ever, ever nigh,
Days, days and nights. The curious gold ring;
His hand’s strange warmth: until the day I die
I know I shall remember everything.

Howard Buck returned to his literature studies at Yale in 1918. His war poems were awarded the Albert Stanburrough Cook Prize and were published as the first volume in the Yale Series of Younger Poets (1919), titled The Tempering.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*Frederick Sumner Mead, ed., Harvard’s Military Record in the World War, Harvard Alumni Association, 1921, p. 520. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

Peasant and King


Royal Irish Rifle Troops at the Somme, July 1, 1916

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
                        —Shakespeare’s Henry V

Kings, emperors, industrialists and aristocrats: the wealthy and powerful have always needed the poor to fight in their wars and have promised rewards and honors for that service. In October of 1914,  American poet Christopher Morley wrote of the disparity between rich and poor, starkly contrasting the burdens each were expected to shoulder in the First World War.

Peasant and King
What the Peasants of Europe are Thinking
 
Belgium refugees
You who put faith in your banks and brigades,
      Drank and ate largely, slept easy at night,
Hoarded your lyddite and polished the blades,
      Let down upon us this blistering blight—
         You who played grandly the easiest game,
         Now can you shoulder the weight of the same?
            Say, can you fight?

Here is the tragedy: losing or winning
      Who profits a copper? Who garners the fruit?
From bloodiest ending to futile beginning
      Ours is the blood, and the sorrow to boot.
         Muster your music, flutter your flags,
         Ours are the hunger, the wounds, and the rags.
            Say, can you shoot?

Down in the muck and despair of the trenches
Tsar and Russian troops
      Comes not the moment of bitterest need;
Over the sweat and the groans and the stenches
      There is a joy in the valorous deed—
         But, lying wounded, what one forgets
         You and your ribbons and d——d epaulettes—
            Say do you bleed?

This is your game: it was none of our choosing—
      We are the pawns with whom you have played.
Yours is the winning and ours is the losing,
      But, when the penalties have to be paid,
         We who are left, and our womenfolk, too,
         Rulers of Europe, will settle with you—
            You, and your trade.
                        October, 1914.
                        —Christopher Morley

The poem appeared in Morley’s Songs for a Little House (1917). Similar sentiments are voiced in Siegfried Sassoon’s “They” and Grace Isabel Colbron’s “The Ballad of Bethlehem Steel.”
                       
Christopher Morley
Morley was one of the most prolific writers of the early twentieth-century, author of more than 100 novels, essay collections, and poetry volumes. He was perhaps best known for his 1939 novel Kitty Foyle, which was made into a popular film. When Morley died in 1957, his obituary in the New York Times recalled that he was “Known for his whimsy—a word he loathed to hear in reference to his works” and that he “preferred to regard himself as a poet above all else.”*

Several years before his death, Morley offered this advice: “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.**
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
* “Christopher Morley, Author, 66, Is Dead,” New York Times, 29 March 1957.
** Christopther Morley, “Brief Case; or, Every Man His Own Bartlett,” The Saturday Review of Literature,  6 Nov. 1948, p. 20.