Monday, April 13, 2020

Spring Song 1917

Raised in Cambridge until she was 16, Margaret Postgate recalls the loveliness of spring in the university town: “you cannot be brought up within a mile of the Backs and the Bridges, seeing the weeping willows year by year coming into leaf and the spring flowers waking in St. John’s Wilderness, or be taken, even occasionally, to King’s Chapel when the morning sun is shining through the clear reds and blues of the east window, or even walk to school along the gracious curve of Trumpington Street, without some sense of beauty seeping into you.”*  

But then in 1914, the unthinkable happened, and it changed the world forever.

Spring Song, 1917
            “The Spring is gone out of the year.”
            Pericles on the young men who fell in the war.

O April’s running out and out
   With strong wind’s blowing,
And every day we wait and look
   For green things growing.
      But every day that wakens, sees
      The thrush still plain in the barren trees,
      Singing his puzzled melodies
         Where once were leafy places
            In this strange leafless spring.

O was there ever a spring like this
    With thrushes singing,
And shining sky and May at hand
    And no green springing?
         Ah, there never was a spring like this,
         For when was there a year like this,
         Or a people desolate as this,
            Whose captains in high places
               Have stolen away the spring?
                        —Margaret Postgate

In 1916, following her brother's imprisonment as a conscientious objector, Postgate left her teaching position at St. Paul’s school for girls. She accepted a full-time position at the Fabian Society Research Department, where she met George Douglas Howard Cole, a conscientious objector and socialist (they later married in 1918). Postgate remembers the foreboding that overwhelmed the world:

"Gate of Goodbye" by Francis James Mortimer
© National Media Museum, Bradford UK
Leave-trains from Victoria, packed with soldiers, were seen off by wives and sweethearts bidding what might easily be a last farewell, for within forty-eight hours you might receive the War Office telegram announcing that the man was dead. This narrow margin between vigorous life and muddy and gangrenous death produced an atmosphere heavily charged with emotion—for many years afterwards I could not hear a gramophone playing “Pack Up Your Troubles” or “Ev’ry Little While” without a catch of the breath, so often had they been put on “once more before it’s time to go.”

In Postgate's view, attempts to manage the emotional strain too often resulted in artificial cheer or censure: “the terrible recruiting speeches, the nauseating letters to the Press from people who wanted to ‘give their sons’—or other people’s sons—to shoot strikers, or to send conscientious objectors to the Front, and to shocking statements by prominent gentlemen to the effect that the war was a “crusade of Christ against the Devil.”**

Margaret Postgate Cole 1938
After the war, Postgate Cole remained active in politics as a writer and lecturer, serving for thirteen years as an alderman on London City Council and campaigning in support of comprehensive education. She wrote extensively on labour history and social issues, and was awarded Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1965 for her work in education. She was created Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1970 for her lifetime achievements. 

Margaret Postgate's only book of poetry was published in 1918, about which she commented, “I like what poetry I have written. But others, save a few of my friends, do not; and Naomi Mitchison (who should know) once explained to me why it wasn’t poetry at all. So I suppose it isn’t.”***
* Margaret Postgate Cole, Growing up into Revolution, Longman’s, Green and Co., 1949, p. 16.
** Cole, Growing up, p. 54 – 55.
*** Cole, Growing up, p. 47. Naomi Mitchison, novelist and poet, has been called the doyenne of Scottish literature.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Rules for Influenza

Red Cross, St. Louis October 1918 (National Archives)
In September of 1918, a physician wrote from Camp Devens, Massachusetts, “It is only a matter of a few hours … until death comes and it is simply a struggle for air until they suffocate. It is horrible. One can stand to see one, two, or twenty men die, but to see these poor devils dropping like flies gets on your nerves. We have been averaging about 100 deaths a day, and still keeping it up.”* Colonel Victor C. Vaughan, former president of the American Medical Association,  also visited the US military camp and reported, “In the morning the dead bodies are stacked about the morgue like cord wood. This picture was painted on my memory cells at the division hospital, Camp Devens, in the fall of 1918, when the deadly influenza virus demonstrated the inferiority of human interventions in the destruction of human life.”*
Some Americans thought that the 1918 influenza virus was a German weapon of war, released by enemy agents who had arrived in Boston with vials of the germs; others suspected that the German pharmaceutical company Bayer had mixed the virus into aspirin.* German propaganda  blamed the illness on Chinese laborers employed by the Allied Powers.”**

By the end of the world-wide pandemic, at least 20 million had died; estimates range from 20 – 100 million, with most experts believing more than 50 million were killed by the virus. What became known as Spanish Influenza was particularly fatal to healthy adults between the ages of 20 and 40.

With no known cure, most efforts were directed at stopping the spread of the illness. Historian David McCullough writes, “In Boston the stock market closed. In Pennsylvania a statewide order shut down every place of amusement, every saloon. In Kentucky the Board of Health prohibited public gatherings of any kind, even funerals.”*** And an Albuquerque New Mexico newspaper wrote,  “the ghost of fear walked everywhere, causing many a family circle to reunite because of the different members having nothing else to do but stay home.”†

In the chaos and uncertainty that accompanied the virulent pandemic, lists of practical health guidelines were published in nearly every major newspaper. One writer used poetry to spread the message:

Rules for Influenza

Oh, shun the common drinking cup,
            Avoid the kiss and hug,
For in them all there lurks that Hun,
            The influenza bug.

Cough not, nor sneeze when in a crowd;
            ‘Tis neither kind nor neat,
Because it scatters germs around.
            So try to be discreet.

Lick not the thumb in turn o’er
            The papers in your file,
And wear your health mask, though you look
            Like time. Forget it. Smile.

Remember doorknobs harbor germs,
            So wash before you eat.
Avoid the flying clouds of dust
            While walking on the street.

Most anything you do—or don’t—
            Is apt to cause disease,
So don’t do anything you do
            Without precautions, please.
                                    —Dr. Waters (Chemistry)

Nurses in Boston, National Archives
The poem’s author, Dr. C.E. Waters, worked during the First World War at the Bureau of Standards as chief of the Organic Chemistry section. Prior to the war, he had taught at Connecticut Agricultural College and Johns Hopkins University. The poem appears in The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt. In a letter dated October 25, 1918, Holt’s fiancée, Lois Crump, included the verse with the note, “I am enclosing some stuff which may make you laugh” (Crump worked at the Bureau of Standards).††

Little has changed in preventing the spread of viral pandemics. Dusty streets and common drinking cups are no longer common, but hand-washing, avoiding close contact, staying at home, and using humor to cope with uncertainty and fear remain very much the same.
* Gina Kolata, Flu, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, p. 14; p. 16, p. 3.
** J.N. Hays, Epidemics and Pandemics, ABC-CLIO, 2005, p. 390
*** David McCullough, “Foreword” in Lynette Iezzoni, Influenza 1918, TV Books, 1999, foreword, p. 7.
† Kolata, p. 23.
†† Maclyn P. Burg and Thomas J. Pressly, editors, The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt, Sunflower UP, 1998, p. 263.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Song

Parade to War, Allegory by John Steuart Curry, 1938
Few have heard of Lola Ridge, the modernist poet who has been compared to Emily Dickinson, Siegfried Sassoon, and the Georgian trench poets. She was an anarchist who protested the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; she was arrested with Edna St. Vincent Millay; and she was an immigrant who defended the poor and oppressed, challenging readers to confront the ugly realities of prejudice and suffering. When Ridge died in 1941, her obituary in the New York Times described her as “one of the leading contemporary poets” who “found in the meeting of many races in America the hope of a new world.”* Ridge’s 1918 poetry collection The Ghetto included her war poem “The Song.”

The Song

That day, in the slipping of torsos and straining flanks on the bloodied ooze of fields plowed by the iron,
And the smoke bluish near earth and bronze in the sunshine floating like cotton-down,
And the harsh and terrible screaming,
And that strange vibration at the roots of us …
Desire, fierce, like a song …
And we heard
Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917, Childe Hassam 
(Do you remember?)
All the Red Cross bands on Fifth avenue
And bugles in little home towns,
And children’s harmonicas bleating


And after …
(Do you remember?)
The drollery of the wind on our faces,
And horizons reeling,
And the terror of the plain
Heaving like a gaunt pelvis to the sun …
Under us—threshing and twanging
Torn-up roots of the Song …
            —Lola Ridge

In a series of concentrated images, the poem juxtaposes the suffering of soldiers with the patriotic music that sent them to war. As muscles scream with the effort of moving through mud, blood, smoke and artillery fire, soldiers feel a fierce desire to live as a “strange vibration at the roots of us,” resonating like song. And that desire evokes the memory of send-off parades accompanied by the notes of bugles and the sound of children playing patriotic tunes from New York City to “little home towns,” all “bleating,” as if piping sheep to the slaughter: “AMERICA!”
The Return of Private Davis from the Argonne,
by John Steuart Curry 

In the aftermath of an attack, some soldiers find themselves alive, and even the touch of the breeze seems whimsical. But terror lurks just beneath the surface, and the old songs, mutilated by war, can never be heard in the same way again. As in many of her other poems, Ridge describes individuals “stretched to the limits of existence” and she “confronts the bystander as complicit in the suffering of others by virtue of the gaze.”**

A review of The Ghetto published in Poetry magazine in 1918 predicted, “Ridge will be charged with lunacy, incendiarism, nihilism, by the average American who reads her book. The everlasting minority will proclaim her another free singer, another creator of free form.***  Conrad Aiken wrote of The Ghetto, ““it is singular to come upon a book written by a woman in which vigor is so clearly a more natural quality than grace.”†
Lola Ridge
Lola Ridge died of tuberculosis in 1941; shortly before her death she wrote, “Nice is the one adjective in the world that is laughable applied to any single thing I have ever written.”††
*”Lola Ridge, Poet, Dies in Brooklyn,” New York Times, 21 May 1941, p. 23.
** Anna Hueppauff, Lola Ridge: Poet and Renegade Modernist, thesis, Edith Cowan University, 2012, pp. 14–15.
*** Alfred Kreymborg, “A Poet in Arms,” Poetry, vol. 13, no. 6, March 1919, p. 336.
† Aiken, “The Literary Abbozzo,” Dial, vol. 66, no. 782, 1919, p. 83.
†† Ridge, qtd. in Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, by Terese Svoboda, Schaffner Press, 2016.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Slow Madness of Annihilation

On the night of January 19, 1915, the first German zeppelin attacks in England targeted cities and towns on the Norfolk coast. London’s first zeppelin attack occurred on May 31, 1915 when 90 incendiary bombs and 30 grenades fell on the city. Seven people were killed and thirty-five were wounded. By war’s end, the death toll in London from zeppelin raids neared 700, and an estimated 2,000 people had been seriously wounded. Nancy Cunard’s poem “Destruction” speaks of the devastating powerlessness felt by many.


I saw the people climbing up the street
Maddened with war and strength and thought to kill.
And after followed Death, who held with skill
His torn rags, royally, and stamped his feet.

The fires flamed up and burnt the serried town
Most where the poorer, humbler, houses were;
Death followed with proud feet and smiling stare,
And the mad crowds ran madly up and down.

And many died and hid in unfound places
In the black ruins of the frenzied night.
Yet Death still followed in his surplice, white
And streaked, in imitation of their faces ….

But in the morning, men began again
To mock Death—laughing at their bitter pain.
            —Nancy Cunard (from Wheels, second edition, 1917)

Iris Tree, Nancy Cunard’s friend, wrote that during the war the two women were bound by “loneliness and death”:
Together we had braved the panic of first bombings over London, and watched their fires redden on sky and river, ourselves burnt out by the terrible gaieties of last encounters, now made unreal by the unrealities of war—all the metal and struggle, trains, ships, mourning, noise of unknown distances from which we were excluded as figures of illusion—a theme that left its shadow on us both in different ways.**

A VAD nurse living in north London remembers being awakened in the night by her landlady’s cry “For the love of God, Miss McAllister, get up!” Agnes McAllister recalls, “you could see for miles around and with all the searchlights there it looked like a big silver cigar in the sky. And it fascinated me beyond everything.” With her son, Agnes’s landlady crawled under the bed and pleaded with Agnes to come away from the window, but she refused saying, “‘If anything’s happening to me, I’d rather see it coming.’ And then as it got near, it was like an express train over your head it was the incredible noise that it made. But, you know, they were fascinating with the light on them like big silver cigars coming along.”***

The first lines of Cunard’s poem “And If the End Be Now?” express the surreal changes that confronted civilians at war:   

The rooms are empty and the streets are bare,
No lovers meet at midnight under the stars,
And the past pleasures of congenial hours
Forgotten lie; yet now these flowers that fade
Once dressed the gardens with gay delight.
Ah, patiently we must grow friends with grey,
Put out of mind the colour of the flame
And the triumphant songs of inspiration;
Obliterate adventure, memory.
The silence of desertion has begun
And the slow madness of annihilation….

By 1916, at least seven of Nancy Cunard’s friends had been killed in battle, among them Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Julian and William Grenfell. She struggled with survivor’s guilt, and by 1919 “her intense awareness of the war and its costs in human lives … led to a nervous breakdown.”****
* The poem, with alterations, was later published as “Zeppelins” in Cunard’s 1921 collection, Outlaws.
** Iris Tree, We Shall Not Forget, p. 21, cited in Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist by Lois Gordon, Columbia UP, 2007, p. 59.
*** “Voices of the First World War: Zeppelins over Britain,” Imperial War Museum,
**** Lois Gordon, Nancy Cunard: Heiress, Muse, Political Idealist, Columbia UP, 2007, p. 52.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

In Flanders Fields: An Echo

African American troops near Verdun 1918
(Library of Congress cph 3c16442) 
John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was one of the most popular poems of the war and continues to be read, recited, and studied today. A recent student study guide argues that the poem is “adaptable to any number of circumstances beyond the occasion for which it was written,” because anyone who has been defeated or known others who have sacrificed for a cause “can relate to the speaker’s desire that the ‘torch’ will be carried on by someone else who finds the cause, or the defeated combatant, honorable.”*

In 1920, the Dunbar Entertainer published “In Flanders Fields: An Echo,” a poem that challenged Americans to uphold the light of justice and extinguish the burning crosses and flames of hatred that scarred the landscape of post-war America.

In Flanders Fields
An Echo

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
   That mark the graves where black men lie;
   Their souls, long wafted to the sky,
Look down upon the earth below.

E’en while we mourn their loss, we see
Their brothers hanged upon a tree   
   By whom they saved. Their pain fraught cry
   Mounts up to those who stand on high
And watch the scarlet flowered sea
   In Flanders fields.

In Flanders fields they shall not sleep!
No! For their murdered kin they keep
   A vigil through the day and night,
   ‘Til God Himself shall snatch from sight
Such scenes as make our heroes weep
   In Flanders fields.
            —Orlando C. W. Taylor (1920, Dunbar Entertainer)

The Tuskegee Institute estimates that in the 86 years between 1882 and 1968, at least 4,743 people were lynched in the United States; 3,446 of them were African Americans. As African American troops returned home from the war that had “promised to make the world safe for democracy,” they confronted a new battle:
Many black veterans were denied the benefits and disability pay they’d been promised. In the first summer after the war, known as the Red Summer, anti-black riots erupted in more than twenty American cities, including Houston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. “This is the right time to show them what will and what will not be permitted, and thus save them much trouble in the future,” one Louisiana newspaper opined, in an editorial titled “Nip It In the Bud.” In the years after the war, at least thirteen black veterans were lynched. Countless more survived beatings, shootings, and whippings.***
The poem’s author, Orlanda Capitola Ward Taylor, was born in Texas in 1891 and witnessed a lynching as a young teen. An educator, journalist, and radio host, he is best known for co-founding in 1925 New Orleans' first African American newspaper, The Louisiana Weekly, and for his pioneering work in black radio broadcasting. He died in 1979.
*Gale, Cengage Learning, A Study Guide for John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields,”2016.
**Amanda Betts, In Flanders Fields: 100 Years Writing on War, Loss and Remembrance, Knopf, 2015.
*** Peter C. Baker, “The Tragic, Forgotten History of Black Military Veterans,” The New Yorker, 27 November 2016.