Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Little Folk

Francis F. Hogan

In his war memoir Toward the Flame, Hervey Allen remembers a night near Chateau Thierry when he learned of a friend encamped nearby: “Francis Hogan, a friend of mine, was in that regiment [4th US Infantry], and I determined to see him that night. It was one of those decisions that comes of itself and leaves no doubt in your mind that it is what you are going to do.” Despite getting lost and nearly stumbling into German lines, Allen found Hogan, and the two men sat in the dark and “shared a close talk.”* It would be the last time they would meet: Hogan was killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive on October 17, 1918, less than four weeks before the war’s end. 

Before enlisting in the American Expeditionary Force, Hogan studied at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; several of his poems are included in Carnegie Tech War Verse (1918). 

The Little Folk

The little leaves, the little leaves,
Thou Shalt Not Steal
John Singer Sargent ©IWM ART 1609 
I wonder if they know
The reason for the thundering
That makes them tremble so;
Or do they think the rain will come
And then a quiet sun?
Ah, many days there’ll be
Before the war is done.

The little birds, the little birds,
 I wonder if they see
The reason for the bursting shell
That tears the nesting tree;
Or do they think the hunt is on,
And they must take to flight?
Ah. there’ll be hunts on many hills
Before the world is right.

The little vines, the little vines,
I wonder have they found
Why yonder soldier lies so still,
And what has stained the ground;
Or do they think that wine is red,
And men who drink, drink deep?
Ah, many more shall drink with him
And he still lie asleep.
            —Francis F. Hogan

Poetry magazine’s Harriet Monroe reviewed Carnegie Tech War Verse, describing it as “an ingratiating little pamphlet by Professor Haniel Long’s doughboy students, led by Francis F. Hogan and Richard Mansfield II, who both died in service.”**  In the foreword to the small anthology, the Carnegie Tech English professor Long wrote,

There have always been boys and girls who insisted on being poets. Why, nobody knows; but the phenomenon has a depressing effect upon those who feel that this is no world to be a poet in.  Being a poet is a pretty risky way, one hears, of living one’s life.  But others regard it as a fine thing to be young and to be a poet.  And to be young and to be a poet in an age when the world is vastly disturbed and there is a great fight to be fought for liberty,—such a destiny has seemed altogether glorious to-day in the eyes of many a young man and young woman.  And to go forth and to die as a poet, what other destiny is like this?
....The poems in this volume came from a group of students in the school of the arts at the Carnegie Institute of Technology.  Before the War these students were writing and dreaming.  The war came, and scattered them.  But they continue to write, and some of their songs came back to the deserted corridors and studios and rehearsal rooms of the school.  For those who will sing no more, whose beloved faces we may no longer see, may this book be a cry at parting, and a lasting salute.***
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* Hervey Allen, Toward the Flame, Farrar & Rinehart, 1926, pp. 69, 76.
** Harriet Monroe, “Anthologies,” Poetry, vol. 14, no. 5, Aug. 1919, p. 283.
*** Haniel Long, “Foreword,” Carnegie Tech War Verse, Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1918, pp. 5, 6-7.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Pershing at the Front


General "Black Jack" Pershing, commander of the AEF

In 1937, The Saturday Evening Post published a history that noted the magazines most popular poems:
Of the three poems most often asked for, two are serious, Alfred Noyes’ “A Victory Dance” and Arthur Guiterman’s “Pershing at the Front,” the latter printed in 1927. The third is Newman Levy’s burlesque of Hamlet, printed on the humor page in 1923.* 
Ironically, “Pershing at the Front,” though one of the American magazine's most-requested poems, was not accurately remembered by the historian of The Saturday Evening Post  it is most certainly not a serious poem.

Pershing at the Front

The General came in a new tin hat
To the shell-torn front where the war was at;
With a faithful Aide at his good right hand
He made his way toward No Man’s Land,

And a tough Top Sergeant there they found,
And a Captain, too, to show them round.

Pershing in the Argonne,
Photo National Archives and Records Administration
Threading the ditch, their heads bent low,
Toward the lines of the watchful foe
They came through the murk and the powder stench
Till the Sergeant whispered, “Third-line trench!”

And the Captain whispered, “Third-line trench!”
And the Aide repeated, “Third-line trench!”
And Pershing answered—not in French—
“Yes, I see it. Third-line trench.”

Again they marched with wary tread,
Following on where the Sergeant led
Through the wet and the muck as well,
Till they came to another parallel.
They halted there in the mud and drench,
And the Sergeant whispered, “Second-line trench!”

And the Captain whispered, “Second-line trench!”
And the Aide repeated, “Second-line trench!”
And Pershing nodded: “Second-line trench!”

Yet on they went through mire like pitch
Till they came to a fine and spacious ditch
Well camouflaged from planes and Zeps
Where soldiers stood on firing steps
And a Major sat on a wooden bench;
And the Sergeant whispered, “First-line trench!”

And the Captain whispered, “First-line trench!”
And the Aide repeated, “First-line trench!”
And Pershing whispered, “Yes, I see.
How far off is the enemy?”
And the faithful Aide he asked, asked he,
“How far off is the enemy?”

And the Captain breathed in a softer key,
“How far off is the enemy?”
Wally Walgren, Stars and Stripes
15 Feb 1918, p. 7

The silence lay in heaps and piles
And the Sergeant whispered, “Just three miles.”

And the Captain whispered, “Just three miles.”
And the Aide repeated, “Just three miles.”
“Just three miles!” the General swore,
“What in the heck are we whispering for?”
And the faithful Aide the message bore,
“What in the heck are we whispering for?”
And the Captain said in a gentle roar,
“What in the heck are we whispering for?”
“Whispering for?” the echo rolled;
And the Sergeant whispered, “I have a cold.”
            —Arthur Guiterman**

The poem good-naturedly lampoons military hierarchy and protocol. The lowest ranking soldier, the whispering Sergeant, is the man who is most informed about the realities of war in the front-line trenches. Yet when the commander of the American Army visits the front, he is shielded from first-hand knowledge by his faithful Aide and a respectable Captain, who take it upon themselves to translate and repeat everything that the Sergeant says. While it may seem insignificant to the others that the Sergeant has a head-cold, the health of this one man alters the Generals – and the others’— understanding of the entire military situation. Because they have not taken the time to learn of the lowly Sergeant’s laryngitis, they interpret his whispers as signaling the close proximity of the German lines. With its last line, the poem mocks the isolation of those in command and their estrangement from the men whom they order into battle.

Why was the poem so popular? Perhaps because it uses humor to make a serious point. High school history teacher Wilbur Kirwan was remembered by a former student as trying to explain the paradox of life and war:  
things that seemingly contradict each other – such as humor and horror – can coexist,
which is why as Memorial Day approached each year he [Kirwan] would recite Wilfrid Owen’s haunting Dulce et Decorum Est, followed by Arthur Guiterman’s hilarious Pershing at the Front.***
It’s a fascinating pairing of poems, one that challenges the ways in which we often simplify and stereotype past events and those who experienced them.

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* A Short History of the Saturday Evening Post, Curtis Publishing Company, 1937, p. 27.
** Guiterman wrote and published over 4,000 verses in his lifetime and co-founded the Poetry Society of America. Joyce Kilmer wrote several reviews of his work, and in a 1916 article called Guiterman “The Most American of Poets” (The Independent, 20 Nov. 1916, pp. 312-313).
*** Gary E. Frank, “Education, transformation, transcendence,” The Colgate Scene, March 2003.