|Star Shells over No Man's Land|
Much has been written about the comradeship that soldiers found in the trenches of the Great War. In an example shared on this blog, Henry Lamont Simpson writes “Friendship is the greatest gift God sends— /All men were brothers to me,/ Most were my friends….” (“Going In”). And in Wilfred Owen’s last letter to his mother, Owen assured her, “Of this I am certain -- you could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”
Yet war also intensified soldiers’ sense of estrangement and alienation. Second Lieutenant John Allan Wyeth wrote “Night Watch” sometime between August 25th and September 5th of 1918, while training with the American First Army in France, about forty miles south of Verdun.
Autumn and dusk—a band far off plays I—
ain’t got nobo—dy and nobo—dy cares for me.
Already autumn here in this new part
of France—the garden has a bitter reek!
How lonely stars look in a changing sky—
I turn the lights on so as not to see.
Already late for my night watch to start.
Silence too strong for anything to creak.
The night is very wide—the room turns sly,
and things keep still to watch what there may be
back of my tight shut eyes and secret smile.
Are you there?—and like the heart of God my heart
is vast with love and pain and very bleak—
O France, be still in here a little while.
—John Allan Wyeth
As he readies himself for the long solitude of night watch, the poem’s speaker faintly hears a tune far off in the distance. The popular song “I ain’t got nobody,” also known as “I’m so sad and lonely,” was copyrighted in 1915, and it mirrors the soldier’s mood (it can be listened to here). As others sing, he sits apart in a silence so strong that it forces him even further into himself.
|John Allan Wyeth|
Whatever it is that the soldier has seen thus far in the war, he wills himself to forget it and shuts his mind to thoughts that clamor for attention behind his “tight shut eyes and secret smile.” The reality that lies before him can be no worse than what he has already endured, and he projects the desperate loneliness he feels onto everything around him, even the stars in the night sky.
The only thought that escapes is the ambiguous question, “Are you there?” Is the man speaking to God? A friend who died in battle? Someone from home? No reply is given, and so the soldier answers his own question, asking only for a small moment of stillness, a rest from the bleakness that threatens to overwhelm him.
Wyeth may be the most underappreciated American poet of the First World War. Critics who admire his autobiographical war sonnets note his ability to mix tones, textures, languages, and dialects as he writes of the “cultural dislocation of the AEF in its trek across Western Europe.”* Other Wyeth poems shared on this blog include “The Transport,” and “Picnic: Harbonnières to Bayonvillers.” A deep loneliness echoes just beneath the surface of nearly all Wyeth's war writing.
* Dana Gioia, “The Unknown Soldier: An Introduction to the Poetry of John Allan Wyeth,” in John Allan Wyeth’s This Man’s Army, University of South Carolina Press, 2008, p. xxv.