Monday, April 29, 2019

Spring in War-Time

Throughout the First World War, the coming of spring brought with it the renewal of military offensive action.*  In 1915, American poet Sara Teasdale exposed the incongruity of resuming the killing during earth’s season of growth and rebirth. 

Spring in War-Time

Thou Shalt Not Steal, John Singer Sargent
© IWM (Art. IWM ART 1609)
I feel the spring far off, far off,
      The faint, far scent of bud and leaf—

Oh how can spring take heart to come
      To a world in grief,
      Deep grief?

The sun turns north, the days grow long,
      Later the evening star grows bright—

How can the daylight linger on
      For men to fight,

      Still fight?

The grass is waking in the ground,
      Soon it will rise and blow in waves—

How can it have the heart to sway
      Over the graves,
      New graves?

Under the boughs where lovers walked
      The apple-blooms will shed their breath—

But what of all the lovers now
      Parted by death,

      Gray Death?
            —Sara Teasdale, 1915 Rivers to the Sea

The poem contrasts lovers and graves, apple-blossoms and the grayness of death, underscoring  the terrible irony of war-time spring offensives with the abbreviated, truncated lines that conclude each stanza. In the spring of 1917, as America prepared to enter the war, Teasdale wrote to her sister-in-law, “The feeling here is growing more and more acrid all the time.” Commenting on public displays that supported the war, she continued,
How much of this is bona fide patriotism, I don’t know. It makes me heart-sick for it represents such terrible loads of sorrow to be borne later when our men are maimed and killed by the thousands.  It is staggering when one thinks of the four thousand years of so-called civilization on this planet—that it culminates now in the most brutal and tremendous bloodshed that the world has ever seen.*
* For an example of a poem that celebrates war in springtime, see Rawnsley’s “Going to the Front,” which begins,
      I had no heart to march for war
      When trees were bare and fell the snow;
      To go to-day is easier far
      When pink and white the orchards blow…

Teasdale's poem "There Will Come Soft Rains" (1920) can also be found on this blog. 
**Qtd. in William Drake, Sara Teasdale, Woman and Poet, U of Tennesee Press, 1989, p. 169.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

It's the Flu

The 1918-1919 influenza pandemic has been described as “World War I’s darker twin.”* The outbreak of Spanish flu began in 1918, and by the time the world-wide plague had ended, it had become the deadliest pandemic in human history, claiming an estimated 50 - 100 million victims** – vastly exceeding even the millions of war deaths.  Researchers believe that as many as “one third of the world’s population were infected,” and the fatality rate was exceptionally high: at least 2.5% of those infected died.*** The disease was most deadly among the young and healthy, as their robust immune systems violently overreacted to the virus.  Those affected “coughed blood and bled from the nose. Death was usually caused as bacteria invaded the lungs, turning … [them] into sacks of fluid and thus effectively drowning the patient.”

While the origins of the pandemic are disputed, “no one disagrees about its path: it followed the war.”†† An anonymous poem published (curiously) in Nice Poems by Nice War Workers (1919) uses dark humor to comment on pervasive menace of the illness.  Influenza was the answer to every medical question – too often, the final answer. 

It’s the Flu

When your head is blazing, burning
And your brain is turning,
Unto buttermilk from churning,
            It’s the Flu.
When your joints are creaking, cracking,
As if all the fiends were racking,
All the devils were attacking,
            It’s the Flu.
It’s the Flu, Flu, Flu
Which has you, you, you,
It has caught you and has got you
And it sticks like glue.
It’s the very latest fashion,
It’s the doctor’s pet and passion,
So sneeze a bit and sneeze a bit—
Ka-chew, chew chew.
When the stomach grows uneasy,
Quaking, querulous or queasy,
All dyspeptic and diseasy,
            It’s the Flu.

When you have appendicitis,
Par-enchy-ma and ne-phri-tis,
Laryngitis or gastritis,
            It’s the Flu.
When you have a corn or pimple,
Complicated ill or simple,
Broken bone or fading dimple,
            It’s the Flu.
When, no matter what assails you,
If no doctor knows what ails you,
Then the answer never fails you,
            It’s the Flu. 

* Jane Elizabeth Fisher, “Teaching the 1918 Influenza Pandemic as Part of a World War I Curriculum,” in Teaching Representations of the First World War, edited by Debra Rae Cohen and Douglas Higbee, MLA, 2017.
** Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens, “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics,” CDC Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 2006.
*** Taubenberger and Morens, “1918 Influenza.”
† Howard Phillips and David Killingray, The Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19: New Perspectives, Routledge, 2003.
†† Fisher, “Teaching.”

Thanks to Lucy London for help with "ciseasy/diseasy" and for finding an alternative version of this poem published in the Jan. 1919 Coal Mining Review.