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 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. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Grey Knitting

First World War sheet music

“In Flanders Fields,” written by John McCrae in May of 1915, is perhaps the best known Canadian poem of the war. But Katherine Hale’s “Grey Knitting,” published in December of 1914, was enormously popular during the war and in the years immediately following. In less than six weeks, Grey Knitting and Other Poems ran into four editions of a thousand copies each; an American journalist wrote, “Katherine Hale has established herself as a favourite with American editors. . . . ‘Grey Knitting’ is going the rounds of the newspapers on this side of the line,” and the poem was included in the 1921 Standard Canadian Reciter: A Book of the Best Readings and Recitations from Canadian Literature.*

In 1917, Lilian Whiting in Canada, the Spellbinder wrote, “Perhaps no poem of the war has more closely touched the universal heart than has ‘Katherine Hale’s’ poem, so intense in its restrained power.”** Today, Hale’s war poetry is dismissed as “sentimental and patriotic,” while “Grey Knitting” has been described as “a disturbing misrecognition of institutionalised violence: it mistakes suffering for gaiety and finds in bloodshed a transcendence that discredits Hale as a critical commentator on war.***

Grey Knitting


All through the country, in the autumn stillness,

   A web of grey spreads strangely, rim to rim;

And you may hear the sound of knitting needles,

   Incessant, gentle, dim.


A tiny click of little wooden needles,

   Elfin amid the gianthood of war;

Whispers of women, tireless and patient,

   Who weave the web afar.


Whispers of women, tireless and patient—

   “Foolish, inadequate!” we hear you say;

“Grey wool on fields of hell is out of fashion,”

   And yet we weave the web from day to day.


Suppose some soldier dying, gayly dying,

   Under the alien skies, in his last hour,

Should listen, in death’s prescience so vivid,

   And hear a fairy sound bloom like a flower—


I like to think that soldiers, gayly dying

   For the white Christ on fields with shame sown deep,

May hear the fairy click of women’s needles,

   As they fall fast asleep.

            —Katherine Hale


The poem mystically shrinks the distance between the home front and the battlefield. Fairy enchantments and woven webs of love and homespun yarn comfort dying soldiers, whispering to them of the mothers, sisters, wives, and sweethearts laboring on their behalf. And although men die, it is women who haunt the battlefield, participating in the war with knitted work that is both highly emotional and immensely practical.

Katherine Hale

Katherine Hale was the pseudonym of Mrs. John W. Garvin. Born Amelia Warnock in Galt, Ontario, by the time of the Great War, Hale had “attained distinction in literary and music criticism, poetry, short stories, essays, and in literary and song recitals.”† After the war, Hale published Morning in the West (1923), a free-verse collection of poems that explores modernist themes such as the environment, nationalism, gender roles, and the shaping power of legend and myth, all within a Canadian setting. Katherine Hale died in 1956, and in her obituary, her friend Lotta Dempsey quoted from a letter Hale had written earlier: “I believe that one just has to take every experience fearlessly and saturate it with life, expurgate ruthlessly the un-essentials and then, as best one can, re-think it into poetry….But everyone has his own method; and after all, so far as the boundless world of art is concerned, we are all like pigmies, lost in its tremendous ramifications. ††


*American journalist quoted in Leading Canadian Poets, edited by Walter Pilling Percival, 1948, p. 81.

**Lilian Whiting, Canada, The Spellbinder, J.M. Dent, 1917, p. 264.

***Wanda Campbell, “Moonlight and Morning: Women’s Early Contribution to Canadian Modernism” in The Canadian Modernists Meet, edited by Dean Irvine, p. 86; Rebecca Campbell, We Gave Our Glorious Laddies: Canadian Women’s War Poetry, 1915–1920, thesis, University of British Columbia, 2007, p. 8.

†John W. Garvin, “Katherine Hale,” in Canadian Poems of the Great War, edited by John W. Garvin, McClelland & Stewart, 1918, p. 72.

††Lotta Dempsey, “Katherine Hale Knew Triumph and Tragedy,” Toronto Globe and Mail, 11 Sept. 1956, p. 14.

Friday, July 31, 2020

The War Office Regrets

Father and son, Royal Engineers
Image from @QMGS191418

Many poems of the First World War recount a soldier’s imagining of his own death (see, for example, Schnack’s “Standing To” or Albert-Paul Granier’s “Fever”). Other poems, often written by noncombatants, imagine the family receiving news of their soldier’s death (such as “His Latch-Key” or “The Mother”). Theodore van Beek’s “The Soldier’s Son” is strikingly original; it imagines a young boy praying for his father at war, unaware that his father lies dead, his body food for vermin and flies.
Family group,
from @QMGS191418

The Soldier’s Son

The little boy whose innocent yellow head
Has bobbed among the buttercups all day,
The earth being silent now and the light shed,
Kneels down to pray.

And, full of faith, he knows that God will keep
Safe one who lies
Feeding the rats that with the shadows creep
And husbanding the flies.
            —Theodore van Beek

“The Soldier’s Son” bitterly contrasts the clean faith of a child with the indignities of death on the battlefield. Van Beek’s disillusionment with the war is also evident in his poem “After the ‘Offensive.’”

Born in South Africa, Theodore van Beek emigrated to Scotland in 1908 to attend the University of Edinburgh. He married Katherine Fairbairn, a young woman from Edinburgh, and by the time war was declared in 1914, the couple had three young sons. Enlisting in the British army, van Beek served first with the Artists Rifles and later with the Royal Field Artillery.*

While on active duty in 1917, van Beek received the news that his youngest son, James, had died. Soldiers of the First World War were frequently witnesses to ugly, messy deaths. What we often forget is that these men were not immune from the loss of loved ones on the home front. What must it have been like for a man at war to receive word of the death of a mother, father, wife, daughter, or son? Many of van Beek’s war poems juxtapose the grim realities of war with the loss of his fair-haired toddler (James was approximately three years of age when he died).

The War Office Regrets…..
Theo van Beek, c. 1914

I was dreaming in the firelight when it came
With its few, blurred lines and vividly, a name.
First I felt a little hand on my own;
Then I heard an eager voice;
Then a flame,
Bright and yellow, danced before me
And was blown into the gloom.

Come to me, my little boy,
Fill with living sound my room,
Run about to your heart’s joy,
I will never scold you.
I will never sigh or frown,
I will never put you down.
Come to me, my little boy,
I will hold you….hold you.
            —Theodore H. van Beek

Although van Beek survived the war, his marriage did not. Before the war ended, his wife emigrated to Canada with their two surviving sons, boys that van Beek may not have ever seen again. After the war, Van Beek remarried Isabella Hamilton Kyle in 1920 and began a new family, but suffered bankruptcy in the 1920s. He adopted the pseudonym Martin Mayne and turned his talents to song writing, composing the lyrics to the Bennie Goodman tune “I Sent You a Kiss in the Night" as well as “I Remember the Cornfields,” recorded by both Evelyn Knight and Anne Shelton.

During the Second World War, van Beek and his family were bombed from their rented home in Blackheath. Their son, Theodore M. van Beek had volunteered for service with the British Army and fought at the Battle of El Alamein and in the Italian campaign. In December of 1943, van Beek's son was reported “Missing in Action — believed Dead,” but escaped from a POW camp and walked over one-hundred miles through enemy-held territory to cross the front lines and rejoin the British Army. Throughout the uncertainties and challenges of life, van Beek continued to write poetry, and in 1986, it was collected by his son and published in the small volume The Day of Love. Van Beek died in 1958; his last poem in the collection published posthumously by his son is the poem “Epitaph”:

When the last clod is thrown into my grave
And I am sealed in the night, remember me
For nothing I achieved, but for my dreams—
Sparks in the darkness of Eternity.**
*From biographical foreword written by van Beek’s son Theodore for The Day of Love and Other Poems by Theo van Beek, Rock Press, 1986.
** Sincere thanks to Kate and Lucy van Beek and Stephanie Blaquiere for sharing family photos and memories of Theo van Beek.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Rendezvous with Death

 “Of all the poets who have died young, none has died so happily,” said William Archer, describing Alan Seeger in the “Introduction” to Seeger’s posthumously published poems.* Seeger, sometimes called “the American Rupert Brooke,” was an American living in Paris when war broke out in July of 1914. Within weeks, he had volunteered to fight with the French Foreign Legion, and less than two years later, he was killed at the Somme on July 4, 1916 in a French attack on German lines at Belloy-en-Santerre. According to Archer, on the evening of July 4th,

Alan Seeger advanced in the first rush, and his squad was enfiladed by the first of six German machine guns, concealed in a hollow way. Most of them went down, and Alan among them—wounded in several places. But the following waves of attack were more fortunate. As his comrades came up to him, Alan cheered them on; and as they left him behind, they heard him singing a marching-song in English: “Accents of ours were in the fierce mêlée.” They took the village, they drove the invaders out; but for some reason unknown—perhaps a very good one—the battlefield was left unvisited that night. Next morning Alan Seeger lay dead.**

Best-known for his war poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” Seeger wrote extensively about the glory of war and the honor of dying in battle (in this, he can perhaps be more readily compared to the British poet Julian Grenfell). In Seeger’s poem “The Hosts,” he writes,
Memorial to American Volunteers, Paris
Friend or foe, it shall matter nought;
This only matters, in fine: we fought.
For we were young and in love or strife
Sought exultation and craved excess:
To sound the wildest debauch in life
We staked our youth and its loveliness.
Let idlers argue the right and wrong
And weigh what merit our causes had.
Putting our faith in being strong—
Above the level of good and bad—
For us, we battled and burned and killed
Because evolving Nature willed,
And it was our pride and boast to be
The instruments of Destiny.

In October of 1914, while halted on march to the front lines, Seeger wrote his mother from outside Reims: “I am feeling fine, in my element, for I have always thirsted for this kind of thing, to be present always where the pulsations are liveliest. Every minute here is worth weeks of ordinary experience.”*** He grew increasingly impatient with American neutrality, and in June of 1915 wrote,“Everybody should take part in this struggle which is to have so decisive an effect, not only on the nations engaged but on all humanity. There should be no neutrals, but everyone should bear some part of the burden…. Death is nothing terrible after all. It may mean something even more wonderful than life. It cannot possibly mean anything worse to the good soldier.”**** In Seeger’s poem “A Message to America,” he was even more direct:

You are virile, combative, stubborn, hard,
But your honour ends with your own back-yard;
Each man intent on his private goal,
You have no feeling for the whole….

Never one to retreat from confrontation or his sense of his duty (Seeger was a founding member of Harvard’s Socialist Club and a friend of journalist John Reed†), Seeger condemned those who refused to fight. In “On Returning to the Front after Leave,” he also celebrates the “intrepid brotherhood” that soldiers share.

Sonnet XI
Seeger's likeness, Memorial to American Volunteers, Paris
On Returning to the Front after Leave

Apart sweet women (for whom Heaven be blessed),
Comrades, you cannot think how thin and blue
Look the leftovers of mankind that rest,
Now that the cream has been skimmed off in you.
War has its horrors, but has this of good—
That its sure processes sort out and bind
Brave hearts in one intrepid brotherhood
And leave the shams and imbeciles behind.
Now turn we joyful to the great attacks,
Not only that we face in a fair field
Our valiant foe and all his deadly tools,
But also that we turn disdainful backs
On that poor world we scorn yet die to shield—
That world of cowards, hypocrites, and fools.
            —Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger, by John Elliott
Smithsonian American Art Museum
William Archer says of the soldier-poet, “But, devoted though he was to his art, he felt that to live greatly is better than to write greatly.”†† Seeger has no known grave. 

The soldier depicted on the memorial to American Volunteers of the Great War in the Place des États-Unis in Paris was modeled on Seeger’s likeness, and an excerpt from his poem “Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France” is inscribed on its base. His posthumously published poems were reviewed by Harvard classmate T.S. Eliot in The Egoist: “Seeger was serious about his work and spent pains over it. The work is well done, and so much out of date as to be almost a positive quality. It is high-flown, heavily decorated and solemn, but its solemnity is thorough going, not a mere literary formality. Alan Seeger, as one who knew him can attest, lived his whole life on this plane, with impeccable poetic dignity; everything about him was in keeping.”†††
* William Archer, “Introduction,” Poems, by Alan Seeger, Charles Scribner, 1916, p. xi.
** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xliv.
*** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xxxi.
**** Archer, “Introduction,” p. xxxvi.
† Shortly after their graduation from Harvard, John Reed wrote a short comic verse describing Seeger: “A timid footstep—enter then the eager Keats-Shelley-Swinburne-Medieval Seeger; / Poe’s raven bank above Byronic brow, / And Dante’s beak—you have his picture now; / In fact he is, though feigning not to know it, / The popular conception of a poet. / Dreaming his eyes are steadily alight / With splendours of a world beyond our sight.” [John Herling, “Harvard’s Class of 1910 Rode Comet’s Tail to Fame,” Congressional Record, Appendix, 23 June 1960, p. A5423.]
†† Archer, “Introduction,” p. xv.
††† T.S. Eliot, “Short Reviews,” Egoist, Dec. 1917, p. 172.