"" Behind Their Lines: Life weeps and shreds her garments

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Life weeps and shreds her garments

Harvard's First World War memorial 

In May of 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, French general Joseph Joffre visited America with his entourage. Joffre had served as France’s Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front from the start of the war until the end of 1916. He was well-known in America, remembered by his nickname, the “Rock of the Marne.” 

In the spring of 1917, Joffre’s mission was to ensure that American troops would be sent to the Western Front as quickly as possible, and that American military supplies would accompany the troops who would be trained by the French. Historian J.A. Almstrom writes, 

Because her own troops would tolerate no more offensives, France needed the Americans as surrogate soldiers for her generals’ strategic appetites. In order to survive, the French would attempt no less than to capture the soul of an army. As a result of the Joffre visit, and possibly encouraged by his insistence that trench warfare required little training, the War Department decided to dispatch to France a regular division.*

Along with an estimated 22,000 others, American writer Amy Lowell was present at Joffre’s visit to Harvard (her brother was the president of the university). Local newspapers describe the hero’s welcome that was given to Joffre: a chorus of over 1,000 school children sang “The Marseilles”; Boy Scouts accompanied the procession from Cambridge to Harvard; the President of Harvard, A. Lawrence Lowell, conferred upon Joffre the honorary degree of doctor of laws, and the university’s young recruits showed off their military bearing and discipline in an exhibition of marching and drills.**

Amy Lowell’s description of the event distances itself from the patriotic fervor that thrilled the crowds. Lowell's poem “In the Stadium” highlights the immense gap between parades and combat, between generals who command and young men who are sent to die, “Heaped like sandbags / Against the German guns.” 

In the Stadium
Marshall Joffre Reviewing The Harvard Regiment, May 12, 1917

A little old man
Huddled up in a corner of a carriage,
Rapidly driven in front of throngs of people
With his hand held to a perpetual salute.
The people cheer,
But he has heard so much cheering.
On his breast is a row of decorations.
He feels his body recoil before attacks of pain.

They are all like this:
Great Caesar even,
But that he died out of time.
Sick old men,
Driving rapidly before a concourse of people,
Gay with decorations,
Crumpled with pain.

The drum-major lifts his silver-headed stick,
And the silver trumpets and tubas,
The great round drums,
Each with an H on them,
Crash out martial music.
Heavily rhythmed march music
For the stepping of a regiment.

Parade to War, an Allegory
John S. Curry, Cummer Museum of Art 

Slant lines of rifles,
A twinkle of stepping,
The regiment comes.
The young regiment,
Boys in khaki
With slanted rifles.

The young bodies of boys
Bulwarked in front of us.
The white bodies of young men
Heaped like sandbags
Against the German guns.

This is war:
Boys flung into a breach
Like shoveled earth;
And old men,
Driving rapidly before crowds of people
In a glitter of silly decorations.

Behind the boys
And the old men,
Life weeps,
And shreds her garments
To the blowing winds.
—Amy Lowell 

Three-hundred and seventy-three Harvard students, alumni, faculty, and staff died in the war.  

Although she was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926, Lowell’s writing is frequently overlooked by contemporary readers, and few know of her war poetry. In 1917, Amy Lowell wrote, “It is impossible for any one writing to-day not to be affected by the war. It has overwhelmed us like a tidal wave. It is the equinoctial storm which bounds a period.”*** What readers are more familiar with today are her contemporaries’ dismissive remarks that seem designed to counteract the creativity and influence of Lowell and her poetry: she was accused of appropriating Imagism and reformulating it as “Amygism”; T.S. Eliot denigrated her use of personal wealth to promote contemporary literature, calling her the “demon saleswoman” of modern poetry°; and the writer Witter Bynner sneered that she was a “hippopoetess,” an insult repeated and popularized by Ezra Pound. 

In the preface to her collection of literary essays Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (1917), Lowell writes of poets who go unrecognized: “Poets are always the advance guard of literature; the advance guard of life. It is for this reason that their recognition comes so slowly.”°°
* John Albin Almstrom, Learning to Live: Tactical Training for the AEF, 1917–1918, Master’s thesis, Rice U, 1972, p. 32.
** Cambridge Chronicle, 19 May 1917 and Harvard Crimson, 15 May 1917.
*** Amy Lowell, Tendencies in Modern American Poetry, 1917, Macmillan, p. v.
° T. S. Eliot, qtd in A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode by David Perkins,
°° Lowell, Tendencies, p. xi. 


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  2. I missed this when it came out and am happy to discover it now. It covers so many of my favorite topics--Amy Lowell, Harvard, and T.S. Eliot/Ezra Pound snarkiness.