The US got involved in the First World War rather late, nearly three years following the initiation of hostilities, in April 1917. In spite of its late involvement it played a decisive role in the defeat of Germany and the Central Powers. Even prior to its actual involvement in the war, the US had indirectly felt the impact of the ongoing hostilities. In 1915 it had suffered civilian losses in the notorious sinking of the Lusitania by a German U boat. This particular incident, coupled with other marine fatalities and mounting reports of German cruelties in Belgium, had prompted US military intervention on behalf of the Allies. In his essay ‘American Writing of the Great War’ John Matthews argues that ‘America’s distinctive relation’ to the First World War ‘originated in its remoteness from the event itself’. As he goes on to assert:
Both because thousands of miles of ocean lay between the US and the battle in Europe, and because American troops did not participate in major action until the last year of hostilities, the First World War remained a virtual phenomenon to many US residents. The reports of German-Austrian aggression and Belgian-French imperilment did not lack for urgency … but they did lack for immediacy. The American side of the Great War necessarily relied on institutions of representation – journalism, print propaganda, fiction and sermons – to make the war real in the place where it was not occurring. In important respects, American writing of the war was the war. (Matthews 217)
In this context, however, it is important to remember that poetry served as a key catalyst in helping Americans comprehend and engage with the violent war. The appeal of the genre was both intellectual and emotional and this is clearly evinced in the deluge of poetry publications during the decade of the war years. It is worthy to note that approximately eighty anthologies of war poetry were published in the US between 1914 and 1920. Along with this, different periodicals carried war poems and hundreds of war poems were published by the New York Times alone during those years. Thus the genre of poetry was inextricably bound with the American literary response to the Great War. However, any discussion on poetry in the context of the Great War is bound to segregate into two distinct categories. The first, involving the poems composed by the American soldier poets and secondly the intellectual poetic response during the war years.
Among the combatant poets the most notable was Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918). Kilmer had enlisted for the New York National Guard and was deployed to France with the 69th Infantry Regiment in 1917. He was killed by a sniper’s bullet at the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 at the age of 31. Most of Kilmer’s accomplished poems were published in the third and final volume Main Street and Other Poems (1917). This volume contained World War I poems such as ‘The White Ships and the Red’ (inspired by Kilmer’s outrage over the sinking of the ‘Lusitania’), ‘Rouge Bouquet’ and ‘Prayer of a Soldier in France’. Each of these poems integrates an acknowledgment of the pain and a deep conviction that a war fought valiantly and nobly for a cause can bring about redemption. All these themes recur even in his final poem ‘The Peacemaker’ which he wrote in France just prior to his death in July 1918. This Petrarchan sonnet uses irony and paradox to contend that by acquiescing himself to suffering in the war, the combatant redeems himself, much in the model of the crucified Christ, paving the way for life and resurrection out of death. The ironies in the octave of the sonnet— especially the lines ‘That Pain may cease, he yields his flesh to pain/ To banish war, he must a warrior be.’ – are resolved in the sestet, especially through an assonant decree on liberty: ‘What Matters death, if Freedom be not dead? / No flags are fair, if Freedom’s flag be furled./ Who fights for freedom, goes with joyful tread/ To meet the fires of Hell against him hurled, / And had for Captain Hun whose thorn-wreathed head/ Smiles from the Cross upon a conquered world.’ (Kilmer 108) In his poem ‘Prayer of a Soldier in France’ written in 1918, Kilmer echoes Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’: ‘My shoulders ache beneath my pack / (Lie easier, Cross, upon His back). / I march with feet that burn and smart / (Tread, Holy Feet, upon my heart).’ (Kilmer 109) The reconciliation, as in the earlier poem, is achieved again through the identification with Christ:
My rifle hand is stiff and numb
(From Thy pierced palm red rivers come).
Lord, Thou didst suffer more for me
Than all the hosts of land and sea.
So let me render back again
This millionth of Thy gift. Amen. (Kilmer 109)
The most notable of Kilmer’s poems is perhaps ‘Rouge Bouquet’ which elegised the deaths of combatants of his regiment in American trench positions in the Rouge Bouquet forest, north east of the French village of Baccarat. During the course of the war, it was a relatively quiet sector of the Front, but the first battalion was struck by a German heavy artillery bombardment on the afternoon of 7 March 1918 that resulted in heavy casualties: ‘In a wood they call the Rouge Bouquet / There is a new-made grave to-day, / Built by never a spade nor pick/Yet covered with earth ten metres thick. / There lie many fighting men, / Dead in their youthful prime, / Never to laugh nor love again/ Nor taste the Summertime’. (Kilmer 105). The lines seem to resonate with the loss of youth portrayed by the Wilfred Owen in poems like ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Send Off’, ‘Exposure’ and ‘Strange Meeting’. However, unlike Owen, during his tenure as a soldier, Kilmer sought more challenging assignments involving hazardous duties on the Front. Writing to his wife from the France he remarked ‘I am having a delightful time out here—absolutely beautiful country and very nice people’. (Kilmer 167.)
Besides Kilmer’s war poetry the other notable combatant poet that deserves mention is Alan Seeger. Subsequent to his completion of education in Harvard, in 1912, Seeger left for Mexico and Europe before settling down in Paris as a poet. Succeeding the outbreak of the war, he joined the French Foreign Legion in 1915. His correspondence with his parents and occasional articles in journals reveal an intense sense of belonging and commitment towards France as a nation. It didn’t come as a surprise that at the outbreak of hostilities, he volunteered for service with the French infantry. Justifying his cause for participation in the war, Alan Seeger spoke for many in his article in The New Republic in 1915:
I have talked with so many of the young volunteers here. Their case is little known, even by the French, yet altogether interesting and appealing…Paris—mystic, maternal, personified, to whom they owed the happiest moments of their lives –Paris was in peril. Were they not under a moral obligation, no less binding than their comrades were bound legally, to put their breasts between her and destruction? Without renouncing their nationality they had yet chosen, to make their homes here beyond any other city in the world. Did not the benefits and the blessings they had received point them a duty that heart and conscience could not deny? (The New Republic 66)
Seeger succumbed in action on July 4 1916, at the village of Belloy-en-Santerre while encouraging his fellow soldiers in a successful retaliatory offensive after being struck several times by machine gun fire. During his two years of service Seeger composed a set of soldier’s sonnets, a number of longer lyrics, and two public poems, one prodding and persuading Americans to join the Great War, the other memorialising the sacrifice of the deceased in the war. Most of his manuscripts were collected by his friends and published posthumously in 1916’. However, the traditional diction of the poems and their uncritical approval of the war led to the relegation and marginalization of his work in post-war literary landscape.
Seeger’s compilation of poems, which was published in December 1916, was reviewed by T.S. Eliot, Seeger’s classmate at Harvard in The Egoist:
Seeger was serious about his work and spend 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. (The Egoist 1917)
A personal favourite of President John F Kennedy, who reportedly had often requested his wife to recite the poem, Seeger’s ‘I have a Rendezvous with Death’, was published posthumously. Much in tune with the romanticised notion of the war of the British poet Rupert Brooke, Seeger too voiced his deep desire to end his life gloriously at an early age:
I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes round with rustling shade
And apple blossoms fill the air.
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.
It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath;
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow flowers appear.
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear.
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous. (Seeger 144)
The entire poem juxtaposes the lure of life with the romanticised notion of death and duty. There is a deeper sense of transcendence in the poet’s silent transit to the ‘dark land’. The season of spring appears with its ‘rustling shade’, ‘apple blossoms’, ‘meadow flowers’, perhaps in an implied contrast with the larger threat of obliteration of the trenches. The idyllic and occasional sublime allusions to human love tend to underline what the reader has to relinquish for the call of duty and sacrifice. This romantic notion of the war, in most of Seeger’s poems is fused with a deep sense of fatality and irrevocable destiny.
His two major poems about the war generally conform to the pattern of enthusiasm we see in the British counterpart of Rupert Brooke. ‘Ode in Memory of the American Volunteers Fallen for France’, written by Seeger shortly before his death, focuses on the patriotic fervour that binds the individual and the nation together: ‘Be proud of these, have joy in this at lest, / And cry: “Now heaven be praised / That in that hour that most imperilled her, / Menaced her liberty who foremost raised / Europe’s bright flag of freedom…’ (Seeger 172-73). In ‘Message to America’ he projects the conflict as an opportunity to revive American glory. In his passionate plea he desperately tries to exhort the nation to respond to the challenge and ‘sacrifice for the good of all’. (Seeger 163) As John Matthews observes:
In “Message to America” he likewise sees the war as an opportunity to revive the ‘‘barbarian virtues’’ Teddy Roosevelt championed: ‘You are virile, combative, stubborn, hard, / But your honour ends with your own back-yard.’ Seeger explicitly identifies Roosevelt as just the ‘prophet’ to inspire American males to recover ‘your honour, our manhood, and your pride, / And the virtues your fathers dignified.’ National and personal manliness coincide in Seeger’s call to arms – but paradoxically since the individual must sanction the sacrifice of his own individual survival for the good of the ‘nation’, the ‘race’. (Matthews 228)
In spite of his deep rooted romanticism some of Seeger’s poems recognise the misery and devastation of the war. In ‘The Aisne (1914-15)’ the images of nature are dark and sombre indicative of the hostility of nature: ‘Winter came down to us. The low clouds, torn/ In the dark branches of the river pines,/ Blurred the white rockets that from dusk till morn/ Traced the wide curve of the close-grappling lines.’ (Seeger 131) In ‘The Hosts’ the journey towards larger transcendence and ‘fair horizons full of light’ is indicative of liberating sublimity: ‘With bayonets and flags unfurled, / They scaled the summits of the world/ And fade on the farthest golden height/ In fair horizons full of light.’ (Seeger 138)
Like Seeger, during the war years, Edith Wharton lived permanently in France being awarded the Legion of Honour for her work with war refugees and wounded veterans. Extensively engaged in charity work, she delivered medical supplies to Verdun, Ypres and the Vosges and wrote several articles about her personal experiences for the Scribner’s Magazine. These articles were later collected in the compilation entitled Fighting France published in 1915. Besides this, Wharton also edited her own anthology of patriotic pieces, The Book of the Homeless (1916), containing both prose and verse, in aid of the Belgian refugees. In this work she remonstrated against American non-involvement in the early years of the war and glorified France as a ‘luminous instance’ of ‘intellectual light and moral force’, imperilled by pugnacity which was ‘stupid, inartistic, unimaginative and enslaving.’ This collection contains one of the most moving poems by Edith Wharton entitled ‘The Tryst’. The poem powerfully captures the grim violence and trauma of the war: ‘My house is ill to find, she said, / For it has no roof but the sky; / The tongue is torn from the steeple head, / The streets are foul with the slime of the dead, / And all the rivers run poison-red / With the bodies drifting by.’ (Wharton 41)
Besides writers with direct experience of the war years, there were expatriate writers who responded to the First World War through verse. The most significant were the expatriate modernist poets who lived in Europe during the war and who interpreted it as a crisis in civilisation. Most notable among them being Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Hilda Doolittle among others. Other mainstream poets who reflected on the war were Wallace Stevens (1879-1955), Robert Frost (1874-1963), Amy Lowell (1874-1963) and Carl Sandburg (1878-1967).
During the war years Ezra Pound was preoccupied with literary activities both as a creative artist and as an editor. The developments of the violent war deeply disturbed Pound as he lost some of his close friends and acquaintances in the hostilities at the Front. In fact he was deeply distraught at Gaudier-Brzeska’s demise in the trenches on 5th June 1915. In the following year Pound commemorated the sculptor in Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir. Pound’s Cathay or translations from the Chinese, published in 1915, is often regarded as an indirect commentary on the ongoing war. In his work The Pound Era, Kenner observed the elegiac undertone of Cathay: ‘poems paraphrase an elegiac war poetry nobody wrote… Perfectly vital after fifty years, they are among the most durable of all poetic responses to World War I’.(Kenner 202) This elegiac undertone culminated in total disillusionment in Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ published in June 1920. The poem further confirms his deep state of disenchantment and embitterment with the violent war: ‘There died a myriad /And of the best, among them,/ For an old bitch gone in the teeth,/For a botched civilization,/Charm, smiling at the good mouth,/Quick eyes gone under earth’s lid,/For two gross of broken statues,/For a few thousand battered books.’ (Pound 13) Pound continued his bitter attack in ‘These Fought in Any Case’: ‘These fought in any case,/And some believing/Pro domo, in any case…/Died some, pro patria,/ Walked eye-deep in hell/Believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving/Came home, home to a lie,/Home to many deceits,/Home to old lies and new infamy;/Usury age-old and age-thick/And liars in public places./Daring as never before, wastage as never before./Young blood and high blood, /Fair cheeks, and fine bodies;/Fortitude as never before/Frankness as never before,/Disillusions as never told in the old days,/Hysteria, trench confessions,/Laughter out of dead bellies.’ (Pound 12)
The all-pervasive note of disenchantment in Pound’s works is also an overriding feature in T.S .Eliot’s allusive poetic reflections on the Great War. T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is often read as a poem reflecting upon the disenchantment, cynicism and the moral decay of post-World War I Europe. Eliot’s deep sense of disillusionment in the post-war scenario reveals itself figuratively through a Holy Grail legend. Eliot cited two books which inspired his symbolism and imagery: Jessie Weston’s ‘From Ritual to Romance’ (1920) and Sir James Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion’ (1890). Both Ezra Pound and Vivien had helped Eliot to edit the 800 line draft down to 433 lines. The Waste Land reveals the poet’s deep concern with the degeneration of the European civilisation on the threshold of the twentieth century. An exacting critique of the post war scenario, the poem also revealed the spiritual bankruptcy while focusing on the political and economic crisis ailing Europe during and after the First World War. Eliot goes on to contrast the glories of the past with the decay, degeneration and sordidness of then contemporary world. The title itself according to Manju Jain has multiple connotations: ‘the title has several metaphorical connotations—the waste regions of the self; contemporary Europe; and more generally, any place or state of being which is physically, emotionally and spiritually sterile.’ (Jain 150)
Like Pound and Eliot, in most of her poems and translation composed during the period of the war, H.D. protests against a conflict that has not only consumed the lives of artists in its vortex of violence but also has endangered the aesthetic ideals of an entire generation. Through her war poetry H.D affirms the need for a female response to the destructiveness of a militarist ideology which does not accept the language or assumptions of that ideology. Rooted in Hellenic mythology and Imagist experimentations, her poetic exercises carry traces of emotional devastation and a personal reaction to the horrors of the war: her deep conviction that the mis-carriage of her first born child was linked to the sinking of the Lusitania; the break-up of marriage with the poet Richard Aldington following his enlistment; the sad demise of her brother Gilbert in France in 1918; the subsequent death of her father; the coincidence of D.H. Lawrence’s persecution just at the start of her new relationship and finally the incident of her flat being bombed towards the end of the war.
The war years were a period of broken and strained relationships that intensified an arduous process of self-discovery for H.D. However, amidst all these tragic personal circumstances of grief, mourning, self- discovery, and personal trauma her literary activities during the war were brisk and intense. Some Imagist Poets: An Anthology published in 1915 carried seven of her poems: ‘The Pool’. ‘Sea Lily’, ‘Sea Iris’, ‘Oread’, ‘Sea Rose’, ‘The Garden’ and ‘Orion Dead’. Published in 1916 her compilation of poems Sea Garden fashions a new poetic creed. Inverting the conventional floral motif, in her poems like ‘Sea Rose’, ‘Sea Lily’, ‘Sea Poppies’, ‘Sea Violet’, she fashions a language of female resistance against the dominant masculine ideologies of the war time. Most poppy poems composed during the years of the war symbolise sanctity of human blood and sacrifice, but H.D’s ‘Sea Poppies’ has its roots in a different world altogether. These aquatic counterparts serve as symbols of a rare kind of beauty, suggestive of a different artistic creed, much beyond the aesthetic connotations perpetrated by the dominant militant ideology during the years of the war.
To H.D. the ‘sacred’ pursuit of the female artist during the time of the war called for aesthetic endurance and spiritual resilience. Her poetic acknowledgment to sturdy aquatic flowers in poems like ‘Sea Rose’, ‘Sea Lily’, ‘Sea Poppies’, ‘Sea Violet’ and ‘Sea Iris’ glorify and symbolise such female resistance against the dominant masculine ideologies of the wartime. Rachel DuPlessis describes these flowers as possessing ‘harsh surprising beauty, slashed, torn, dashed yet still triumphant and powerful, despite being wounded, hardened, tested by exposure’ suggestive of ‘an almost contemptuous defiance of ease, of simple fashions of ripening.’ (DuPlessis 12) The poet adores these flowers in comparison with the conventional garden variety, as they withstand the heavy odds of wave, wind and sand. In spite of being ‘scarred and broken’, these flowers are treasured for having outlived the adversities of life, an indirect symbolic and Imagist celebration of enduring female principles of life. (Quinn 36) H.D.’s obsession with the sea and sea flowers in Sea Garden conjure a unique poetic world of feminine strength and beauty. As Thomas Swann points out: ‘Confronted by corrupt and corrupting humanity, H.D. finds in the cold purity of the sea a remedy for the ills of life among men.’ (Swann 29) Her depiction of the sea, as poems like ‘Oread’, ‘The Helmsman’ ‘The Islands’ and ‘Lethe’ testify, is a formidable and powerful force, one that purifies and confers peace upon humankind. In the ‘The Helmsman’, the sea also represents a yearning, ‘a harsh kind of peace, probably death itself’. It is different from Homer’s unsympathetic and hostile ocean that provides recurrent challenges for its heroes to surmount.
The flowers, as depicted in Sea Garden, are sea borne and emerge superior in grace, beauty and endurance when compared with their terrestrial counterparts. As Charlotte Mandel observes, H.D.’s portrayal of flowers ‘demand that we look closely at small things to discover beauty and endurance.’ (Mandel 308) Most poppy poems composed during the years of the war glorify and symbolise sanctity of human blood and sacrifice, but H.D.’s ‘Sea Poppies’ has its roots in a different world altogether. These aquatic flowers serve as symbols of a rare kind of beauty, suggestive of a different artistic creed, much beyond the aesthetic connotations perpetrated by the dominant militant ideology in vogue: ‘Amber husk/fluted with gold, /fruited on the sand/ marked with a rich grain, /…Beautiful, wide-spread, /fire upon leaf, /what meadow yields/ so fragrant a leaf/ as your bright leaf?’ (HD 21) The poet not only praises the splendour of sea poppies, but also affirms their superiority over their terrestrial counterparts. Such a portrayal deliberately defies the conventional militarist symbolism associated with these flowers during the years of the war. Elsewhere, in ‘The Tribute’, the terrestrial poppy flowers also serve as symbols of male oppression during the time of the war: ‘We are veiled as the bud of the poppy/in the poppy sheath, /and our hearts will break from their bondage/and spread as the poppy-leaf⎯/leaf by leaf, radiant and perfect/as last in the summer heat.’ (H.D 64)
From the direct combat experience of Seeger and Kilmer to the allusive experimentations of Pound, Eliot and H.D. American poetic response to the Great War incorporates a wide gamut of themes and experimentations in verse. Poets who lived through the violent years of the war often referred to the conflict overtly in their works or adumbrated to it as the threshold that they had traversed on a larger voyage towards their personal and aesthetic goals. For some poets this transcendence implied outright refutation of the compromised values of a former era. The whole idea is succinctly expressed in the lines of the poet Amy Lowell in ‘September, 1918’: ‘Some day there will be no war, / Then I shall take out this afternoon/ And turn it in my fingers, / And remark the sweet taste of it upon my palate, / And note the crisp variety of its flight of leaves./ Today I can only gather it / And put it into my lunch-box, / For I have time for nothing / But the endeavour to balance myself / Upon a broken world.’ (Lowell 75-76)
Acknowledgement: I am deeply indebted to Dr Indrani Haldar of Jadavpur University Society for American Studies for giving me the opportunity to explore the topic. I am immensely grateful for her constant encouragement, support and guidance without which writing this essay would have been impossibly arduous.
DuPlessis Rachel, H.D.: The Career of that Struggle (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986)
H.D.: Collected Poems 1912-1944, edited by Louis L. Martz (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1984)
Jain, Manju Selected Poems and A Critical reading of the Selected Poems of T.S.Eliot (Oxford: OUP & Faber & Faber, 1992 rpt. 1995)
Kenner, Hugh The Pound Era (Berkeley, Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1971)
Kilmer Joyce Poems, Essays and Letters edited with a memoir by Robert Cortes Holliday (New York: George H Doran Co 1917)
Lowell, Amy Selected Poems edited by Melissa Bradshaw and Adrienne Munich (NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002) pp75-76.
Mandel, Charlotte ‘Magical Lenses: Poet’s Vision Beyond the Naked Eye’ in H.D. Woman and Poet edited by Michael King (Orono: National Poetry Foundation/ University of Maine, 1986)
Pound Ezra, H S Mauberley (Berkeley: The Ovid Press, 1920)
Quinn, Vincent H.D. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967)
Seeger Alan, Poems Introduced by William Archer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917)
Swann, Thomas Burnett The Classical World of H.D. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962)
The New Republic, May 22, 1915, p.66.
Matthews John T ‘American Writing of the Great War’ in Sherry Vincent ed The Cambridge Companion to The Literature of the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) pp.217-244
Wharton, Edith ed. The Book of the Homeless (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1916) pp. 41-42