Are Poets Always Against War? (No)





Mr. Renehan is the author of books that include The Kennedys at War (Doubleday, 2002). His home on the web is http://renehan.net

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Today's headlines are full of stories about poets who rail against war with Iraq. An organization called Poets Against the War claims to have gathered poems and statements from some 12,000 American"writers," known and unknown, mostly the latter. Poets Against the War plans to take this immense ball of verse - the good and the bad, the profound and the inane, all jumbled together - and hurl it in the direction of Congress on Wednesday, March 5th. They have also declared the 5th an International Day of Poetry Against the War.

The mood was quite different some 89 years ago, when poets (and writers generally) deployed their pens in support of the Allied military effort during World War I.

The British poet and editor Edmund Gosse composed an essay entitled"War and Literature" just as fighting commenced in the summer of 1914. Gosse used his piece to applaud the oncoming battle, which he saw as offering an antidote to British materialism. Gosse viewed war as an opportunity to dedicate one's self and one's country to a grand ideal, and thus to escape the trivial, self-centered, and ultimately-meaningless ritual of mere money-getting.

War is the great scavenger of thought. It is the sovereign disinfectant, and its red stream of blood is the Condy's Fluid that cleans out the stagnant pools and clotted channels of the intellect. I suppose that hardly an Englishman who is capable of a renovation of the mind has failed to feel during the last few weeks a certain solemn refreshment of the spirit, a humble and mournful consciousness that his ideals, his aims, his hopes during our late past years of luxury and peace have been founded on a misconception of our aims as a nation, of our right to possess a leading place in the sunlighted spaces of the world. We have awakened from an opium-dream of comfort, of ease, of that miserable poltroonery of"the sheltered life." Our wish for indulgence of every sort, our laxity of manners, our wretched sensitiveness to personal inconvenience, these are suddenly lifted before us in their true guise as the spectres of national decay; and we have risen from the lethargy of our dilettantism to lay them, before it is too late, by the flashing of the unsheathed sword.

Rupert Brooke, who would die of blood poisoning while in uniform in 1915, echoed Gosse's view in his several war sonnets composed during 1914. Like Gosse, Brooke saw in battle the opportunity to redeem Britain from a period of rich, cloistered self-indulgence.

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and wary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

H.G. Wells published no less than eleven articles in support of the war during 1914, and by the end of that year had collected them into a volume the title of which coined a cliché: The War That Will End War. Sharing the view of Gosse and Brooke, Wells found in the prospect of war the possibility for a profound and necessary renewal."One talks and reads of the heroic age and how the world has degenerated," Wells wrote."But indeed this is the heroic age, suddenly come again."

On the first day of formal hostilities in August of 1914, London barrister and novelist Henry Newbolt published an inspirational war poem --"The Vigil" -- in the Times (London). Thenceforth that newspaper published war poems almost daily, these being authored by such luminous literary personages as Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, Rudyard Kipling, Maurice Hewlett, Edmund Gosse, Laurence Binyon and William Watson. (As Samuel Hynes writes in A War Imagined:"During August 1914 as many as a hundred poems a day arrived at The Times, and though the number declined somewhat thereafter, several thousand had been received by the following August.") Subsequently, a prestigious list of authors (including James Barrie, G.K. Chesterton, William Archer, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Galswrothy, Thomas Hardy, John Masefield, G.M. Trevelyan, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, and Rider Haggard) published an uncompromising"Authors' Declaration" in the Times and the New York Times.

The undersigned writers, comprising amongst them men and women of the most divergent political and social views, some of them having been for years ardent champions of good will towards Germany, and many of them extreme advocates of peace, are nevertheless agreed that Great Britain could not without dishonour have refused to take part in the present war. ... the undersigned feel bound to support the cause of the Allies with all their strength, with a full conviction of its righteousness, and with a deep sense of its vital import to the future of the world.

American writers also took up the cause. The poet Alan Seeger - a Harvard man whose nephew, folksinger Pete Seeger, is today a central figure in the movement against an Iraq war - fought as an infantryman with the French Foreign Legion. In between battles, Seeger composed poems and essays that appeared in the New Republic as well as other publications. Seeger, who would be killed in July of 1916, was hailed by some as"America's Rupert Brooke." His poems were Byronic not only in their meter but also in their themes of heroism and noble sacrifice. In such pieces as his famous"Rendezvous" - known more popularly today as"Rendezvous with Death" - Seeger romantically extolled death for a higher cause as the best of all possible futures, and likewise celebrated the cleansing, purgative effect of warfare on culture.

At the same time, the American expatriates Henry James and Edith Wharton rushed to the side of the Allies. Early on, James appeared in print to chronicle the exploits of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service founded by Richard Norton, director of the American School of Classical Studies in Rome and son of Charles Eliot Norton, President Emeritus of Harvard. Then, in February of 1916, James joined writers Owen Wister, William Dean Howells, and Jack London in signing a petition (circulated by John Jay Chapman) demanding the end of American neutrality.

Edith Wharton led a committee to aid refugees from northeastern France and Belgium, creating hostels and schools financed largely with her own money. Wharton also traveled to the front lines to observe the fighting at Verdun, and published extensively in the American press, urging the United States to join the war effort. Wharton's articles about her visits to the front appeared first in Scribner's Magazine and then were collected in the book Fighting France (1915). One year later, Wharton edited an anthology, The Book of the Homeless. Featuring contributions from Laurence Binyon, John Galsworthy, Thomas Hardy, Alice Meynell, Mrs. Humphrey Ward, W.B. Yeats and John Singer Sargeant, the book helped raise funds for two organizations: American Hostels for Refugees and the Children of Flanders Rescue Committee. (The government of France subsequently appointed Wharton a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour for her wartime relief work.)

Another American, the novelist Owen Wister, used his pen to encourage American entry on the side of the Allies. Spurred on by his old friend Theodore Roosevelt, Wister wrote a diabolically scathing poem - entitled"To Woodrow Wilson, Feb. 22, 1916" - in which he castigated the generally-pacifistic president.

Not even if I possessed your twist of speech,
Could I make any words (fit for use) fit you
You've wormed yourself beyond description's reach;
Truth, if she touched you, would become untrue.

Satire has seared a host of evil flames,
Has withered emperors by her fierce lampoons;
History has lashes that have flayed the names
Of public cowards, hypocrites, poltroons.

You go immune. Cased in your self-esteem,
The next world cannot scathe you, nor can this;
No fact can stab through your complacent dream,
Nor present laughter, nor the future's hiss.

But if its fathers did this land control,
Dead Washington would wake and blast your soul.

Wister also wrote a short but eloquent book making the case for American intervention. In The Pentecost of Calamity (1915), Wister detailed a purported Prussian indoctrination program that since 1870 had proclaimed the creed of a suprerrace and superstate, silencing all dissenters, and preparing Germany for her"wild spring at the throat of Europe." Germany, wrote Wister in words that today might be used to describe the leader of Iraq, presented"a hospital case, a case for the alienist; the mania of grandeur, complemented by the mania of persecution."

But it was Wister's comrade Roosevelt who made the most eloquent case for war: one that has meaning even today. Roosevelt pointed out that there had always been, and always would be, moments in history when war offered the only alternative to a wilderness that only tyrants and oppressors could call"peace." Roosevelt went on to say that if the United States did not rise to these necessary challenges, it would be because the American people had grown too complacent, fat and self-centered for their own good: totally caught up in the vulgar concerns of materialism and pampered modern living. Then, said Roosevelt, nothing but a degenerate, self-absorbed bourgeois culture would prevail, dominated by" commercial classes" who were"too selfish to be willing to undergo any trouble for the sake of abstract duty."

The 1918 death of Roosevelt's aviator son Quentin inspired several poems, none of them very good. Four years earlier, an anonymous versifier had penned a clever response to the thousands of mediocre war-poems flooding the office of the London Times. The little piece is worth reprinting here with reference to the impending crisis on Capitol Hill: the over-abundance of assuredly-dismal peace-lobby verse with which our innocent legislators are about to be bombarded.

At the sound of the drum
Out of their dens they come, they come,
The little poets we hoped were dumb,
The little poets we thought were dead,
The poets who certainly haven't been read
Since Heaven knows when, they come, they come
At the sound of the drum, of the drum, drum, drum.

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More Comments:


Casca - 3/16/2003

Wonderful... am I the only one who saw other Democrat Presidents in Owen Wister's verse?


Mike Burleson - 3/13/2003

Many of the great writers of history and war experienced it first hand: Hemingway, Crane, Roosevelt, Churchill, Conan-Doyle. Those who have protested the loudest see only the means and not the end, even though they daily reap it's benefits.


Charles V. Mutschler - 3/12/2003

I can think of a few more poets who might, arguably, be added to the pro war camp. Kipling. Newbolt. Service.

Rudyard Kipling and Henry Newbolt both wrote poetry about the British army and warfare on the fringes of the British Empire. Robert Service took a mixed but generally pro-war view of World War I in his _Rhymes of a Red Cross Man_, which he dedicated to his brother, Albert. Lt. Albert Service was killed in action in August, 1916 in France.

Charles V. Mutschler