War Poems of Yesterday and to-Day

THE one favor the Germans have done for us is to rub the glamour from war. They spoil everything they touch, and they seem to have spoiled even their own favorite outdoor sport; it is probable that they have spoiled even their own zest for it. This one good thing can be put in the scale against their crimes; but it would weigh more if, by losing the ’pomp and circumstance of glorious war,’ we had lost anything really worth the keeping. We have not: the love of war was a sort of vermiform appendix to civilization, and, although the operation has been capital, we shall be well rid of it. One of the many factors that make our army dangerous is the fact that, in common with the rest of our allies, it hates war almost to a man, and desires nothing more than a conclusion of this one which stands some chance of being final. Probably this is no new point of view for soldiers, for we are no greater lovers of home and family and life than our ancestors were, and no more ardent haters of death; the men of Valley Forge, of Sebastopol, and of the Wilderness could have learned from the modern soldier nothing new about weariness, and could have taught him nothing. It is, however, a fairly new point of view for poets.

In his proper office, the poet is a prophet, an interpreter of racial emotion, and poetry is a still pool, reflecting the ambitions and despairs, the admirations and contempts of mankind. Steeped in the rich past, it is a great conservator of tradition, and therefore moves but slowly to the van of thought. At the same time, it is necessarily contemporary, and, since it maintains a closer emotional contact with what has been, it alone is capable of prophesying to us what shall be. The poet, because he savors life far more keenly than most men, is peculiarly liable to be dazzled by noble moments, and to turn away from the translucent thought that should be his guide. Sometimes he neither sees visions nor dreams dreams; sometimes, he paints pictures only, and entrances us as well as himself.

The actual bodily strife between man and man, whether in the ring or on the battlefield, is the most absorbing of spectacles; he who is not fascinated by it demonstrates, not superior civilization, but merely an eccentricity of mind not in the least creditable to him. Our actions are governed far more often by emotion than by reason, and there is an eternal value in words which thrill and excite our souls; the vivid poetry of action, therefore, has always held and will always hold its honorable place.

But our poets owe us far more than thrills, for their art is essentially an interpretative one, and is at its highest only when it gives us better understanding of our emotions, as well as greater capacity for feeling them. Without this increased understanding, we run the risk of lapsing into a variety of national hysterics, such as continues to afflict our enemy, under the influence of which we also would presently fail to make the necessary distinction between what is true and what we wish to believe true. This is a psychological danger peculiar to war; in times of peace, we do not grow excited enough about anything. Martial emotions are perhaps our most precious heritage from the past, for they alone give life to our indignation at wrong; but unless our poets illuminate them for us, we are apt to contend like bulls instead of fighting like men.

Rather less than a century ago, they began to do so. ‘Blenheim,’ recited by schoolchildren because of the presence in it of an interrogative vehicle called ‘ Little Wilhelmine,’ is an early satire on victory, and a mordant one also, as we discover when we cut it off from its usual background of desks and blackboards. It does not, however, make any allowance for the righteousness of certain causes, probably because such allowances are outside the focus of the poem. Taken at its face-value, it is purely pacifistic, significant only as indicating the age of the reaction against war as war. It is the antithesis of poems glorifying battle for its own sake, such as, —

Of Nelson and the North
Sing the glorious day’s renown,

or ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’ It would be possible to multiply examples, but these two will serve all purposes of illustration.

The present war has inspired an entirely new sort of war-poetry. There has been, on the Allied side at least, little if any of the old swashbuckling, ringing verse; that seems to have vanished from our literature just as gold lace has vanished from our uniforms. In place of it have come poems deeply thoughtful, which exhibit no doubt of the holiness of our cause — which, in fact, emphasize it as no war-poems have ever done before. They linger upon the lovely and quiet things of life — harvest-time in rural England, the intimacies of college, the poignant simplicity of home. The present sacrifice is needful, the poets maintain in no uncertain tones; it is doubly and trebly needful because of these familiar things which we love and are determined to preserve.

Our armies have gone to war with their thoughts striking backward, and look upon the front as an outpost of civilization, designed to ‘protect the camp from attack and surprise.’ In military terms, they have regarded themselves as exterior guards only, and have taken to heart their duties as such; the camp lies behind them, and must be protected at all costs. Something of the sombre enthusiasm of the Covenanters has animated them; glory and honor have been among them; but it is the safety of the camp of civilization, and not their own personal peril, that gives value to the crosses they wear.

At home, also, we have not been blind to the glory of this war, but it has been the glory of youth gone forth to make good our hopes for truth, and not the shallower honor of the cavalry charge, or even the ennobled suicide of the forlorn hope. From the first, this has been a people’s war, and the people of the nations have been stabbed and hurt and raised to honor by it on a scale never before known. All this our poets have sung to us, and even our marching songs dwell with searching homesickness upon the joys of peace. Our dead, ghosts dear and familiar, have come closer to us, and we would not call them back altogether, for they and not we, have achieved.

You from Givenchy, since no years can harden
The beautiful dead, when holy twilight reaches
The sleeping cedars and the copper beeches,
Return to walk again in Wadham garden.
We, growing old, grow stranger to the college,
Symbol of youth, where we were young together;
But. you, beyond the reach of time and weather
Of youth, in death forever keep the knowledge.
We hoard our youth; we hoard our youth and fear it;
But you, who freely gave what we have hoarded.
Are with the final goal of youth rewarded —
The road to travel and the traveler’s spirit.
And therefore, when for us the stars go down.
Your star is steady over Oxford town.

I have not been able to discover the aut hor of these lines, which came to me in a letter from a soldier in France. They show as well as any the new spirit that animates war-poetry, — the spirit shared by Brooke, Masefield, Seeger, and many more, — the spirit which at last places war where it belongs in literature and in the scheme of civilization generally, identifying it as a court of last resort, and insisting that the justification and the glory of it lie in the purpose for which it is waged; regarding it as a means of preserving for the present and the future the sweet and sound things of life, but having in itself neither value nor verity.

It is presumptuous and false to maintain that we are more loyal to our cause than men of other days, and it is only partly true that we have a more clear-cut cause to be loyal to. Undoubtedly, however, we have become considerably more frank, at least in literature. Formerly, the man who, during active service, thought too often or too long about what he had left behind him, or who seemed to value it all too highly, laid himself open to the charge of being afraid. That charge used to be a disgrace; it is so no longer. Men who have been in the fight admit without reserve that they were afraid all the time; and many of them say that they never get rid of the sensation of fear during action. It seems that any man nowadays who does not confess to tear underfire lays himself open to the charge of being either unintelligent or a liar.

Cowardice, on the other hand, — obedience to the promptings of fear, — is exceedingly rare, and for the first lime the military authorities are taking into account the fact that the bravest of men have limits to their endurance which they must not be allowed to reach, if in any way they can be prevented from doing so. Particularly in aviation, commanding officers are careful to relieve from active duty — generally temporarily, but sometimes permanently — pilots whose experiences in the air have caused them to lose their nerve; no disgrace attaches to such relief. With this frank recognition of the influences of strain, — which is another word for fear, — the efficiency of the military machine has been increased rather than diminished; and modern war, the most machine-like of human activities, has at the same time become the most solicitously personal. Hypocrisy and bravado, having lost their place among the conventions of war, are no longer literary material; although the stimulation of battle remains for the soldier, it is no longer among the most important of his reactions. Almost no one pretends that he likes war; the army’s frank hate for it is reflected in poetry, where it takes the form of a grave revaluation of the blessings of peace, and a deep appreciation of all that our fighting men are doing to make peace possible, and, if may be, permanent. Incidentally, renewed perception of all that makes life worth living renders adamantine our resolve to destroy forever all forces which threaten peace. The Austrian peace gesture of October, 1918, indicated in the Central Powers a defective appreciation of the spirit which our poets have been advertising for the last four years.

Human nature does change; the statement that it does not is the easiest and the most false of platitudes. Literature is the best index of the alterations which occur in it, for the popularity of literature is due entirely to the accuracy with which it reflects contemporary thought and emotion. Since, then, the reactions of literature to war are so radically different from what they used to be, it is not unsafe to assume that the reactions of mankind to war have altered in an equal degree. To look forward to universal and perpetual peace is still utopian and unsafe; at least, the psychological preparation for it, without which expectation of it was absurd, is under way. Our poets have become in a true sense our prophets; they have not only dreamed of ‘the parliament of man, the federation of the world,’ but have cleared from our path the first and heaviest obstacles that lay in the way of achieving it.