« AnteriorContinuar »
HE poems of this collection have been chosen to illustrate the emotional attitudes of the United States toward the war, as those attitudes find expression in newspaper and magazine verse. At another time the literary merits of these pieces would invite judgment or comment; now, however, the suitability of war poems for the purpose of an anthology is a very minor question, and it is therefore not as a literary museum that these verses are offered, but as social documents, as evidence of the state of our civilization at this moment. Of course the emotional attitudes of a nation may unfortunately change from day to day, and it is quite possible that before these selections are in print they may have ceased to represent the national feeling, but at this moment at least we may read in them certain well-defined and common attitudes which are all the more significant since the individual poems were written in various circumstances, and come together here almost by accident.
The first observation the reader will make is that the glamor of war has not touched these poems; here are no stirring battle songs and no heroic ballads. Perhaps the newspaper correspondent and the newspaper photograph have made war too frightfully real for any but a horrified treatment; perhaps warfare has ceased for the moment at least to be an idea of any sort, alluring or otherwise, and has become, or has tended to become, for the public consciousness simply an ugly and stupefying fact. But however we explain it, the absence of glamor from these verses on the war is a new and interesting phenomenon. Even when war has been condemned in itself, poets have usually recognized the moral value of certain of its by-products, or have justified the battles fought in a good cause. Chivalry gave the modern gentleman the example and the name for his ideal behavior, as the Roman arms gave St. Paul an illustration of the Christian life; Wordsworth could portray the duties of conscientious bloodshed in his "Happy Warrior" without disturbing his own or his readers' equanimity; Tennyson could sing of that peculiarly militaristic obedience that does not discriminate between a useful and unequivocal command and a fatal and obvious error-he could even satisfy us that those
men are "noble" who discard reason and execute what they know is a blunder; and even yesterday, as it seems, William Vaughan Moody could imply in his beautiful and otherwise enlightened "Ode in Time of Hesitation" that a war is just, even morally alluring, if it rises from generous impulses and is made to serve some high end. Doubtless there are many to agree with the great poets in all these instances, but clearly the verse-writers who have been expressing the emotional judgments of the United States in the last few weeks do not agree with them. The battle passages in Wordsworth's poem, Tennyson's fine song, and Moody's eloquent peroration have suddenly become antiquated, and Christianity is invoked, not in the images of discipline and strategy, but in the figure of the widowed and the orphaned and the slain. There can be little question that if the United States were actually in the conflict this humane attitude would largely disappear, and the glamor of war would return upon much of our verse; yet never before has so general a condemnation of war been voiced even by a nation at peace.
Since this frame of mind prevails in these poems, it is not surprising that the "literary" manner is absent from them. Whatever else they are, these pieces are spontaneous and sincere; they impress the reader as vehicles of an urgent protest rather than as elaborations of a theme. No one would charge the writers with having used the war for "copy." Such abstinence may not be self-denial-it may not be a virtue at all; it is, however, unusual. War in the past has not only fitted out ethics and religion with a language of spiritual control and conflict, but it has also furnished the ballad-maker with incident. This war from the beginning has been rich in incident, and it broke out at a moment when narrative verse, after a long interval, was returning to popular favor. We might have expected, therefore, that such a collection as this would contain accounts of air- and sea-fights, of forced marches and exciting encounters, but the papers have been singularly barren of such material. One journal complained editorially that its office was deluged with verse on the war in general, but no poems were coming in which dealt with single events or aspects, and the editor pointed out that successful war-poems in the past have confined themselves to the stirring details of the conflict, instead of projecting a broad mental attitude. His testimony is signifiWhen we have become hardened to this war or have got further away from its horrors, we may begin to make literary use
of them, but at present, it seems, the poets and their readers think it a kind of sacrilege to convert any of this stupendous misery to the purposes of art.
It might have been expected also that feeling so anti-military would have directed itself against one or another of the warring governments, as against the supposed nurse and citadel of militarism. Yet the poems in our newspapers have in this respect shown remarkable poise; much more in fact than the editorials. To be sure, a few foreign-born Americans whose spirit at such a moment as this naturally resides in their fatherland, wherever their physical presence may be, have expressed a violent partisanship. To make this collection representative, examples of this kind of prejudice have been included. For the most part, however, it has been militarism rather than any one country or government that has roused the indignation expressed in these poems.
Is it fanciful to read in them a new emphasis on democracy? There have always been protests in American literature against the aristocratic conception of war, against the willingness to devote the common man to the salvation or the profit of a few, but the protests here gathered seem to contain surprise as well as indignation. Why surprise? We cannot suppose these writers are ignorant of the venerable antiquity of this selfishness, or of its prevalence in all aristocratic countries to-day. Carlyle summed the matter for us in a famous passage in "Sartor Resartus." Evidently the American poet to-day supposed that the old giant of feudalism had been withered up by modern humaneness, and his surprise comes from discovering his mistake. In his own intellectual background liberal ideas of the best sort have, it seems, been making during recent decades faster progress than he realized; the manner of his protest implies that the right of all men to live and enjoy life is everywhere beyond dispute, and that all life, whether in peasant or noble, is equally sacred. This implication, if we do not deceive ourselves in reading it throughout these poems, is probably their most American contribution and their chief significance. It is what makes them seem remarkably cosmopolitan. The bitterness against war here expressed is very remote from the interest an outsider would manifest; the makers of these verses write not as spectators of the disaster but as sharers in it. Sympathy so broad has been the mark of rare natures, but here it seems to be a public attitude.
Is it fanciful to discover also in certain of these poems an in