Friday, April 27, 2012

Stevens Textplication 16: The Death of a Soldier

“April is the cruelest month,” TS Eliot’s “The Wasteland” famously and counter-intuitively begins, but few have connected that thought to what is the 95th anniversary this month of the U.S. entry into World War I (The Great War) and so onto the international stage of slaughter, restrictions on freedom, and monumental indebtedness. Known at the time to be a futile war over nothing in particular, it was primped up by U.S. President Wilson as a war “to keep the world safe for Democracy,” “a war to end all wars,” and it became the most bloody in world history, so bloody no one could imagine another one. The cause of the war was the 1913 establishment of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, which finally put the finances of the U.S. into the hands of a cartel of banks controlled by Baron Rothschild. This allowed him to act on his belief that the kings and queens he controlled in Europe had outlived their usefulness, and could be replaced with “democratic” governments that he could also (correctly, it turned out) also control. The War specifically set in motion an historic level of global indebtedness, the emergence of a Rothschild satellite the USSR, and a peace treaty dictated by Rothschild that essentially guaranteed the unthinkable, an even more bloody conflict in less than 20 years (partly led by Adolf Hitler… content censored by administrator]

The point of this quick history lesson is not to shed new light on one of the most discussed wars in history, as simply to point out that the mindset of Americans and poets was very different in 1918 when Stevens wrote “The Death of a Soldier.” Today our attitude about war can be expressed by a bumper sticker I saw today “Is there life after death? Find out if you touch my truck.” We’ve become so desensitized to the human cost of war that the shocking simplicity of Stevens’ poem—with none of the characteristic religious fervor and heroic sentiments about war that existed at that time—seems blasé. Then, however, the mass, mechanized slaughter over the dying aristocracies of Europe profoundly changed many people’s views about human nature and human progress. Stevens was not exempt from this. The first poem he published, “Phases,” in the November 1914 issue of Poetry magazine, was a response to the new soon-to-be world war, and “Death of a Soldier” came originally as the first (untitled) poem of a series called “Lettres d’un Soldat” published in 1918 in Poetry magazine. These were based on the wartime correspondence of a French painter, sergeant and devout Christian Eugene Emmanuel Lemercier, whose posthumously published letters Stevens read in 1917. Each of the poems in the series had a direct quote from Lemercier, in fact, in the front of it. For this poem (1 of the series) the epigram was “La mort du soldat est pres des choses naturelles” [the death of a soldier is an almost natural thing]. Later renamed “Death of a Soldier” without the epigram, the poem was only one of four in the series to be published in Harmonium, and the only one to be published in the Palm at the End of the Mind collection.

One wonders why Stevens cut so many of his war poems from his collections; was it mainstream sensibilities, lack of credibility in covering a subject he’d never experienced first-hand, or something deeper? Of the “Soldat” cycle Stevens wrote “the subject absorbs me, but that is no excuse: there are too many people in the world, vitally involved, to whom it is infinitely more than a thing to think of. One forgets this. I wish my all my heart that it had never occurred, even carelessly” (Letters 206). The conflation in “it” to include both the war and his poem about the war is I think an appropriate response. A poet can’t undo what war has done, only inflame the wounds.

Filled with the slow and stately rhythm one would expect in an elegy, the poem reads as follows:

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days’ personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops.

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
“Life contracts” like a balloon contracts, “and death is expected” like precipitation is expected. The matter-of-factness of the utterance clashes with the largeness of the consequences, highlighting the insanity of believing that the human folly of war-making is a natural contraction of life’s growth and abundance, and of factoring in a young man’s death as a reasonable and normal result. Human war becomes its own inhuman season, where the soldier is no more than a falling leaf.

Lemercier’s soldier of Christ does not get it easy like Christ, resurrected after “three days” and given a annual commemoration of pomp as a reminder how He is separate from humanity, more divine than the rest of us.

The soldier’s death by contrast is “absolute and without memorial.” Despite the plaque in every town and the private wreaths in graveyards, the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice is in fact what most people want to forget after the war, in favor of compensatory causes and spoils. The soldier in that inhuman season is no different than a temporary wind that has stopped blowing.

This analogy is repeated, the movement of clouds across the heavens added, a poetic touch of moving in heaven although life on earth has been stilled. This suggestion of immortality is made less certain by the clouds going “over” the heavens (as the sky is seen from the observer on earth), and by the ambiguous clouds moving in “their” (heaven’s) direction. We are looking at death from the ground, stripped of the patriotic, religious and rhetorical devices that make it seem, as in so many poets before the Great War, lofty and purposeful. There is nothing in this version of war but meaningless death.

A surprisingly gentle anti-war sentiment.


the walking man said...

Bill historically you'd have to do a lot more convincing to get me to agree that Wilson establishing the Federal Reserve had any causal activity towards starting WWI. It was a land and resources grab pure and simple by Germany. Remember the American people struck for isolationism for the first 4 years Europe was at war and America fought for what, 18 months?

That it began the age of national indebtedness is true enough and that war national humiliation and reparations were direct reasons Germany re-armed and went to war in 38-39.

But it was during this time in the US that the Federal Reserve was toothless in the face of the American cabals which had staked out our economy leading up to the '29 crash. There was no enforcement capability or even a desire to enforce by Hoover any regulations on Wall Street.

That a poet can romanticize a death in war (or anywhere else) is a proclivity I for one have never attempted nor would.

Not in combat overseas but here in Detroit hell we all have seen enough, lost enough and are desensitized enough to simply *shrug* off all but the most heinous of murders.

Odd though MOST Detroit poets wax romantic about the city, which I find a bit hypocritical or dishonest at the least. Shit with great intention I made my first published book of poetry STINK as honestly brutal as I could.

Local folk for the most part refused to accept it but them in other places saw this city through my eyes and that was/is the point of poetry eh? In that book I wanted to give a second chance for the dead to speak--I never would imagine a gentle anti violence sentiment. You don't put out a wild fire by peeing on it, you start a back fire.

In this age most people are aware enough because of the rapid dissemination of information that we watch our wars on TV when we start them but soon enough with our limited attention span like you said only the beloved of the warrior remembers their name.

And that is both the cruelty and sadness of all violence.

William A. Sigler said...

Yeah, eight mile, some drums to my lonely bass!