Monday, July 23rd, 2018...7:00 am

Summer Spotlight: Soldier-Poets of World War I

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Announcing the Summer Spotlight Series    

I am a recent graduate of Harvard College, and I began working as a library assistant at Houghton in May.  Mostly, that means I hunt down books for patrons and return them to the shelf when they’re done.  An indelible part of my subterranean stack-roaming has been a whole lot of gawking (and a nonzero number of bona fide gasps, I’ll inform you).  Safeguarding and delivering the material in the stacks requires a certain amount of day-to-day tedium, true—but nothing prevents fatigue like arriving at the end of a long trail of call-number crumbs to find a case containing a lock of Byron’s hair.  And then remembering that it’s your job to bring that hair to someone upstairs, perhaps igniting some researcher’s last deposit of fan-club devotion buried by years of wrangling with a monstrous monograph.  It’s this excitement lurking behind every unassuming call number that makes the job a treasured rarity, a true first edition in a world of reprints.  Yes, working in a place that is this genuinely cool will make you start saying corny stuff like that—and maybe even believe it.

This post is the first in a two-part series called “Summer Spotlight,” in which I will feature some of the more interesting or peculiar items I encounter in the stacks.

-Mitchell Edwards, Harvard College ’18, Houghton Student Library Assistant


Soldier-Poets of World War I

This fall, the world will for the hundredth time celebrate the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne, the de facto end of the First World War.  In Houghton’s stacks, I have encountered a number of items substantially relevant to this occasion.  Each book featured here was written by a poet who died as a result of military service in the war—and each poet hails from different nation involved in it.

One of the most immediately striking of these objects is an edition of Calligrammes (Typ 915.30.1520), a poetry collection written by French author Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918).  Calligrammes is the poet’s book-length love-letter to typography, as he feared the decline of print on the precipice of an age of audiovisual media.  Thus, he intended Calligrammes to be a sort of last hurrah for the dying medium.  This specific edition, number forty-eight of a series of one hundred, seems to offer a credible counterargument to Apollinaire’s own sentiment, however—published more than a decade after the author’s death and still visually arresting as ever, it confirms the typographical arts’ continued relevance long after Apollinaire pronounced the medium dead.

From the onset, the content of the book flirts with this funereal tone.  Subtitled “Poems of Peace and War” and riddled with the influence of its author’s military experience, Calligrammes mixes its attractive visual forms with darker themes reflecting on the war.  The true draw of the item comes from the titular “calligrammes,” experimentations with typographical form that take “show, don’t tell” to its logical extreme:


“La Colombe poignardée et le Jet d’Eau,” in Apollinaire, Calligrammes. ([Paris]: Librairie Gallimard, 1930), p. 87. Typ 915.30.1520. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

These figures’ forms seem to warp and loosen with a sort of mad-dash entropy as the book continues.  Color bleeds into the type, along with structures from other genres of print like sheet music:

“Venu de Dieuze,” from Apollinaire, Calligrammes. ([Paris]: Librairie Gallimard, 1930), p. 139. Typ 915.30.1520. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

As Apollinaire’s swan-song for printed type reaches its last movements, it seems to attract all adjacent forms of print, their figures drawn into its centripetal sway.

Apollinaire’s anxieties about the future of print, along with the obvious stain of the war’s presence, make Calligrammes an exercise in chaos, a mediation of instabilities that naturally invade the form.  Finally, however, as the white-hot particles driving Calligrammes settle into cool order, we end on a simple typed poem, entitled “La jolie rousse.”  This concluding poem ends with a command that we might easily follow, knowing all that came after: “Have pity on me.”

Perhaps the most famous World War I soldier-poet was Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), an Englishman who died in battle a week before the armistice.  Owen offered a voice that rebuked wartime enthusiasm for its perceived naïveté, his most well-known poem likely being the biting “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  Some of his other poems were collected in Thirteen Poems, published in 1956 by the Gehenna Press.  This edition (Typ 970.56.6644A), printed in 400 copies, was illustrated by artist Ben Shahn.  Shahn’s illustrations intensify Owen’s themes of brutality and despair.  “Spring Offensive,” placed next to its illustration, offers a stark image.  The text describes the grueling anticipation of infantry in motion, while the illustration solemnly displays the predictable aftermath:

“Spring Offensive,” in Owen, Thirteen Poems. (Northampton, Mass.: Gehenna Press, 1956), pp. 5-6. Typ 970.56.6644A. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The withered body that accompanies Owen’s “Futility” might be the most haunting vision of the collection, all the more affecting for its severe simplicity:

“Futility,” in Owen, Thirteen Poems. (Northampton, Mass.: Gehenna Press, 1956), p. 8. Typ 970.56.6644A. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Though the poem does not include Owen’s typical trenchborn realism, the illustration draws out the anguish behind every word.

Canadian poet John McCrae (1872-1918) wrote “In Flanders Fields,” a pillar of the artistic response to the war and a preeminent poem in Canadian literary history.  This edition, (Typ 970U Ref 21.546), a short volume featuring the titular poem alone, was printed in 1921.  In Flanders Fields features stunning illuminations by Ernest Clegg, another veteran of the war.  This florid conjunction of text and image lays the poem into a field of striking color:

“In Flanders Fields,” from McCrae, In Flanders Fields. (New York: W. E. Rudge, 1921), pp. 1-2. Typ 970U Ref 21.546. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

The contrast between the warm reds and cool blues seems to mimic the poem’s negotiation between self-eulogy and call for action.  The floral patterns augmenting each panel accentuate the underlying sense of rebirth, persistence, sheer life that made the poem such a lasting literary artifact of the war.

The final item I’ve chosen to feature differs substantially from the preceding trio.  Though unillustrated, unadorned, it still catches the eye.  Alan Seeger (1888-1916), an American Harvard graduate and classmate of T.S. Eliot, died serving in the French Foreign Legion.  This notebook of poems (MS Am 255.1), which Seeger all-too-aptly titled Last Poems, juxtaposes handwritten verse with clippings of poetry that Seeger previously published in newspapers:

“Maktoob” and “I have a rendezvous with Death,” in Seeger, Last Poems. (unpublished), n.p. MS Am 255.1. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

This opening, featuring a clipping of “Maktoob” and the handwritten “I have a rendezvous with Death,” captures some of Seeger’s perplexing characteristics in full: frank acknowledgement of an inescapable, dismal fate, but with more than a trace of an old-world mashup of classical kleos and Tennysonian war-glory (e.g., from “Maktoob”: “So die as though your funeral / Ushered you through the doors that led / Into a stately banquet hall / Where heroes banqueted”).  This doomed stoicism is materially represented in the item itself, evident in the stately hand that parallels the notebook’s gridlines in patent expectation of future display; everything about the notebook implies that Seeger knew it would outlast him   The power of this item lies not in its combination of the visual and poetic, as with our previous material, but in this closeness of its connection to the writer himself—and the implicit, impossible promise that its continued preservation might postpone that fated “rendezvous” just a while longer.

The aesthetic, cultural, and national differences among these poets make general pronouncements hard to come by—but one thing to which these objects all attest is that the war was of inestimable centrality to their artistic expression, even as that expression may have been a temporary escape from it.


1 Comment

  • Dear Mitchell Edwards,

    I enjoyed your blog on WWI poets.

    May I recommend a forgotten American soldier poet named John Allen Wyeth? He published only one book, “This Man’s Army” (1928) but it is a sequence of real originality and distinction. He was a Princeton man, a classmate of Scott Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson. Ezra Pound coached him in Rapallo. It’s a hard book to find, but Widener must have a copy somewhere.

    Dana Gioia