Wednesday, September 27, 2017

`Every Day Brought Its Tally of Slain'

I happened on Taps: Selected Poems of the Great War (1932) while looking for something I no longer remember. The volume is edited by Theodore Roosevelt Jr., whose father was president from 1901 to 1909, and Grantland Rice, the sports writer. The year of publication is significant. Fourteen years had passed since the war ended, and seven remain before the start of the next. The Great Depression occupies more minds than the Great War. In his foreword, Roosevelt, whose father died less than two months after the Armistice, writes:

“Along the battlefield the maze of twisted, wire-guarded trenches stretched for three hundred mile from the sand dunes of Flanders to the rocky fastnesses of Vosges. All night long the sky flared and thundered with the rage of the great cannons. Every day brought its tally of slain.”

Some of the poems remain well-known – John McCrae’s “In Flanders Field,” Kipling’s “The Irish Guards,” Robinson’s “The Rat,” Sassoon’s “Songbooks of the War,” Frost’s “Not to Keep” – but for various reasons, some understandable, no Edward Thomas is included, no Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke, Yeats, Thomas Hardy or Ivor Gurney. Some of the verses are folk poetry, deftly or clumsily rhymed and metered, most written by participants in the war. Modernism was afoot but you won’t find much of it here. Every poem is written with great feeling and most are unabashedly patriotic. We can hardly imagine such a collection being edited and published today.  Take T. P. Cameron Wilson’s “Magpies in Picardy,” which begins:

“The magpies in Picardy
Are more than I can tell.
They flicker down the dusty roads
And cast a magic spell
On the men who march through Picardy,
Through Picardy to hell.”

There’s much for sophisticates to mock here. Wilson was killed at Hermies, France, on March 23, 1918 (one week before Rosenberg’s death).

Roosevelt’s involvement with Taps shouldn’t surprise us. His family was not unfamiliar with poetry. In 1904, Kermit Roosevelt, another presidential son, brought Robinson’s second poetry collection, The Children of the Night (1897), to his father’s attention. TR persuaded Charles Scribner’s Sons to republish the volume, and reviewed it himself in Outlook magazine. Roosevelt got Robinson’s name wrong (“Edwin,” not “Edward”), but he rightly detected “an undoubted touch of genius” in the poems. Roosevelt arranged for Robinson to receive a sinecure at the New York Customs House, with a $2,000 annual stipend. In 1910, Robinson repaid the debt by dedicating his next collection, The Town Down the River, to the former president.

In addition, Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest of the president's six children and a pilot in the United States Air Service, was killed in aerial combat on July 14, 1918. He was 20 and a student at Harvard when he enlisted.

 Theodore Roosevelt Jr. had served as an infantry officer in World War I. He was gassed and shot in the left kneecap, and refused to be evacuated until being carried off the field.  Between the wars he served in the New York Legislature and as assistant secretary of the Navy, governor of Puerto Rico and governor of the Philippines. In 1934 he became chairman of the board of the American Express Co. In April 1941, the Army recalled Roosevelt, who had remained in the Reserves, to active duty. As a brigadier general, he took part in the Tunisian and Italian campaigns, and on D-Day he led the Fourth Infantry Division’s landing on Utah Beach. On July 12, while serving as military governor of Cherbourg, he died of a heart attack. He was 56. He was posthumously awarded the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, Quentin’s body was moved near his brother’s grave in the Normandy cemetery.

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