Monday, May 28, 2018

'Death Was the Context and the Only Fact'

Yvor Winters writing to Louise Bogan on May 10, 1943:

“I tried to get a commission in the army, but was turned down because I had a touch of TB over 21 years ago. I could probably go into the merchant marine as a crew member, but I can hardly take a job voluntarily that will pay me too little to support my family. Janet is not strong & the children are young. My friend Clayton Stafford is now a captain in the Signal Corps. Meanwhile I sit around & watch the kids go. About all I can do for civilization is try to counteract a little of the effect of Lewis Mumford & our School of Humanities, which is a god-awful mess.”

At the time of the letter, Winters was forty-two, safely beyond draft age but nagged by a sense of patriotic obligation. After he was turned down by the Army when he tried to enlist, Winters became the Citizens’ Defense Corps zone warden for Los Altos. He jokes about Mumford and the humanities at Stanford but recognizes that military hostilities are not the only war that rages. In 1942, Winters wrote “To a Military Rifle”:

“The times come round again;
The private life is small;
And individual men
Are counted not at all.
Now life is general,
And the bewildered Muse,
Thinking what she has done,
Confronts the daily news.

“Blunt emblem, you have won:
With carven stock unbroke,
With core of steel, with crash
Of mass, and fading smoke;
Your fire leaves little ash;
Your balance on the arm
Points whither you intend;
Your bolt is smooth with charm.
When other concepts end,
This concept, hard and pure,
Shapes every mind therefor.
The time is yours, be sure,
Old Hammerheel of War.

“I cannot write your praise
When young men go to die;
Nor yet regret the ways
That ended with this hour.
The hour has come. And I,
Who alter nothing, pray
That men, surviving you,
May learn to do and say
The difficult and true,
True shape of death and power.”

The letter is taken from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), and the poem from The Selected Poems of Yvor Winters (1999), both published by Swallow Press/Ohio University Press and edited by R.L. Barth. Barth is a Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam and war is his theme as a poet. Collected in Deeply Dug In (University of New Mexico Press, 2003) is “Meditations After Battle.” The first part is preceded by half of a Virgilian tag from Book I, line 462, of the Aeneid: “sunt lacrimae rerum . . .”:

“And all around, the dead! So many dead!
So many ways to die it hurt the heart
To look and feel sun burning overhead.
We stacked the bodies on scorched grass, apart.”

Before the second part of the poem is the rest of Virgil’s line: “et mentem mortalia tangunt”:

“Death was the context and the only fact.
Amidst the stench, I almost could believe
There was a world of light where, if souls lacked
Broken bodies awhile, they would retrieve
Them, mended; where no one need longer grieve.”

The complete line from the Aeneid can be translated “There are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind.” A month from today my middle son, Michael, will report to the United States Naval Academy for Induction Day, traditionally known as I Day, and the start of Plebe Summer.

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