John Allan Wyeth and the British War Poets: A Preliminary Comparison

2d Lt John Allan Wyeth

The most memorable poems of the First World War were, among other things, testaments to the catastrophic effects of war on the individual psyche. For all the shocking explicitness of their naturalism, they remained deeply subjective. In that sense, they were the literary correlatives of German Expressionist paintings: expressions of personal horror with a public purpose: to serve up slices of rank Flanders mud on the dinnerplates of the complacent bourgeoisie at home, between the carrots and choice cuts of beef. Such paintings and poems, nurtured by a suppressed festering rage, shook the homefront to the core.

So all-consuming was the day-to-day scrabble to survive in the bestial setting of the trenches that a broader, more objective perspective was out of the question. Unlike the greatest novels of the war, which did not appear until a decade after the fighting, the greatest war poems—by Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg and Gurney, to name the most obvious—were written during the war itself. That they were written at all under such conditions, let alone with such originality and artistry by poets still in their youth, is little short of a miracle.

The Great War has been described as the burial ground of whatever vestiges remained of Romanticism, and the major poets of that war have been rightly credited with purging the language of its last romantic trappings. Yet, from the long vantage of a century, the poets themselves increasingly appear as Romantic figures in their own right: as individuals of obdurate defiance, refusing obliteration, emerging against all probability from the vast, inchoate backdrop of modern warfare. Whatever their services to the language of Modernism, the more permanent value of such poets lies in their irreducible individuality in the face of impersonal, all-consuming war—in their embodiment of the inextinguishable human spirit.

This paradigm, however, will not aid us toward an appreciation of John Allan Wyeth. Whatever anger or anguish his poems contain is so subdued as to be invisible, while his personality is constrained to the point of sublimation. He is in no sense a Romantic figure of defiance, or singular voice of anguish. What we find in Wyeth is an acute observer with the trained eye and ear of a intelligence officer who is also steeped in the arts and humanities. He is able to maintain a cooler, more objective perspective precisely because he is not in the thick of the fighting, and is never in the trenches. We do not go to Wyeth for memorable expressions of bitterness in the face of annihilation, but for perspective and precise detail, for subtlety and nuance. Such qualities, combined with a sophisticated mastery of form and technique, place Wyeth in a category all his own. They also go a long way toward explaining the eight decades of Wyeth’s neglect. Compared especially to Owen and Sassoon’s poetry of compressed outrage, Wyeth’s sonnets, for all their technical virtuosity, draw little attention to themselves. Even in their frank descriptions of destruction and death, they are coolly accurate and detached. There is irony, to be sure, and a good bit of humor in the overheard exchanges between enlisted men, but Wyeth’s sonnets, even at their bleakest, never grab the reader by the throat. 

By the time of Wyeth’s appearance in 1928, the canon of war poetry was more or less fixed. It was profoundly tragic and profoundly moving, the bitter fruit of four interminable years in the trenches. By comparison, the poetry of Johnny-come-lately Americans, who had seen six months of fighting at most, with none of it in the trenches, was vapid. This view of the difference between British and American war poets was all but unshakeable, because it was very largely the truth. No newly-discovered book of war poems by an American, especially one written ten years after the war, was going to change it. Wyeth’s sonnets never got the attention they deserved because their timing was all wrong. The British poets had seen a longer, grimier and more horrific war than any of their American peers, and by 1928 they had effectively said all there was to say on the subject. By 1928, no one was listening.

It was different for the novelists, because novels take longer to germinate and mature, and the greatest novels of the war all came out at about this time. No one expected great novels during the war. They may not have expected great poetry either, but from Sassoon and Owen they got it all the same. The biographies of both poets enhanced the effect. Owen’s courage under fire, for which he would posthumously be awarded the Military Cross, and his death in action just days before the Armistice— Sassoon’s single-handed raid against an occupied trench, his very public condemnation of the war effort, and his subsequent confinement in a psychiatric hospital (where he and Owen first met), lifted both poets into legend. The poets who came after them could not hope to measure up. The poems of Sassoon and Owen redefined war literature so fundamentally that no work to follow could escape comparison. The very criteria for evaluating war literature had been reset, and by such criteria Wyeth’s poems merited only scant notice—which is exactly what they received.

The first important critic to take notice of Wyeth, Dana Gioia, concentrated on the modernist aspects of Wyeth’s technique. Whether Wyeth proves significant in the history of modernist poetics is yet to be determined, but none of the established war poets has any prominence as a modernist. The first generation of modernist poets were all older, and all on the homefront during the war. The war poets themselves were consumed by the war just as they were coming of age. None of them had the leisure to pursue the major aesthetic questions of the day, and those who survived the war evinced little interest in the abstract issues of modernism which had so preoccupied the previous generation of Eliot, Pound and Yeats, or the up-and-coming generation of Auden and his circle. The British war poets—who were all essentially Georgians—were concerned with simpler, more basic verities, and their poetry was therefore more conservative and traditional. They had aged beyond their years, or been broken entirely. They were concerned with recovery and restoration, with salvaging what they could of the world as it had been before the cataclysm. Having endured battles of flesh and blood at inconceivable cost, they left the abstract battles of aesthetics to others.

Wyeth, as an American, came late to the war, and—shielded by his position on the general staff—escaped the sort of damage suffered by so many of his British compatriots. Yet he was far from a mere desk jockey. As a courier delivering intelligence to front-line units, he came close enough to endure aerial bombardment and shellfire, and to have his eyes singed by gas. On one occasion, within range of machine gun and artillery fire, he led a group of casualties to a field station across broken country in the darkness. As division interpreter, intelligence officer and courier, Wyeth saw his share of the war at first hand, as well as behind the scenes, and comprehended it more acutely than most.

Wyeth was an astute witness. His descriptions of everything from the sound of gas shells hurtling overhead, to the reckless banter of enlisted men playing craps, to the drifting perfume of dead men in a ruined village, are as sparkling and precise as any in the literature of war, and are evidence of the profound impression such particulars made upon him. 

Rats squeak and scrabble brusquely everywhere.
The night is almost blind . . . Something dispels
my stupor, wakes me with a squeamish thrill
to find my raincoat pocket eaten through.

~~~~~

My body swept throughout with a shattering spell
of fear—the fear that makes your heart like lead,
your gullet sicken and the bowels creep
and slide like live things in your abdomen.

Around the burnt plane, raking souvenirs,
a crowd, all raucous shouts and breathless smiles—
“Hey quit your shoving there.”

                                               —“I’ll say she did.” 

                                                                            —“It’s his first Heinie.”

—“Jesus Christ that’s hot!”

                                    —“I seen the bastard, sure—he’s under guard—
sixteen—he’s nothing but a goddam kid!”

~~~~~

Guns blaze and slam. The stars burn fever bright.

A low white ridge ahead, and the crumpled sound

of shelling.

                   “Jerry’s out—”

                                                A snarling croon
wheels over us—quick glittering tracers fly
down a pale searchlight, and along the ground
bombs blast into smoky yellow shot with light.

~~~~~

The Archies break out in a brute uproar.
We wait at the cellar stairs to judge the raid.
Frantic machine guns stutter, brusque shells blaze
in the light-swept clouds where, ominously near,
a beast wheels in the apocalyptic sky
and plunges through a stack of blinding rays.

~~~~~

Too dark and late for any bugle call . . .
a wakeful horse along the picket line
stamps obstinately in the squashy loam.

Sleep ripped apart in the shrilling blast of a shell
jerking me back into life—Dawn, and a dead
bleak silence split by a shrieking smash—one then,
every minute! Men run along the corridor—

Like the narrator in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which appeared a year after This Man’s Army, Wyeth has no faith in abstractions or generalities. He offers no felicitous homilies, no proverbial observations, and no conclusions. Whatever his truths, they are never trotted out on stage; they are kept implicit in the meticulous detail of his descriptions.

— Reprinted from Before the Clangor of the Gun: The First World War Poetry of John Allan Wyeth (Monongahela Books, 2019), by BJ Omanson.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Published in: on December 28, 2020 at 1:12 am  Leave a Comment  

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