Rendering a ravaged landscape: the steady eye of John Allan Wyeth

A poet of the First World War who has only recently come to light is John Allan Wyeth whose book of sonnets, This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-odd Sonnets, published originally in 1929, was reprinted last year by the University of South Carolina Press, as part of Matthew Bruccoli’s “Great War Series”.

J.A. Wyeth in 1919

Wyeth was a staff officer with the 33rd Division and thus served on the British, French and American fronts through most of 1918, most notably at Amiens and St. Mihiel. He was taken out of action on the eve of the Argonne Offensive by influenza.

Wyeth’s sonnets form a unified series, presented almost like the pages of a diary, in chronological order, and organized according to geographical location. I will not attempt a thorough introduction to Wyeth here. That has been done already, and quite ably, by Dana Gioia, in his introduction to the South Carolina edition. I will also sidestep the topic of the poems’ detailed adherence to historical accuracy, which is demonstrated by extensive annotations to the poems in the same edition.

What I wish to discuss in this essay is what critic Tim Kendall referred to briefly as Wyeth’s “understatement” (see Kendall’s article,  A Long Lost American Poet of the Great War). Dana Gioia describes this quality briefly, but cogently, in the following paragraph: …Although Wyeth’s central subject of unrestrained modern war should equal or surpass the domestic violence in (Joseph Moncure) March or Jeffers, his narrative seems decidedly quieter and calmer. Although the book presents a first-person account of the first great modern war — a conflict generally depicted in literature through shock, horror, and confusion — the speaker seems to observe his own life from a safe distance. If Wilfred Owen famously declared that his poetry was ‘in the pity,’ Wyeth’s method locates its imaginative energy in objectivity.

This quality in Wyeth’s poems is key, I think, but difficult to characterize. The poems all together possess a remarkable consistencey of tone, which helps to achieve the cohesion of the cycle as a whole, but the tone draws so little attention to itself that it is easy to overlook.

Wyeth’s neutral tone, the narrator’s voice, is never raised, never urges or obtrudes, never prompts or persuades, never calls attention to itself. It is like a neutral, transparent undercoat, a gesso, spread evenly over the entire broad canvas of his 55-sonnet sequence, binding it into a unified whole, and establishing a steady rate of movement through one sonnet after another, a smooth unvarying current flowing beneath an often turbulent surface.

As illustration, one could open Wyeth’s book almost anywhere, picking a sonnet at random.

~~~~~

SECRET TROOP MOVEMENT

A night march under black skies faintly starred–
the trudging columns tramp and jostle by.
“Cut out that smokin’, goddamn it, do as you’re told–
No talking there– we don’t want any noise.”
A scrunch of gravel in the station yard.
We ride all night– The men curl up and lie
askew on the seats and stretch against the cold.
All out by dawn– the harbor pale turquoise
with tugboats belching dirty smoke from charred
smokestacks. We ferry to Hoboken. Clear and high,
with sunrise cutting every roof and quoin,
a skyline all grey shadow slit with gold.
A downtown ferry passes–
                                                        “Give ‘em hell, boys.”
“Giv’em hell yourself, it’s not too late to join.”

~~~~~

Such a neutral, even tone enables all the other features of the poem, whether dialogue or description, to stand forth entirely on their own merits, without heightening or manipulation. Wyeth’s style is the opposite of expressionistic. With a delivery so consisitently monotone, the effect is almost documentary.

Neufmaison, by E.C. Peixotto

Wyeth’s poems invite comparison with certain AEF field artists, particularly Wallace Morgan, W.J. Aylward, W.J. Duncan, J.A. Smith and E.C. Peixotto, who tend to present the war as a series of precisely-rendered landscapes, seen from a certain distance, so that the men and machinery of modern war never dominate the scene, but are shown as transitory elements in a larger landscape which has already borne witness to countless earlier wars and which will endure long after the present war has passed into memory. The war, in other words, is kept in perspective.

Infantry and Tanks Advancing on Field, by Wallace Morgan

Such a drawing, with soldiers and tanks in the middle distance, moving steadily across a broad landscape, is Wallace Morgan’s “Infantry and Tanks Advancing on Field”. Note the nearly identical perspective presented by Wyeth (who after the war would become an accomplished landscape painter in his own right) in the following descriptive passage from “Molliens-au-Bois: Division Headquarters”:

… “What’s that—Oh yes, the brigade goes in today.”
Noon blazing blue gold in a summer sky
and helmets bobbing just above a thick
wheatfield, and through the dust of motorcars,
like streaks of rain the rifles slant and shine.
“Look, there they go—” …

Or this, from “Harbonnieres: Regimental Maps from Headquarters”:

   
                                               … A rush of foaming flanks,
Australian caissons rattling, galloping by
and dust clouds sifting slowly on to the plain.
“You men seen any Americans anywhere?”
“No sir.” …

Or this description from “Corbie to Sailly-le-Sec” of a ruined church in a ruined village, set in a broader landscape, all in neutral tones. The poignance of human loss is all the truer, all the sharper, for its understated rendering, as the war is all the more ominous for being only faintly perceptible beyond the horizon.

                                                       … We motored through
to the poplar marsh along the river’s shore.
Sailly-le-Sec—her church one candlestick
on a broken altar, and beyond it, part
of a rounded apse—a dusty village husk
of rubble and tile. Low hills ahead, all blue,
and twinkling with the phophorescent soar
of rockets leaping in the fringe of dusk. …

In contrast are the shorter-range drawings of H.T. Dunn and G.M. Harding, far more personal and expressionistic in style, suffused with drama and emotion — drawings where the artist’s style is as much the subject as the subject itself.

Harvey Dunn

What separates these two groups of artists is their view of emotion as an artistic device. Morgan, Aylward, Duncan, Peixotto & Smith eschew emotion, wishing to avoid its inevitable distortions. For Dunn and Harding, on the other hand, emotion is more or less the whole point. In their view it is the horror of war which is the heart of the matter, something which a neutral documentary style can never adequately portray. Emotion may distort, but nothing less will ever penetrate to the truth.

Wyeth, with his imperturbable evenness of tone, belongs clearly to the former camp. Yet Wyeth’s case is complex. A primary subject of a number of his sonnets is the narrator’s own inner state, his strong emotional response to a particular event. Yet even in these cases Wyeth’s method remains objective. He never resorts to expressionism. He makes no attempt to arouse a comparable emotion in the reader; his attempt, rather, is to render the emotion as freshly and precisely as possible — for the record.

~~~~~

SOUILLY: HOSPITAL
~~~~~

Fever, and crowds—and light that cuts your eyes—
Men waiting in a long slow-shuffling line
with silent private faces, white and bleak.
Long rows of lumpy stretchers on the floor.
My helmet drops—a head jerks up and cries
wide-eyed and settles in a quivering whine.
The air is rank with touching human reek.
A troop of Germans clatters through the door.
They cross our line and something in me dies.
Sullen, detached, obtuse—men into swine—
and hurt unhappy things that walk apart.
Their rancid bodies trail a languid streak
so curious that hate breaks down before
the dull and cruel laughter in my heart.

~~~~~


BJ Omanson