News from the Front
October 12, 1918. My remembrance of the man, when I got his letter from France--and it was approved, apparently, by one of his regimental officers, for a censorial signature was upon its envelope--was a regrettable and embarrassing check to my impulse to cry Victory. I found it hard, nevertheless, in the moment when victory was near, to forgive the curious lapse that letter betrayed in a fellow who did not try for exemption but volunteered for the infantry, and afterwards declined a post which would have saved him from the trenches. He was the sort of curious soldier that we civilians will never understand. He aided the enemy he was fighting. His platoon officer reported that fact as characteristic and admirable. He had gone out under fire to hold up a wounded German and give him water. He did not die then, but soon after, on the Hindenburg Line, because, chosen as a good man who was expert in killing others with a deadly mechanism, he was leading in an attack. This last letter of his, which arrived after the telegram warning us, in effect, that there could be no more correspondence with him, alluded in contempt to his noble profession and task, and ended with a quotation from Drum Taps which he prayed I would understand.
His prayer was in vain. I did not understand. I read that quotation at breakfast, just after finishing my fierce and terrible Daily Dustpan, and the quotation, therefore, was at once repugnant and unfortunate. For clearly the leader-writer of the Dustpan was a bolder and more martial man. It is but fair to assume, however, that as that journalist in the normal routine of a day devoted to his country had not had the good fortune to run up against the machine guns of the Hindenburg trenches, naturally he was better able to speak than a soldier who was idly swinging in the wire there. The quotation, strange for a Guardsman to make, is worth examining as an example of the baleful influence war has upon those who must do the fighting which journalists have the hard fate merely to indicate is the duty of others. The verse actually is called Reconciliation. After a partial recovery from the shame of the revelation of my correspondent's unsoldierly spirit, a shame which was a little softened by the thought that anyhow he was dead, I went to Leaves of Grass for the first time for some years, to see whether Drum Taps accorded with war as we know it.
And now I am forced to confess that we may no longer accuse the Americans of coming late into the War. They appear to have been in it, if the date of Drum Taps is ignored, longer even than Fleet Street. I cannot see that we have contributed anything out of our experiences of battle which can compare with Whitman's poems. He appears to have known of war in essential episodes and incidents, as well as from a high vision of it, in a measure which the literature of our own tragedy does not compass.
A minor poet told me once that he could not read Whitman. He declared it was like chewing glass. When we criticize others, the instant penalty is that we unwittingly confess what we are ourselves. We know the reception of Leaves of Grass was of the kind which not seldom greets the appearance of an exceptional book, though Emerson recognized its worth. So when occasionally we admit, shyly and apologetically, as is our habit (in the way we confess that once we enjoyed sugar candy), that long ago we used to read Emerson, it would do our superior culture no harm to remember that Emerson was at least the first of the world of letters to tell the new poet that his Leaves was "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet produced." Nothing in all his writing proves the quality of Emerson's mind so well as his instant and full knowledge of Whitman, when others felt that what Whitman was really inviting was laughter and abuse. I suppose what the young poet meant when he said reading Whitman was like a mouthful of glass was that Whitman has no music, and so cannot be read aloud. There is always a fair quantity of any poet's work which would do much to make this world a cold and unfriendly place if we persevered in reading it aloud. In some circumstances even Shakespeare might cause blasphemy. Perhaps he has. And Whitman, like summertime, and all of us, is not always at his best. But I think it is possible that many people to-day will know the music and the solace of the great dirge beginning "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd." And again, if capturing with words those surmises which intermittently and faintly show in the darkness of our speculations and are at once gone, if the making of a fixed star of such wayward glints is the mark of a poet, then Whitman gave us "On the beach at night."
I had never thought Whitman so good till that soldier's letter accidentally discovered it to me. If Whitman had been through the campaign across the narrow straits, if Ypres, Vimy, and Cambrai had been in his own experience, he could have added little to Drum Taps. For there is nothing that is new in war. It is only the campaign that is new, and the men who are young. Yet all has happened before. But each young soldier in a new campaign feels that his experience is strangely personal. He will have the truth revealed to him, and will think that it is an intimacy for his soul alone; yet others, too, have seen it, but are dead. The survivors of this War will imagine their experiences unique, admonitory, terrible, and that if they had the words to tell us their knowledge they would not be believed or understood. That is why the succeeding generation, too, gets caught. Yet there is enough of this War in Drum Taps to have stopped it more than two years ago if only one European in ten had had so much imagination and enterprise as would take a man through a strange field gate when he was convinced it was in that direction he should go, and enough of charity in his heart to stay him from throwing stones at the sheep while on his way.