The Death of a Comrade
By Walter de la Mare
First published in 1923, then republished in 1957
A bird flies up from the hayfield;
Sweet is the newmown grass;
But all those flowers laid low at noonday!
And only my sighed Alas!
Man garners his own with scythe and gun-
Seed of the weed or blood;
But the life dies out of a foolish heart
When the dust is christened mud.
The beauty is gone… Saints sing of heaven:
Death’s but the narrow pass
From a transient dream to a changeless Real-
Yet I mourn the flower of the grass.
I grieve for the nameless lost ones,
For the broken loves, the woe,
The godlike courage, the bitter end,
And the facing a lightless No.
Oh, my bird from the swathes of the hayfield,
The rancid stench of the grass!
And a soul stricken mute by a sorrowing world,
And the sigh of that one Alas!
In 1957, if one felt like reading poetry, one might choose from any number of periodicals and books. This one was old – it was a post-WWI poem about the loss Walter de la Mare felt when many of his poet friends died or came home with mental injuries from the war.
As I pointed out in my Madeleine L’Engle post over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, WWI began a shift in poetry that WWII finished – a feeling that the enormous capacity for evil which those wars revealed had somehow debunked both the subject matters and the stylistic tools of earlier poetry. It was a shift away from beauty and the contemplation of goodness, to ugliness and the contemplation of evil.
What I didn’t get into over there was the influence of a funny little phrase of Wordsworth’s – something that greenhand poetry profs will quote at you to this day – about poetry being “a man talking to men” and therefore, poetic diction being useless.
(Of course, Wordsworth went on using poetic diction. He simply stopped the most extreme examples such as calling young women ‘nymphs’ and children ‘tots.’)
But others don’t stop there. No language ought to be used in a poem, they say, that you wouldn’t use casually in everyday speech. This belief was answered – by Owen Barfield, and handily – but no one mentions that because people have a habit of judging the truth of arguments by who gets people to listen.
Clearly, Walter de la Mare went on writing beautifully, lyrically, and with poetic diction even after Wordsworth – and after both world wars. But he was old-school. The same year this was published, Jack Kerouac finished a series of poems that were later published as “Book of Sketches,” described as “prose poems.”
Here’s how Kerouac treats this same idea of a comrade’s death. (This is from a poem so endless I couldn’t possibly quote the whole thing. ‘Fellaheen’ is his fond Egyptian shorthand for ‘peasant’ – the sort of person conservative movements harken back to. ‘Same-built’ below means, “a person who has a modern executive job but is really just a peasant in type.” ‘Hip’ means ‘with it.” It is slang. In the lines following where I have cut off, the word ‘Hip’ is repeated over and over as the author muses that perhaps the great war of the next 1,000 years will be waged between Hip and Meek.)
(by Jack Kerouac)
The types come & go &
Never change, but history
Changes; it is history
Laid the pallor over the
Face of the same-built
Radio City Executive – the
History of his race. But
He who surmounts his race,
& sits beneath history, is
Fellaheen. Funny ideas.
The realization of the
Death of a comrade is
Jesus; the Millennium
Of Christ; the sur-
prised news of the death
Of a comrade is Hip…
Hip is Half
Meek is Full. Or Whole.
Funny ideas, to be sure. In case you were wondering, this was almost certainly written by a man drunk, on drugs, or both. Because that was Kerouac.
Let’s compare the two poems; one republished in 1957 and one written in 1957. Let’s think in a nuanced unhurried way about the precise differences between the two of them.
First, the Kerouac poem might as well be called brute or primitive as beat. With reckless abandon he slings aside any consideration of the law of non-contradiction. Completely contradicting things might be true… well, not true, that doesn’t enter in. What enters in are ideas – and identifications. This is that. That is this. Realizing your comrade has died is both Jesus and Hip, and Hip is not Meek and Jesus is Meek and Hip is Meek after all but in end all will be Meek… Of course Kerouac was not a primitive and was fully aware of the principle of non-contradiction. He was capable of rational thought and engaged in it as much as anyone. This reversion to pseudo-primitive identifications are his attempt at mystical meanings. If you are inclined to see him as a sort of suffering mystic, rather than a tortured stunted drunk, then the mere invocation of the name of Jesus will thrill you, even though he identifies Jesus with a thought in the mind of someone who has just found out his comrade is dead. I’m sure someone somewhere has found some kind of meaning for that identification. The point is that Kerouac’s primitivism is not honest and authentic. It is an attempt to push through the wearying endless divisions of the modern mind into a mystical harmonization of ideas… by way of nonsense.
On the other hand, the de la Mare poem is utterly rational. It proceeds through a careful process of thought – the ‘aha’ emotional culmination of the poem depends upon the reader’s carefully following that process step by step. Non-contradiction and laws of identity are carefully observed.
Secondly, the Kerouac poem can be read in one of two ways, as concerns the sound effect it makes. It can be read rapid fire with no breaks or pauses, like someone who can’t stop talking. If read this way, you will certainly stumble over the sounds. They are not arranged so as to allow a smooth flow of pronunciation. The other way to read it is to pause at the end of each (usually enjambed) line – like a person who can’t remember, for a moment, what his next word was going to be. If you’re not high, it’s kind of torturous that way, but if you are high you might be like, “Whoa” by the time he gets to the end of the stanza. All those blank spots that seem so random to the fully awake and rational mind could seem kind of profound, in that case.
The de la Mare poem is carefully arranged as to sound. The requirements the poet lays on himself to speak fluidly and lyrically are not allowed to interfere with the sense and meaning of the poem, which is probably what would have happened to Kerouac’s meaning had he attempted it. I do not say he should have attempted it. But de la Mare was able to have both the precise meaning he desired, and the arrangements of sound he desired. His mind was cultivated to such an extent that he was able to do it – and that ability was art. Nearly every word you pronounce in ‘Harvest Home’ remains in the front of the mouth. Read fluidly, and it requires your tongue to wait at the ready near the front teeth, it requires the roof of your mouth to remain rounded. When d’s and t’s enter in, they crowd together in a line meant to be spit out in detestation. When hard C’s and G’s enter, they allow a slight slowing or pause in the line which helps the sense get across. N’s, M’s and L’s abound. Read it like a Brit and you’re half-singing.
Thirdly, the Kerouac poem uses constant enjambment – usually ending a line with an unimportant word such as a connecting verb or an article. If the enjambment were random one might speculate it has to do with line-length or with a sort of defiance against the idea that a line ought to end at a suitable place. The persistent choice of the least important word to end at is another attempt at mysticism through nonsense.
The de la Mare poem is completely end-stopped. The capacity of words to refer to something, and the accepted sentiments regarding those things, are observed when choosing a suitable stopping place for each line.
Fourthly, the Kerouac poem has a jumbled mixture of different kinds of diction. Slang, pseudo-mystical foreign words, familiar chatter, and classical rhetorical devices are slung together. For slang, you have “hip;” for pseudo-mystical foreign words, “Fellaheen,”; for familiar chatter you have a sentence like “Or whole.” And for rhetorical devices, well, this gets a bit more interesting. Notice the repetition of “death of a comrade.” The second time he says it he adds, “The surprised realization.” This expanding repetition is not exactly poetic diction but is slightly musical and as I say is a rhetorical device and has some ability to move and sustain attention. Another example is “laid the pallor on” which echoes a kind of poetic diction. Altogether these inclusions are careless and unintentional. “Surprised realization” does not evoke surprise or realization because one is too busy getting them past the tongue. When we hear that history has laid a pallor on the face of someone who should have been an agrarian worker but ended up being a media CEO instead due to historical forces… we nod knowingly and say, ah, yeah, history’s funny that way. The system. It’s all a joke, man. The common people are still our hope, though. But we don’t feel anything other than dull hopeless rejection of something that we can’t help.
The de la Mare poem comprises a sustained use of a very particular level of diction to arrive at a very particular emotion. In fact, the poem has become the Name of that emotion. The diction is not casual and not exactly formal either. It strikes a note between familiar and elevated. The diction level is chosen to match the feeling of the poet for his subject matter – the dead comrades who were familiar in life but “godlike” in death.
Fifthly, the Kerouac poem bounces from theme to theme, from point to point, never achieving actual contemplation. If you are inclined to agree with him or see his point, you will imprint your own feelings upon his words and feed on them, like a cow re-chewing the cud. But it will not add anything to you because nothing is developed, only mentioned. When this happens, the true effect of the poem is to make the poem itself, rather than the thing it refers to, the object of contemplation.
The de la Mare poem sustains a theme, a single metaphor, until a single point is made. Consequently, the imbibing reader is compelled to contemplate a noble tragedy, and feel a noble man’s feelings about it.
Kerouac does not seem to care among what kind of words and phrases he places the sacred Name of Jesus, the title of Christ. He tosses them in amongst any old words, so long as they, and It, serve the point he is touching on at the time.
De la Mare surrounds his dead comrades with words like sweet, beauty, courage, changeless, stricken, bitter, and rancid. He takes care to make the poem a fit setting in which to permanently place the memory of his fallen friends by rendering the real nature of what he is talking about.
Again, the Kerouac poem is pressingly moral in its tone and intention. It is bound to the moral and social considerations of its author.
The de la Mare poem insists on no ethical or social necessity, or right, or wrong. The simple reason is that Walter de la Mare knew what a poem was expected to be, and he carefully met those expectations. A poem was meant to inform sentiment rather than opinion, and was presented not to the will (as a speech before a battle or football game might be) but rather to the imagination. So he made it accessible specifically to the imagination. Harvest Home depends upon an extended metaphor which must be grasped imaginatively. Not just any metaphor would do. The likeness between mown grass flowers and fallen poet-soldiers is a likeness which the imagination can descry and the educated mind can recognize.
And finally, the Kerouac poem is utterly unlovely. It is not beautiful.
The de la Mare poem is so beautiful that I dare say anyone who was used to feeding on Kerouac would sniff at it suspiciously, wondering how sincere or authentic anyone could be whose mind could produce such sweetness, gentleness, nobility, sorrow, lyricism, reflection, and honor. Or, more likely, the loveliness would simply not penetrate – would fail to meet any corresponding capacity in the imagination – would be looked at as an odd and ineffective throwback to a society which, in its innocence, amused itself by pretending to feel things that no one actually feels.
Why did Kerouac write poetry that was lurching, primitive, cacophonous, disorganized, dictionless, undeveloped, irreverent, and unbeautiful, while de la Mare wrote a sober, sophisticated, euphonious, organized, pitch-perfect, developed, reverent and beautiful poem?
Kerouac was a young man in WWII; but Walter de la Mare lived as an adult through both World Wars – the first of which was possibly more horrifying for the boys in the trenches than the second was. Kerouac had some deaths in his experience that affected him, including that of his admired older brother. Walter de la Mare grieved for nearly an entire generation of his poetic companions.
In short, Walter de la Mare knew even more sorrow and evil than Kerouac did. Yet even when he writes about that sorrow and evil, de la Mare maintains a viewpoint that judiciously assigns different qualities to different objects within the view of his poem. To his fallen beloved, courage, godlikeness, beauty, and a woeful similarity to nature’s most ephemeral beings. To war, a bitter evil that mysteriously can “mute” a “soul.”
Kerouac’s mental quality is all the same no matter what he is talking about. He does not grow lyrical and reverent when mentioning Jesus. He does not grow tender and thick-voiced when speaking of a dead companion. He does not grow bemused and wry, or tragic and penetrative, when talking about the executive whose type is mismatched to his job. It’s all under a single enormous gray shadow.
Was Walter de la Mare a poet of rose-colored-glasses who was simply out of touch with the important movements and problems of his time? Interestingly, the enormous gray shadow that lay over Jack Kerouac’s mind is touched on within Walter de la Mare’s poem. The older poet was conscious that the shadow was there, that the cloud had arisen.
“But life goes out of a foolish heart
When the dust is christened mud.”
The foolish heart is, of course, the poet’s heart. His emotions are the only ones in view in the entire poem. And a well-bred man doesn’t call other people foolish; he wryly refers to himself in that manner, especially when he is having a Public Emotion. Life goes out of his heart, he reports, when “the dust is christened mud.”
In the previous lines he has allowed that death is a matter of course – even man-made death.
But – he says. But the life goes out – it all gets worse somehow – when the dust is christened mud. In the context of death, “dust” is of course the flesh of human beings who die. (Both the flesh as grass and the flesh as dust image come from the Bible, the well-known foundation of all English literature.)
‘Christened’ is “named,” with more ceremonial force.
And ‘mud’ is lower than dust – it is filthy and despised. It is dishonored and dishonorable. It is the trenches.
The honored dust, renamed in ceremony and permanence as dishonored mud. That kills the heart.
Walter de la Mare knows that a terrible debunking has begun, fueled by science and failed theodicy. He even shares the feelings that the theodicy doesn’t cover everything he feels – doesn’t cancel the grief for the flower of grass, for the mortals who die.
The difference, quite simply, is that for Walter de la Mare, the shadow is merely in view of the poem.
While for Jack Kerouac, the shadow has got into the poem.
This is what I mean by “contemplating evil.” It is what a Christian artist ought never to do. We become what we contemplate – as Jack Kerouac became possessed of all sorts of tormenting evils and died with blood pouring from his mouth in consequence.
What does this matter to us? We did not live through WWII. Well, some of my readers did. So it does matter, unless you think that only the Millennials have anything important left to do, God forbid.
My grandfather lived through WWII. It affected the way he raised my dad in ways I could describe. And that affected the way my dad raised me, also in ways I could describe. We are one body. It matters.
Similarly, today’s upcoming poets were educated by people who were educated by people who lived through WWII and all the different poetic schools that grabbed for dominance in the decades since then.
There are more direct and spontaneous lineages that occur as well. The poets we read normalize for us our aesthetic, our sense of literary value. They become unconscious sources of imitation in the mind.
Each sea-change has left behind artifacts and has falsely debunked necessary beauties. We need to know where we have been in order to even be a “we” – and not just random particles in random places doing whatever comes to hand. We need to know where we have been in order to be certain that we are really healing – all of us that are willing – and regaining the full heritage we had lost. We need to know where we have been in order to provide an articulate Christian testimony to the arts concerning where we ought to have gone.
This last point means the most to me. Jack Kerouac wanted to resist the cultural forces that turned a potential Pier Ploughman into a business manager. But the things he was resisting got into his mind, into his poetry. In the end he was just a reaction that furthered the destruction.
I want to resist harmful cultural forces as well. But I repeat and repeat again, it cannot be done through artistic contemplation of evil. It doesn’t matter what philosophy is in vogue at the moment, so long as it fails to repudiate that basic mistake.
Poetry can do a lot more than any “school” of poetry thinks it can do – even now – for all schools are reductionist. Jack Kerouac was positively crippled as a poet and most poets today are also crippled – mostly by teachers who discourage them from flexing their full range of poetic muscles in the belief that most poetic tools are outdated and debunked.
The best way to resist cultural forces that destroy art is to go back – go back and find the point at which the true tradition left off, pick up from there, and do the work of contemplating virtue. The stream of tradition must begin to roll again – but we are the particles. We have to jump back in.
When “they” see the art that is so brilliant it awakens the aesthetically dead, that is so common it affects everyone, that is so unique it can’t be forgotten even after one has tried to contemptuously dismiss it, and that is so replete with all the skills of the literary artist it could have been published 150 years ago – then the debunking will begin to be debunked.
“Ah,” they will say, “perhaps one can write poetry after Auschwitz. Perhaps one ought to write poetry during Auschwitz!”
A lot of people are already trying to do that, of course. I am inviting us lowly poeticizers to become one of them. I am offering my understanding, such as it is, of what has gone wrong, to the project. It doesn’t have to be a universal project. It just has to be the common project of the people who ought to have understanding. It ought to be the common project of Christian artists.
The first step is to get back on the Trail of Delight. Poems with gray shadows over them don’t delight. They cannot. And as art is food for the soul, no would-be Christian artist should imbibe poisoned art – art that does not delight. Are you afraid you will miss art that ought to delight, but doesn’t because of some defect in you? Read only what does delight, and your capacity for delight will grow. You will make you way to better and better art. Your imagination will begin to be healed.