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Not like those of Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves, two of the most popular poets of a war whose verse defined its cultural legacy.Death in their poems has none of the glimmer Seeger gives it. ./Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, — ” is what’s left of one who doesn’t secure his gas mask quickly enough.Seeger’s poems, with their innocence and their beatific tone, remind us “the war to end all wars” was a story of descent.
He witnessed the truth of the war, sometimes before others who are remembered for their cold honesty.
In December 1914, while others still harbored hope they might make it home by Christmas, Seeger wrote to his father that the “war will probably last a long while.” He described being “harried like this by an invisible enemy and standing up against the dangers of battle without any of its exhilaration or enthusiasm.” This knowledge didn’t dent his outlook of the war.
Graves and Owen reflect the war as it came to be remembered, but their view did not match many people’s emotions as it continued, or even after it ended.
The strongest works against the war — Owen’s cutting verses, Siegfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches,” Graves’s memoir, “Good-bye to All That” — were written after their authors had time to reflect on their experiences.
The sentences in the letter are short, stilted, like the ones a parent might hear after asking her child how school was that day. The Good War; the narrative that crescendos with a single battle, with every piece in its exact position; a sense of rightness in who makes it back and who does not — all fictions.
Not in age, but in the way you might say “young” in place of “naïve” or “immature.” “Sentimental” comes closer, but it isn’t fair, either.To him, it was “the supreme experience,” a part of nature humans were destined to take part in.The fact that Seeger had this romantic vision of war in 1914, and still held it in 1916, is what gives his work value.The war’s cultural history and its actual one have become entwined over time so that the work of these two poets are more memorials — stone scrolls that speak of death by gas and sightless charges over the edge of trenches — than that of writers with whom modern-day readers genuinely engage.Seeger is something still less: not a writer who faded away to acclaim of a ceremonial sort, but one who became unfashionable to even the most hospitable critics of the postwar years.The words of “Sonnet XII” belong to a poet-soldier writing in the first half of the Great War.The clouds are “rosy-tinted.” Keep looking up, and you’ll notice the “depths of the azure eastern sky.” The war is mentioned only in passing on the sixth line, and by then it’s a memory.A poet whom many critics found unremarkable, whose efforts ended before his prime, who depicted a war that may not have ever existed in reality — is there any reason to remember his poems from among the tens of thousands written during the war? The vision of the war that Graves and Owen presented was secondary to Seeger.What is lost along with Seeger when he’s passed over? He saw what they saw, recognized it and looked elsewhere.The Great War was as these poets described — trenches, gas, suicide, crippling shell shock.But it was also as the soldiers who volunteered to fight, even after the war had been dragging on for years, saw it: essential and just.