Friday, November 7, 2014

Tim Kendall to present paper on John Allan Wyeth at British Academy conference, "The First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity"

Tim Kendall
As part of a two-day conference in London on 12-13 November at the British Academy on The First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity, Professor Tim Kendall, University of Exeter, will be presenting a paper on Wyeth, entitled "John Allan Wyeth’s War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets".  Kendall's abstract for his paper is as follows:

"During his lifetime, John Allan Wyeth (1894-1981) won a minor reputation as a painter: his obituary in the Trenton Times was perfunctory in praising a ‘noted area artist’. The newspaper should be forgiven for making no mention of Wyeth's verse. Even his close family had no idea that he had published a book of poems, This Man's Army, in 1928.

This Man’s Army is a sequence of 55 sonnets mapping, often in documentary detail, Wyeth’s experiences as a second lieutenant in France during the second half of 1918. Although it received several positive notices, the book soon disappeared from view, only to be rediscovered and reprinted eighty years later by the military historian B. J. Omanson. Its significance is gradually becoming recognised: Dana Gioia calls it ‘probably the only volume [by an American] that stands comparison with the work of the best British soldier poets’.

I will explore the radical strangeness of Wyeth's best sonnets as they string snatches of vernacular dialogue across lines. He has been associated with Modernism, for which there is a biographical prompt: based in Rapallo during 1926, Wyeth seems to have counted Ezra Pound as a friend. Yet Wyeth’s knack of catching speech rhythms and bringing them into complex relation with formal and metrical traditions shows a greater debt to Robert Frost. Wyeth, like Frost, seeks to ‘drag and break the intonation across the meter’, creating a sequence both garrulous and precise as it picks its way through troop trains, hospitals, trenches and brothels towards an understated and ambivalent victory."

 The aim of the conference as a whole is to "... bring together some of the world’s leading experts and emerging scholars to reassess [the Great War's] literary and cultural impact and explore its vexed relationship to modernity..."   A more complete description of the conference, with a list of the presenters and a copy of the conference programme, can be found here.

Tim Kendall is Professor of English at Exeter.  He edited Poetry of the First World War, Modern English War Poetry, and The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish Poetry, and presented Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War for BBC TV. He is President of The War Poets Association, and owner of the blog War Poetry. Links to several of his other essays on John Allan Wyeth can be found in the "Wyeth Links" section of this site.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Newly discovered letter discussing Wyeth's sonnets

Just today I received in the mail a copy of the rare 1928 Harold Vinal edition of Wyeth's This Man's Army.  The copy was inscribed to a "Mr. White" by one Craig Wylie who, at the time, was a student at Harvard and who, in the 1950s, would serve as editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin.

Laid into the book is a hand-written letter from Mr Wylie to a Mr White, discussing Wyeth's sonnets.  In the letter, dated March 6, 1929, Wylie recommends the sonnets and refers to a conversation he had with Wyeth about the sonnets' unusual rhyme-scheme, as well as their unorthodox subject matter.  Wylie writes:

"Here is the long-promised copy of John's book.  They really should be read through, though the more conventional ones, I think, form very lovely single sonnets.  I wish you'd let me know what you really think of the book.  ... 

I particularly like the sonnets on pages 1, 3, 4, 6, 12, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 27 (which, John says, happened word for word), 37, 45, 46, 47 (?), 54.

What do you think of the less orthodox ones and of the rhyme-scheme?  The latter, John said, he used instead of a regular one because they were supposed to be read through and the closely-recurring rhyme would become monotonous.  I don't know whether I think he's justified in calling them sonnets-- do you?  And he admits that many of these are not sonnet subjects, but he thought, on the whole, that a modified sonnet form was the best for the sequence.

On reading these again, I really get a great kick out of many of them-- he surely has talent, don't you think? .. "


The sonnets singled out by Wylie and designated by page number are as follows:

1: Camp Upton: Sailing Orders
3: The Transport, I
4: The Transport, II
6: The Waterfront (twice underlined)
12: Huppy
16: The Seashore (thrice underlined)
18: Molliens-au-Bois
21: Molliens-au-Bois: Air Raid
23: Molliens-au-Bois: The Village Road  (once underlined)
27: Molliens-au-Bois: Home Mail (which Wyeth said happened word for word)
37: Chipilly Ridge: Through the Valley
45: Tronville-en-Barrois: Night Watch  (twice underlined)
47: Fromereville: War in Heaven (followed by a parathetical question mark)
54: Souilly: Hospital

On the whole, Wylie's favorite sonnets are the more conventional, less experimental ones.  He tends to favor the more lyrical sonnets tinged with pensiveness, but he also singles out several in which the war is starkly displayed.

As to the identiy  of the book's owner, the mysterious "Mr. White"--- without an address or Christian name, or any other clue, his identity must remain unknown for now.  If anyone knows more about the friendship of John Wyeth and Craig Wylie, or about Craig Wylie's circle of literary friends at Harvard in 1929, please leave your comments here.

Craig Wylie died in 1977.  His obituary, published in the Harvard Alumni Horae, (Volume 57, Issue 1, Spring 1977, page 42), reads as follows:

1926-Craig Wylie, retired managing and executive editor of Houghton, Mifflin Co., book publishers, died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 6, 1976. He was sixty-eight years old. He was born in Washington, D. C., and came to St. Paul's in the Third Form in 1922. A self-assured and convincing speaker, he became a member of the Cadmean debating team and was treasurer of the Missionary Society. He was also on the Isthmian track team and football squad in his Sixth Form year. After graduating from St. Paul's and Harvard, he joined the School faculty in 1930 as a teacher of French. He stayed on the faculty for twelve years, but from 1935 to 1939 was given leave of absence from teaching to serve in the New Hampshire State Legislature. From 1942 to 1945, he served in Naval Intelligence in Washington, in antisubmarine warfare duty in the North Atlantic, and as executive officer at the antisubmarine warfare training center at Pearl Harbor. He was detached from active duty after the war with the rank of lieutenant commander. His first position in civilian life after the war was field secretary of the Massachusetts Commission for World Federation. In 1946 he joined Houghton, Mifflin, and for the next twenty-seven years served successively as a general editor, managing editor, executive editor, editor in chief, and vice-president and director of the trade book division. He retired in 1973. He was a member of the Tavern Club and the Club of Odd Volumes, both of Boston; the Century Club of New York City, and the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Historical Societies. In addition, he was a trustee of the Boston Atheneum and was a member of the corporation and vestry of the Church of the Advent in Boston. He was a loyal alumnus of St. Paul's, a man of high personal standards and generous spirit who had many friends among his schoolmates, students and co-workers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Earliest appearance of Wyeth in print: at age 14

Thanks once again to Roger Allen's assiduous research, a very early piece on Wyeth has been brought to light: an article in the December 1908 issue of The Confederate Veteran, discussing fourteen-year-old John Allan Wyeth, Jr.'s recent literary accomplishments.  Also included is young Wyeth's most recent effort, a poem entitled  "To Schonberg". 

Unsurprisingly, the poem is in no way remarkable, a schoolboy's exercise which never attains to any originality or felicity.  What it does demonstrate is that even at this young age, Wyeth already possesses a sound understanding of basic poetic vocabulary, syntax, metrics and rhyme, and an evident familiarity with English and Classical poetic tradition.  In other words, a capable grasp of the fundamentals.

These days such ability and understanding in a fourteen-year-old boy would be unusual indeed, to say the least.  In Wyeth's day, similar exercises were commonly assigned in school, and ability such as Wyeth's, even at fourteen, might have been praiseworthy, but was probably not rare.  That a fourteen-year-old boy possessed a serious interest in literature at all is probably the truer rarity.

Together with Wyeth's later work in the Aesthetic mode while at Princeton (see Wyeth the Aesthete), we now possess at least a few clues as to Wyeth's development as a poet, which would result ultimately in work of striking originality and consummate craft.  But that would not be for another twenty years, and an entire war later.

The full article, as it appeared in the December 1908 issue of The Confederate Veteran, appears below:


The Veteran is proud of the achievements of the fourteen-year-old son of Dr. John A. Wyeth, an ex-Confederate soldier, author of the “Life of Lieut. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest” and President of the New York Southern Society.

John Allan Wyeth, Jr. first came into public notice in his thirteenth year as the author of a poetic drama entitled “The Weaker Man,” which was written for and accepted and is to be produced upon the stage by the distinguished actor, Mr. E.H. Sothern, who declared it to be “remarkable as literature of great dramatic merit.”

The writing of the play came about in this way: Its author, having witnessed a performance of “The Sunken Bell,” a symbolic play rich in poetic suggestion as rendered by Mr. Sothern and Miss Julia Marlowe, ventured to write a criticism upon the play and the performance.

This criticism attracted Mr. Sothern’s attention to such an extent that it resulted in his requesting Master John to try his hand at a play.

A contract was made, and within two months’ time the child forwarded to Mr. Sothern the poetic drama entitled “The Weaker Man,” which was promptly accepted by the great artist.

Among a number of minor poems written by this young author is the one printed herewith.

It was written under the excitement of a letter received from a playmate whose father had bought and rehabilitated a famous and, for several centuries, deserted castle on the Rhine.

The letter gave a graphic description of the castle, its secret passages and haunted towers, with its history, which dated back to medieval times, and also told of the beauties of the river Rhine and the surrounding picturesque country.

The poem was written within an hour of the receipt of this letter and is printed verbatim et literatim as then written:


TO SHONBERG by John Allan Wyeth, Jr.

Hail to thee, noblest castle on the Rhine.
   Far famed in ancient history for strength!
The Rhine beneath thee curves about they base
   And lays before thy feet her sinuous length.

Apollo sinks behind the distant hills
   And hurls his feeble rays about the sky,
While softly glowing is the evening star,
   And night falls, placing all her lights on high.

The river ripples and the grasses sway;
   The moonlit leaves turn from the gentle wind.
About thee in the woods a boar is heard,
   Or else a leaping deer or startled hind.

Pale Dian slips between the angry clouds
   Which seek to thwart her in her chariot white,
Till, closing round her with a rumbling sound,
   They hide her gracious form and welcome light.

The storm clouds sweep along the ruffled Rhine,
   A deadly silence fills the startled air;
The breathless land awaits the tempest’s force
   With fearful expectation everywhere.

Amidst the storm thy turret-crowned head
   Is lifted as in scorn.  Against the gale
Thy stony strength thou wagest till at last
   The storm retreats and dies into a wail.

Then smiles the morn upon the fruitful fields;
   The birds sing, twittering their merry lays;
While thou, serene, majestic, stand’st aloft
   Within they dream of medieval days.

Monday, May 21, 2012

More about the friendship of John Wyeth and Edmund Wilson

Edmund Wilson at Princeton
Several more bits of information regarding the friendship of John Allan Wyeth and Edmund Wilson can be gleaned from two sources, Wilson's A Prelude: Landscapes, Characters and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life, and Lewis M. Dabney's Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature. (Thanks to Roger Allen for suggesting both of these sources).

Wilson was first introduced to Wyeth by his cousin and near-constant companion of his early years, Ruell "Sandy" Kimball. Wilson described Wyeth as "one of Sandy's New York friends". (1) This was before their time together at Princeton.

Wyeth was particularly fond of the music of Debussy, which on one occasion he played at such a late hour ("rapt in irridescent dreams", by Wilson's description), that several would-be slumberers shouted from their beds, "Cut out the god-damned noise!", and other similar requests. (2)

The Princeton "Charter Club"
Wilson and Wyeth were both members of the Charter Club, where Wyeth was frequently heard on the piano. The two young men often sat together at meals, conversing. According to Wyeth, Wilson would stick firmly to literary topics even when the general drift of table conversation tended to subjects of more immediate and less esoteric interest. (3)

Wilson describes Wyeth as a loner, "without a crowd of his own", and with little apparent interest in making friends. The one exception was medievalist "Bert" Friend, Wyeth's closest companion, who would later become a leading authority on Byzantine art and early manuscript illumination. (4)

Wyeth and Friend at one point in 1915 made plans to inhabit a cottage in the chateau district of France and "amuse themselves by playing Debussy!" (exclamation point Wilson's). (5)

According to Wilson, the only students at Princeton who had read Henry James seriously were Wyeth and himself, and he credits Wyeth with leading him to a sympathetic understanding of James' mannered period style and involuted dialogue. (6)

Wilson describes Wyeth lingering in Princeton after graduation (in 1916), and quotes him with amusement: "I'm really getting perfectly maudlin, you know. I feel as if I were sliding off a slippery precipice, over a yawning abyss-- just struggling to get a foothold!" (7)

That Wilson and Wyeth remained in contact after leaving Princeton is shown by a conversation referred to in Dabney's biography, which took place between the two men sometime in 1955. Wilson's book The Scrolls from the Dead Sea had recently been published in The New Yorker and Wilson saw his role as helping to put forth an historical view of Christianity, to compensate for the view of Jesus as miracle worker and redeemer, which was waning in those years. To Wyeth he spoke of following in the footsteps of Voltaire and Renan. (8) Wyeth's side of the conversation unfortunately has not been preserved.

Though none of these details is of particular significance as such, taken all together they suggest a long-term friendship between the two men of real intellectual substance and, again, make Wilson's silence towards-- or ignorance of-- Wyeth's poetry all the more inexplicable.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


1).   Edmund Wilson, A Prelude: Landscapes, Characters and Conversations from the Earlier Years of My Life  (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), p 107.

2).  Wilson, A Prelude, p 107.

3).  Lewis M. Dabney, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature  (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005),  p 45.

4).  Wilson, A Prelude,  pp 107-8.

5).  Wilson, A Prelude,  p 121.

6).  Wilson, A Prelude,  pp 108-9.  Also, Dabney, Edmund Wilson,  p 46.

7).  Wilson, A Prelude,  p 123.

8).  Dabney, Edmund Wilson,  p 413.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Princeton literati in the World War

F. Scott Fitzgerald in his
Brooks Brothers uniform
(new information added 9 May)

At Princeton University, immediately prior to America's entry in the war in April, 1917, the leading literary coterie on campus included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edmund Wilson, Martin Townsend, Stanley Dell, Raymond Holden, Alex McKaig, Henry Chapin, "Teek" Whipple, Bill Mackie and John Peale Bishop.

Fellow classman John Allan Wyeth was on friendly terms with the group, socialized with them at the Charter Club where he played piano, but remained peripheral to them. Wyeth would appear several times in Wilson's diary, and at least once in Fitzgerald's letters. As late as the 1950s, Wyeth and Wilson were still in contact with one another, which makes Wilson's silence on Wyeth's poetry puzzling. A possible explanation is that Wilson never chanced to hear of This Man's Army, while Wyeth, for whatever reason, chose not to bring the book to Wilson's attention.

Wilson, Fitzgerald and Bishop, of course, require no introduction.

Henry Chapin published epic verse in the 1930s recounting the Viking discovery of America, and in the 1970s on the settlement of the American West. He also published books on the ecology of man and the sea.

In his introduction to A Book of Princeton Verse 1916, editor Alfred Noyes wrote: This book of Princeton verse is selected from poems written during the last six years on the Princeton campus, with the exception of one poem by a Princeton man in France. (1) That unnamed poet already in the war was Stanley Dell.  After the war, he and Edmund Wilson made plans to bring out a volume of realistic short stories about the war, but this project was evidently abandoned. He was a journalist for a time after the war, wrote criticism of French literature, and translated Carl Jung's Modern Man in Search of a Soul, a translation which is still in print.

Raymond Holden published books of poetry, natural history, regional history and biography. He was the husband of poet Louise Bogan.

Bill Mackie wrote a brilliant spoof as an undergraduate in the style of Samuel Pepys which was so plausible it was catalogued at the Yale library  as the authentic letter of a seventeenth-century English Lord, one "William, Lord Mackie".  But Mackie never fulfilled his early promise, becoming the campus drunk and flunking out of Princeton. Edmund Wilson, with whom he had discovered Latin poetry, wrote of him in later years, "I have never known anyone droller, or more sensitive to literature."  (2)

Alex McKaig was a playwright, but is perhaps best remembered now for the detailed diary he kept during the late teens and early twenties when he was closely associated with Fitzgerald, Wilson and Bishop.

Martin Townsend was a playwright and screenwriter.

Thomas King "Teek" Whipple was a literary historian of some note whose books explored the interelations of literature and social and economic conditions. He taught at Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley.

All eleven men served in the military during the World War. The essential details of each writer's service are set out below. I have listed them in order of their dates of enlistment. Holden was the first to enlist, and served under General "Black Jack" Pershing" along the Mexican Border during the Pancho Villa troubles. Dell enlisted a month after Holden, and was the first to serve in France.  Both Dell and Townsend served as volunteer ambulance drivers in the American Field Service before America's entry into the war, and both were awarded the Croix de Guerre for valor.  Wyeth served the longest period of time at the front line.  Fitzgerald cut the most dashing figure in uniform, but never set foot in France.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
RAYMOND PECKHAM HOLDEN served in the Mexican Border Service, Machine Gun Troop, Squadron A.N.Y. National Guard, from June 1916 to January 1917.  He was discharged due to physical disability.  He then served in the Red Cross service from November 1917 to March 1919 as follows: supervisor of After Care (care of discharged soldiers), Boston Metropolitan Chapter; associate director, Bureau of After Care, New England Division, American Red Cross, and assistant to director of Civilian Relief, Atlantic Division.

WILLIAM STANLEY DELL served in the American Field Service, S.S.U. 4, French Army, Ordre Service Sante, 31 Corps d’Armee, from July to December 1916.  He was awarded the Croix de Guerre in November 1916, with following the citation:  Volunteer driver of devoted loyalty, showed great coolness and energy by making a very dangerous trip in broad daylight to bring back to an ambulance from a first-aid station a non-commissioned officer, who had been severely wounded and whose condition necessitated immediate attention.

EDMUND WILSON, JR began his service at the Plattsburg Training Camp, NewYork where he trained from August to September 1916.  He entered the US Army in May 1917, in Detroit, Michigan as a private, stationed at the Medical Corps, Base Hospital Unit 36 in Detroit from August. to November 1917.  He sailed for France in November 1917, was stationed at Vittel in the Vosges until October 1918,  transferred to the Intelligence Corps in October, was stationed at Chaumont from October 1918 to May 1919, was promoted to sergeant in the Interpreters’ Corps, October 1918, returned to the U.S. in May 1919 and was discharged in July 1919.

TOWNSEND MARTIN served in the American Ambulance Field Service, Section 29, in France from March to October 1917.  He entered the French Army in October 1917 in Paris, as an élève aspirant in the Artillery.  He attended the French Artillery School at Fontainebleau from October 1917 to February 1918, was promoted to aspirant in the Heavy Artillery in February 1918.  He served in the Army of Occupation in Germany from November 1918 until his discharge in March 1919.  Martin was awarded the Croix de Guerre in October 1917 with the following citation:  "A fait preuve comme conducteur d'une auto sanitaire de beaucoup de courage et de sang froid, particulierement pendat les operations de la cote 304 en avril 1917 ou les evacuations ont ete faites sur une route vue de l'ennemi et violemment bombardee."  Subsequently he was awarded a second Croix de Guerre.

ALEXANDER LAUGHLIN McKAIG entered the U.S. Naval Reserve Force on March 26, 1917, at Newport, Rhode Island, where he served with the rank of quartermaster 2nd class from March 26 to October 1, 1917.  He was commissioned as ensign on September 12, 1917 and served at Annapolis from October 1, 1917 to February 1, 1918, at which time was assigned to the destroyer USS Dyer.  He served off Gibraltar from December 14, 1918, to March 22, 1919, and in the Panama Canal from March 22 to July 1919  He was discharged on July 5, 1919.

HENRY CHAPIN  entered 1st ROTC, May  12, 1917 at Plattsburg, New York.  He was commissioned captain in the infantry, Nov. 20, 1917; stationed Camp Leon Sprints, Texas, Nov. to Dec. 1917; attached Company M., 4th Regiment, Signal Corps, Camp Hancock, Ga., Dec. 1917 to May 1918; Depot Brigade, Camp Green, N.C., May to Sept. 1918; supply officer, 64th Pioneer Infantry, Camp Taylor, Ky., Oct. 1918, until discharged Mar. 4, 1919.

WILLIAM HENRY TROTTER MACKIE  entered 1st ROTC May 15, 1917 at Fort Meyer, Virginia.  He was commissioned a captain in the Infantry on August 14, 1917, was  assigned to the 315th Machine Gun Battalion, 80th Division at Camp Lee, Virginia, and sailed for France in May 1918.  From July 1 to September 30 he attended the School of the Line in Langres.  He participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from October 3 to 27, 1918.  He returned to the US in May 1919 and was discharged on June 12.

JOHN PEALE BISHOP  entered 2nd ROTC at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, on August 27, 1917.  He was commissioned 1st lieutenant in the infantry on November 27, 1917.  He served with Division Headquarters Troop, Camp Zachary Taylor, Kentucky, from December 15, 1917 to May 30, 1918.  He then served at Camp Sherman, Ohio from May 30 to August 15, 1918, sailed for France on September 11, 1918, and was attached to 309th Headquarters Troop, 84th Division.  On December 20 he was placed in command of Prisioner War Escort Company No. 257.  He returned to the US on October 27, 1919, and was discharged on October 30.

FRANCIS SCOTT FITZGERALD entered the Army on November 26, 1917, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas as a provisional 2nd lieutenant, 45th Infantry. He was stationed at Fort Leavenworth from November 1917 to February 1918.  From February to April 1918 he was attached to 45th Infantry, Camp Taylor, Kentucky, and was at Camp Gordon, Georgia from April to June 1918.  He was promoted to 1st lieutenant, Infantry, in June 1918, was with 68th Infantry, Camp Sheridan, Alabama from June to December 1918, and served as aide-de-camp to General Ryan, 17th Infantry Brigade, 9th Division, Camp Sheridan, from December 1918 to February 1919.  He was discharged on February 14.

JOHN ALLAN WYETH, JR  entered the Army on December 28, 1917, at New York, NY, as a 2nd lieutenant in the Corps of Interpreters.  He was assigned to 33rd Division, Divisional Headquarters, at Camp Logan, Texas, from January 3 to May 1, 1918.  He was at Camp Upton, NY, from May 1 to 16, 1918, sailed for France in May 1918, and participated in operations with the British on the Somme until August 20, 1918, then at Verdun, until being hospitalized for influenza in September.  After the Armistice he served with the Army of Occupation in Germany and Luxembourg.  He was detached from 33rd Division and stationed in Paris in April 1919.  He returned to the US in July 1919 and was discharged on October 23, 1919.

THOMAS KING WHIPPLE entered the Marine Corps on April 29, 1918, and trained at Paris Island, South.Carolina until June 15, 1918.  He sailed for France in June, but was soon hospitalized, and was moved among various hospitals from June to December 1918.  He returned to the US in January 1919, was stationed at Portsmouth, Virginia from January to May 1919, and was discharged on May 31.  (3)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

---particular thanks to Roger Allen for uncovering new information regarding Wilson and Wyeth.


1. (Alfred Noyes, ed).  A Book of Princeton Verse 1916.  (Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 1917).

2. Dabney, Lewis M.  Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature.  (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p 48.

3.  The service records of  the Princeton 'literati' are all taken from Princeton in the World War  (Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 1932).

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wyeth the aesthete

Edmund Wilson referred to fellow Princetonian John Allan Wyeth as "the only aesthete in the Class of 1915", a comment for which we have had very little context, knowing nothing of Wyeth's poetic composition prior to This Man's Army.

However, this evening I received a message from Roger Allen, alerting me to a poem, "The Song of the Wind", published by Wyeth in the periodical The Forum in 1914, during Wyeth's penultimate year at Princeton, and it is now easy to see what Wilson meant, as the poem could fairly be described as an example of pure 1890s Aestheticism.

If there is any link between the dreamy ennui of "The Song of the Wind" and the crisp precision of his later war sonnets, it is in Wyeth's interest in metrical innovation, already present in this early poem, and in the relation between a word's sound and its meaning, which he explores here, and will later exploit with great effect in the sonnets.

My thanks to Mr. Allen for his excellent detective work and for his consideration in bringing this poem to my attention. In the pre-Web years when I was first researching Wyeth, I made a thorough search of the Index to Periodical Literature from about 1910 on for anything he might have published, but I completely missed this poem. 

               The Song of the Wind           

           I love to dream in the sun,
            Here where the fields are still
            With the silence of life,
            Here where the fields are still
            With the beauty of life . . .
     And the flowers dream in the sun,
And the river, half asleep, and the dream of the river is mine.
     The dreams of the flowers are mine
            And we are one . . .

            But I tire, soon, and I long
            To trouble the rest of all . . .
            And the river stirs at my call
            And the flowers tremble and sway
            And the leaves have begun their song . . .

            But I have lost my dream.
            And search as I may
            It angers me that in vain
            I search for a thing that is lost . . .
            It angers me that in vain
            The fallen leaves are tossed.
            That I plunge my hands in the grass;
            That I turn and. turn as I pass.
            With ever a sidelong glance
                        Over the field . . .

            There shall I find my dream.
                        Where the willows shield
            The hidden breast of the stream.
                        And the sly reeds dance . . .
                                    But in vain
I search in the mantle of leaves where the sunlight slants,
            And down in the reeds that strain
At my touch, and down in the water that clouds like a shattered glass,
                        And is veiled as I pass . . .

            Here shall I find, where the shade
                                    Of the forest lies
            Deep on the green below.
            Where the spring comes down through the glade
                                    With its murmuring flow . . .
                        And it angers me that in vain
                        I seek in the forest land.
                        That all things shrink from my hand.
                        That the peace of the forest dies . . .

            Or shall I find, where the walls
                        Of the garden stand.
Here where the wild thorn grows and the dead leaf falls.
And the broken step leads down to the hidden path?
                        But the gray weeds cringe at my wrath
            And it angers me that in vain
            I search for a thing that is lost . . .

                        What of this thing that is lost?

                                    I wander here
            In the shadow of night that smothers the dreary moor,
By the lonely marsh where the water strangles the land.
            And down where the dead things stand in the mere . . .
                        But I am not sure
Of the dream I seek, and I wander here in the dark and the rain
                        like one that is blind,
            Forgetting the thing I seek, that I cannot find , . .

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Obscurity of John Allan Wyeth

The first significant essay on Wyeth was "The Obscurity of John Allan Wyeth", written in 2006 by Dana Gioia.   It appeared the following year in an anthology by the editors of the journal Pleiades, Joy Katz and Kevin Prufer.  Entitled Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems (Champagne: University of Illinois, 2007), the anthology featured single poems by little-known poets, each chosen and presented by established poets ranging from Billy Collins to John Ashbery.  Dana Gioia's choice for an obscure poet deserving recognition was John Allan Wyeth, still almost completely unknown, and whose single work, This Man's Army, at the time, had been out of print nearly eighty years (it would not be reissued by the University of South Caroline Press until late 2008).  This essay appears here courtesy of Dana Gioia. 

Fate submerging Poet
in the waters of
There are degrees of literary obscurity. The unjust neglect one writer suffers can seem like renown compared to the utter oblivion that besets another. Weldon Kees (1914-1955) is obscure in that his remarkable poems still do not appear in many anthologies and remain unknown to most academic critics. Yet Kees’s poetry has never been out of print since it was first collected in 1960, and he is fervently admired by many influential poets in both the U.S. and Europe. Radcliffe Squires (1917-1993) is more obscure. His poetry appears in no current anthologies, and there is nothing published about his work beyond its initial reviews except a few remembrances written at the time of his death. Yet any curious reader with Internet access can quickly track down most of his seven volumes of verse and five critical books. He is unknown, therefore, but not unknowable.

The American poet John Allan Wyeth (1894-1980), however, is truly obscure. Compared to him, Kees is William Faulkner and Squires is John Crowe Ransom. Wyeth is not merely a forgotten poet. He was never noticed. Unmentioned in literary histories and critical literature even in his own lifetime, his work appears in no anthologies of any sort—not anywhere, not ever. Several years of research have turned up only a few scraps published about him—a yearbook photograph, three brief obituaries, two passing sentences in Edmund Wilson’s journals, and a 43-word notice in Poetry (Dec. 1932). Why complain about such oblivion? However vast, the Lethean library always has room for more authors. The reason for my protest is simple: Wyeth is the finest American soldier-poet of World War I.

I take no credit for rediscovering Wyeth’s poetry. All I did was recognize its excellence. I would never have seen his work had it not been for the military historian and poet Bradley Omanson, who asked my opinion of the author’s work. Reading the photocopies that Omanson sent me, I felt both pleasure and surprise. Wyeth’s poetry was not only vividly realized; it was unique. Cunningly combining traditional form and modernist methods, realistic narrative and imagistic lyricality, Wyeth was the missing man in the history of 20th century American poetry—an important soldier-poet from the Great War.

Wyeth is not a major poet. His body of work is too small, and his literary ambitions too circumscribed. He lacks the tragic vision and mythic resonance of Wilfred Owen—or even the best of Siegfried Sassoon. But to define the limits of Wyeth’s achievement is not to deny it. Although his poems have an almost documentary quality in their narrative details and language, they remain, 75 years after their publication, fresh and immediate in their impact. He is a powerfully expressive and distinctively individual poet.

There is nothing available on Wyeth or his work. Here are the facts of his life as I have been able to discover them, mostly from school records and family members. John Allan Wyeth Jr. was born in New York City, the third child of a noted surgeon. His father John Allan Wyeth Sr., a former Confederate soldier and published poet, was a founder of New York Polyclinic Hospital and Medical School. Wyeth attended the Lawrenceville School, a private preparatory school in New Jersey, where he was president of the drama club and class poet. In 1911, he entered Princeton, where his literary acquaintances included fellow undergraduate Edmund Wilson, who called Wyeth the “only aesthete” in the Class of 1915. After graduation, Wyeth went on to earn an M.A. from Princeton in 1917. He enlisted later that year in the army to fight in World War I. His fluent knowledge of French led him to an assignment in the Corps of Interpreters with the 33rd Division. By May, 1918, he was in France, and was soon involved in the late battles on the Somme and Verdun. Eventually the 33rd division became part of the Army of Occupation in Germany. Discharged in 1919, Wyeth taught French at St. Paul’s school before quitting to become a painter. In 1932 he began studying with the English painter Duncan Grant. He achieved enough success to have his work exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. He spent much of his life in Europe, though he served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. He resettled permanently in the United States in later life and converted to Catholicism. He never married. (He was almost certainly gay.) He died at age 86 in Princeton.

Wyeth’s literary importance rests solely on one remarkable book of poems, This Man’s Army: A War In Fifty-Odd Sonnets (1928). This striking, naturalistic sonnet sequence chronicles the movements of an American troop division from receiving sailing orders and disembarkation in France through the battles across the Western front. Using slangy dialogue and vivid description, the poems present the war in brief, memorable scenes. Each sonnet begins by creating a narrative scene but ultimately rises to a lyrical conclusion. Wyeth’s poems are also technically innovative. For the book-length sequence, he created a new rhyme scheme based on the Petrarchan sonnet, but better adapted to the paucity of English-language rhymes.

While formal, Wyeth’s language is as fresh, varied, and contemporary as that of most free-verse poets of the period. The syntax alternates between provocative fragments and direct narration. There are no inversions, forced rhymes, or stale diction. (Most of the poetry by our soldiers was written in a traditional Romantic style—as in Alan Seegar’s “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.”) Wyeth’s sonnets have the narrative vitality and stark realism of prose but with the concision and lyricism of poetry. There is nothing quite like This Man’s Army elsewhere in modern American poetry. Taken as a whole, the sequence is comparable in scope and quality to the best British poetry from the Great War. Long forgotten, it deserves careful reassessment. Wyeth never wrote another volume of poetry. This Man’s Army is out of print.