Perhaps it is not just war we are separated from. We’ve hidden death for a long, long time now, have removed ourselves far from nature—blue jays, crows, spiders, and butterflies becoming alien to us.
It struck me, on reading the newly discovered Robert Frost poem “War Thoughts at Home,” just how cocooned we’ve become—not simply from destruction, but from life. The few among us who have experienced its horrors in full (and life can certainly be horrific) now wander through an oblivious society, walking wounded, unable to communicate their experiences to an audience that can no longer be deterred, as Coleridge’s wedding guest was, from the ceremony. The grasp of the Ancient Mariner fails; his “There was a ship” is lost in the optimism of the wedding vows. No “sadder and wiser man” rises the following morn.
We learn nothing; we are satisfied knowing nothing. Those who are different, those from whom we could learn, are turned away as surely as nature, death, and war. We want for nothing—or so we want to believe.
“War Thoughts at Home.” We’ve fetishized the one incident where war was brought to those of us American and alive today. I among them, with my memories of the clouds of sparkling smoke, and the dust-covered trudgers moving home in hours-long lines, shocked and silent.
To Frost, the war in Europe in 1918—where my own grandfathers were both fighting, one gassed and one losing a leg—had a direct connection at home, and not simply through these fights between jays and crows that open the newly found poem.
Frost changed with the war, though he did not participate in it. He had lived in England, however, on the eve of World War I, where and when both A Boy’s Will and North of Boston were first published, returning to the United States only after the conflict had commenced. So, he knew something of the impact of war—and was to see it again once the United States joined in.
Looking at the poems published in England, one sees a poet who yearns for a life apart from the chaos of the political world. Consider “Into My Own”:
One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom,
But stretched away unto the edge of doom.
I should not be withheld but that some day
into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.
I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I held them dear.
They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I though was true.
The somewhat older and more experienced Frost, though he still yearned, had learned that there is no separation, and had stopped dreaming of it. That poem of his from 1918, found this year, expresses this clearly in its last lines:
The uneven sheds stretch back
Shed behind shed in train
Like cars that long have lain
Dead on a side track.
The past stays with us, as does motion (and so, the future), in that line of sheds that sit unused, abandoned in favor of war. One takes from the poem as a whole the idea that while the war may be “over there,” it cannot be removed from home.
“War Thoughts at Home” isn’t an anomaly. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the last poem in which Frost draws parallels between the distant war and home—though, in “Range-Finding,” “home” is a spider’s web:
The battle rent a cobweb diamond-strung
And cut a flower beside a ground bird's nest
Before it stained a single human breast.
The stricken flower bent double and so hung.
And still the bird revisited her young.
A butterfly its fall had dispossessed
A moment sought in air his flower of rest,
Then lightly stooped to it and fluttering clung.
On the bare upland pasture there had spread
O'ernight 'twixt mullein stalks a wheel of thread
And straining cables wet with silver dew.
A sudden passing bullet shook it dry.
The indwelling spider ran to greet the fly,
But finding nothing, sullenly withdrew.
Here, in the last two lines, we have another real story of war, though one beyond the agonies of the combatants. The spider, expecting something out of it, finds nothing.
And that is the reality of war: it brings nothing. It only costs.