Poetry Remembers the Loneliness of War
Textbook by English professor Connie Ruzich shares new voices from World War I.
A textbook collection of poetry edited by RMU English professor and former Fulbright scholar Connie Ruzich introduces new voices into the standard World War I canon. Her new anthology, International Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology of Lost Voices, is published by Bloomsbury Press. Ruzich wrote the following essay for Veterans Day:
War is a lonely business. And as we struggle through a global pandemic that has been marked by increased social isolation, we are learning the costs of what researchers term the “loneliness epidemic”: an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, cognitive decline, and mortality.
Film, fiction, and memoir testify to the value of comradeship that soldiers find in combat, but military service, particularly in war-time, also intensifies soldiers’ sense of estrangement and alienation. The geographic mobility and frequent redeployments that are required can lead to a sense of rootlessness, and numerous studies have found that loneliness and social isolation pose critical problems for veterans of all ages.
Edward Thomas’s poem “Rain” never raises its voice above a whisper as it contemplates the loneliness of war. In July of 1915, the 37-year-old Thomas decided to enlist in the British Artists Rifles, and “Rain” was written while he trained in Essex. Sent to the Western Front in early 1917, Thomas was killed on Easter Monday of that year.
Shortly before he died, Thomas wrote his wife, “It becomes harder for me to think about things at home somehow. Although this life does not absorb me, I think, yet, I can’t think of anything else. I don’t hanker after anything. I don’t miss anything. I am not even conscious of waiting. I am just quietly in exile, a sort of half or quarter man.…”
Brian Tam writes, “Loneliness is something all service members can relate to. Homesickness is part of the job.” John Allan Wyeth, perhaps America’s finest poet of the First World War, writes of the loneliness of deployment aboard a crowded ship sailing to France and the Western Front in 1918, in “The Transport”:
Wyeth’s poem is eerily similar to Rupert Brooke’s “Fragment.” Writing as he sailed for Gallipoli, Brooke also found himself alone on a darkened ship, imagining his fellow soldiers as “Perishing things and strange ghosts—soon to die.” Disconnected from the men around him, the solitary soldier in Wyeth’s “Transport” resigns himself to solitude, joined only to the emptiness of the sky and the invisibility of the wind.
And then there is the loneliness of those left behind. On the day of the Armistice, when bells rang and crowds cheered the news of the end of war, millions grieved as they remembered those who would never return. May Wedderburn Cannan’s poem, “Paris, November 11, 1918,” describes two women who stand apart, walled off from the boisterous mood of joy:
Cannan would later write, “Never for us is folded War away, / Dawn or sun setting, / Now in our hearts abides always our war.”