Roethke and War
Rosalie G. Riegle
We are involved in endless wars. This year a shifting alliance of allies and our own drones do the dirty work for us, blowing up houses in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, with plans in the works to expand drone capacity by 50%. US citizens may worry about the wars in the Middle East but they mostly don’t know what’s happening and don’t understand it and mostly don’t care, preferring to enjoy the media circus of the presidential primaries rather than to confront realities over which they feel they have no control.
Many Americans felt the same way in 1940, albeit for different reasons. As the German army advanced both East and West, many were either apathetic or openly isolationist. Some were openly anti-Semitic, spurred on by Charles Lindbergh and Michigan’s Father Coughlin who preached what one critic called “a Fascist agenda applied to American culture.”
While traditional opposition to a standing army made the 1940 conscription law—ostensibly a peacetime draft—hard to take, most of the assimilated middle class felt they had little connection to the Europe from which their ancestors had come. They supported the hard-hearted immigration policies in refusing asylum to European Jews and thought of the German advances as Europe’s problem. Quite simply, they preferred to sit on their front porches and not be bothered.
It wasn’t as if they didn’t know what was going on. In November of 1939, Kristalnacht had been front-page news, even in local papers. Most people listened to radio news each evening and 14,000 theaters showed weekly newsreel footage of the European war as Germany invaded Poland and the Soviet Union and Italy invaded Greece.
Saginawian Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) was no anti-war poet. But then few were, as the US dithered about getting involved in what most dub as “the good war.” As someone who lived on land once owned by his father’s greenhouse, I’m perennially fascinated by this Saginaw Pulitzer poet, most particularly with his love poetry, his nature poems and his wonderfully satirical “Saginaw Song,” which lambasts conventional mid-West piety.
I’m also an anti-war activist. So I was surprised to find his “Idyll,” written in the late 1930s, and its last stanza which hints that he was deeply troubled by the growing conflagration in Europe.
. . . The world recedes in the black revolving shadow,
A far-off train blows its echoing whistle once;
We go to our beds in a house at the edge of a meadow,
Unmindful of terror and headlines, of speeches and guns.
In this poem, Roethke captures the mood of mainstream America in the years before Pearl Harbor. As Lynn Olsen says in Those Angry Days, they didn’t feel they had anything in common with Europe.
Most think “Idyll” was Theodore Roethke’s only mention of the war but in his correspondence, collected by Ralph J. Mills, Jr., I found two unpublished anti-war poems and one four-line ditty, probably composed on the spot as he was writing his then-lover Kitty Stokes on August 27, 1940. In it, he cautions cleverly the irascible Ambassador Bullitt to “take each idea and carefully mull it” and Senators Burke, Wadsworth, and Barkley not “to see everything in a brass hat darkly.” (“Brass hat” refers to high-ranking military officers and those senators were shoving the draft bill through Congress.)
The second one shows a decidedly bitter working-class dismissal of the English gentry and seems to reference their losses in the First World War. In his criticism of British imperialism, Roethke echoes his fellow Americans who righteously criticized the continued hold Great Britain had on its colonies and used it as argument against joining them to fight Germany. Roethke apparently wrote it in 1938 and included it in a letter to fellow poet and translator of The Aeneid Rolfe Humphries. In 1941, it was included in a mimeographed/stapled pamphlet called “Opinions on War,” published at Penn State where Roethke taught from 1936-43. How I would like to see a copy, an early example of progressive university work!
For Lady __________________, endorser of cold cream
Though gas and roaring guns
May reap your blue-eyed sons
I’ll not put up a stake
Or fight for your sweet sake
Why should I give a limb
To keep your figure trim
Or bear with roach and louse
To save that country house
I think of Sikhs and Boers
Humanity like yours
Has come to a dead end.
There’s nothing to defend
I’ll not pick up the torch
But leave you in the lurch
I’ll keep what I’ve got
Although Albion be not.
The persona is identified clearly in the title, the catchy bar-room rhythm reminds me of ‘The Saginaw Song,” and its tone seems to presage the Roethke anger his Bennington students reported in what he himself called his “classroom harangues” when he began teaching there in 1943, a year when we were well into the war.
The second poem was first titled only “Poem” and again sent to Humphries. In 1943, it was revised slightly and retitled “A question. In it, the voice is frustrated and despairs of war’s end.
The lavish and the mad our destinies appoint,
The good’s fouled with the bad. The times are out of joint.
The gun prods in the back, the club finds out a skull.
When bellies hang too slack, the sensitive grow dull.
Oh, when will hate atone, the blood begin to buck
The foolish act atone and love renew its luck?”
In 2015 as we wallow in confusion and apathy, his dark presentiments ring true.