George S. Lensing: On "The Death of a Soldier"

Of the four poems Stevens rescued from "Lettres d'un Soldat," this uniquely maintains its identity as a war poem. In what was to be his favorite stanzaic form, the tercet, he modulates a rhythmic deceleration accompanying the ever-shortening lines. The poem's treatment of death delicately plays off the processes of retardation ("contracts," "falls," "stops," "stops") and of continuity ("As in a season of autumn," "As in a season of autumn," "The clouds go, nevertheless, / In their direction"). Like "Negation," the poem expels the divine, but now reverentially instead of comically. There is only a faint hint of irony in the word "heavens" in the final tercet.

Stevens must have found Lemercier's piety to be near his own predilection. The soldier had written in November of a visit to a Catholic church, but he was not "led there by any sentimental feelings or desire for outside comfort. My conception of divine harmony doesn't need to be bolstered up by any formalism or popular symbolism." His religion was a private one wherein he consigned his fate to God's plan. Two weeks later he contrasted his own understanding of religion with the more commonly held notion, and his terms recall Stevens' resolution in 1902. Lemercier wrote:

You know what I call religion. It is that which links man with all his conceptions of the universal and the eternal--those two forms of God. Religion, in the ordinary sense of the word, is only the link which unites certain moral and disciplinary formulas which are associated with an admirably poetic figuration, that is, the external form and shape which are given to the vigorous philosophy of the Bible and Christianity. But don't let us wound anybody's feelings while we hold to our own beliefs, for when carefully examined, these religious formulas, however foreign they may be to my own intellectual assumptions, seem to me praiseworthy and deserving of our sympathy for what they contain of aspirations toward beauty and esthetic form.

"The Death of a Soldier" is the preeminent poem of "Lettres d'un Soldat." It anticipates, for example, part VII of "Esthétique du Mal":

How red the rose that is the soldier's wound,

The wounds of many soldiers, the wounds of all

The soldiers that have fallen, red in blood,

The soldier of time grown deathless in great size.

The poignancy of life's cessation, and it hardly need be the context of war, is something deeper than stoic pathos. Death is no mother here, as in "Sunday Morning," but life stops as "the wind stops" and life resumes as "The clouds go." Not a begetter, death neither denies nor detracts. Lemercier's sentence encapsulates the poem: "La mort du soldat est prés des choses naturelles."

From Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Growth. Copyright © 1986 by Louisiana State University Press.


Title George S. Lensing: On "The Death of a Soldier" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author George S. Lensing Criticism Target Wallace Stevens
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 05 Dec 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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