James Longenbach: On "The Death of a Soldier"

"Here indeed is an early manifestation of Stevens the reductionist. As a poem about death, these lines [from "The Death of a Soldier"] call for no pity; they call for no metaphor and little meaning. The dead soldier does not partake of the grandeur of Jesus’ rebirth" the death calls for no pomp, in either the rituals of culture or the gaudiness of language. Even the one rather weak metaphor offered for the death ("As in a season of autumn") is protracted into meaninglessness when it is repeated in the third tercet, not to enlarge the single death by locating it in a natural cycle but to reveal that this seasonal decline is indifferent to human sorrow. In "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things" Frost says that one would need to work hard "not to believe the phoebes wept" at the charred remains of a house; but Frost also shows those birds rejoicing "in the nest they kept," humanizing the birds who have no human values. More stringent still, Stevens offers even less consolation …

Stevens’s poem is this stern because he is writing not about the death of his mother, say, but the death of the soldier – and not an ambiguously "fictive" soldier but Eugène Lemercier [the young French painter killed in 1915 whose letters were collected as Lettres d"un soldat and read by Stevens in the summer of 1917]. … And its utter bareness derives from the fact that Stevens was writing not about natural death (the death of a loved one that, however terrible, can be accepted in its inevitability) but about a new kind of unnatural death, the daily death of thousands of soldiers on French battlefields.

From James Longenbach, Wallace Stevens: The Plain Sense of Things (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 69-70.


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