Of all the writers of the Lost Generation, there was perhaps none quite so lost as John Allan Wyeth. Until his 1928 book of war poems was reprinted by Fitzgerald scholar Matthew Bruccoli in 2008 (This Man's Army Univ of SC Press), Wyeth’s literary reputation was non-existent. Not a single scholar of the period had written about him, or even heard of him, and his poems appeared in no anthology of First World War literature from the 1930s to the present. Yet it might have been otherwise. Wyeth had all the requisite credentials of the time for literary fame: an Ivy League education, service in the World War, followed by nearly two decades as an itinerant expatriate in London, Liège, Paris, Holland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Provence, Italy and Greece, first as a poet, and then as a painter. Moreover, he was known to Edmund Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, members of the Bloomsbury Group and Ezra Pound. His cycle of modernist war sonnets, when it appeared a year before A Farewell to Arms and All Quiet on the Western Front, was perceptively and appreciatively reviewed in a handful of journals, including Poetry. But Oblivion followed, swift and absolute, for the next eighty-odd years. Such are the inexplicable vagaries of literary fortune.
Wyeth’s This Man’s Army is a diary of sorts, an impressionistic yet meticulously factual memoir of fifty-two entries, each identified by place-name, and covering the period May 15 to October 20, 1918, when Wyeth served on the headquarters staff of 33rd Division, American Expeditionary Force. Like any good diarist, Wyeth confines himself to the facts as they present themselves, never forsaking the particular to draw out some larger theme. Any universals suggested by his subject matter are left implicit.
In the following sonnet, for instance--- which describes the morning of August 16 in the aftermath of the Battle of Amiens, one of the critical turning points of the war--- there is no allusion to the historical significance of immediate events. There are simply two soldiers, one an officer and the other enlisted, travelling by motorcycle and sidecar through a devastated French village occupied just days before by the Germans. As they pass through the rubble without stopping, they share a jam sandwich and, in that symbolic act of breaking bread, the hellishness of war and the presence of the dead are experienced, not as an abstract realization or emotion, but as a precisely located sensation: a sickening taste in the back of the throat.
Harbonnières to Bayonvillers: Picnic
A house marked Ortskommandantur--- a great
sign Kaiserplatz on a corner of the church,
and German street names all around the square.
Troop columns split to let our sidecar through.
“Drive like hell and get back on the main road--- it’s getting late.”
The roadway seemed to reel and lurch
through clay wastes rimmed and pitted everywhere.
“You hungry?--- Have some of this, there’s enough for two.”
We drove through Bayonvillers--- and as we ate
men long since dead reached out and left a smirch
and taste in our throats like gas and rotten jam.
“Want any more?”
“Yes sir, if you got enough there.”
“Those fellows smell pretty strong.”
“I’ll say they do,
but I’m too hungry sir to care a damn.”
Wyeth’s literary record of the war is an accumulation of such small, precisely rendered sketches: low-key, incidental, unrehearsed, without a shred of rhetoric. Compared to the major poems of Owen and Sassoon, the sonnets of Wyeth may seem minor pieces, but they withstand close scrutiny, both in their craft and their accuracy of detail, and there is more to them than at first appears. Read more about John Allan Wyeth here.