Another poem from the Second World War, this time from the American poet and critic Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), who served in the United States Army Air Forces during that conflict. Jarrell was also a very readable and influential critic; his essay on Robert Frost, for example, did much to change that poet’s image from rustic sage to something far more complex and interesting.
I have one problem with the text of this poem. My longhand copy, that I made from a library book about fifty years ago, has the tenth line as ‘We died like ants or pets or foreigners’. When I came to check my text against online sources, I find that most, but not all, have it as ‘We died like aunts or pets or foreigners’. Now, while acknowledging the sad fact that aunts do die, I can’t help feeling that ‘ants’ fits the poem better, and I am going to stick with ‘ants’ unless and until someone who actually has the original book tells me otherwise. Anyone, please?
It was not dying: everybody died.
It was not dying: we had died before
In the routine crashes – and our fields
Called up the papers, wrote home to our folks,
And the rates rose, all because of us.
We died on the wrong page of the almanac,
Scattered on mountains fifty miles away;
Diving on haystacks, fighting with a friend,
We blazed up on the lines we never saw.
We died like ants or pets or foreigners.
(When we left high school nothing else had died
For us to figure we had died like.)
In our new planes, with our new crews, we bombed
The ranges by the desert or the shore,
Fired at towed targets, waited for our scores–
And turned into replacements and woke up
One morning, over England, operational.
It wasn’t different: but if we died
It was not an accident but a mistake
(But an easy one for anyone to make.)
We read our mail and counted up our missions–
In bombers named for girls, we burned
The cities we had learned about in school–
Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
The people we had killed and never seen.
When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
When we died they said, ‘Our casualties were low.’
They said, ‘Here are the maps’; we burned the cities.
It was not dying –no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: ‘Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?’