A 1918 classic

Written and published in 1918, “High Wood” (on our site) is sometimes praised for its prescience about tourists visiting unimaginably ghastly battlefields not yet cleared of military detritus and bodies. But Europeans had already established such tours after the Napoleonic Wars, and some Americans did not even wait for the smoke to clear before touring the first battle of Bull Run in 1861.

John Stanly Purvis’s poem should be remembered not as a prediction, but as a polite remonstrance.

“High Wood” might at first appear to satirize gawkers who presumably have no understanding of the suffering and terror that once engulfed thousands at the battlefield, gawkers who edge, some readers might imagine, into voyeurs whose pleasure is in proportion to the magnitude of the slaughter.

It is difficult to imagine soldiers who endured what Purvis endured not feeling some bitterness and alienation in their knowledge that no one else will ever really understand. Britain reportedly suffered 60,000 casualties on the first day of the months’ long Somme battle, six times as many as all of the allies suffered on D-Day in 1944.

This very real, almost inescapable alienation has become a commonplace of difficult readjustment into civilian life, an excuse for all parties to justify not talking about what is most difficult to talk about.

But nothing in the poem actually suggests that the people on the tour are insensitive, morbidly curious, or inexcusably ignorant — a profile one might reasonably imagine of either the tourists in the poem or of readers of contemporary newspapers.

We know that visitors to battlefields include veterans who fought there and family members with respectful motives. In fact, in 1921 John Purvis himself led some students from Cranleigh School, where he taught history after his war, to visit High Wood and other fields and trenchworks.

For devastating Soldier Poet attacks on clueless civilians, we do not even need “High Wood” anyway. We have Siegfried Sassoon’s brilliant “Blighters” and “Fight to a Finish.”

“High Wood” does not satirize battlefield visitors as clueless civilians. The docile civilians on tour are vaguely like the soldiers who preceded them, led and admonished as surely, if more politely, into the trenches and dugouts. Purvis does not suggest that they are heartless or exploitative.

The tour guide is quite another matter.

“High Wood” satirizes war profiteers, I believe, with the tour company representing them all. During WWI that term usually referred to munitions makers, and today usually refers to the defense industry, but in a wider sense war profiteers include others who exploit and profit from war, sometimes counting their take while congratulating themselves for doing public service in support of noble causes and ideals.

For some reason I find myself thinking at the moment of Zero Dark Thirty Hollywood, scam veterans’ charities, and merchants selling patriotic kitsch in Soldier of Fortune magazine.

John Purvis anticipates, or recognizes, this exploitation in “High Wood,” a poem utterly modern for its time with its casual, conversational language, the tour guide’s scripted remarks, and the hype of twentieth-century advertising. Indeed, the poem ends as the tour guide’s shallow historical remarks drift into a commercial message.

This startlingly modern advertising tone, anticipating the breezy huckster language of Kenneth Fearing’s fine poems and some voices in The Wasteland, makes “High Wood” a poem. It has none of the traditional poetic devices of Edwardian poetry, or of John Purvis’s better known (but not better written) poem, “Chance Memories.”

Edwardian poetic tradition had begun to break down before World War I, but that war’s unexpected scale of horrors put intolerable pressure on the sense of order and well being that sometimes is assumed to underlie formal poetry. While it may be true that poets and other artists are often in the vanguard of recognizing vast cultural changes, artistic forms and traditions do not transform very quickly, even when a genius dazzles us with the new.

Indeed, some of my fellow veterans of the Viet Nam War still write poems that are very much in the Edwardian tradition, superficially, excepting perhaps the Edwardians’ linguistic control, sense of irony, graceful language, and musicality. There is much more to Edwardian poetry than rhyme, two-speed iambic pentameter, and comforting abstractions.

For a skilled poet, of course, formal poetry is not limited to expressions of order and well being, especially when infused with irony, as Sassoon and several WWII poets amply prove.

The most telling irony in “High Wood” seems to be in the tour guide’s reminder that “the ground was secured at great expense,” he thinking only of the Company’s investment. The woman he admonishes might be seeking not a souvenir but a connection to a lost son.

How modest, how gentle, John Purvis was when he wrote this poem while recovering from his own wound at High Wood. That officer’s corpse half unburied might have been one of Purvis’s friends, and Purvis might easily have been one of the corpses. Nevertheless the poet prefers irony to self-pity, polemics, and high rhetoric.

But if it is carefully read, “High Wood” leads its readers, just as the the tour experience leads the tourists, to consider the thousands of dead, and perhaps to feel a bit of alienation themselves from the tour guide’s insensitivity, and his fastidious concern for the Company’s property. In this poem, John Purvis himself is a fine, understated tour guide.

Stephen Sossaman

Author: Stephen Sossaman

Stephen Sossaman is Professor Emeritus of English at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. He now lives in California. He was an artillery fire direction computer in Viet Nam, serving in the Mekong Delta (1/84th artillery, 9th Infantry Division).

5 thoughts on “A 1918 classic”

  1. I’m glad to find this poem, after all these years. It’s bitter, and what’s not to be bitter about. Our squaddies will be taking air-conditioned bus tours of Helmand in a few years.

  2. Well, you have a point there! I haven’t read this poem in years but it is damned good. Thanks for sending me to look into Kenneth Fearing’s poetry.

  3. Good to find some “new” WWI poetry. I thought there would be celebrations and reprints everywhere about the centennial. I’ve had it to here with Wilfred Owen. Enough already.

  4. I like this kind of sick humor, and I like poems that I can understand. Thanks, old poems need some explaining.

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