Starvation Romance

I dream so often of the days we knew
Those days when love was like a guiding light,
And yet although I know your eyes were blue,
Although I swore to be forever true,
Although I dream of going home to you
Your name has slipped my memory tonight.

Author: Henry Lee

Lt. Henry Lee, US Army, grew up in South Pasadena, California. He was captured by the Japanese at Bataan in 1941. He wrote several poems during his imprisonment, burying them before being taken to a transport headed to Japan in 1945. Henry Lee died during an American air attack.

8 thoughts on “Starvation Romance”

  1. Unlike many soldier poets and veterans, Henry Lee does not rely on either grandiose abstractions or shock-value details. This modest poem establishes the disorienting misery of Lee’s prison camp ordeal only in the first word of the title, whose second word creates enough surprising dissonance to ensure that the reader is intrigued rather than braced for anguish. The poem’s first two lines are in conventional high rhetoric, complete with gallant cliche, and might have been written in 1914 by a Rupert Brooke, before sentimentality died in the trenches. Then the poem shifts wonderfully and honestly at the beginning of the third line, with “And yet . . .” Years of physical and emotional suffering, years of increasing hunger and dwindling hope, have nearly triumphed, no matter how much the poet tries to distract himself though memory of happier times. Of course the poet wants to go home to the girl, but that is about going home, not about the girl herself. How wonderful is it that even in his wretched state, and without overt sentimentality, the poet still feels a bit of shame at having forgotten. This poem, addressed to the mostly forgotten girl, is an implicit apology, demonstrating all at once the stultifying effects of inhumane captivity, the stubborn endurance of human decency, and the blunt irony that characterizes the best poetry of WWII.

  2. I’m struck with a similar feeling when reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Art of Losing”. You feel the dwindling, but it dwindles beautifully. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Anyone who has been in a war knows you have to laugh to survive, but not many of us could hold up as well as Lt. Lee. This poem says a lot about staying human no matter what.

  4. Andrew, yes, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem is a marvel. Personally, I much prefer Bishop’s brave effort to reassure herself, and Lee’s humble admission, to more bombastic and didactic poems which suggest no doubt in the mind of the poet.

    Trooper6, you might not know that while in terrible captivity Lee agreed to a chaplain’s request that he write some cheery, affirmative poems, which he did. I imagine that he did so solely out of compassion for his fellow prisoners, since he had apparently little optimism in his heart.

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