On "The Death of a Soldier"

Joseph N. Riddel

"The Death of a Soldier" offers a succinct example of the early powers, not at all those of a detached observer of violence, but rather of one engaged totally with a world in which violence, like change, is the given.

[Riddel quotes the entire poem]

There is nothing else in the series to equal it, nothing else so artistically precise: the marmoreal tone, the carefully chiseled rhythm which falls with controlled dignity through each triplet, and the pertinent imagery of natural as opposed to sacramental death, unaccompanied by ceremony or apotheosis, something as constant and continuous as the mysteriously driven clouds. This is not only Stevens in the sureness of his mature style, but in the true mood of Harmonium, where death is an absolute and all the poet's joys and sorrows come from that revelation. As a poet of death-in-life, Stevens is ever the poet of his favorite theme: poetry-in-life.

from The Clairvoyant Eye: The Poetry and Poetics of Wallace Stevens. Louisiana State University Press. Copyright © 1965.

George S. Lensing

Of the four poems Stevens rescued from "Lettres d'un Soldat," this uniquely maintains its identity as a war poem. In what was to be his favorite stanzaic form, the tercet, he modulates a rhythmic deceleration accompanying the ever-shortening lines. The poem's treatment of death delicately plays off the processes of retardation ("contracts," "falls," "stops," "stops") and of continuity ("As in a season of autumn," "As in a season of autumn," "The clouds go, nevertheless, / In their direction"). Like "Negation," the poem expels the divine, but now reverentially instead of comically. There is only a faint hint of irony in the word "heavens" in the final tercet.

Stevens must have found Lemercier's piety to be near his own predilection. The soldier had written in November of a visit to a Catholic church, but he was not "led there by any sentimental feelings or desire for outside comfort. My conception of divine harmony doesn't need to be bolstered up by any formalism or popular symbolism." His religion was a private one wherein he consigned his fate to God's plan. Two weeks later he contrasted his own understanding of religion with the more commonly held notion, and his terms recall Stevens' resolution in 1902. Lemercier wrote:

You know what I call religion. It is that which links man with all his conceptions of the universal and the eternal--those two forms of God. Religion, in the ordinary sense of the word, is only the link which unites certain moral and disciplinary formulas which are associated with an admirably poetic figuration, that is, the external form and shape which are given to the vigorous philosophy of the Bible and Christianity. But don't let us wound anybody's feelings while we hold to our own beliefs, for when carefully examined, these religious formulas, however foreign they may be to my own intellectual assumptions, seem to me praiseworthy and deserving of our sympathy for what they contain of aspirations toward beauty and esthetic form.

"The Death of a Soldier" is the preeminent poem of "Lettres d'un Soldat." It anticipates, for example, part VII of "Esthétique du Mal":

How red the rose that is the soldier's wound,
The wounds of many soldiers, the wounds of all
The soldiers that have fallen, red in blood,
The soldier of time grown deathless in great size.

The poignancy of life's cessation, and it hardly need be the context of war, is something deeper than stoic pathos. Death is no mother here, as in "Sunday Morning," but life stops as "the wind stops" and life resumes as "The clouds go." Not a begetter, death neither denies nor detracts. Lemercier's sentence encapsulates the poem: "La mort du soldat est prés des choses naturelles."

From Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Growth. Copyright © 1986 by Louisiana State University Press.

James Longenbach

"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 U P, 1991), 69-70.

Return to Wallace Stevens