Memorial Day is generally seen as a time for somber reflections on battles and soldiers, on fear and duty, on lost loves and obviously, death. Not the most upbeat holiday. And yet, some poets of the 19th and 20th centuries have taken a broader perspective with Memorial Day poems that inspire hope and self-awareness. A few even became musical compositions.
The poems may have been written from the point of view of someone who served in the military or not. They may take a bittersweet outlook on war or a downright depressing one. But they all tend to capture the respect and compassion due a day of remembrance.
Here are five Memorial Day poems appropriate for the holiday:
"The Day of Battle" by A.E. Housman.
A reclusive romantic pessimist, Housman was known for writing about male comradery. His poems gained popularity during wartime, including World War I. This poem was included in Houseman's most well-known collection, "A Shropshire Lad," published in 1896.
Far I hear the bugle blow
To call me where I would not go
And the guns begin the song,
Soldier, fly or stay for long.
Comrade, if to turn and fly
Made a soldier never die
Fly I would, for who would not?
'Tis sure no pleasure to be shot
But since the man that runs away
Lives to die another day
And cowards' funerals, when they come,
Are not wept so well at home
Therefore, though the best is bad,
Stand and do the best, my lad;
Stand and fight and see your slain,
And take the bullet in your brain.
"Memorial Day" by Alfred Joyce Kilmer
Several cities across the United States have named parks, schools, streets and squares in honor of Kilmer (1886-1918).
Kilmer is known most for his poetry about the beauty of nature. He was considered a leading American Catholic poet before being killed in action during World War I.
"They kept the faith and fought the fight. Through flying lead and crimson steel. They plunged for Freedom and the Right."
This poem was published several years before Kilmer's death, in the 1914 collection, "Trees and Other Poems."
"Bless God, He Went as Soldiers" by Emily Dickinson
When it comes to poetry of the male-dominated war, Dickinson (1830-1886) stands out not only for her gender, but how she deliberately distanced herself from fighting. She refused to help in the Civil War effort despite learning about family friends killed in battle.
Still, the war era was believed to be her most productive period and her poetry demonstrates her fascination and fear of death. This particular poem, like others published posthumously, was written in the form of a prayer. It was possibly influenced by her restrictive Puritan upbringing in New England.
Bless God he went as soldiers
His musket on his breast
Grant God, he charge the bravest
Or all the martial blest!
Please God, might I behold him
In epauletted white –
I should not fear the foe then –
I should not fear the fight!
"One Step Backwards" by Robert Frost
Among America's most famous poets, Frost often uses ambiguity, irony and metaphor in his writing. As with some of his other poems, the Pulitzer Prize winner tries to addresses the larger issue of personal identity. Read between the lines and you will also discover messages about risky behavior and clear thinking. The poem was part of his 1947 collection, "Steeple Bush."
Not only sands and gravels
Were once more on their travels
But gulping muddy gallons
Great boulders off their balance
Bumped heads together dully
And started down the gully.
Whole capes caked off in slices
I felt my standpoint shaken
In the universal crisis
But with one step backwards taken
I saved myself from going
Then the rain stopped and the blowing
And the sun came out to dry me.
"Memorial Day for the War Dead" by Yehuda Amichai
The contrast of festivities and sorrow is underscored in this poetic tribute.
"Bitter salt is dressed up as a little girl with flowers," writes Amichai (1924-2000), a German Jew who fought with the British Army in World War II and then served in the Israeli defense forces.
Here's a snippet from Amichai's poem:
Memorial day for the war dead. Add now
the grief of all your losses to their grief,
even of a woman that has left you. Mix
sorrow with sorrow, like time-saving history,
which stacks holiday and sacrifice and mourning
on one day for easy, convenient memory.
Oh, sweet world soaked, like bread,
in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God.
"Behind all this some great happiness is hiding."
No use to weep inside and to scream outside.
Behind all this perhaps some great happiness is hiding.
Know of other Memorial Day poems? Let us know your favorites in the comments below.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons