Amos and Thornton Wilder reflect on The Great War


When the Armistice was declared on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, exactly a century ago, the two Wilder brothers found themselves corporals in the U.S. Army on active duty on different sides of the Atlantic. Older brother Amos (1895-1993) was billeted in the Village of Beaumont on the Meuse River above Verdun and Thornton (1897-1975) was stationed at Fort Adams outside Newport, Rhode Island. We mark this anniversary with their written words from long ago — a poem by Amos and an excerpt from a playlet by Thornton. The concluding note fills in something of the history of each piece and offers a guide to additional background reading.

Amos Wilder

TO THE FALLEN. (NOVEMBER.) [1919]A Poem by Amos Wilder

[We believe Amos Wilder wrote this poem on 27 June 1919, the day before his discharge from the Army in Grèves, France following a six month tour of  duty with the Army of Occupation.]

No more for them time’s dark events     Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky,1 No more  old fate – they are gone hence— ++No more the sombre, hurrying destiny.

No more for them November skies, ++The mighty changes of the dying year, They shall not know earth on this wise, ++Nor the tumultuous forests hear.

With flying cloud and wind ++And uproar in the trees that toss and bend The old year races on its blind ++Accelerating voyage towards the end.

No more for them earth’s fleet career ++Hastening down the runways of the dark, No more the phantoms of the year ++Coursing like mindless winds through treetops stark.

No more for them the fleeting suns ++Breeding new fret and stir upon the earth, No more the din, the oaths, the guns, ++These throb not past the gates of death and birth.

No more for them time’s dark advents     Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky, The fury of the elements ++No more shall rage upon them where they lie.

1. From Walt Whitman,” Hushed Be the Camps To-day” (transposed).

Amos took a leave from Yale in the fall of 1916 to serve as a volunteer ambulance driver in France. After three months with the Paris Service, he joined the American Field Service (AFS) and ferried the wounded first on the Western Front and later with the Army of the Orient in the Balkans on the Serbian Front. On November 26, 1917, his own country now in the war, Amos enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force in Paris and was assigned to field artillery in the Second Division. By March of 1918 he was back on the Western Front, this time with a 155-millimeter gun rather than a Model T- adapted ambulance. And here, between March and November 1918 with two months off to recover from shell shock, he participated in great battles that concluded the war: Château-Thierry and Bellow Woods, the second battle of the Marne, and the Argonne Forest.

Battle Retrospective, the collection of his poems of the war from which “To the Fallen. (November.)” is taken, was selected for The Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1922. Deeply influenced by such writers as George Duhamel, Henry de Montherlant  and David Jones and darkly discouraged by the defeat of Wilson’s 14 Point Peace Plan,  his poems of this period,  as he recalled on the 50th anniversary of the Armistice, “…reflected the shared experience  of an incommensurable action and passion and bonds of fealty to the dead.”

Further reading: Wilder’s memoir of the war, Armageddon Revisited: A World War I  Journal, originally published by Yale  University Press in 1994, is available from Wiph & Stock. The quote cited above is taken from “At The Nethermost Piers of History. World War I, A View from the Ranks,” one of forty-two essays published in Promise of Greatness: The War of 1914-18, ed. by George A. Panichas (New York, John Day, 1968).  A copy of this piece is found here.

Thornton Wilder

IN PRAISE OF GUYNEMER [1918]Excerpt from a Playlet by Thornton Wilder

[Georges Guynemer was the genuine article—the French “ace of aces” --  the flyer who knocked some 54 enemy planes out of sky  before vanishing forever on September 11, 1917 (man and machine probably pulverized in a bombardment). For his extraordinary skill and heroism he quickly earned a plaque in the Pantheon and his name on streets across French cities and towns.   In a dialogue between Youth (Juvenis) and Age (Senex) Thornton Wilder explored the question of how the fallen will be remembered when guns fall silent.  Here we encounter Senex lecturing a skeptical Juvenis on how Guynemer’s record  will play out down through time.]

SENEX. There is a kind of doctrine abroad in France that tribute due to the dead, that is to the humble, unknown dead of the trenches, may be paid to Guynemer, because in the great days of the first two years they looked up from their trenches to his airplane, and murmuring “Guynemer,” gazed on their hope. The farmer's son has no tablet in the Pantheon, save that to Guynemer, nor the pedlar’s son, and so on.

This veneration will grow. His place is beside the heroes he mused upon. And in distant ages when scholars shall say patronizingly of references to this war: “No doubt there was a struggle of some kind “; when our records, having passed under the contempt of a rising race, shall be neglected and lost; and the nationality of Shakespeare will be held in dispute, and of the remaining plays it will be denied that Hamlet and Twelfth Night are from the same hand; and Virgil shall become of a mood, and Dante of a shaking dream; and our language shall be mixed with the Chinese as oil and water are mixed; and an aerial kingdom shall hang suspended over the South Sea islands; and scholars be poking about for Rheims, as now they do for the Skaian Gates; — in after time Guynemer shall rise, like Hector undoubtable, from a mythic war. Georges Guynemer descends History, like a stream down the face of a mountain, making the whole green, and from time to time reappearing in springs and waterfalls.

Thornton served four months (September-December 1918 ) as a company clerk in the Coast Artillery Corps based at Fort Adams outside Newport, Rhode Island.  His biographer Penelope Niven said the question of how the dead would be remembered “haunted” Wilder, and found written form in his playlet titled In Praise of Guynemer. The work was published  in the Yale Literary Magazine in December 1918. The excerpt included here appeared in a special section in the Yale College 1920 Class Book (Wilder’s graduating class).   The words, among his most poetic and romantic,  are typical of  much wartime and early post-war writing as soldier-authors turned to myth and epic to wrestle meaning from madness.  Wilder’s fans  will be familiar with a later (1938) very different take on battlefield death: the fate of Joe Crowell the ”awful bright” paperboy in Our Town who attended MIT but soon after “died in France—All that education for nothing.” (Not to be overlooked, of course, was Wilder’s nearly four-year tour of duty  in the  Army Air Force in World War II. But that is a story for another time.)

Further reading: “In Praise of Guynemer” in its complete form with additional background can be found here.  Readers interested in exploring more of Wilder’s  writings in this period can consult the playlets published in The Angel that Troubled the Waters and Other Plays (1928), republished and available in The Collected Short Plays of Thornton Wilder Volume II (TCG Press,  1998). Penelope Niven’s Thornton Wilder-A Life [HarperCollins 2012) is the definitive study of Wilder’s life.

Thanks to Bill Foley, for whom WWI holds few secrets, for his invaluable help with this piece.