The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Karl Shapiro’s “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” is a long poem consisting of eleven twelve-line stanzas and a six-line envoi, which Shapiro calls the “epitaph.” As part of Shapiro’s V-Letter collection, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1944, the poem chronicles one of the poet’s experiences in the battle zones of Australia and New Zealand during World War II. In V-Letter’s introduction, Shapiro noted that he guarded “against becoming a ‘war poet,’” yet clearly his work as a wartime medic shaped much of his early work. “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” is one of the best of these poems.

One might argue that so-called war poets either romanticize or condemn war; however, Shapiro places himself in the more objective middle ground of his subject. He neither elevates the fallen soldier to heroism nor glorifies his war activities any more than he idealizes war’s significance. Conversely, Shapiro does not blame the dead for their war involvement, nor does he condemn war as pointless. Interestingly enough, the middle ground of the poet as outsider or voyeur, despite his direct involvement in the war, may result in part from Shapiro’s own position as a World War II conscientious objector. While he did not carry a gun, his status as an army medic put him in the same proximity and peril as those who did. His Jewish faith forbade him to wage war; it did not, however, forbid him to assist his countrymen.

The first stanza of the poem opens almost journalistically: “A white sheet on the tail-gate of a truck/ Becomes an altar”; two candlesticks “sputter at each side of the crucifix”; “The chaplain chats, the palmtrees swirl their hair,/ The columns come together through the mud.” In these lines, Shapiro is careful not to evoke any particular emotion or attitude. The effect of this initial distancing from the dead soldier and from his funeral is to make the event less personal, more matter-of-fact. Thus, as the soldiers separate...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Shapiro claimed in V-Letter and Other Poems that he had not “written these poems to accord with any doctrine or system of thought or even a theory of composition.” Furthermore, he stated, “I have nothing to offer in the way of beliefs or challenges or prosody.” This poetic self-effacement aside, Shapiro clearly understood poetic conventions and, eventually, would become one of the postmodern champions of form and prosody.

In a broad context, Shapiro’s elegy functions much the way all elegies function. It is a poem to commemorate the dead. However, Shapiro shapes his elegy into what might be termed a nonce canzone. Typically, a canzone is an old Italian form of varying lengths and patterns. Most often, it comprises five twelve-line stanzas and a five-line envoi that turns on repeated words. In Shapiro’s nonce or “irregular” form of the canzone, he gives us eleven twelve-line stanzas and a six-line envoi that does not use repetition. Additionally, Shapiro’s twelve-line stanzas operate upon a specific, consistent rhyme pattern of abbcdaedfefc, while the envoi follows a joined tercet pattern of abcabc.

Another interesting convention Shapiro employs in “Elegy for a Dead Soldier” is his personification of certain abstracts. So much of what people place value upon in modern society is idealistic or ideological. In Shapiro’s poem, loss, for example, “seems to point at nothing,” and doubt “flirts.” However, what, tangibly speaking, is loss or doubt? War gives “Freedom of self and peace to wander free,” and “poverty pursued him least” because the dead soldier did not understand lack.

Comparatively, when Shapiro writes of tangibles, such as people and objects, he creates metaphors that evoke the hard, dissolvable reality beyond ideas: “palmtrees swirl their hair,” “blue morning-glories [are] pale as lips,” the soldiers “are ashes,” the “bullet found its aim,” and “the red flag” of blood “marked the sewer main.” The contrariety of Shapiro’s use of personification and metaphor illustrates how people attempt to make war a lofty, idealistic concern while, realistically, war makes refuse of the world.