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...
(The entire section is 812 words.)