The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812

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.

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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 themselves from the dead man, they can also separate themselves from the horrors of war that could just as easily have put them in the man’s position.

The flowers “laid round” are “brighter than the blood,/ Red as the red of our apocalypse,” and the “great morning-glories [are] pale as lips/ That shall no longer taste or kiss or swear.” However, the uninflected lines create a flat, conversational tone that evokes neither sorrow nor repugnance. When Shapiro juxtaposes the flowers and their inherent beauty with images of death, he creates an interesting paradox in which contrariety fuses the two extremes into something simultaneously beautiful and sorrowful. The sum of the two extremes negates, and the zero emotion ensues.

In subsequent stanzas, Shapiro turns his attentions to what he knows or speculates about the dead soldier. While Shapiro sees the man as heroic, he does not exaggerate or romanticize the man’s common heroism in unreasonable platitudes. Rather, the man Shapiro says he “by chance” saw die, “stretched on the ground,/ A tattooed arm liftedhad never questioned the idea of gain”; “his laugh was real, his manners were homemade,” and “he paid his bill” and “belonged to church.” The soldier who would have been a truck driver had there been no war, or had the war delivered him home unharmed, is entirely unpretentious. “He and the world had winked,” and his “end was sudden, like a foolish play,/ A stupid fool slamming a foolish door.” Death by war, Shapiro writes, is “the absurd catastrophe, half-prearranged.” Yet since the man pretended to be nothing other than what he was, the poet does not pretend to glorify him beyond that simple humanity.

Ultimately, Shapiro and the other soldiers identify with the commonness of their fallen comrade. After all, they are like him, followers that the “leaders could not seek/ Beyond.” Shapiro writes, “We ask for no statistic of the killed,/ For nothing political impinges on/ This single casualty, or all those gone.” He continues, “However others calculate the cost,/ To us the final aggregate is one.” His death is their death, his number theirs. There is no preselection, just selection.

At the poem’s end, in the envoi, the poet writes,

You who read,Remember that this stranger died in pain;And passing here, if you can lift your eyesUpon a peace kept by human creed,Know that one soldier has not died in vain.

The greatest sorrow, then, is that the fallen man is often the forgotten man. The common soldier dies a common, painful death on the battlefield; consequently, because he is not glorified unless he holds rank, his sacrifice will go unremembered except by one reading about him. The peace in the aftermath of war was provided in part by the man about whom Shapiro writes. If readers remember that, then his death, and his anonymity, are not in vain.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

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.

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Themes