James Schevill

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Schevill, James

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Schevill, James 1920–

Schevill is an American poet, dramatist, and biographer. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Rather than try to encompass the magnitude of [the horror of the Stalingrad battle] in its historical proportions, James Schevill in The Stalingrad Elegies attempts to portray the final consciousness of some of the fated soldiers, to catch whatever humanity was left to them to die with. By refusing to seek an understanding of modern war, or defining how it was different to die in that time and that place, Schevill has evoked the inscrutability of twentieth-century violence and left the taste of its continued menace in our mouths. But the power of the book exists mainly as a reminder of something that has truly happened, a reminder of a nightmare from which we cannot escape by waking into a changed and improved reality.

The individual poems are weaker than the book as a whole, for the characters are dwarfed by their doom. (Could anyone's imagination have made it otherwise?) And Schevill's language, though never soft, does not have the intensity that its subject requires. (p. 62)

I am thankful … that Schevill has written this book, for I believe that the spread of chaos, the violence we have almost grown accustomed to, requires the poet's careful reporting as well as his powers of expression. An event need not merely be an excuse for a poem; like the Bible, a poem should be a way of bearing witness to unfathomable happenings. This, I think, is what Schevill has boldly attempted to do, and with sufficient success to encourage other poets in writing the "inner" history of our time. (p. 63)

Robert Pack, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1964 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 14, 1964.

Reading James Schevill's The Stalingrad Elegies, as poignant and reportorial as he manages to make them, I cannot quite escape the feeling of reading secondhand. I do not need to be told that these poems are based on something; I need only be told that they are based on the recently revealed documents of the German Nazi army trapped in Stalingrad.

Not that a vicarious experience is useless to a poet; he is a reader like all the rest of us. But to be of much use that experience has to catch fire, to undergo a transmutation in the reader's mind that bridges the gap between actor and spectator, if the spectator is adequately to describe the action. Nothing, I grant, should take fire more quickly than experiences such as these must have been, even in the reading about them. Empathy should have been a matter of course. But, for me, the events and meanings in these poems seem remote, far away from actuality, watered down with the expected, horribly real but heavy clichés of war. The fresh, ugly horrendous note of the firsthand is lacking. Not everyone can do what Stephen Crane did with a few soldiers' tales and newspaper articles.

Nonetheless, aside from the usual banalities of romance, which seem to grow more banal when the guns begin to pop (as banal here as a "Dear John" letter), there is an occasional arresting moment in this account. For instance, in "The Astronomer," these lines begin to vibrate with something eerily authentic:

    I think in light-years, but live these days in seconds.
    Around us everything grows white in the snow,
    Even the blood from wounds is curiously pale,
    Grey, winter lilies shooting from the frozen steppe.

Unfortunately, before its close, the poem becomes dissipated, mildly then wildly prosaic. It seems that Mr. Schevill, the moment he considers women, becomes mawkish and long-winded. When he stays away from sex, obviously his bête noir, and writes instead of other things, as in "He Is Not Here in Stalingrad," a poem to a minister father about the absence of God, he becomes a strongly controlled, forceful poet, and I can respect him. (p. 147-48)

George Scarbrough, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1965 by The University of the South),...

(The entire section is 1,592 words.)