Peter Viereck’s “Kilroy” appeared in his first collection of poetry, Terror and Decorum: Poems 1940–1948, published in 1948. The poem’s title is taken from the phrase “Kilroy was here,” popularized during World War II to draw attention to the wide scope of territory on which American soldiers landed or which they occupied during the conflict. The name “Kilroy” represented every GI from the United States, and thousands of soldiers scrawled the phrase on walls, tanks, latrines, train cars—virtually anything that would accept a marking. The graffiti’s appearance in so many likely and unlikely places made a loud statement about the mighty American presence in Europe, Asia, and the South Pacific islands where GIs fought, killed, died, and were held captive. Soldiers from all the enemy nations were familiar with the phrase and, obviously, were not too happy to see it turn up nearly everywhere they looked.
Viereck’s poem emphasizes not only the daunting American presence in World War II, but also the spirit of adventure with which the culture hero Kilroy was associated. Through allusions to several historical and mythical figures who were widely traveled and gallantly successful in one way or another, Viereck portrays the World War II American soldier as a courageous, romantic globetrotter—a swashbuckling daredevil unafraid of strange lands and a far greater man than the sedate suburbanite who was not up to the same noble challenges. “Kilroy” incorporates legendary adventures from Roman mythology, Marco Polo’s travels, even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Dr. Faustus. These heroes (or anti-heroes) are compared to allegorical figures with negative names—Can’t, Ought, But, and so forth—as a form of praise and admiration for the soldier who did his duty not with blind submission and formality but with a flare for the exotic experience and a hearty appetite for both danger and victory.
The first line of “Kilroy” is rather odd in starting with the word “Also,” as though the reader is already in the midst of the poem. However, it serves to set the tone for the series of allusions to both legendary and historical adventurers—allusions that follow one another in rapid succession and sometimes become entwined. All the heroic explorers and travelers referred to are compared to Kilroy, the “everyman” American GI of World War II, and the first comparison is to Ulysses. In Roman mythology, Ulysses (called Odysseus in Greek mythology) was the creator of the giant wooden horse that was used to trick the Trojans and allow the Greek army to enter the city of Troy. The Trojan War left Troy in shambles, and its destruction angered the gods. As punishment, Poseidon sentenced Ulysses to ten years traveling the treacherous seas, suffering misfortune after misfortune but eventually making his way back home.
These parenthetical lines refer to the overall prevalence of the “Kilroy” graffiti in the Second World War. The scrawl of the name is so common that it appears on restroom doors like common inscriptions, making one forget the namesake’s connection to the heroic Ulysses—Kilroy’s “ancient role.”
Two different references may be inferred from these lines. Cathay is the name Italian explorer Marco Polo gave to the country of China during his travels there in the thirteenth century. Polo was from Venice, and in 1298, he participated in a battle between Venice and Genoa, Italy. Polo was taken prisoner by the Genoese, and, while he was in prison, he told a fellow inmate about the things he saw and experienced while on his travels to China. The other prisoner wrote down the account and it became the The Travels of Marco Polo, one of the most famous adventure books in history.
The other possible reference in lines 5 and 6 is to Christopher Columbus. He was a Genoese who enjoyed sea excursions and who was hired by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain to explore the...
(The entire section is 2,292 words.)