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 possibility of reaching Asia by sailing westward across the Atlantic rather than trying to sail around Africa into and across the Indian Ocean. On October 11, 1492, Columbus and his ships reached North America, landing on an island he named San Salvador (Holy Savior).
These lines refer to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Written during the 1380s, this first collection of short stories in the English language is about a group of pilgrims who pass time telling stories on their way to Canterbury, the site of the shrine dedicated to Thomas à Beckett, who was martyred for his Catholic faith in 1170. Line 7 is specifically from the prologue of Chaucer’s tales and translates as “Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage.” Their journey, then, is in keeping with Kilroy’s spirit of adventure and his willingness to travel to strange lands for a cause. Line 8 confirms that wherever pilgrims go, Kilroy has already been there. Had he been on the trip to Canterbury with Chaucer’s travelers, he would tell “The Miller’s Tale” because it is bawdy, raucous, and full of untamed characters who apparently share some of the reckless abandon that fuels Kilroy’s adventures.
At the beginning of the second stanza, Kilroy is now like a “paranoic king,” or one who is powerful and glorious but not too secure about it. And like a king lacking assurance who “stamps his crest on walls” to show everyone his importance and might, Kilroy tags walls and fences and such with his own name to exhibit the same thing. However, even epic heroes run the risk of fading “like a lost tune” and being “Tossed here and there” after all the glory days are over.
Continuing the idea of the more somber side of an adventurer’s life, these lines reflect the weariness that sets in, making the words “‘Kilroy was here’” now sound “wanly gay,” or weakly happy. Though the phrase is still “Haughty” with selfconfidence, it is also tiring of the journey. The words “long marching” here keep Kilroy the soldier in the picture, as well as Kilroy the adventurer.
The allusion in these lines is again to Greek mythology, and Kilroy is now compared to Orestes, the son of King Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra. In their tale, Agamemnon is murdered by Clytemnestra’s lover, Aegisthus, when Orestes was just a boy. Upon reaching manhood, Orestes avenges his father’s death by killing both his mother and her lover. Afterwards, the Furies, who are powerful goddesses personifying conscience that punish those who commit crimes against their own families, pursue him. In the poem, Viereck seems to justify Orestes’s act of revenge, asking “guilty of what crime?” and showing the young man’s victory over the Furies by noting that when they think they have found him, all they really find is his name scrawled somewhere “to mock them.” This, of course, is a direct reference to Kilroy leaving his own name wherever he has been—to the delight of some, the frustration of others.
There are two allusions in these lines. Kilroy is still Orestes running from the Furies, but in line 20—when he “does not flee from them in time”— Kilroy becomes the American soldier captured by the enemy. Lines 22 and 23 confirm this, for the “dying man” who passes away before completing the popular scrawl represents the troops who became prisoners of war or were killed on the island of Bataan during World War II. Between Manila Bay and the South China Sea, Bataan was the site of one of the Allies’ losses. American and Filipino soldiers were overwhelmed by a Japanese invasion of the island, and thousands perished during the long, infamous Bataan Death March on the way to a prison camp erected by the Japanese.
Here, the poet warns his hero of what lies ahead after all the globe-trotting is done. For the free-spirited wanderer, “‘HOME’” is not a good place to be. It is much too confining and restraining, much like a “trap.” Kilroy is also warned that confinement may come in “many a wily shape,” so he must beware of alluring places and people that would rob him of his freedom without his even knowing it at first.
Lines 26–29: These lines give examples of the ways that “home” may disguise itself and, therefore, trick the traveler into settling down. The allusion goes back to Ulysses, whose “Loyal Hound,” Argos, is the only one who recognizes him when he returns from his ten years at sea. The comfort of a “pipe-andslippers” or “just fooling around” are attractive to a tired wanderer, as is Penelope, the faithful wife of Ulysses who fends off would-be lovers and waits a decade for her husband to return. These sedate scenes may be “Kind to the old,” but they are “fierce to boys” who should see and do all that is possible while they can.
During Ulysses’s ten-year voyage, he suffers mishap after mishap, often at the hands of some devious god or goddess who uses charming disguises to tempt the weary hero in various ways. Ulysses is “always drowned” on the seas because he falls for these tricks and pays both mentally and physically.
Here, the poem shifts allusion to another mythological figure, Icarus, for whom the Icarian Sea (a part of the Aegean) is named. Icarus, the son of Daedalus, goes with his father to Crete where they both become trapped in a labyrinth. To free them, Daedalus constructs wings out of feathers and wax that they use to fly out of the maze. Ignoring his father’s warnings, Icarus flies too close to the sun, and the wax holding his wings melts, sending him plummeting into the sea below. The young Icarus, then, is like Kilroy—daring, foolhardy, and willing to tempt fate. The mention of “suburban Crete” and “folksy fishes” sipping tea ties the myth to the reality of suburban America, which is one of the “home” traps Kilroy has avoided to this point. The idea that Icarus could have “V-mailed” his adventure stories “from the sun” links him to a soldier of the Second World War who really did use this type of correspondence to write home. Because the load of letters from soldiers overseas was so overwhelming to the postal system, the United States Post Office adopted the V-mail system to use during the war. V-mail consisted of photographing correspondence and then transferring the photographs to microfilm for shipping. In terms of numbers, it took nearly forty mail bags to carry 150,000 one-page letters, but only one bag to carry the same amount of V-mail.
The final lines of the third stanza wrap up the exuberant joy of the daredevil spirit and of the thrill of going places where no one else has been just for the sake of shouting “‘I was there! I was there! I was there!’” Sadly, of course, not all adventures end well, as with the high-flying Icarus who is on “hopeless wings” when he starts out.
Line 39 of “Kilroy” has been given much attention by readers and critics because of its unlikely irony. Here, Kilroy is not like God; rather “God is like Kilroy,” exalting the free-spirited individualist to the higher position. Both God and Kilroy have seen it all—the latter in his worldly adventures and God in his awareness of every “sparrow’s fall” and of every mishap that befalls people, including clowns on tightropes.
The final comparison between Kilroy and a legendary figure is in line 43, and this time his counterpart is Dr. Faustus, or “G.I. Faustus.” The Faustus character has appeared in a variety of tales over the centuries, most notably in Christopher Marlowe’s dramatic play Dr. Faustus, published in the early seventeenth century. Faustus is a welltrained scholar in both religion and the “sciences” of astrology, sorcery, and necromancy, as well as medicine and mathematics. Bored with normal human life, Faustus enters into a pact with Satan who offers him all the luxuries and excesses he desires, including the ability to travel through space and to give horoscopes that never fail to be correct. In exchange for these powers and pleasures, Faustus must agree to renounce his Christian faith and surrender himself—body and soul—to the devil after a period of twenty-four years. The deal made, Faustus lives a life of comfort, luxury, adventure, and perversion for two-and-a-half decades before it is time to keep his end of the bargain. At that point, of course, he regrets ever having made the pact.
Though there is no evidence that Kilroy the soldier ever sold his soul to the devil, he does exhibit the same lust for fast living that Faustus had. Unlike the doomed doctor, however, Kilroy has been “everywhere” and now has “strolled home again.” Upon arriving, the first question he is asked is “‘What was it like outside?’”
Viereck ends the poem with an allegory, or a representation of ideas through characters who symbolize them. In this case, Kilroy is met by his neighbors who remain in the suburbs while he is away at war, and their names imply their attitudes toward living the kind of life that Kilroy has lived: Can’t, Ought, But, Perhaps, and Better Not. In spite of the more cautious mindset of the neighbors, however, they still display an envious excitement in considering what Kilroy’s name implies— adventure, freedom, travel, for “He was there, he was there, he was there!”
The final line of “Kilroy” sums up the feelings of those who have opted for the safety and security (as well as dullness and boredom) of life in the suburbs as opposed to taking chances on a few adventures. Apparently, those who “Can’t” end up regretting that they never tried.