‘The Death of a Soldier’
Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.
He does not become a three-days’ personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.
Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops.
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
This poem considers the death of a soldier not in terms of glory, but as an anonymous, uncelebrated event: as inevitable as the fall of leaves in Autumn.
STRUCTURE NOTE: Four short, three line stanzas, each ending with a short line- as if cut off.
Wallace Stevens: An American modernist poet.
‘The Death of a Soldier’: this poem concentrates on the moment of the soldier’s death itself. Time is important in the poem: it is a poem that describes the fleeting nature of life, and moments during life.
“Life contracts…”: the poem itself seems to follow this rule of diminishment in the syllabic weighting of each line in all four stanzas.
“As in a season of Autumn.”: a key simile and natural image. The simile deliberately underplays human events, and is repeated in Stanza three. Here, the poem concentrates on time as ‘a season’. This poem is concerned, like many modernist texts, with the experience of time: to be interested in modernity was to be interested in the accelerating nature of a technological society, and the subjective experience of time within it. Here the slow ebbing away of life is compared to the slow change from Summer to Winter in Autumn.
“…a three-days personage… calling for pomp”: the soldier was clearly new to battle and the front: had less than three days to make his presence felt among his fellow soldiers. This is a more human perspective on time.
“Death is absolute and without memorial…”: the poem takes a philosophical turn— the end is the end, it seems to say, and that is that. Human attempts at memorial for the event are in vain: the point seems to be that death, as Wittgenstein said, is not an event in life. We can’t talk meaningfully about what is beyond life, because it is beyond our understanding.
“When the wind stops… and, over the heavens, / The clouds go nevertheless…”: The anonymous death of a soldier in war is like the quickly passing, windless moment. Stevens seems to be insisting on the insubstantiality of death that war brings to men. Meanwhile, the war, like the clouds moving overhead, moves on swiftly.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The third poem written by an American in the anthology, this poem is, like the two immediately before, primarily an intellectual or philosophical exercise: it has none of the gritty realism of Sassoon or Owen, for example.]
8 thoughts on “The Death of a Soldier – Wallace Stevens”
Although im a big man, this poem touched my heart with such compassion.
I believe that the way the poem is structered as :’Four short, three line stanzas, each ending with a short line- as if cut off.’ Mostly because Wallace steven was trying to depict the idea that our life shortens while we are living.
The “three-days’ personage” could be Christ. For believing Christians, there is a world after death. But for those of us here, who will mourn the loss of loved ones and then leave this world ourselves, the first fact is death. Reminds me of Auden’s Musee des beaux arts.
I really like this interpretation– thanks Tom. Just to make this clear to my students, Jesus Christ spent three days in the tomb after crucifixion before being raised up to heaven. What Tom suggests here is that Robert Frost (sic-see post below) contrasts the uncelebrated death of the soldier with the death of Christ, whose sacrifice on behalf of mankind clearly “calls for pomp”.
This comparison of the fighting soldier to Christ is, of course, quite common in First World War poetry; we see it in the poems of Sassoon and Owen, for example. To claim a radical difference in the sacrifice of Christ and a soldier such as we find in the poem is arguably a more interesting (and certainly less sentimental) poetic manoeuvre.
Just to be clear for your students, the poem was written by Wallace Stevens. 😉
I would like to suggest that the three-day’s personage, rightly compared to Christ, is an example of something the soldier is NOT. He does not have the pompous celebration of his falling that Christ did. His falling is absolute and without memorial. I would say that this poem is almost a celebration of the bleakness of atheism.
To me, the soldier is of course not a soldier at all, but any of us. The soldier is just the mirror in which we watch our our own death. The clouds continuing to move after motion stops below reminds me of the Frost poem in which a boy dies but we regardless continue. A life ends, but Life keeps going.