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46 The Little-Known Poet Buried in Blawenburg

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John Allan Wyeth was a little-known poet in his time, a “war poet” from World War I. His fame rests on one book of “50-odd” sonnets that capture his observation and feelings about “The War to End All Wars.” The poems were published to a limited audience in 1928, and it wasn’t until 80 years later in 2008 that he received more attention when his book, This Man’s Army: A War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets, was republished by the University of North Carolina Press.

John Allan Wyeth in World War I


Wyeth was born in 1894 in New York. His father was a surgeon, Confederate war veteran, published poet, and founder of New York Polyclinic Hospital and Medical School. He attended Lawrenceville School and then Princeton University, graduating with the Class of 1915. After a year of teaching in Arizona, he returned to Princeton to study Romance Languages. He earned an MA in Romance Languages in 1917. He had a goal of getting a PhD and becoming a professor, but plans changed for Wyeth and many others when World War I broke out.


Because of his fluency in French, Wyeth was sent to France, where he was assigned to the Corps of Interpreters with the 33rd Division. He found himself in two areas where major battles had been fought—Somme and Verdun. His division became part of the Army of Occupation in Germany.


Poetry

Wyeth’s sonnets capture the attention of readers because of their realistic portrayals of common life during the war. In the poem below, titled Harbonnières to Bayonvillers: Picnic, an officer and a soldier are traveling through a village that has been devastated by the Battle of Amiens. They casually eat despite the stench and decay all around them. It is a joyless, but necessary act.

Harbonnières to Bayonvillers: Picnic


A house marked Ortskommandantur—a great

sign Kaiserplatz on a corner church,

and German street names all around the square.

Troop columns split to let our sidecar through.

“Drive like hell and get back to the main road—it’s getting late.”

“Yessir.”