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A N D R E W E L K I N S Chadron State College The WarPoetry of Thomas Hornsby Ferril Thomas Homsby Ferril’s place in the pantheon of western American literature seemssecure, yet the most persistent theme in the scattered articles about his poetry is the need for more articles about his poetry. In 1947, Joseph J. Firebaugh wrote an essay he hoped would “initiate critical dis­ cussion”1of Ferril’s work. In 1972, Jack Scherting, unhappy that “Ferril remains an unknown or, at best, an obscure American poet,” wrote an article whose “primary purpose ... isto call attention to a poet whose works deserve a much larger audience than they have had.”2 As late as 1987, Thomas Trusky could still say, “scholarly evaluations of his [Ferril’s] con­ tributions to American literature have been almost nil or, seemingly, for nought.”3The criticism of Ferril’s work consists mainly of review articles or introductory essays designed to call attention to a neglected poet. As helpful as these contributions are, we are still faced with a shortage of precisely what they all call for: careful analyses of specific aspects of Ferril’s poetry. I would like to offer such an analysis here, focusing on Ferril’s war poetry, a part of his work that has gone largely unnoticed, except to draw some passing criticism.4By “war poetry,” I mean that poetry in which war, either specific conflicts or the general phenomenon, figures prominently as subject or inspiration. The poems that fit this description are concentrated in Ferril’s third book, Trial by Time, published in 1944.5 Ferril was never in combat, although he was drafted in 1918 and trained in wireless communication, eventually being commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps Aviation Section.6 As a noncombatant , his war poetry is obviously going to be different from Owen’s, Blunden’s or other soldier-poets’. We cannot expect any first-hand, grue­ 100 Western American Literature some war experiences, nor the common theme of the contrast between battlefield and a remembered home. We are going to.see the homefront experience and the poet’s reflections upon that experience. Arthur Lane, writing of World War I poets, claims that there are two types ofwar poetry: “the poetry of meditation” and “the poetry of immediate experience.” The latter is “personal, frequently dramatic, and usually stops short of general statement.” The former is “relatively impersonal and treats of general truths.”7Not having any “immediate experience” of war, Ferril will write the “poetry of meditation,” the poetry of “general truths.” The first “general truth” we encounter in the poetry is that war is unnatural. By “unnatural” I mean that war violates nature’s rhythms and patterns, specifically the typical life-pattern in which people, like all nature’s creatures, are born, grow, and then die. Non-human nature shows us that death is the inevitable conclusion to a process that also includes birth, maturation, and decline. The organized and willful destruction of masses of young members of one’s own species is by this measure unnatural. Non­ human nature counsels wiser action, not because such mass annihilation is cruel—a human concept—but because it is self-destructive. There are enough calamities awaiting the members of any species. The way to matur­ ity, propagation, and old age isperilous under the best of conditions. To add more dangers to the path, to expend large portions of a species’intelligence, energy, and resources to create greater and greater numbers of perils, perils designed to be fatal, is, by non-human nature’sstandards, self-destructive. Granted that war reduces the species’chances of living, the position is morally neutral. To become moral, an idea about the value of staying alive, of continuing the species, must be added. In Ferril’sintroduction to Trial by Time, entitled “Putting Poems Together,” he adds the moral component when he writes “If we want to illuminate the lives ofyoung people, we must first make their lives possible. War must be stopped.”8Two moral ideas are implied in the statement. First, we can and should “illuminate” our lives. Second, we can and should pass on that knowledge to the...


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