Archibald MacLeish: Lines for an Interment
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Archibald MacLeish was born in Glencoe, Illinois, on May 7, 1892. First educated at Hotchkiss School, MacLeish later studied at Yale and Harvard Law School, where he was first in his class. Although he focused his studies on law, he also began writing poetry during this time. In 1916 he married Ada Hitchcock.
At the onset of World War I, MacLeish volunteered as an ambulance driver, and later became a captain of field artillery. Upon returning home, he worked in Boston as a lawyer but found that the position distracted him from his poetry. He resigned in 1923, on the day that he was promoted to partner in the firm. MacLeish then moved his family to France and began to focus on writing. There he was to befriend fellow writers such as Kay Boyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Ezra Pound. During the next four years he published four books of poetry, including The Happy Marriage (1924) and The Pot of Earth (1925). In 1928 MacLeish returned to America, where he began research for his epic poem Conquistador by travelling the steps and mule-ride of Cortez's army through Mexico. MacLeish won the Pulitzer Prize for his efforts in 1932.
From 1930 to 1938, MacLeish worked as an editor at Fortune magazine. During that period, he wrote two radio dramas to increase patriotism and warn Americans against fascism. MacLeish also displayed increasing passion for this cause in his poems and articles. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded him to accept an appointment as Librarian of Congress, a position he kept for five years. MacLeish thoroughly reorganized the Library's administrative offices and established the Library's series of poetry readings. At the same time, MacLeish served as director of the War Department's Office of Facts and Figures and assistant director of the Office of War Information, specializing in propaganda. In 1944 he was appointed assistant Secretary of State for cultural affairs. After World War II, MacLeish became the first American member of the governing body of UNESCO, and chaired the first UNESCO conference in Paris.
In 1949 Archibald Macleish retired from his political activism to become Harvard's Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory, a position he held until 1962. From 1963 to 1967 he was Simpson Lecturer at Amherst College. Macleish continued to write poetry, criticism, and stage- and screenplays, to great acclaim. His Collected Poems (1952) won him a second Pulitzer Prize, as well as the National Book Award and the Bollingen Prize. J.B. (1958), a verse play based on the book of Job, earned him a third Pulitzer, this time for drama. And in 1965 he received an Academy Award for his work on the screenplay of The Eleanor Roosevelt Story. Archibald MacLeish died in April 1982 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Lines for an Internment
written after the poet visited a French military cemetery in 1931
Now it is fifteen years you have lain in the meadow:
The boards at your face have gone through: the earth is
Packed down and the sound of the rain is fainter:
The roots of the first grass are dead.
It's a long time to lie in the earth with your honor:
The world, Soldier, the world has been moving on.
The girls wouldn't look at you twice in the cloth cap:
Six years old they were when it happened:
It bores them even in books: "Soissons besiged!"
As for the gents, they have joined the American Legion:
Belts and a brass band and the ladies' auxiliaries:
The Californians march in the OD silk.
We are all acting again like civilized beings:
People mention it at tea ...
The Facts of Life we have learned are Economic:
You were deceived by the detonations of bombs:
You thought of courage and death when you thought of warfare.
Hadn't they taught you the fine words were unfortunate?
Now that we understand we judge without bias:
We feel of course for those who had to die:
Women have written us novels of great passion
Proving the useless death of the dead was a tragedy.
Nevertheless it is foolish to chew gall:
The foremost writers on both sides have apologized:
The Germans are back in the Midi with cropped hair:
The English are drinking the better beer in Bavaria.
You can rest now in the rain in the Belgian meadow --
Now that it's all explained and forgotten:
Now that the earth is hard and the wood rots:
Now you are dead ...