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19 May 2005

Somebody's Darling

In modern wars, women's work is usually not directly in the midst of the slaughter, although in the United States military, women are fighting bitterly and relentlessly to take part in the combat. Who of either sex would want this? Well, some people want to be generals and admirals at the end of their military careers, and combat in war is almost essential for shoulder stars. Career officers call it "getting your ticket punched" -- a year commanding a combat unit, which war doesn't matter, any war will do. In the military, this is how women must break through the glass ceiling, so that by 2020 or so, women generals and admirals will occupy some of the seats at meetings of the Joint Chiefs in the Pentagon.

Before Florence Nightingale singlehandedly invented modern military nursing (and clean military hospitals) during the Crimean War, women on or near the battlefield had been chiefly prostitutes -- "camp followers" -- who did what they could with washing and bandaging, and so nurses, like actresses, were generally regarded as indistinguishable from whores. By the U.S. Civil War / War Between the States, war's women nurses had risen in social regard and medical function.

Marie Ravenal de la Coste was a white Southern woman of high social standing during the Civil War. It doesn't matter how far away from the battlefield she wanted to stay; in the Civil War, particularly in the South, sooner or later the battlefield came to you. But as Union armies finally broke through and started marching into Confederate territory, de la Coste one day visited a military hospital in Richmond, Virginia, and wrote a poem about what she saw there. Not long after, an entertainer, John Hill Hewitt, read the poem and put a simple tune to it.

A century and a half of time has worked its magic, so this song has been purged from the minds of nearly all living women and men. But certainly through 1950, just a few notes of the tune, let alone the words, were enough to make very old Americans, and their children, and some of their grandchildren, choke in their throats, or weep, or become dismally sad. It is sung in a background scene in "Gone with the Wind" (1939), late in the movie, when the South's war had shifted from proud and noble patriotic defense of their homeland and way of life, to starvation, flames, destruction, ruin -- and hospitals overflowing with maimed and dying young men. Click here for a primitive MIDI, just one finger on an old piano in the parlour. Just fifty years ago, that would have been enough.

Women will always have one fundamental role in war: All of the dying, all of those screaming in pain, all of the dead, every one, will have had a mother.

Somebody's Darling
words by Marie Ravenal de la Coste
tune by John Hill Hewitt

Into the ward of the clean white-washed halls,
Where the dead slept and the dying lay;
Wounded by bayonets, sabres and balls,
Somebody's darling was borne one day.

Somebody's darling, so young and so brave,
Wearing still on his sweet yet pale face,
Soon to be hid in the dust of the grave,
The lingering light of his boyhood's grace.

Somebody's darling, somebody's pride,
Who'll tell his mother where her boy died?

Matted and damp are his tresses of gold,
Kissing the snow of that fair young brow;
Pale are the lips of most delicate mould,
Somebody's darling is dying now.

Back from his beautiful purple-veined brow,
Brush off the wandering waves of gold;
Cross his white hands on his broad bosom now,
Somebody's darling is still and cold.


Give him a kiss, but for somebody's sake,
Murmur a prayer for him, soft and low,
One little curl from his golden mates take,
Somebody's they were once, you know;

Somebody's warm hand has oft rested there,
Was it a Mother's so soft and white?
Or have the lips of a sister, so fair,
Ever been bathed in their waves of light?


Somebody's watching and waiting for him,
Yearning to hold him again to her breast;
Yet there he lies with his blue eyes so dim,
And purple, child-like lips half apart.

Tenderly bury the fair, unknown dead,
Pausing to drop on his grave a tear;
Carve on the wooden slab over his head,
"Somebody's darling is slumbering here."

On the CD "Songs of the Civil War" (Columbia/Sony), Kathy Mattea sings a haunting version, almost too sad to endure. (But we can endure it. We can endure almost anything.) Like those old, recycled World War One poems, if wars will not go out of style, this song could easily be brought back, and families all over America and England and Scotland and Australia could learn it again. Old, cornball, schmaltzy -- the tempo is a waltz, who even knows how to waltz today? -- it only talks about a dead soldier lowered into his grave in the fullness of his young promise, and his mother, waiting back home for him to return from the war.

An uncle of mine was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, in the forests of Belgium in 1944, three years before I was born. His sister went on living for a half century, married, raised children, and at big family gatherings seemed a very ordinary and unremarkable aunt. But as I grew older -- old enough to be told such things, always in whispers -- I learned that a huge part of her life and her soul died the instant the family received the War Department telegram that began: "We regret to inform you ..." Her brother had been her light, her sunshine, her laughter, her world throughout her childhood and young womanhood. The light never came back.

... He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week, my Sunday best,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.
I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now. Put out every one.
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Put away the ocean and sweep up the wood
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

-- from "Funeral Blues" by W(ystan) H(ugh) Auden


Blogger Joana said...

It's a pity you cannot read Portuuguese or I'd recommend one of Fernando Pessoa's poems called « O Menino de sua mãe»

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Who says I can't read Portuguese??? I studied Latin for four years! Send me the poem! I'll put it in the Vleeptron Universal Translator (which looks like a sausage-grinder), and the spirit of my old Latin teacher Miss Murphy will guide me to its meaning and its soul. God bless the Roman Army!

PS. Make sure that student of yours KEEPS STUDYING LATIN!

Blogger Joana said...

Ok here it goes:

O Menino de sua Mãe

No plaino abandonado
Que a morna brisa aquece,
De balas trespassado
- Duas de lado a lado -
Jaz morto e arrefece.

Raia-lhe a farda o sangue.
De braços estendidos,
Alvo, louro, exangue,
Fita com olhar langue
E cego os céus perdidos.

Tão jovem! que jovem era!
(Agora que idade tem?)
Filho único, a mãe lhe dera
Um nome e o mantivera:
"O menino de sua mãe".

Caiu-lhe da algibeira
A cigarreira breve.
Dera-lhe a mãe. Está inteira
E boa a cigarreira,
Ele é que já não serve.

De outra algibeira alada
ponta a roçar o solo,
A brancura embainhada
de um lenço... Deu-lho a criada
Velha que o trouxe ao colo.

Lá longe, em casa, há a prece:
"Que volte cedo, e bem!"
(Malhas que o Império tece!)
Jaz morto, e apodrece,
O mnino de sua mãe.

Fernando Pessoa.


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