I was remembering a poem this morning, that I first read a while ago.
The poem is part of Spoon River Anthology, a series of poetic monologues by 244 former inhabitants of Spoon River, an area near Lewistown and Petersburg, Illinois. All of the speakers are dead “all are sleeping on the hill” of a quiet Midwestern cemetery. From their final resting place they speak their own epitaphs, discovering and confessing the defining moments or motivations of their lives. They reveal the well kept secrets that were behind their triumphs or their ultimate downfalls.
The poem recited by Harry Wilmans is one of my favorite in the piece. It is about the sting and the stench of betrayal.
Harry was a young man who trusted the people who he was supposed to trust and so he trusted Henry Phipps, the Sunday school superintendent, when he made a speech promoting patriotism and the importance of upholding the honor of the flag.
Here is what young Harry has to say in hindsight and from beyond his premature grave:
I WAS just turned twenty-one,
And Henry Phipps, the Sunday-school superintendent,
Made a speech in Bindleâ€™s Opera House.
â€œThe honor of the flag must be upheld,â€ he said,
â€œWhether it be assailed by a barbarous tribe of Tagalogs
Or the greatest power in Europe.â€
And we cheered and cheered the speech and the flag he waved
As he spoke.
And I went to the war in spite of my father,
And followed the flag till I saw it raised
By our camp in a rice field near Manila,
And all of us cheered and cheered it.
But there were flies and poisonous things;
And there was the deadly water,
And the cruel heat,
And the sickening, putrid food;
And the smell of the trench just back of the tents
Where the soldiers went to empty themselves;
And there were the whores who followed us, full of syphilis;
And beastly acts between ourselves or alone,
With bullying, hatred, degradation among us,
And days of loathing and nights of fear
To the hour of the charge through the steaming swamp,
Following the flag,
Till I fell with a scream, shot through the guts.
Now thereâ€™s a flag over me in Spoon River!
A flag! A flag!