Here’s a wacky one. One Captain Owen Rutter of the British Salonica Force (a theater to which we have hitherto devoted scant attention) has been at a work on a mock-epic/Longfellow pastiche which he will call “The Song of Tiadatha.” We are meant, I believe, to hear both the obvious echo of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” and the drawl of a certain sort of British officer of the urban leisured classes: this is the song, then, of “Tired Arthur,” an idle London “filbert” of much privilege and only twenty-two summers, whose story begins in July of 1914 and is followed assiduously through the Great War.
It’s a bit silly–more than a bit silly, really–but Rutter is also clearly aiming at the “epic” as well as the “mock.” He sustains the unusual meter–Longfellow and the Kalevala are among the very few places to find extend exercises in trochaic tetrameter–for page upon page…
To write a half-serious epic that covers the events of years, and to do it in verse that is straightened toward formula by the chosen meter is…. something akin to the feat of a not losing a prolonged war of attrition. And therefore not the most glorious comparandum for a poem. Nevertheless, it is a feat: Tiadatha, the diffident and indifferently-skilled hero, thumps four-footedly through his training, the wooing of the lovely Phyllis, a tour in France, transfer to Salonika, and all the way into 1918.
The poem will be serialized and later published as a slim volume, and it is, like most epics, rather disregarding of calendrical nicety. But by today, a century back, Rutter had brought Tiadatha as far as July, 1916, and a first tour of duty on the Salonika front, and slapped the date of composition onto the end of the chapter/book/canto. So, by today’s writing (some 50 pages or so into his epic) Tiadatha is bringing his men up to their new position, where they are to relieve the French.
To be honest, I kind of like this thing–the bizarre energy it takes to sustain such a venture is in itself appealing, and even though it is caught between history poem and satire (or, at least, jeu d’esprit) there is a tremendous amount of detail. How different, in its bones, is this thing from a Song of Roland or a Kalevala?
But I will paste a few lines here (the whole thing can be found at archive.org) and leave the reader to judge the merits of the art and its story…
For five nights and days the Dudshires
Fared upon their journey northward,
On the sixth they reached the front line
And relieved a French battalion,
In a pelting, pouring rainstorm.
As the guide led Tiadatha
On towards his destination,
To the section of the front line
He was ordered to take over,
Soon he found that all was different
From the warfare he had known
In the line near Bray and Albert.
He had pictured deep-dug trenches,
He had pictured winding C.T.s
Saps and mines and concrete dug-outs,
Belts of wire as broad as rivers,
Bulgar posts within a bomb’s throw.
But he found instead of trenches
Little scratchings on the hill-tops,
Outposts scattered on the hill-tops,
Reached by little winding pathways,
Strands of wire forlornly dangling,
Limp and spiritless and sketchy,
As a stricken banjo’s strings are,
And instead of concrete dug-outs
Leaky shelters made of oak-leaves
Perched behind the barren hill-tops.
There it was that Tiadatha
Found at length a French lieutenant,
Picked up scraps of information,
Talking in his very vile French,
Learnt the methods of patrolling,
Learnt the habits of the Bulgar,
Learnt that he was three miles distant,
Learnt of 535 his stronghold,
Crawling with O. Pips and field-guns.
Then they left the dim-lit abri,
Staggered out into the darkness,
Through the pelting, pouring rainstorm,
Silently relieved the sentries,
Posted all the Dudshire sentries,
Whispered to them what their job was,
What the number of their group was,
Where the groups on right and left were.
Then the gallant French lieutenant
Gathered all his men together,
Left his little bits of trenches
To the rain and Tiadatha.
January 18, 1918.