Memorial Day: ‘The Victory for what it lost and gained’

Angel in cemeteryI’ve never lost a family member or friend to war. So it is hard for me to imagine the feelings Memorial Day must stir up in those who have been close to someone who never came home.

Robert Frost lost his best friend, the British poet Edward Thomas, to World War I. Thomas enlisted in the war and was killed in less than two months at Vimy Ridge on Easter, 1917. Frost had urged Thomas to write poetry and published a volume of his poems in the U.S.

“So close was the friendship that had developed between them that Thomas and Frost planned to live side by side in America, writing, teaching, farming,” writes Matthew Hollis in a 2011 article for The Guardian (“Edward Thomas, Robert Frost and the road to war“). Indeed, Frost called Thomas “the only brother I ever had.”

In his 1920 poem “To E.T.,” Frost struggles to reconcile what is lost and gained in victory when a brother is taken from us in war. Memorial Day seems like a good day to remember not just those who died protecting our freedoms but the ones who were left behind to grieve and wonder what might have been.

To E.T.

By Robert Frost

I slumbered with your poems on my breast
Spread open as I dropped them half-read through
Like dove wings on a figure on a tomb
To see, if in a dream they brought of you,

I might not have the chance I missed in life
Through some delay, and call you to your face
First soldier, and then poet, and then both,
Who died a soldier-poet of your race.

I meant, you meant, that nothing should remain
Unsaid between us, brother, and this remained—
And one thing more that was not then to say:
The Victory for what it lost and gained.

You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire
On Vimy Ridge; and when you fell that day
The war seemed over more for you than me,
But now for me than you the other way.

How over, though, for even me who knew
The foe thrust back unsafe beyond the Rhine,
If I was not to speak of it to you
And see you pleased once more with words of mine?

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