03 December 2018

Robert W. Service's Revised Christmas Miracle (with the poet's forgotten reading instructions)

Much of this past weekend was spent in preparation for Christmas, but I did manage a couple of hours with the December 1918 edition of Maclean's. The first to hit news stands after the Armistice, it makes for very interesting reading. The opening piece, a column titled "The Business Outlook," reminds that Maclean's started out as The Business Magazine. It begins:
Peace came with a suddenness that has left the world a little breathless. Men of discernment had predicted from the very first that, when Germany once began to crack, the end would follow within a short period. But who was there bold enough at any time before September of the present year to stand out and say that the break-up would have come before the New Year?
I doubt Maclean's editor Thomas B. Costain saw the break-up coming. How else to explain American John J. Pershing instead of, say, Sir Arthur Currie, on the magazine's first post-war cover? Even the advertising department appears to have been caught off guard:

"Now That the War is Won" by Lieut-Col J.B. Maclean, is the only article that looks to have been commissioned après la guerre. And it's very short. Other articles include "An Unsolved Mystery: A Story of Warfare Under the Earth" by Lieut C. W. Tilbrook and an interview with the U.S. Secretary of War conducted by Pvt Harold R. Peat (Mrs Peat has an article of her own in the "Women and Their Work" section). Fiction fairly dominates the issue, with short stories and serialized novels by W. Victor Cook, W.A. Fraser, Allan C. Shore, Arthur Stringer and Alice Muriel Williamson. Sadly, Shore's "Santa Clause in Petticoats" isn't nearly as titillating as its title, but Stringer's story is fantastic.

All this fiction! As the advert suggests, something to take a soldier's mind off the grim realities that he faces:

The same could be said for those on the home front, though neither would've found escape in 'The Wife' by Robert Service, the issue's only verse. I thought I knew the poem, but I was wrong. An unfamiliar note at the end had me hunting for my copy of Service's Ballads of a Bohemian (1921), in which 'The Wife' was reprinted. Sure enough, the note isn't there – and there are other significant differences:

[Maclean's, December 1918]
"Tell Annie I’ll be home in time
To help her with her Christmastree."
That’s what he wrote. . . Now hark the chime
Of Christmas bells—and where is he?
And how the house is dark and still!
And Annie’s sobbing on my knee. 
The page beside the candle flame
With cramped and cruel type was filled;
I read and read, until a name
Leapt at me. . . Oh! my heart was stilled!
My eye crept up the column, up
Unto its hateful heading: KILLED
And there was Annie on the stair:
"And will he not be long?" she said.
Her eyes were stars and in her hair
She’d tied a bit of ribband red;
And every step was Daddy’s sure;
Till wearied out, she stole to bed. 
And in the quiet of the night
Alone I decked the Christmas tree.
On every little ticket bright,
My tears were falling bitterly;
And in the street I heard them call.
"Another Splendid Victory." 
A Victory! What care I now?
A thousand victories were vain.
Here in my ruined hearth I vow
From out my black abyss of pain,
I’d rather, rather red defeat,
And have my man, my again. 
Aye, cowering by my cold fireplace,
My orphaned child upon my knee,
What care I for their Empire's pride,
Their pomp and power beyond the sea?
I'd gladly see it lost and lost
Could that bring back my dead to me. 
"But come, my dear; we will not wait.
Each tiny candle pink and white.
We'll set aglow—he may be late,
And we must ave all gay and bright."
(One makes mistakes. I’ll tell myself
I did not read that name aright.) 
"Come, Annie, come, We two will pray
For homes bereft of happiness;
For husbands fighting far away;
For little children fatherless.
Beside the shining tree we'll pray:
"'Oh, Father dear, protect and bless. . . Protect and bless. . .'" 
*  *  *  * 
What’s that? A step upon the stair!
A rush! The door thrown open wide!
My hero and my love! He's there,
And Annie’s laughing by his side. . .
I'm in his arms. . . I faint. . . I faint. . .
"Oh, God! Thy world is glorified."
NOTE.—The author wishes it understood that the sentiments expressed with reference to duty and the war are to be taken as an uncontrollable outburst in the first moments of bereavement, and not as in any sense an expression of opinion.

[Ballads of a Bohemian, New York: Barse & Hopkins, 1921]
"Tell Annie I’ll be home in time
To help her with her Christmas-tree."
That’s what he wrote, and hark! the chime
Of Christmas bells, and where is he?
And how the house is dark and sad,
And Annie’s sobbing on my knee! 
The page beside the candle-flame
With cruel type was overfilled;
I read and read until a name
Leapt at me and my heart was stilled:
My eye crept up the column—up
Unto its hateful heading: Killed. 

And there was Annie on the stair:
"And will he not be long?" she said.
Her eyes were bright and in her hair
She’d twined a bit of riband red;
And every step was daddy’s sure,
Till tired out she went to bed. 
And there alone I sat so still,
With staring eyes that did not see;
The room was desolate and chill,
And desolate the heart of me;
Outside I heard the news-boys shrill:
"Another Glorious Victory!" 
A victory. . . . Ah! what care I?
A thousand victories are vain.
Here in my ruined home I cry
From out my black despair and pain,
I’d rather, rather damned defeat,
And have my man with me again. 
They talk to us of pride and power,
Of Empire vast beyond the sea;
As here beside my hearth I cower,
What mean such words as these to me?
Oh, will they lift the clouds that low’r,
Or light my load in years to be 
What matters it to us poor folk?
Who win or lose, it’s we who pay.
Oh, I would laugh beneath the yoke
If I had him at home to-day;
One’s home before one’s country comes:
Aye, so a million women say. 
"Hush, Annie dear, don’t sorrow so."
(How can I tell her?) “See, we’ll light
With tiny star of purest glow
Each little candle pink and white."
(They make mistakes. I’ll tell myself
I did not read that name aright.)
Come, dearest one; come, let us pray
Beside our gleaming Christmas-tree;
Just fold your little hands and say
These words so softly after me:
"God pity mothers in distress,
And little children fatherless." 
"God pity mothers in distress,
And little children fatherless." 
*  *  *  * 
What’s that? – a step upon the stair;
A shout! – the door thrown open wide!
My hero and my man is there.
And Annie’s leaping by his side. . .
The room reels round, I faint, I fall. . .
"O God! Thy world is glorified."

The original is better, don't you think? The note's disappearance speaks volumes to the differences between wartime and peacetime.

A note of my own: Lest anyone complain that the title of this post spoils the final stanza of 'The Wife,' I point out that this C.W. Jefferys illustration accompanied it's appearance in Maclean's:

No comments:

Post a Comment