.

Daddy came home from “the war to end all war”
And seemed, at first, one of the lucky ones.
He looked exactly as he had before,
His flesh untouched by bullets, gas, or bombs.

But not his memories…soon enough, we found
The things he’d seen and done were always there,
Like sappers mining underneath the ground,
Till he collapsed to bleakness and despair.

He’d smile as he watched us kids at play,
But then a change would come upon his face:
And then we knew that he was far away
in Ypres, Verdun, or some such nightmare place.

Children are wise: we understood it well:
Daddy came home, but he remembered hell.

.

.

David Whippman is a British poet, now retired after a career in healthcare. Over the years he’s had quite a few poems, articles and short stories published in various magazines.


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34 Responses

  1. Jeff Eardley

    David, a most touching poem for anyone who remembers relatives who went through the horrors of WW1. My grandfather was gassed at the Belgian town of Leuven/Louvaine and was severely disabled on his return although how he fathered eight children will remain, forever, a mystery. We have visited Verdun many times and the horrific casualties for the French and Germans fighting there are incomprehensible. Thank you for sharing with us all.

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Thanks Jeff. Yes, the sacrifices made by those who lived through the world wars are almost inconceivable to a lot of modern folk. All respect to the memory of your grandfather and his comrades.

      Reply
  2. Paul Freeman

    Very powerful, Mr Whippman. Sometimes we need reminders like this to put things in perspective.

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Thanks Paul. I agree: we tend to think that the current times are the most difficult in history. Not so by a long way!

      Reply
  3. Margaret Coats

    The child’s point of view gives a poignant touch to the poem, and helps achieve the metrical variation that is one of its charms. I’m thinking especially of the turn at line 9, where there are only four stresses, emphasizing the difference of this “child’s play” line from the very grim regular one preceding it. There’s a reprise on the “bleakness and despair” line to end the poem, but that final line is also a reprise of the poem’s first line–and both begin with “Daddy,” making with meaningful effect the trochaic substitution discussed in some recent comments. The familiarity of the nickname opens and closes the poem with the affection and wisdom of children. It asserts that this is indeed a poem about childhood, especially about the maturing sympathy of children who keenly observe the terrible (if not at first obvious) effects of war on someone they love.

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Margaret, thanks for such a detailed comment. It fascinates me how in childhood we are at one and the same time both innocent yet aware of so much.

      Reply
  4. C.B. Anderson

    In regard to that line 9 Dr. Coats mentioned above, I think the author was trying to force the reader to pronounce “smile” with two syllables (SMY-ull), which the word does not have, thus promoting “as” to a stressed syllable, making five stresses in all. This is not a metrical variation — it is a botch.

    Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      I’ve grown accustomed to many of our NYC poets at SCP pronouncing “fire” and similar words with two syllables (FY-ur). I now accept this as their normal pronunciation, not a flaw in their metrics, but was not aware that UK poets did the same with long I plus a liquid consonant. Perhaps Mr. Whippman will enlighten us.

      Reply
      • Dave Whippman

        Thanks again Margaret. I can only say that when I was writing the piece, the line with “smile” in it seemed to work. After all, there are lines in Shakespeare that don’t contain precisely 10 syllables.

      • Joe Tessitore

        I once sent Evan the line “A thread of fireflies” thinking that it had six syllables – he assured me that it had five.

      • C.B. Anderson

        You are correct, Margaret, in noting that many here confuse a diphthong with a disyllable, and if common usage is the sole standard for deciding such issues, then there can be no argument against this trend. But it was YOU who pointed out that the line had only four stressed syllables. So which is it?

    • Paul Freeman

      Changing ‘watched’ to ‘observed’ solves the ‘smile’ conundrum.

      Reply
      • Margaret Coats

        It is a good way to make the line regular iambic pentameter, but “observed” doesn’t seem to suit the child speaker so well. Like Mr. Whippman, I thought the line worked well as he wrote it. I wasn’t criticizing what seemed to be four stresses; I thought they were a purposely childlike way of expressing the thought, and a pleasing variation to the poem’s meter (fast-moving relief following “bleakness and despair).

  5. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    David, this is a moving poem that captures the long term suffering of the Greatest Generation and how it crept into the hearts of the children. Even though my grandfather didn’t reveal the extent of the atrocities he faced, they were, at times, palpable. The older I got the more I understood his need for peace among the flowers, fruits and vegetables of his garden. Your closing couplet says it all… perfectly.

    As for the word smile, it’s often pronounced with two syllables in the UK depending upon regional accents. It didn’t distract me at all.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Thanks Susan. The continuing hardship and misery of the trenches was maybe unique to WW1. For my generation (I was born in 1950) the carnage of both world wars is hard to conceive. Like your grandfather, my stepdad didn’t talk much about his time in the Royal Navy in WW1, but he said enough to make me glad i was born when I was!

      Reply
    • Margaret Coats

      Susan, thanks for the information regarding “smile.” From your experience, would you say two-syllable pronunciation is more likely to be heard in “the country” (i.e., more often there than in urbanized areas or university centers)?

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Margaret, to answer your question, it seems that with a clipped “Queen’s English” (for want of a better term) London accent, the word “smile” has only one syllable. A thick South West or Northern accent would pronounce it with two syllables. My ear was very confused as a child. Even though my mum and dad both came from London, they came from different parts. My dad was a Cockney and spoke with a completely different accent to my mum. It seems all the boys in my family favor my dad’s accent and all the girls, my mum’s. And now I’m in Texas and if Mike and I check each other’s stresses… all hell breaks loose. LOL

    • C.B. Anderson

      You’ve missed the point, Susan. So unlike you! It’s not a question of dialect; it’s a matter of whether the author intended “smile” to have two syllables. If so, then Dr. Coats misread the line; if not, then the author was playing fast and loose with us. You don’t need to sugar-coat everything. If now and then you offer up some sharp criticism, no one here will think any the less of you.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        C.B., I am not sugar coating-anything. As I’ve said before, critiquing is not my strong point… an apology to all those I’ve disappointed and offended for genuinely missing the point.

  6. Linda

    I think this poem was beautiful. Sometimes, adults do not give children enough credit. Thank you.

    Reply
  7. Daniel Kemper

    “memories like sappers” is fantastic. The image is great and the replay of the how much those sorts of occupations were part of WWI. I used to not give it too much attention, like an obscure prequel, but after Carlin’s “Countdown To Armageddon” series, I understand it really was The Big One. This poem brings that out, though a single well-felt man’s experience. Good stuff!

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Daniel, thanks so much for your comment. It’s an odd thing how WW1 produced so much great poetry and revered poets. WW2 had its poetry as well, yet that body of work somehow never made such an impression.

      Reply
  8. Christopher Flint

    Mr. Whippman —

    As someone also blessed to grow up knowing a WWI veteran, I admire your verse a great deal. The chance to watch and hear “war to end all war” being said about as well as pride can choreograph and speak is a precious memory to this day.

    You have given your sentiment an authentic voice, age not simply recalling childhood but lapsing back into its never forgotten but now more understood mysteries.

    That authenticity becomes poetic even if, to my eye, it seems far more free than formal.

    Only people who have returned from war or who have had to keep welcoming a family member home from war for a very long time could fully appreciate your message.

    Your reverence for your father’s sacrifice and its consequence is touching indeed.

    He was one among many whose uncommon valor and resolve deserve no less.

    Reply
    • Dave Whippman

      Christopher, many thanks for your feedback. In writing this poem, I put myslef into someone else’s shoes: my real Dad was too young to have fought in WW1. But I worked for a long time as a nurse, and looked after a few veterans of that war, victims of shell shock (I believe it’s not called battle shock.)
      For me, the poem is formal, a Shakespearean sonnet. But it’s true that I tend to regard the structure of a poem as a rough framework within which to work, rather than a set of sacrosanct rules. So, for example, CB Anderson’s comment above, on whether the word “smile” has one syllable or two, rather goes over my head.

      Reply
      • Christopher Flint

        I didn’t mean to imply that I didn’t recognize the general sonnet form.
        When you truly mimic someone lapsing back into their childhood (as opposed to describing someone doing that), you seldom achieve the metrical strength that a sonnet typically displays. It’s not the way children speak.

        The absence of very strong iambic meter throughout tends to strengthen Mr. Anderson’s very valid point (which to many eyes is inarguable in any case). If you’re writing for everyone, trying to get people to mispronounce words or insert artficial stress to achieve meter is seldom a good idea.

        It’s often tried with words that are actually pronounced in two syllables but because of an elided ‘e” appear to be said in three. Some people try to hope their otherwise rigid meter will eke out an extra incorrect syllable. Others will attempt to format their way into false recognition. Neither is usually a good idea if you want you want your work to achieve critical acclaim.

        In your case here, you have some strong lines but given incomplete rhyme and so much metrical variation, many people will not fret over “smile”, but by the same token many will not credit you with an effective sonnet.

        I wasn’t passing judgment. I was just describing how it read to me as I listened to your invented child. Others might hold entirely different views.

        I just don’t think what form it is matters all that much unless you were entering it in a very severely strict competition. If Mr. Mantyk published it, you can be sure most folks will accept it as formal.

        Pay my reaction no heed, but tuck away Mr, Anderson’s remark for future reference.

      • C.B. Anderson

        One needs not climb all that high to go “over [your] head,” as you write. “A rough framework,” indeed. And exactly what would such a poem look like if it followed “a set of sacrosanct rules”? Are you now the arbiter of received forms? If you look back to my original comment, you will find that it was really a question: Did you, or did you not, intend “smile” to be pronounced with two syllables? It matters.

  9. Dave Whippman

    Christopher, again thanks for such a detailed and courteous reply. I didn’t take what you said as judgmental. Nor can I disagree, on a technical level, with any of the points you make. But for me the crucial thing is whether the piece, as a whole, works. I think it does – but maybe I’m biased!

    Reply
    • Christopher Flint

      Per my first comment, I couldn’t agree more! I liked it as soon as I saw it, for the reasons I described. But then, I’m biased too when it comes to those who were willing to fight that war. Their legacy was a precious gift indeed.

      Reply
  10. Dave Whippman

    CB Anderson: that’s where we part company. I don’t actually think it does matter very much. No, I am not the arbiter of received forms. But I do know that some of Shakespeare’s lines (for example) have 11 syllables instead of 10. But everyone still accepts that he wrote in iambic pentameters.

    Reply

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