I've been thinking about Robert Frost's strange elegy for his close friend Edward Thomas, who died at the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday, 1917. Frost later called Thomas the only brother he'd ever had. Here is the (unfortunately-titled) poem:
To E. T.
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?
It takes a long time for the tone to settle: 'I slumbered with your poems on my breast' is Poetry on its best behaviour, and 'slumbered' and 'breast' sound like unusually stuffy words for a poet who wanted to capture 'live speech'. There also seems to be some unintentional comedy in the image of Frost nodding off halfway through reading his friend's book. At the end, Frost reminds us that Thomas was an appreciative audience while alive: he wants to see Thomas 'pleased once more with words of mine'. There's just a tiny element of self-congratulation in that 'once more'.Frost outlived his wife, two sons and a daughter, but this is his only overt elegy for an individual. It doesn't quite work. Compare it with his later poem 'Iris by Night', a far better memorial of their friendship.