ONTD Political

Long-lost poem reveals soldier's torment

8:20 pm - 05/30/2010

James Lenihan of Brooklyn, New York, wrote a poem at his despair after killing an enemy soldier in World War II.

(CNN) -- What does it feel like to kill a man? James Lenihan of Brooklyn, New York, knew.

He fought in Europe in World War II and he killed a German soldier during a battle in Holland. He described how it felt in a poem.

I shot a man yesterday

And much to my surprise,

The strangest thing happened to me

I began to cry.

So begins "Murder: Most Foul," a work that echoes poetry about war in the tradition of William Shakespeare and borrows its title from the bard's "Hamlet."

As powerful as the poem is, the story behind it is also fascinating.

Sgt. James Lenihan returned home after the war, got married, had children and made a career as a salesman in the meatpacking industry.

If he ever wrote any other poems, his son Robert and daughter Joan, who still live in Brooklyn, New York, don't know of any.

In fact, they didn't know about this poem until after their father died. They found it when they were going through his possessions.

Robert and Joan Lenihan found two typewritten pages, each with a copy of the poem. It was unsigned, but Robert believes the poem was written by his father and later typed up by his mother for safekeeping.

The poem describes a killing in Holland, where Lenihan served in the 104th Infantry Division as it battled German units.

It portrays a soldier very upset about taking a life.

I knelt beside him

And held his hand --

I begged his forgiveness

Did he understand?

But even while he describes the shooting as murder, Lenihan makes clear he had no choice.

It was the War

And he was the enemy

If I hadn't shot him

He would have shot me.

Robert Lenihan said the poem is a bit unlike the father he grew up with -- a man who could be a "tough customer" if need be, not someone tormented by a fleeting, albeit intense, moment on a battlefield in Holland.

"I'm just starting to appreciate how much he suffered only now in this part of my life. When I was a kid, like if he yelled at me or something, I'd say 'Well, Dad's being cranky,' " Lenihan said.

Lenihan said even though the incident in the poem took place more than 60 years ago, it still resonates and should be a lesson to young soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan that they aren't the first to face such emotional turmoil as this.

"That feeling they may have of regret and pain and shock of what they've done. It shows they are not alone," Lenihan said.

While Lenihan is obviously proud of his father's poem, CNN sent it to Georgetown University professor David Gewanter, who has published several books of poetry, including "War Bird" published last year.

Gewanter called the poem "accomplished." In an e-mail to CNN, Gewanter said the poem "is good, and its truths are that of experience and some literary traditions."

Robert Lenihan sounded surprised when he heard Gewanter's analysis of his father's amateur poem.

"I'm very deeply touched," Lenihan said. "For an expert to assess it that way and make such important comparisons I'm amazed and quite touched."

The poetry professor said Sgt. Lenihan's poem reminds him of a famous portion of Shakespeare's play "Henry V."

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remembered --

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

But Gewanter said it perhaps most closely resembles "The Man He Killed," a work by Thomas Hardy written at the start of World War I. In that poem, Hardy writes that the soldier and the foe he killed might have shared a drink or loaned each other money had they met somewhere other than a battlefield.

Sgt. Lenihan's poem ends not with talk of loans or drinks, but a darker scene.

I shot a man yesterday

And much to surprise

A part of me died with Him

When Death came to close His eyes.

schexyschteve 31st-May-2010 01:41 am (UTC)
msclairvoyant 31st-May-2010 01:42 am (UTC)
:( :(
fishphile 31st-May-2010 01:46 am (UTC)
That made me tear up. Wow.
suzycat 31st-May-2010 01:50 am (UTC)

Only as I grow older do I start to understand what an enormously freaky bunch of experiences all the old men, and to a different degree women, I grew up around had been through with the war. Sadly they all died before I was old enough to really get it.
sunshinedan 31st-May-2010 01:57 am (UTC)
So sad.

It bothers me when people assume that soldiers are JUST killing machines- and not individuals who perform an extremely taxing job.
morbidoutlook 31st-May-2010 03:22 am (UTC)
Right, you're taking someone's life. That shit's not gonna be easy.
derogatory 31st-May-2010 02:01 am (UTC)
Definitely cried reading this.
haruhiko 31st-May-2010 02:38 am (UTC)
Thanks for posting, great to read. Reminds me of Siegfried Sassoon's (anti-)war poetry from World War I:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

- Siegfried Sassoon (http://www.radix.net/~bbrown/sassoon.html)
doe_witch 31st-May-2010 02:56 am (UTC)
Sassoon is one of my all-time favorite poets. Ever.
haruhiko 31st-May-2010 03:05 am (UTC)

Plus he was hot and slept with Ivor Novello. ASDLKAJHlkdjhlkdjhdlkjh could I be more jellis~
yunghustlaz PYF WAR POEM LETS DO THIS31st-May-2010 02:59 am (UTC)
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! -- An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under I green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
haruhiko OOOOHHH GÜRL ITS ON NAO31st-May-2010 03:04 am (UTC)
The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still
And I remember things I'd best forget.
For now we've marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide, radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.
To-night I smell the battle; miles away
Gun-thunder leaps and thuds along the ridge;
The spouting shells dig pits in fields of death,
And wounded men, are moaning in the woods.
If any friend be there whom I have loved,
God speed him safe to England with a gash.
It's sundown in the camp; some youngster laughs,
Lifting his mug and drinking health to all
Who come unscathed from that unpitying waste:
(Terror and ruin lurk behind his gaze.)
Another sits with tranquil, musing face,
Puffing bis pipe and dreaming of the girl
Whose last scrawled letter lies upon his knee.
The sunlight falls, low-ruddy from the west,
Upon their heads. Last week they might have died
And now they stretch their limbs in tired content.
One says 'The bloody Bosche has got the knock;
'And soon they'll crumple up and chuck their games.
'We've got the beggars on the run at last!'
Then I remembered someone that I'd seen
Dead in a squalid, miserable ditch,
Heedless of toiling feet that trod him down.
He was a Prussian with a decent face, [oic]
Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare to say. [ic ic]
No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace,
And cursed our souls because we'd killed his friends.
One night he yawned along a haIf-dug trench
Midnight; and then the British guns began
With heavy shrapnel bursting low, and 'hows'
Whistling to cut the wire with blinding din.
He didn't move; the digging still went on;
Men stooped and shovelled; someone gave a grunt,
And moaned and died with agony in the sludge.
Then the long hiss of shells lifted and stopped.
He stared into the gloom; a rocket curved,
And rifles rattled angrily on the left
Down by the wood, and there was noise of bombs.
Then the damned English loomed in scrambling haste
Out of the dark and struggled through the wire,
And there were shouts and curses; someone screamed
And men began to blunder down the trench
Without their rifles. It was time to go:
He grabbed his coat; stood up, gulping some bread;
Then clutched his head and fell.
I found him there
In the gray morning when the place was held.
His face was in the mud; one arm flung out
As when he crumpled up; his sturdy legs
Were bent beneath his trunk; heels to the sky.
doe_witch Re: OOOOHHH GÜRL ITS ON NAO31st-May-2010 03:14 am (UTC)
... Okay, having an Owen vs. Sassoon poetic war is going to make me cry or go somewhere and do unspeakable things to myself, it's v. troubling.
haruhiko Re: OOOOHHH GÜRL ITS ON NAO31st-May-2010 03:16 am (UTC)

Have an uplifting anti-war song from the 1960s, then! Written days after RFK was shot, with references to JFK/RFK and MLK and his speech against the Vietnam War:

Edited at 2010-05-31 03:17 am (UTC)
optimsprm I don't have a poem to post, but I do have this song:31st-May-2010 03:16 am (UTC)
mswyrr 31st-May-2010 04:23 am (UTC)
Gotta join in here. There's one that so perfectly expresses WWI as a betrayal of the patriarchy. Young men are supposed to obey their elders in the promise that they will one day rule. But the fucking elders lie.

The Parable of the Old Man and the Young
Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps

and builded parapets and trenches there,

And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him, thy son.

Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,

A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
raggedyanndy Re: PYF WAR POEM LETS DO THIS31st-May-2010 04:32 am (UTC)
(no subject) - Anonymous
haruhiko 31st-May-2010 11:55 am (UTC)
He is amazing. <3
art_house_queen 31st-May-2010 03:10 am (UTC)
I shot a man yesterday

And much to surprise

A part of me died with Him

When Death came to close His eyes.

optimsprm 31st-May-2010 03:17 am (UTC)

I'm truly awestruck at this story.
Bravo OP.
diggin4basura 31st-May-2010 03:46 am (UTC)
beautiful yet devastating :'(
ms_maree 31st-May-2010 03:47 am (UTC)
I just keep thinking that soldiers are just cannon fodder for the war machine, the constant fight over resources, people manipulated by world governments by with 'nationalism' or 'religion'. And in a few hundred years nobody will care or remember, it's all such a waste of life. Nations rise and fall, and rise again...people only live once.
mollywobbles867 31st-May-2010 03:51 am (UTC)
This so much.
celtic_thistle 31st-May-2010 03:19 pm (UTC)
That song makes me cry. omg I'm tearing up just reading the lyrics. ;_;
mswyrr 31st-May-2010 04:28 am (UTC)

Call it "Peace" or call it "Treason,"
Call it "Love" or call it "Reason,"
But I ain't marchin' any more,
No I ain't marchin' any more
evilgmbethy 31st-May-2010 07:06 am (UTC)
is that the entire poem or just excerpts? kind of hard to tell the way the article breaks it up. anyway, amazing.

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