Prose & Poetry - Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms (1929), Hemingway's great novel set against the background of the war in Italy, eclipses the poetry dealing with his war-time experiences.

Before America entered the war Hemingway (1899-1961) volunteered and served in the ambulance corps in France; he was transferred to the Paive region of Italy in July, 1918, and shortly after on July 8 was wounded in a mortar attack.

The following poem apparently looks back to that day.

Killed Paive - July 8 - 1918
Desire and
All the sweet pulsing aches
And gentle hurtings
That were you,
Are gone into the sullen dark.
Now in the night you come unsmiling
To lie with me
A dull, cold, rigid bayonet
On my hot-swollen, throbbing soul.

Exactly who or what was killed on that day is difficult to tell, but the erotic (perhaps even homoerotic) imagery of the "dull, cold, rigid" bayonet and his "hot-swollen, throbbing" soul are intriguing.  But aside from these ambiguities, we do know something of the circumstances surrounding his injuries.

Hemingway was among the first soldiers to return from the Italian front, and his arrival was reported in the New York Sun on January 22, 1919.

The first wounded American from the Italian front arrived yesterday by the steamship Giuseppe Verdi of the Transatlantica Line with probably more scars than any other man in or out of uniform, who defied the shrapnel of the Central Powers.

His wounds might have been much less if he had not been constructed by nature on generous proportions, being more than six feet tall and of ample beam.

He is Ernest M. Hemingway, before the war a reporter for the Kansas City Star, and hailing from Oak Park, Ill.  The surgical chart of his battered person shows 227 marks indicating where bits of a peculiar kind of Austrian shrapnel, about as thick as a .22 caliber bullet and an inch long, like small cuts from a length of wire, smote him.  Some of these bits have been extracted after a dozen or more operations and young Hemingway hopes finally to get them all out, but he still retains a hundred or more.

Hemingway joined the Red Cross in France and was transferred to the Italian front last July.  He was distributing cigarettes in the Piave district in the front line trenches when a shell from a trench mortar burst over his head.  He said the slugs from the shell felt like the stings of wasps as they bore into him.  He crumpled up and two Italian stretcher bearers started over the parapet with him, knowing that he needed swift attention.  Austrian machine gunners spotted the party and before they could get over he and the stretcher bearers went down under a storm of machine gun bullets, one of which got Hemingway in the shoulder and another in the right leg.  Two other stretcher men took the tall American through the communication trenches to the rear, where he received first aid.

His friend Ted Brumback visited Hemingway in the Milan hospital and wrote this to Hemingway's parents:

The concussion of the explosion knocked him unconscious and buried him in earth.  There was an Italian between Ernest and the shell.  He was killed instantly, while another, standing a few feet away, had both his legs blown off.  A third Italian was badly wounded and this one Ernest, after he had regained consciousness, picked up on his back and carried to the first aid dugout.  He says he did not remember how he got there, nor that he carried the man, until the next day, when an Italian officer told him all about it and said that it had been voted to give him a valor medal for the act.

The stories of Hemingway's wounds were eventually embroidered into something of a legend, but his actions on July 8 did win him a decoration, the Croce di Guerra, from a grateful Italian government.

For an account of these months in Italy, see Michael Reynolds, The Young Hemingway (1986), pp. 16-22.

Article contributed by Harry G. Rusche, website The Lost Poets.

Download "The Return of the Native" (Project Gutenberg Text)

Download "Wessex Poems and Other Verses" (Project Gutenberg Text)

Download "The Woodlanders" (Project Gutenberg Text)

The Austro-Hungarian declaration of war was the first ever delivered by telegram.

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Prose & Poetry