Thursday, September 17, 2015

To the Heroes of the Sea



“The tremendous drama attending the tragedy of Warren’s going, the terrific explosion through the whole metropolitan area of New York, the blowing to atoms of the officers and crew, . . . whirled into the snow storm and melting with the snowflakes into the sea; its repercussions here . . . were calculated to stir the emotions to their depths, and I think they have.”

The above excerpt comes from a letter Charlie Gibson, Jr. wrote to his nephew Henry Allen after the death of Lt. Warren Winslow, another nephew, aboard the USS Turner, which exploded and sank off the coast off New York in January 1944 (see “The USS Turner Disaster,” August 7, 2015). Lt. Winslow, like most officers aboard, went down with the ship.

While there is little documentation to provide us with greater insight into just how deeply this bereavement affected Charlie, he did write a poem that could be read as an expression of grief. Entitled “Antinous,” it is an elegy “to the heroes of the sea who have given their lives during the war.” Select stanzas of the poem, which is quite long, appear below.

A few details concerning the poem’s classical references and central theme are necessary to make its meaning clearer. Although Charlie describes the poem as an elegy to American sailors killed in the war, like his nephew, he does not speak directly to them or Lt. Winslow. Rather, his poem is an elegy to Antinous, the lover of the Roman emperor Hadrian (76–138 CE). Antinous was universally admired for his youth and beauty. He met a similar and equally tragic an end as Lt. Winslow when he drowned in the Nile.

Charlie holds Antinous up as the “symbol of youth,” and this relates to the central theme of the poem, therefore explaining why it is Antinous and not Lt. Winslow whom Charlie addresses. As the “symbol of youth,” Antinous represents, for Charlie, all the young sailors killed in the war, and in a more general sense the poem expresses the sorrow over so many young lives cut short by war. Charlie does not write of war-time death in romantic or glorifying terms as Lord Tennyson did in “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Rather, his lines speak only of pain and grief and the profound absence felt in Charlie’s family and so many others as a result of the Second World War.


ANTINOUS: AN ELEGY
by Charles Hammond Gibson

LINES 28-40
Weep, weep, for [Antinous] has died,
Even before his powers were fully tried;
Yet the young sapling and the fruit it bore
Gave promise of still greater flowers in store.
But how men loved him for himself alone,
May now be told, even as the sober tone
Of the sea-dirges that the mermaids sing,
Or ocean carillons that ring
Their watery elegy above his bier
Mourn his untimely end and tragic flight
From mother earth to the pure heights of heaven;
By the fierce blast of wintry weather driven,
Almost within the compass of the night.

LINES 68-80
I, almost with a father’s eye,
Have loved you, and have watched, o’er sea and sky,
While you have braved the vast Cimmerian deep,
Created the waves upon their salty steep,
Fought with leviathans beneath the seas,
Or rested betime amid the summer breeze.
I feared the anger of the warlike wind,
Trembling lest fickle fate should be unkind.
O cruel perfidy! false safety, steered at last
Into the harbor’s calm! A fiery blast,
Fresh blown and stirred from hell’s uncounted store,
Destroyed, at peace, what she had saved from war.

 By Timothy Spezia, Museum Docent and Intern

Sources:



“Bust of Antinous,” the British Museum, accessed August 9, 2015, http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/gr/b/bust_of_antinous.aspx.


Charles Hammond Gibson, “Antinous: An Elegy,” 1944.


Charles Hammond Gibson letter to Lt. Henry F. Allen, January 14, 1944.