To Britain's late poet laureate John Masefield...

To Britain's late poet laureate John Masefield (1878-1967), World War I was "This bloody smear/Done by the devil." He experienced the devil's--Germany's--handiwork, first as a front-line Red Cross worker, then as an official battlefield historian. His intensely personal and vivid impressions are contained in his letters to his wife, Constance, that are published for the first time in John Masefield's Letters From the Front 1915-1917, edited by Peter Vansittart (Watts: $18.95). Written amid the passions of battle, the 167 letters display a fierce patriotism that those reading them nearly 70 years later may find excessive. Despite the appalling subject, the collection also contains excerpts from letters that offer unintended humor--and an outrageous male chauvinism. These were written during Masefield's tour of the United States in 1916 to drum up support for the British war effort. The poet encountered little in the United States that he liked. St. Louis, for example, he depicts as "an elaborate shell of a coffin without the humanity of a corpse inside." He is especially harsh on American women and writes of an encounter with "four slimy female reporters all dirty and evil-looking like retired whores." Such statements would hardly have earned Masefield honors, literary or otherwise, today.

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