The HyperTexts

The Best Memorial Day Poems and Songs

These are the best Memorial Day poems and songs that I have been able to find, plus a few that I wrote and translated myself. To honor those we remember each Memorial Day, I have selected what I consider to be the best war and anti-war lyrics of all time. Of course this is just one person's opinion, for whatever it's worth.  

I am not going to glorify war, but will attempt to address war deaths truthfully through the voices of soldier-poets like Rupert Brooke, Robert Graves, Randall Jarrell, John McCrea, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Alan Seeger (the uncle of Pete Seeger) and Siegfried Sassoon. I will offer poems and songs that ask us to consider the real cost of war, for the soldiers who die in combat and their families. We can honor the bravery, courage, sacrifice and patriotism of the fallen, even if we question whether some of the wars were justifiable.

Memorial Day Hymn for Fallen Soldiers
by Michael R. Burch

Sound the awesome cannons.
Pin medals to each breast.
Attention, honor guard!
Give them a hero’s rest.

Recite their names to the heavens
Till the stars acknowledge their kin.
Then let the land they defended
Gather them in again.

NOTE: When I learned there’s an American military organization, the DPAA (Defense/POW/MIA Accounting Agency) that is still finding and bringing home the bodies of soldiers who died serving their country in World War II, after blubbering like a baby, I managed to eke out this poem. Please feel free to share my poem/hymn for noncommercial purposes, but please cite me as the author if you do. Thanks!

compiled by Michael R. Burch, an editor, translator and publisher of Holocaust and Nakba poetry

My Top Ten Memorial Day Poems and Songs

(10) "Wulf and Eadwacer" is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem that reminds us of the heavy toll war takes on women and children, as well as soldiers
(9) "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" is a haunting dirge of the American Civil War era
(8) "Danny Boy" is a moving song about a father and son separated forever by war
(7) "In Flanders Fields" by John McCrea and "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" by Alan Seeger are two of the best-known poetic memorials for fallen soldiers
(6) "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" by William Butler Yeats was written for Robert Gregory, the son of his patron Lady Gregory
(5) "The Lost Pilot" by James Tate is a poem about a boy's loss of his father
(4) Walt Whitman's poems about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"
(3) "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner" by Randall Jarrell is simultaneously surrealistic and ultra-realistic
(2) "Memorial Rain" by Archibald MacLeish is an elegy he wrote for his brother Kenneth who died in WWII
(1) "The Unreturning," "Strange Meeting" and "Dulce Et Decorum Est" are powerful, graphic war poems by Wilfred Owen, a soldier-poet who died tragically a few days short of the WWI armistice

High Honorable Mention: "The Soldier" by Rupert Brooke, "Survivors" by Siegfried Sassoon, "The Death of a Soldier" by Wallace Stevens, "The Silent Slain" by Archibald MacLeish, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" by Pete Seeger, "Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Tennyson, "Masters of War" by Bob Dylan, "Fortunate Son" by John Fogerty, "War" by Edwin Starr, "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath, "What's Goin' On" by Marvin Gaye, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" by Julia Ward Howe, "Taps"

Excerpts from "More Poems," XXXVI
by A. E. Housman

Here dead lie we because we did not choose
To live and shame the land from which we sprung.
Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose;
But young men think it is, and we were young.

I have loved these four lines by Housman since the day I first read them.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner
by Randall Jarrell

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Randall Jarrell worked as a control tower operator during World War II, an experience which influenced and provided material for his poetry.

Athenian Epitaphs

Passerby,
Tell the Spartans we lie
Lifeless at Thermopylae:
Dead at their word,
Obedient to their command.
Have they heard?
Do they understand?
Michael R. Burch, after Simonides


I believe many valiant American soldiers, sailors, airmen, airwomen and marines who died in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq could ask the same question. Were the wars really necessary? Did they accomplish their goals? Have their countrymen heard? Do they understand?

Here he lies in state tonight: great is his Monument!
Yet Ares cares not, neither does War relent.
Michael R. Burch, after Anacreon


They observed our fearful fetters, braved the overwhelming darkness.
Now we extol their excellence: bravely, they died for us.
Michael R. Burch, after Mnasalcas


Mariner, do not ask whose tomb this may be,
But go with good fortune: I wish you a kinder sea.
Michael R. Burch, after Plato


Blame not the gale, nor the inhospitable sea-gulf, nor friends’ tardiness,
Mariner! Just man’s foolhardiness.
Michael R. Burch, after Leonidas of Tarentum


Does my soul abide in heaven, or hell?
Only the sea gulls in their high, lonely circuits may tell.
Michael R. Burch, after Glaucus

Some of the most powerful poems I have read are inscriptions found on the tombstones of ancient Greeks. So I created a small collection of English epigrams modeled after epitaphs gleaned from ancient Greek gravestones and called the collection "Athenian Epitaphs." There are more Athenian Epitaphs later on this page.

The Soldier
by Rupert Booke (1887-1915), who died during WWI

If I should die, think only this of me:
      That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
      In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
      Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
      Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
      A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
            Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
      And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
            In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

This poem by Rupert Brooke has had two titles: "The Soldier" and "Nineteen-Fourteen: The Soldier."

Memorial Rain: for Kenneth MacLeish
by Archibald MacLeish

Ambassador Puser the ambassador
Reminds himself in French, felicitous tongue,
What these (young men no longer) lie here for
In rows that once, and somewhere else, were young . . .

All night in Brussels the wind had tugged at my door:
I had heard the wind at my door and the trees strung
Taut, and to me who had never been before
In that country it was a strange wind, blowing
Steadily, stiffening the walls, the floor,
The roof of my room. I had not slept for knowing
He too, dead, was a stranger in that land
And felt beneath the earth in the wind’s flowing
A tightening of roots and would not understand,
Remembering lake winds in Illinois,
That strange wind. I had felt his bones in the sand
Listening.

. . . Reflects that these enjoy
Their country’s gratitude, that deep repose,
That peace no pain can break, no hurt destroy,
That rest, that sleep . . .

At Ghent the wind rose.
There was a smell of rain and a heavy drag
Of wind in the hedges but not as the wind blows
Over fresh water when the waves lag
Foaming and the willows huddle and it will rain:
I felt him waiting.

. . . Indicates the flag
Which (may he say) enisles
1 in Flanders plain
This little field these happy, happy dead
Have made America . . .

In the ripe grain
The wind coiled glistening, darted, fled,
Dragging its heavy body: at Waereghem
The wind coiled in the grass above his head:
Waiting—listening . . .

. . . Dedicates to them
This earth their bones have hallowed, this last gift
A grateful country . . .

Under the dry grass stem
The words are blurred, are thickened, the words sift
Confused by the rasp of the wind, by the thin grating
Of ants under the grass, the minute shift
And tumble of dusty sand separating
From dusty sand. The roots of the grass strain,
Tighten, the earth is rigid, waits—he is waiting—
And suddenly, and all at once, the rain!

"Memorial Rain" was written by Archibald MacLeish as a memorial for his brother, Kenneth MacLeish.

The Silent Slain
by Archibald MacLeish

We too, we too, descending once again
The hills of our own land, we too have heard
Far off―Ah, que ce cor a longue haleine
The horn of Roland in the passages of Spain,
the first, the second blast, the failing third,
And with the third turned back and climbed once more
The steep road southward, and heard faint the sound
Of swords, of horses, the disastrous war,
And crossed the dark defile at last, and found
At Roncevaux upon the darkening plain
The dead against the dead and on the silent ground
The silent slain―

The story of Roland sounding his horn to warn his king, Charlemagne, of an ambush is one of the most poignant in ancient literature. The Song of Roland was one of my favorite stories as a young boy.

Dulce Et Decorum Est

by Wilfred Owen

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 a 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.

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is from Horace's Odes and means: "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country." This is one of the first and best graphic anti-war poems in the English language.

Wulf and Eadwacer (Anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem, circa 960-990 AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My people pursue him like crippled game.
They'll rip him apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

Wulf's on one island; I'm on another.
His island's a fortress, fastened by fens.
There are bloodthirsty curs on this island.
They'll rip apart if he approaches their pack.
It is otherwise with us.

My thoughts pursued Wulf like panting hounds.
Whenever it rained—how I wept!
the boldest cur took me in his paws.
Good feelings for him, but for me loathsome.
Wulf, O, my Wulf, my ache for you
has made me sick; your infrequent visits
have left me famished, deprived of real meat!
Do you hear, Eadwacer? Watchdog!
A wolf has borne our wretched whelp to the woods.
One can easily sever what never was one:
our song together.

"Wulf and Eadwacer" is an ancient Anglo-Saxon poem that reminds us of the heavy toll war takes on women and children, as well as combatants. This is one of the oldest poems in the English language, and is quite possibly the first extant English poem by a female poet. It is also one of the first English poems to employ a refrain.  

Whoever fights monsters should see to it
that in the process he does not become a monster.
If you gaze for long into an abyss,
the abyss gazes also into you.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

I believe the advice above should be considered by the leaders of the United States and its allies.

Which plunderer’s hand ransacked the pure gold statute of your dreams
in this horrendous storm?
—Nadia Anjuman, Afghani poet

War robs children and their mothers of their golden dreams. How many Vietnamese, Afghani and Iraqi mothers and their children were robbed of their dreams by American wars?

I Know The Truth
by Marina Tsvetaeva
loose translation/interpretation by  Michael R. Burch

I know the truth—abandon lesser truths!
There's no need for anyone living to struggle!
See? Evening falls, night quickly descends!
So why the useless disputes, generals, poets, lovers?

The wind is calming now; the earth is bathed in dew;
the stars' infernos will soon freeze in the heavens.
And soon we'll sleep together, under the earth,
we who never gave each other a moment's rest above it.

Human lives are brief enough, so why shorten them by engaging in unnecessary wars?

Postcard 1
by Miklós Radnóti

written August 30, 1944
translated by Michael R. Burch

Out of Bulgaria, the great wild roar of the artillery thunders,
resounds on the mountain ridges, rebounds, then ebbs into silence
while here men, beasts, wagons and imagination all steadily increase;
the road whinnies and bucks, neighing; the maned sky gallops;
and you are eternally with me, love, constant amid all the chaos,
glowing within my conscience — incandescent, intense.
Somewhere within me, dear, you abide forever —
still, motionless, mute, like an angel stunned to silence by death
or a beetle hiding in the heart of a rotting tree.

Postcard 2
by Miklós Radnóti
written October 6, 1944 near Crvenka, Serbia

translated by Michael R. Burch

A few miles away they're incinerating
the haystacks and the houses,
while squatting here on the fringe of this pleasant meadow,
the shell-shocked peasants quietly smoke their pipes.
Now, here, stepping into this still pond, the little shepherd girl
sets the silver water a-ripple
while, leaning over to drink, her flocculent sheep
seem to swim like drifting clouds ...

Postcard 3
by Miklós Radnóti
written October 24, 1944 near Mohács, Hungary

translated by Michael R. Burch

The oxen dribble bloody spittle;
the men pass blood in their piss.
Our stinking regiment halts, a horde of perspiring savages,
adding our aroma to death's repulsive stench.

Postcard 4
by Miklós Radnóti
his final poem, written October 31, 1944 near Szentkirályszabadja, Hungary

translated by Michael R. Burch

I toppled beside him — his body already taut,
tight as a string just before it snaps,
shot in the back of the head.
"This is how you’ll end too; just lie quietly here,"
I whispered to myself, patience blossoming from dread.
"Der springt noch auf," the voice above me jeered;
I could only dimly hear
through the congealing blood slowly sealing my ear.

In my opinion, Miklós Radnóti is the greatest of the Holocaust poets, and one of the very best anti-war poets, along with Wilfred Owen and singer-songwriters like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and John Lennon.

In Flanders Fields
by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
by William Butler Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

W. B. Yeats was probably the last of the great Romantics, and the first of the great Modernists. He wrote a good number of truly great poems, and remains an essential poet of the highest rank. "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" is a wonderful poem that illustrates how the people who die in war often have little to gain and everything to lose. Yeats wrote the poem for Robert Gregory, the son of his patron Lady Gregory. Several of Yeats' poems can be found on the Masters page of The HyperTexts.

Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The sea of faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

"Dover Beach" may be the first modern poem. When Arnold speaks of the "Sea of Faith" retreating, he seems to be setting the stage for Modernism, which to some degree was the reaction of men who began to increasingly suspect that the "wisdom" contained in the Bible was hardly the revelation of an all-knowing God.

Naming of Parts
by Henry Reed

"Vixi duellis nuper idoneus
Et militavi non sine glori"


Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens,
   And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
   Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easily
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
   Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
   They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
   For today we have naming of parts.

Henry Reed is likely to be remembered by this one poem, but fortunately for him (and for us) it should make him immortal.

The Unreturning
by Wilfred Owen

Suddenly night crushed out the day and hurled
Her remnants over cloud-peaks, thunder-walled.
Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world.

There watched I for the Dead; but no ghost woke.
Each one whom Life exiled I named and called.
But they were all too far, or dumbed, or thralled,
And never one fared back to me or spoke.

Then peered the indefinite unshapen dawn
With vacant gloaming, sad as half-lit minds,
The weak-limned hour when sick men's sighs are drained.
And while I wondered on their being withdrawn,
Gagged by the smothering Wing which none unbinds,
I dreaded even a heaven with doors so chained.

Wilfred Owen is a war poet without peer, and one of the first great modern poets. His poem "Dulce et Decorum Est" is probably the best anti-war poem in the English language, perhaps in any language. If man ever grows wise enough as a species to abolish war, Wilfred Owen's voice, echoed in thousands of other poems and songs, will have been a major catalyst.

The Dug-Out
by Siegfried Sassoon

Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle's guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head ...
You are too young to fall asleep for ever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead. 


Siegfried Sassoon is remembered today as a poet who wrote realistically about World War I, with tremendous empathy and without artifice. Sassoon wrote the introduction to the collected poems of Isaac Rosenberg, who did not survive World War I ...

Break of Day in the Trenches
by Isaac Rosenberg

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver—what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe—
Just a little white with the dust.

Isaac Rosenberg helps us see war as a theater of the absurd: He's sticking a poppy behind his ear while sharing a hole with a rat whose "cosmopolitan sympathies" allow it to consort with both sides.

Untitled
by Charles Hamilton Sorley

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, ‘They are dead.’ Then add thereto,
‘Yet many a better one has died before.’
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

Charles Hamilton Sorley was just 20 years old when he died at the Battle of Loos in 1915. The Scottish war poet left his most famous poem untitled at his death. Robert Graves, a war poet himself, called Sorley "one of the three poets of importance killed during the war," along with Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen. Sorley’s poems were published posthumously as Marlborough and Other Poems in 1916. 

The Lost Pilot
by James Tate

for my father, 1922-1944
 
Your face did not rot
like the others—the co-pilot,  
for example, I saw him
 
yesterday. His face is corn-
mush: his wife and daughter,  
the poor ignorant people, stare
 
as if he will compose soon.
He was more wronged than Job.  
But your face did not rot
 
like the others—it grew dark,
and hard like ebony;
the features progressed in their
 
distinction. If I could cajole
you to come back for an evening,  
down from your compulsive
 
orbiting, I would touch you,  
read your face as Dallas,  
your hoodlum gunner, now,
 
with the blistered eyes, reads  
his braille editions. I would
touch your face as a disinterested
 
scholar touches an original page.  
However frightening, I would  
discover you, and I would not
 
turn you in; I would not make  
you face your wife, or Dallas,  
or the co-pilot, Jim. You
 
could return to your crazy  
orbiting, and I would not try  
to fully understand what
 
it means to you. All I know  
is this: when I see you,  
as I have seen you at least
 
once every year of my life,  
spin across the wilds of the sky  
like a tiny, African god,
 
I feel dead. I feel as if I were  
the residue of a stranger’s life,  
that I should pursue you.
 
My head cocked toward the sky,  
I cannot get off the ground,  
and, you, passing over again,
 
fast, perfect, and unwilling  
to tell me that you are doing  
well, or that it was mistake
 
that placed you in that world,
and me in this; or that misfortune  
placed these worlds in us.

I Have a Rendezvous with Death
by Alan Seeger

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows 'twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear ...
But I've a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

The Death of a Soldier
by Wallace Stevens

Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.

He does not become a three-days' personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.

Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops.

When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.

Wallace Stevens is not generally considered to be among the war poets or anti-war poets, but in this poem he does capture something of the loss of a soldier's life, and how the world continues on nonetheless.

1915
by Robert Graves

I’ve watched the Seasons passing slow, so slow,
In the fields between La Bassée and Bethune;
Primroses and the first warm day of Spring,
Red poppy floods of June,
August, and yellowing Autumn, so
To Winter nights knee-deep in mud or snow,
And you’ve been everything.

Dear, you’ve been everything that I most lack
In these soul-deadening trenches—pictures, books,
Music, the quiet of an English wood,
Beautiful comrade-looks,
The narrow, bouldered mountain-track,
The broad, full-bosomed ocean, green and black,
And Peace, and all that’s good.

Privilege
by Michael R. Burch

This poem is dedicated to Harvey Stanbrough, an ex-marine who was nominated for the 1999 Pulitzer Prize and has written passionately and eloquently about the horror and absurdity of war in “Lessons for a Barren Population.”

No, I will never know
what you saw or what you felt,
thrust into the maw of Eternity,

watching the mortars nightly
greedily making their rounds,
hearing the soft damp hiss

of men’s souls like helium escaping
their collapsing torn bodies,
or lying alone, feeling the great roar

of your own heart.
But I know:
there is a bitter knowledge

of death I have not achieved.
Thus in thankful ignorance,
and especially for my son

and for all who benefit so easily
at so unthinkable a price,
I thank you.

Jerusalem
by William Blake

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

The English prophet-poet William Blake proposes another form of warfare: a "mental fight" against the Satanic mills of what what Dwight D. Eisenhower would later call the "military-industrial complex."

More Athenian Epitaphs

Now that I am dead sea-enclosed Cyzicus shrouds my bones.
Faretheewell, O my adoptive land that nurtured me, that held me;
I take rest at your breast.
Michael R. Burch, after Erycius

Be ashamed, O mountains and seas: these were men of valorous breath.
Assume, like pale chattels, an ashen silence at death.
Michael R. Burch, after Parmenio

These men earned a crown of imperishable glory,
Nor did the maelstrom of death obscure their story.
Michael R. Burch, after Simonides

Stranger, flee!
But may Fortune grant you all the prosperity
she denied me.
Michael R. Burch, after Leonidas of Tarentum

Poetry is with us from the start.
Like loving,
like hunger, like the plague, like war.
At times my verses were embarrassingly foolish.
But I make no excuse.
I believe that seeking beautiful words
is better
than killing and murdering.
—Iaroslav Seifert, Czech poet, winner of the Nobel prize in 1984

go my friend
bestow your love
even on your enemies
if you touch their hearts
what do you think will happen
—Jalaluddin Rumi, Iranian poet, translated by Nader Khalili

Other Memorial Day Poems and Songs

"MCMXIV" by Philip Larkin (the title is 1914 in Roman numerals: the year WWI started)
"Break of Day in the Trenches" by Isaac Rosenberg
"Suicide in the Trenches" by Siegfried Sassoon
"Fast Rode the Knight" by Stephen Crane
"After the Persian" by Louise Bogan
"On the Eve of His Execution" by Chidiock Tichborne
"Distant Light" by Walid Khazindar
"The Unknown Dead" by Elizabeth Robbins Berry

"One Tin Soldier" by Coven
"A Piece of Paper" by Gladstone
"Four Dead in Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
"Find the Cost of Freedom" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
"For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield
"The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down" by Joan Baez
"Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen
"Goodnight Saigon" by Billy Joel
"Allentown" by Billy Joel
"Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan
"Give Peace a Chance" and "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" by John Lennon
"Peace Train" by Cat Stevens
"Turn! Turn! Turn!" by Pete Seeger and the Byrds
"Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2
"Eve of Destruction" by Barry McGuire

"Some Gave All" by Billy Ray Cyrus
"A Soldier's Last Letter" by Merle Haggard
"Copperhead Road" by Steve Earle
"Arlington" by Trace Adkins
"Zombie" by the Cranberries
"Fifty Thousand Names Carved in the Wall" by George Jones
"More Than a Name on a Wall" by the Statler Brothers
"The Wall Song" by Mitch Townley
"American Soldier" by Toby Keith

"The Colossus" by Emma Lazarus
"The Star Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key
"This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie
"America the Beautiful" by Katherine Lee Bates
"God Bless the U.S.A." by Lee Greenwood

So there you have them: the best war and anti-war poems and songs, according to me. I'm sure every reader's choices will be different, but if you added a poem or three to yours, having read mine, hopefully you will consider your time here well spent.

The HyperTexts