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This article is not about Italian culture. 

It's about soldiers during World War II

and a little book that many veterans will remember.


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This book is out-of-print but you can usually find a second-hand copy or two from online bookshops that sell second-hand, out-of-print books.

A Book that Helped Keep U.S. WWII Soldiers Sane and Humane

By Candida Martinelli



In June of 1940, Pocket Books Inc. published a little book that by 1965 the New York Times had called “one of the best-selling books of all time”.  By June of 1941, it was in it’s 8th printing.  By June of 1945 it was in it’s 23rd printing.  Believe it or not, that little book was:


 The Pocket Book of Verse, Great English & American Poems edited by Dr. M. E. Speare. 


As the back cover explains, the book:


“…contains 249 poems by 77 of the world’s greatest poets, both modern and classical, from Chaucer to Sandburg.  It includes selections from The Bible, including The Song of Songs; the ever-living Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; and The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”


A problem since the beginning of human kind is how do you send men off to war and expect them to return home still men.  The barbarities and horrors of war can transform people into barbarians and horrors, or it can break them.  How do you remind soldiers of the best humanity has to offer when they’re facing every day the very worst humanity has to offer?  The Red Cross during WWII, decided to address that problem with poetry.    


Soon after it’s first printing, the Red Cross made mass purchases of the book, and distributed it to World War II soldiers in the field.  The book was standard issue in all Red Cross hospitals and recreation centers, and the soldiers were encouraged to take them with them when they returned to duty or were shipped home.  And as the war progressed, the Red Cross delivered copies of the book to prison-of-war camps everywhere, except Japan.


Japan’s ban on Red Cross books did not stop the book from making it’s way into Japanese prison-of-war camps, however.  Soldier Lester Tenny wrote about the book in his memoir My Hitch in Hell about how he survived the Bataan Death March.  Of the few books he had in the camps, he says:


“My favorite was The Pocket Book of Verse, which for some reason the Japanese allowed me to keep, and I still have and treasure this book.”


Not only the Red Cross distributed the book to soldiers.  Average citizens were encouraged to ship copies of the book, and other Pocket Books, to soldiers stationed in the U.S.  Pocket Books put a message on the corner of many of the 1940s Pocket Books:


“Send this book to a boy in the armed forces anywhere in the U.S…only 4 cents postage.”


As the war progressed, agreements were made that allowed Americans to ship Pocket Books directly to prisoners in German prison-of-war camps, as long as the book weighed less than 8 ounces.  As Pocket Books put it in a section in the back of a 1945 Pocket Book:


“But Americans most in need of reading matter are those now held prisoners by the Germans (no books can yet be sent to Americans held prisoners by the Japanese).  Because there are many special restrictions and conditions, Pocket Books has established a Prisoner-of-War Service for the convenience of those who want to send books to American prisoners.”


Poetry holds a special attraction to people in dire straits.  Its concise, powerful, emotion-packed language can transport a reader away from their surroundings and own problems in a way prose can’t.   


Dr. Speare’s introduction describes poetry in this way:


  • “Who can forget Wordsworth’s famous definition:  that poetry was the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings recollected in tranquility”.

  • Also citing Wordsworth:  Poetry is “the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge”.

  • Citing Keats:  “the great end of poesy, that it should be a friend to soothe the cares, and lift the thoughts of men”.

  • And Matthew Arnold:  “simply the most beautiful, impressive, and widely effective mode of saying things--hence its importance”.

  • “To understand and enjoy poetry, one must read and re-read it as a man reads and re-reads a letter from one he loves.”

Perhaps the best explanation of the attraction of poetry to men in war is this description by Dr. Speare:


“It makes articulate our choked-up passage-ways of speech, giving adequate expression to our pent-up loves and joys and glories, and furnishes release and relief to our fears, griefs, and sorrows.  A great poet takes our half-formed thoughts, our suppressed moods, our crushed desires and needs, and leads them out into the open, endowing them with a harmony and a completeness.”


Interestingly, the distribution of books to soldiers in the field is as old as mass-printing techniques.  During the 1860s, paper pulp prices came down, and printing techniques improved.  This led to the birth of what would later be called dime-novels.  Publishers at the time of the U.S. Civil War, filled barrels with their books and shipped them to the front lines for the soldiers to read.  The ‘trashy’ novels are credited with increasing the literacy rate in the States faster than at any other time in history. 


The Pocket Book of Verse did it’s share in encouraging WWII veterans to take up the G.I. Bill’s offer of an education.  A few of those who went on to university paid by the G.I. Bill, were inspired by the book to study literature and became published poets in their own right.  And many soldiers were inspired to compose their own poetry.  So many, that the Red Cross collected together soldiers’ poetry from WWII and printed them in a book after the war. 


But even those who didn’t become poets were grateful for the book and for other pocket books:


  • A former soldier, Frank Mathias, mentions the book in his war memoir G.I. Generation.  He says he found it left behind by another soldier and says, “I read it lovingly for the remainder of the war and retain it today.”

  • The traitor and poet, Ezra Pound, found a copy of The Pocket Book of Verse in the latrine during his stay in a U.S. prison camp in Italy during WWII.  He wrote that he was saved from death by Walt Whitman and Richard Lovelace, two poets whose works are in the book.  And Pound mentioned his admiration of Dr. Speare in his famous poem Cantos that helped earned him a Nobel Prize in Literature.

  • Lieutenant N.M.P. wrote to Pocket Books to say:  “Please accept our wholehearted thanks for your priceless books.  They keep us alert and take our minds off the more sordid affairs of war.”

  • A Commanding Officer wrote to Pocket Books:  “The boys here read Pocket Books till the type is worn off.  We pass them on to one another and if there is anything left they find their way to the boys who can’t get out of their hospital beds to get them.”  (Not so nice that they gave the sick boys the books with the worn off type, but better than nothing, I suppose!)

  • A Captain from Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma wrote to Pocket Books:  “My thanks and heartfelt appreciation for your most wonderful work--throwing good literature at people, dropping it in their laps as it were.”  (You get the impression the Red Cross book distributors were rather aggressive with the poor boys!)

  • Red Pollack, the racehorse Seabiscuit’s famous jockey, wasn’t in the military in WWII, but he was a big reader.  His daughter, who with a masters degree in literature probably fulfilled her father’s interrupted destiny, says The Pocket Book of Verse was the one book her father carried with him to work at every racecourse in the country, to the day he died.

Pocket Books even put what we would call today “public-service announcements” in the front of the late 1940s editions of The Pocket Book of Verse.  One whole page of an edition I own from 1945 is dedicated to the U.S. Victory Waste Paper Campaign.  The slogan was: 


“Save a bundle a week, and save some boy’s life.”


The Pocket Book of Verse saved lives in it’s own way, too.  It helped keep soldiers sane while surrounded by the insanity of war.  And it helped keep soldiers humane while surrounded by the inhumanity of war. 


Somehow I doubt that in today’s electronic and digital mass-media world, that a mass-market printed Pocket Book of Verse is the gift of choice for soldiers in the field.  But I am sure that it would be the best choice.  Not so sure yourself?  Just ask a WWII veteran and see what he thinks!


The Pocket Book of Verse was by far the most popular Pocket Book with soldiers, and for a good reason.  It includes a wide variety of poems so every mood, situation, need and attention span is accommodated.


There are inspirational poems like Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” and Richard Lovelace’s “To Althea, From Prison”.  Just imagine a prisoner-of-war reading this.  Here’s an excerpt:

Stone walls do not a prison make,

  Nor iron bars a cage;

Minds innocent and quiet take

  That for an hermitage;

If I have freedom in my love

  And in my soul am free,

Angels alone, that soar above,

  Enjoy such liberty.


There are inspirational passages from The Bible, like the famous Psalm 23.  Here’s an excerpt:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;

He leadesth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul;


There are poems about soldiers like Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and Sir Walter Scott’s “Soldier, Rest”.  Here’s an excerpt:

Soldier, rest! They warfare o’ver,

  Sleep the sleep that knows not breaking;

Dream of battled fields no more,

  Days of danger, nights of waking.


There are escapist stories in poem form like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” and Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”.  Here’s the famous beginning:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

  Down to a sunless sea.


There are poems about what it is to be a man like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Grief” and Robert Burns’s “A Man’s a Man for A’That” and Rudyard Kipling’s “If”.  Here’s an excerpt:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

  Or walk with Kings--nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

  If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

  With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

  And--which is more--you’ll be a Man, my son!


There are folksy poems like Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Ballad of William Sycamore”.  Here’s an excerpt:

My father, he was a mountaineer,

His fist was a knotty hammer;

He was quick on his feet as a running deer,

And he spoke with a Yankee stammer.


There are romantic poems like Shakespeare’s and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets and Wordsworth’s “Perfect Woman”.  Here’s an excerpt:

The reason firm, the temperate will,

Endurance, foresight, strength, and skill;

A perfect Woman, nobly planned,

To warn, to comfort, and command;

And yet a Spirit still, and bright

With something of angelic light.


There are escapist poems like Emerson’s “Good-bye” and Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”.  Here’s an excerpt:

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,

And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,

  And live alone in the bee-loud glade.


There are sweet and concise poems like Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kiss’d Me”:

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,

  Jumping from the chair she sat in;

Time, you thief, who love to get

  Sweets into your list, put that in!

Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,

  Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,

Say I’m growing old, but add,

  Jenny kiss’d me.


And Robert Browning’s “Song”:

The year’s at the spring

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearled;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn:

God’s in his heaven--

  All’s right with the world!


And Emily Dickinson’s “Chartless”:

I never saw a moor,

I never saw the sea;

  Yet know I how the heather looks,

  And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,

Nor visited in heaven;

  Yet certain am I of the spot

  As if the chart were given.


And A. E. Housman’s “When I Was One-and-Twenty”:

When I was one-and-twenty

  I heard a wise man say,

“Give crowns and pounds and guineas

  But not your heart away;

Give pearls away and rubies

  But keep your fancy free.”

But I was one-and-twenty,

  No use to talk to me.


When I was one-and-twenty

  I heard him say again,

“The heart out of the bosom

  Was never given in vain;

‘Tis paid with sighs a-plenty

  and sold for endless rue.”

And I am two-and-twenty,

  And oh, ‘tis true, ‘tis true.


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